American Values in Conflict:  Democracy vs. Empire


Dennis Florig

Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University



The Ideology of Democracy and the Reality of American Foreign Policy


To many, democracy would seem to be the quintessential American value.  Certainly democracy has been at the center of both American domestic and foreign policy rhetoric.  The Bush administration states that it

has pursued a policy of promoting freedom and human dignity in every part of the world. We pursue this policy both because it is right and because it also addresses the fear, hatred, and inequality that contributes to terrorism and violence.

Our policy is based on core values that uphold human rights through democracy and the rule of law. We are committed to pursuing freedom and promoting democracy and human rights, through both words and deeds[1]

Even in the increasingly polarized partisan atmosphere of Washington, there is broad bipartisan agreement on democracy promotion as a core value of American foreign policy.  Bill Clinton argued

From its very founding, our nation has stood for the idea that people have the right to control their own lives, to pursue their own dreams. In this century Americans have acted upon (these principles) and sacrificed for them, fought two world wars so that freedom could triumph over tyranny¡¦

Now the ideas we struggle for, democracy and freedom -- freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, open markets, respect for diversity -- these ideas are more and more the ideals of humanity.[2]

This commitment to democratization was proclaimed nearly a century ago when Woodrow Wilson justified America¡¯s entry into the first world war on the grounds that it would ¡°make the world safe for democracy.¡±  On the eve of U.S. entry into the second world war, Franklin Roosevelt characterized the U.S. as the ¡°arsenal of democracy¡± which was striving to establish ¡°four freedoms¡± for all the peoples of the world.


Yet in the past century, at the same time it has been preaching democracy, the U.S. has risen to unprecedented power in the international system, what some have called hyper-power.   However, the degree of power the U.S. has achieved actually undermines the democratic functioning of international institutions, particularly when coupled with the recent revival of historical U.S. unilateralism in foreign policy decision making.  An American hyperpower acting unilaterally as it pleases on the international stage clearly conflicts with any notion of democratic functioning of international institutions.


Of course Koreans know well that American power rather than democratic rhetoric has long been the driver of U.S. foreign policy decision making.  From Cold War support for right wing military dictators like Park Chung Hee to the current war in Iraq, American foreign policy, while officially promoting democracy, has usually worked against self-determination of non-western peoples. 



Formal vs. Informal Empire


This conflict of values is not unique to the U.S., although it may have reached its greatest expression in U.S. foreign policy today.  The modern idea of democracy originated in the West at the same time European nations were aggressively conquering empires that by the early 20th century included most of the world¡¯s non-European peoples and territories.  Britain, which like the U.S. likes to think of itself as a bastion of democracy, was even more proud that it conquered an empire on which ¡°the sun never set.¡±  The democracy that Britons enjoyed at home did not extend to India, Malaysia, the Middle East, the Caribbean or the vast swaths of Africa brought under British imperial rule.


The European empires made most clear the contradiction between democracy and empire.  Democracy literally means ¡°rule by the people.¡±  Colonization literally means ¡°rule by a foreign people.¡±  The contradiction could not be clearer.  Liberal European democrats rationalized that racially or culturally inferior ¡°lesser peoples¡± were not ready for self-determination—that European empires needed to rule ¡°inferior races¡± until they developed the capacity for self-government.  However, somehow the attainment of this capacity for self-determination always seemed to lay in some distant, unspecified future, at least until the world wars made it too difficult for the devastated European powers to maintain their empires.  


The U.S. prefers to operate through a more informal structure.  In the 19th century, the U.S. was preoccupied with expansion across the North American continent where newly incorporated territories evolved into states equal in status to the original 13.  Native American Indians were exterminated and Africa-American slaves functioned as a kind of ¡°internal colony.¡±  The U.S. did annex nearly half of the territory of Mexico in a war of aggression in the 1840s.  It flirted with formal empire when it took the Philippines as a colony and Cuba as a virtual colony after the Spanish-American War as the 20th century began. 


Yet from the Monroe Doctrine in the early 19th century to the Open Door toward China, Japan, and East Asia to its renunciation of territorial gains in the two world wars, the U.S. has increasingly preferred expansion of its access to international markets rather than territorial expansion.  In the 20th century, the ¡°third world¡± was decolonizing in the wake of the destruction of the European empires by world war even as the U.S. was rising as leader of the international system.  The U.S. did help its ally France in its futile but brutal attempts to regain its colonies in Indochina and Algeria.  But the U.S. itself did not seek territory.  Rather it goals were more ambitious--hegemony over the new international institutions created after the second world war, such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, etc.


The U.S. tends to see the expansion of global capitalism and the spread of political democracy as closely intertwined—free markets and free political systems supporting each other.  But the principles of the market and the principles of democracy are actually quite different.  Democracy operates on the principle of ¡°one person, one vote.¡±  Markets operate on a principle that on the surface seems similar, but in reality is much different, ¡°one dollar, one vote.¡±  In a democratic voting booth, Bill Gates and an unemployed worker are equal.  In a market, Bill Gates has several billion ¡°votes,¡± while the unemployed worker has few or no ¡°votes.¡±  In political theory, a small third world nation is sovereign and all transnational corporations are subject to its laws.  In the real economic world, many transnational corporations have several times greater resources than many third world governments.  In the 21st century direct political rule by advanced industrial democracies is less useful as a means of control than informal economic empire supported by sympathetic international institutions.


Amy Kaplan, in her visit to ASAK this spring, noted that the term empire is making a modest comeback among foreign policy hard liners, the neoconservatives who feel nostalgia for the days when ¡°lesser races¡± were ruled by their white superiors.[3]  But the dominant tendency among American political leaders and intellectuals is to believe that because the U.S. is a democracy it cannot be an empire.



The United States against Democracy in the Cold War


The contradiction between democracy and empire often arose during the Cold War.  The U.S. consistently put a much higher priority on keeping a country in the U.S. alliance system than supporting democracy.  The are several cases of this, but the most clear cut is Chile.  Chile had been a true liberal democracy for a century and a half, with free and fair elections and a free and thriving civil society since won its freedom from Spain in the early 19th century.  In 1970 Socialist Salvador Allende won Chile¡¯s presidency with a plurality of the vote in a three candidate race.  Right wing elements, the Chilean military, and the CIA began almost immediately plotting his demise.  A few months after his inauguration Allende was overthrown and assassinated in a military coup backed by the U.S.  The regime that followed was one of the more vicious, repressive Latin American dictatorships that embarked on a campaign of eradicating all progressive elements of civil society that has opposed its iron rule.


Other, more fledgling democracies in Latin America struggling to overcome long histories of military rule met the same fate as Chilean democracy when progressives or socialists considered unreliable by the U.S. were elected.  Since the early 20th century the U.S. has sent troops into Central American and the Caribbean to crush threats to pro-U.S. dictatorships literally dozens of times.  This continued during the Cold War, beginning with Guatemala in 1954 when a progressive government pledging to reduce the influence of American corporation United Fruit was elected but then overthrown by a CIA operation.  In the small Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic in 1964, the U.S. invaded to oust an elected government too friendly to Cuba¡¯s Castro and too hostile to American economic and strategic interests.  Even in the largest Latin American nation, Brazil, the U.S. supported generals who overthrew a freely elected socialist party and established a generation of brutal military rule.  The intolerably socialist party ousted in the coup was the same one that recently elected democrat ¡°Lula¡± in the last Brazilian election.


The pattern of the U.S. supporting pro-U.S. coups against freely elected progressive or socialist leaders or democratizing movements was common in East Asia as well.  In the 1960s the U.S. not only supported Park Chung Hee¡¯s coup in South Korea and accepted his rigged elections, it also backed Marcos¡¯ suspension of democratic processes in the Philippines and the bloody military coup in Indonesia that overthrew the democratically elected Sukarno, a bloody putsch that killed a half a million ¡°communists¡± and lead to 30 years of iron-fisted and corrupt military rule.  Of course, the Vietnam War was the result of the U.S. trying to impose a pro-western regime against the will of the Vietnamese people.  The U.S. had supported France¡¯s attempt to recolonize Vietnam, and when that failed, the U.S. blocked the nationwide election promised by the Geneva peace accord because it knew communist freedom fighter Ho Chi Minh would have won.  Instead, the U.S. installed a puppet regime in the temporary administrative area of the South and later sent a half a million troops to try to stave off the eventual triumph of the communists.  Two million Vietnamese died in that futile attempt to thwart the will of the Vietnamese people.


In the post-Cold War world, the U.S. is more supportive of democratization because with the Soviet Union gone it is no longer possible for a democratically elected regime to leave the U.S. war bloc to become friendly with the Soviet adversary.  It is no coincidence that the ¡°wave¡± of democratization that swept Latin America, East Asia, Africa, and especially the post-Soviet regimes came as the Soviet Union first faded as an adversary and then ceased to exist.  With the decline of socialism as a global movement, in the post Cold War era democratization usually means greater penetration of western transnational corporations rather than the rise of regimes jealously protective of national markets and culture.


But even in the post-Cold War world democracy came into conflict with the imperatives of empire.  In 1992 the socialist dictatorship of Algeria opened up to free elections which were decisively won by the Islamic party.  The U.S. and its European allies quietly supported the generals when they refused to allow the Islamicists to come to power, plunging Algeria into a decade long civil conflict that claimed tens of thousands of lives.



The Contradictions of Imposing Democracy from Abroad


Even when the U.S. is committed to western style democratization in particular cases, the methods it uses to achieve it are often counter-productive.  Indigenous movements for democracy can benefit greatly from political support from existing democracies.  But democracy cannot be imposed from abroad.  The American experiences in other democratization campaigns associated with previous American wars should have taught this lesson.  Democratization could not be achieved in South Vietnam at the barrel of the U.S. gun.  Kuwait, which at the time of the first Iraq War was supposed to be made into the oasis of democracy in the Middle East, turned a deaf ear to U.S. plans once the royal family got back control of its oil fields.  It should be no surprise that the current campaign to democratize Iraq is meeting heavy obstacles.


The post-World War II democratization of Germany and Japan are often cited as examples of the imposition of democratization by victory in war.  But both Germany and Japan had been functioning democracies before the political crises spurred by the Great Depression.  Both countries had long standing indigenous institutions that evolved internally that could flourish when a more supportive international environment came into being.  Both Germany and Japan had achieved a high level of economic development that gave them a comfortable standard of living, an educated populace, and complex social institutions, conditions favorable to democratization.  Because of the Cold War conflict both were taken into the heart of the Western alliance system, giving them a stake in the existing international system, which was exactly what their elites had been fighting for in the fascist alliance.  Few of these conditions obtained in South Vietnam or Kuwait or exist in contemporary Iraq.


The contradictions of imposing democracy by war can be seen today.  If the democratic will of the Iraqi people could be exercised in a free vote, the first act would be a referendum on the withdrawal of American forces, which would pass overwhelmingly.



Empire as a Way of Life: Empire vs. Democracy on the Home Front


As William Appleman Williams saw, during the world wars and the Cold War the U.S.  came to accept ¡°empire as a way of life.¡±  Describing the American system in the early Cold War when racial segregation was still in effect Williams noted


(T)he war in Korea, and the related increase in military spending, revealed the true priorities of empire and hence dramatized the discrepancy involved in talking about empire in terms of liberty, freedom, equality, and welfare while denying those benefits to large numbers of people at home.[4]


By the mid-1960s the contradictions between empire and democracy at home had become more apparent as Williams documents


(President Johnson made) a brave—and in the end tragic—effort to resolve that visceral contradiction in the imperial way of life.  He tried to make major improvements in the quality of life for the poor and disadvantaged of all colors¡¦and at the same time secure¡¦Indochina.  That proved to be impossible.[5]


The effects of ¡°empire as a way of life¡± corrode democratic institutions at home as well as undermine self-determination abroad.  Empires require periodic wars either to defeat imperial rivals or pacify subject peoples who stubbornly refuse to accept the beneficence of foreign rule.  Wars require support on the home front.  Gaining prolonged acceptance of heavy burdens of blood and treasure does not come easily.  It usually requires suppression of anti-war, anti-imperial movements.  Periodic campaigns to purge ¡°the enemy within¡± during wartime undermine domestic civil liberties. 


The contemporary official racial and religious profiling of citizens and foreign residents of Muslim origin for detention, deportation, and surveillance and the rise in unofficial race crimes since 9/11 are only the latest examples of hostilities of empire abroad degrading civil liberties at home.   This campaign against the Muslim ¡°terrorist threat¡± harkens back to Cold War McCarthyite repression of a wide range of progressive and civil rights groups as ¡°communist subversives.¡±  Other prominent examples of the wars of empire in the 20th century undercutting domestic civil liberties include the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Palmer raids against foreign born socialists and trade unionists after World War I, and the suppression of pacifist groups during World War I.  The 20th century has brought much progress against the racism and xenophobia and abating of the racial and ideological repression have been endemic in U.S. history.  But even as progress on these issues has been achieved, much of it has been undermined by the new conflicts of empire being fought out in domestic politics.


Empire never comes cheaply.  As long as Americans resist a high tax burden, their government continuously faces a choice between ¡°guns vs. butter,¡± between a large warfare state and a compassionate welfare state.  The U.S. has historically lagged behind western European advanced industrial democracies in the development of government programs to assist its less advantaged citizens.  Distrust of government born out of the American historic experience and the low level of taxation the American people have been willing to bear are other factors that inhibit the development of the American welfare state.  But the devotion of a huge portion of the limited resources of the national government to the military-industrial complex has pushed out other budgetary priorities.  Just the increase in U.S. military spending after 911 was greater than the entire military budget of the second largest military power in the world (Russia or Japan, depending on how you measure military spending).  American distrust of the ability of government to effectively meet its objectives or to spend money wisely rarely is applied to the sacrosanct American military.


However, perhaps the greatest danger of the imperial warfare state to democracy is the undermining of the values of democratic community by the warrior ethos.  Military discipline is the antithesis of a deliberative community that values pluralism and dissent.  A nation whose political unity and social solidarity are forged by periodic warfare and permanent hostility toward external enemies is not a nation which will respect diversity and difference either at home or abroad.


Liberals and conservatives alike see the long running conflict in American society between the attitudes of individualistic consumerism and the ethos of democratic citizenship and public responsibility.  Narcissistic, atomized couch potatoes watching the terror and sacrifice of war on television for amusement do not form the communities of citizens envisioned by classical democratic theory. 


Given the growing difficulty of creating participatory citizens in a narcissistic individualist culture, it is particularly unfortunate that increasingly the only way Americans can even conceive of effective national action is war.  The U.S. political system can no longer even generate a metaphor for government action or social solidarity except war.  Even in domestic policy, the only metaphor for sustained government action is war--the ¡°war on drugs,¡± the ¡°war on poverty,¡± the ¡°war on cancer,¡± etc.


For most of its history the U.S. has imagined itself different from the old world, militaristic European societies and empires.  This has always been mostly an illusion.  Early America did avoid a large standing army by staying out of most of the wars between European empires.  Instead, young America¡¯s greatest military conflicts were against Native American Indians and African-American slave rebellions, which were often mostly non-state paramilitary operations.  Incidentally, this tradition of private, paramilitary action goes a long way to explaining the contemporary American fascination with private gun ownership. 


However, in the 20th century there was a complete reversal in the degree of militarization of American vs. European society.  Europeans, still stunned by the devastation of the world wars, have a deep aversion to military means and methods.  However, the U.S., flush from its triumphs in the world and cold wars, has developed not only a massive military-industrial complex, but also the permanent war ideology required by empire.  By the 21st century the warrior ethos has largely replaced the organic solidarity of American town meeting democracy as the archetype of American nationhood.


Empires have consequences.  The economic rewards of empire foster a plutocratic, narcissistic culture that undermines domestic democracy.  The military burdens of empire generate a warrior ethos that undercuts democratic deliberation.  And an unavoidable cost of empire is ¡°blowback,¡± i.e., retaliation from political movements of subject people that will not accept their subordinate position in the imperial world order.[6]  In the 20th century The United States faced communist, fascist, and indigenous resistance to its empire from its southern border to the jungles of Southeast Asia to the deserts of Arabia.  At the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. faced a new form of globalization—an attack on its own soil by desperate men who saw American superpower as the cause of the misfortunes of their society.  It is too early to know if there will be more terrorist attacks on U.S. territory, but all history teaches that the U.S. will pay a heavy price for its imperial hubris.



Hegemony, Empire, or World Order?


Of course, the U.S. has never proclaimed itself a formal empire and in fact has vehemently denied the charge, preferring to represent itself as a global force for democratization.  And there have been counter-trends to empire in American foreign policy, particularly in the late Cold War and early post-Cold War, as the idea of world order built on consent and rule of law rather than brute military and economic power grew more plausible.  The persistence of the idea of the spread of democratization on a global scale is important even if U.S. foreign policy has often failed to live up to the rhetoric. 


The contradictions in American policy toward democratic movements around the world can be better understood by utilizing the concept of hegemony developed by theorists of international relations to describe power relations in the modern world system.  As the European conquest fanned out around the globe in the modern era, incorporating most of the peoples of the planet, the resulting world system has had one power which stood above the others as a shaper of the system.  In the 19th century, the hegemonic power was Great Britain.  The world wars brought an end to British hegemony as the U.S. emerged as the creator and guardian of the postwar system. 


The concept of hegemony includes more than simple dominance.  The contemporary idea of hegemony was developed by Italian Marxist Gramsci who was trying to explain why the early 20th century working class had not revolted as Marx had predicted.  Gramsci argued that the power of capitalism rested on more than brute force.  Rather, the capitalist way of thinking had extended deeply into the minds of working people.  Workers tended to accept the world view of the capitalist class rather than their own direct experience of oppression under capitalism. 


Many critics of colonialism developed similar theories of the ¡°internalization of the oppressor¡± by colonized people, who tended to incorporate the world view of the imperial power rather than their own direct experience under colonization.  In the western world, feminists, racial minorities, and even homosexuals also turned to the concept of hegemony to illuminate how traditional patriarchal, racial, and gender constructions excluded them from power and even erased them from history.  The concept of hegemony today informs manifold works in the fields not only of political science and international relations but also literary and cultural studies.


In international relations, the theory of hegemony is crucial because it captures both the tendency of the world¡¯s leading power to forcefully assert its dominance yet at the same time to create alliances, ideas, and institutions that attract the relatively free participation of other states and peoples in a more or less open international system.  Hegemony thus embodies both the coercion of informal empire and the consent of democratic participation.  It combines both the ¡°hard¡± power of military and economic empire with the ¡°soft¡± power of democratic ideas and global institutions.


Because the current international system built around U.S. hegemony thus contains both elements of coercion and consent, over time it could evolve in either the direction of an expanded informal empire or a more democratic, peaceful world order.  In the early Cold War, the elements of coercion and empire held primacy.  In the later Cold War and the post-Cold War era the ideas and institutions of consensual world order grew in influence.  The end of the Cold War was made possible by the patient construction of arms control regimes, European-wide forums that broke down the bipolar divide, and the broadening and deepening of international institutions and dialogues.  The relatively peaceful world order that emerged from the détente of the West and the communist world in the 1970s and 1980s made it possible for both the Chinese and the Soviets to ¡°come in from the cold¡± and participate in an international community of shared ideas and values.


However, the Terrorism War of George W. Bush, in stark contrast to the world order policies of his father, has driven U.S. foreign policy back in the direction of coercion and empire.  It need not have been so.  Immediately after September 11 the U.S. enjoyed a global wave of sympathy and support.  Not only European allies, but government and peoples around the globe, including much of the Muslim world, joined in cooperative ventures to limit the financial and ideological resources of terrorism.  Even the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan enjoyed the support of NATO, sanction from the UN, and open political support from most of the governments of the world.


However, Bush¡¯s unilateral decision to invade Iraq, against the will of the UN and even most of America¡¯s allies has squandered the reservoir of good will the U.S. has accumulated.  The Bush doctrine that the U.S. has the unilateral right to send its military forces anywhere around the globe to pre-empt perceived threats undermines a half a century of evolution of international law and institutions.[7]



American Imposed Regime Change or Democracy on a Global Scale?


The contradictions of the Bush administration¡¯s policy of imposing democracy by unilateral American imposed regime change can be clarified by looking at democracy not as something that just pertains to one individual nation, but rather an idea that must be conceived on a global scale.  The contradictions of empire are readily apparent when one contrasts the concept of democracy as ¡°rule by the people¡± or self-determination with rule imposed by a foreign people.  To be truly democratic a nation must not only be democratic at home, it must also conduct a foreign policy that respects the rights of other nations to self-determination. 


The Cold War should have taught us that a crusading, warrior empire cannot be a fully democratic nation.  An empire at war with the world cannot foster real democratic government.  Instead it will prefer regimes that are reliable allies in war over governments that are free to dissent from its imperial agenda.  Nor will it respect democratic dissent at home if it challenges the grand imperial project.  Even as the U.S. stands at its apogee of power as hegemon of the world system, empire and democracy still struggle for the heart of America.



[1] Bush, George W., ¡°President Bush Calls for a "Forward Strategy of Freedom" to Promote Democracy in the Middle East,¡±

[3] Kaplan, Amy, ¡°Violent Belongings and the Question of Empire Today,¡± American Studies Association of Korea Lecture, May 29, 2004 and The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).  See also Eliot Cohen, History and the Hyperpower, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2004

[4] Williams, William Appleman, Empire as a Way of Life, in Henry Berger, A William Appleman Williams Reader (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 366

[5] ibid., p. 366

[6] Johnson, Chalmers, Blowback (Metropolitan Books, 2000) and The Sorrows of Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2004)

[7] Falk, Richard, The Great Terror War (Gloucestershire: Arris Books, 2003)