The American Empire and Existential Enemies

Since its emergence in the middle of the twentieth century, the American Empire has been fueled by the search for an enemy.

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For most of US history, the majority of Americans considered it inconceivable that their nation would attempt to become militarily dominant in Europe and Asia. In his Farewell Address of 1796, for example, retiring President George Washington advised his fellow Americans to have “as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations, whose “primary interests” have “a very remote relation” to the interests of the United States. Indeed, Washington insisted that his new nation “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” This, he avowed, was the only way the United States could “pursue a different course,” charting a new, Enlightened path for world history distinct from the vicious politics of the Old World.

Of course, when Washington warned against foreign entanglements, he meant avoiding participation in European politics. It was just fine for the United States to expand westward and eradicate the indigenous peoples—conceived of as individual “nations”—whose land Americans would continue to steal.

Throughout the 19th century, it continued to be an American ideal to remain aloof from European affairs. Even when the United States began trying to dominate the Western Hemisphere, elite Americans like Secretary of State John Quincy Adams argued that the nation was unique because “she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Instead of changing the world through conquest and coercion, Americans like Adams claimed, the United States would transform geopolitics by acting as a “shining city upon a hill” that lighted the beacon of reason, liberty, and justice all over the world.

And this was the ideal that remained dominant until World War II. Though the United States indubitably engaged in imperialist behavior throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries— committing genocide against indigenous peoples; seizing the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico during the War of 1898; manipulating the politics of Latin America through direct interference or “dollar diplomacy”; participating in World War I as an Associated Power of Britain and France—the nation did not appear interested in dominating the entire world. There were no attempts to construct a global system of bases; the military remained quite small; and Americans were staunch supporters of efforts, like the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, that sought to attenuate the damage caused by war.

The scale of the American Empire—its move from (mostly) hemispheric to global domination—only began to change in the 1930s. In fact, in my opinion the entire way Americans understand and frame geopolitics was forged during this decade, perhaps the most influential in modern US history.

The primary impetus behind the transformation in the American imperial imagination was the rise of Nazi Germany. Before Adolf Hitler’s ascendance to the German chancellorship in 1933, Americans generally believed they could negotiate with foreign powers—especially white, European powers—in good faith. But the rise of Hitler in Germany (and Stalin in the Soviet Union, though he was less important) persuaded Americans that there were some people with whom one just couldn’t reason—or, as a well-known book from the early 1940s put it, You Can’t Do Business with Hitler.

Hitler thus decisively ended two American dreams: first, that reason could replace violence in international relations (or at least, international relations outside the Western Hemisphere); and second, that the United States could afford to remain aloof from European affairs. In fact, many of the first generation of “defense intellectuals” who would staff and build the US national security establishment during and after World War II were social democrats who in the 1930s embraced a pessimistic theory of geopolitics because they believed Hitler posed a uniquely existential threat to “Western civilization.”

Put another way, it was in the 1930s that many American elites endorsed what scholars refer to as a “Schmittian” understanding of geopolitics. Now, it’s crucial to understand who Carl Schmitt was because he was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. In brief, Schmitt was a German legal theorist (he eventually became a Nazi) who in his famous The Concept of the Political (1932) argued that “the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” In simpler terms, Schmitt claimed that politics needed to be understood as a struggle between those who were on your side (friends) and those who were not (enemies). To Americans in the 1930s, Hitler and Nazi Germany as a whole were Schmittian enemies with whom one could not negotiate.

Needless to say, Americans were right to view Hitler and the Nazis as existential enemies. They were vicious brutes who did really want to conquer and dominate a significant portion of the world. The problem, however, was that too many Americans concluded that all geopolitics after Hitler were Schmittian geopolitics. That is to say, Americans began to argue that it was an ontological fact that international relations was a Manichean sphere in which there were good guys (Americans) and bad guys (anyone who disagreed with or challenged Americans). Indeed, the very terms “good guys” and “bad guys” only took off after World War II. In the late-1940s and beyond, a simple moralism permeated American politics and culture.

After the United States emerged victorious in World War II, it was quite easy for Americans to transfer their anxieties about Hitler and Nazi Germany onto Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Stalin, after all, was a brutal and inscrutable dictator with a cult of personality and an enormous military. Moreover, defining the Soviet Union as an existential enemy analogous to Nazi Germany provided Americans with a simple framework through which they could negotiate (and justify) their emergence onto the world stage. The only way to stop the Soviet Union from dominating the world, Americans (and their allies) argued, was for the United States itself to become the global hegemon.

It was to this project that the United States dedicated itself after World War II. The nation increased its military budget, embraced a posture of permanent mobilization, and constructed a worldwide system of bases that today numbers about 750.

This propaganda map arguing the case for nuclear deterrence against the USSR was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in August 1961 and is indicative of the Schmitt-esque Cold War discourse (Wikimedia Commons)

All of these actions were justified through a Schmittian “Cold War logic” that insisted that the peace and prosperity of the United States—indeed, the peace and prosperity of the entire world—depended on confronting the evil Soviet Union wherever it attempted to spread its tentacles. This logic, of course, also vindicated numerous interventions abroad, from the Korean War to the depositions of Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh and Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz to the Vietnam War. Indeed, recent research by the political scientist Lindsey O’Rourke has revealed that during the Cold War, the US government tried to covertly overthrow foreign regimes sixty-four times, and in forty-four of these attempts it supported authoritarian forces.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States organized its society and foreign affairs around its supposedly existential struggle with the Soviet Union. This is why, after the Eastern Bloc’s collapse in 1989-1991, a “Cold War nostalgia” gripped, and continues to grip, the American elite. At least with the Soviet Union, Americans knew where they stood.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the American Empire was left without a raison d'être. In the interregnum of the 1990s, the nation’s elites endeavored to answer a fundamental question: what does an empire without an enemy look like? (As this suggests, few concluded that the United States should, say, abandon its foreign military bases and reduce its military budget.) The answer most people settled on was that the United States should become the “world’s policeman,” the “indispensable nation” that used its overwhelming power to “protect” foreign populations whenever they were threatened (or at least, whenever they were threatened by a country not allied to the United States). Thus the nation intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo. But the dramas of the 1990s couldn’t compare to the dramas of the Cold War, when a clear and present danger hovered over American civilization.

9/11 was a godsend for an increasingly adrift American Empire. The emergence of a “radical Islamic threat” allowed American foreign policymakers to return to the Schmittian logic that had triumphed during the Cold War: similar to the evil Soviets, elites argued, evil “jihadists” promoted a totalizing ideology and wanted to dominate the entire globe. The United States we live in today, with its domestic surveillance, its permanent mobilization, and its endless wars, is the natural outcome of a way of thinking that divides geopolitics into good versus evil.

Though anxieties about Islam permeated US culture in the 2000s, by the 2010s it became clear that this most recent threat du jour didn’t have the staying power of the Soviet Union—the “jihadists” just weren’t powerful enough to truly threaten the United States. It’s partially for this reason that we’re now witnessing attempts to stoke a “New Cold War” with China, which, if initiated, would provide the foreign policy establishment with the logic it needs to justify the ever-increasing expenditures that undergird the American Empire.

Since it began in the mid-twentieth century, champions of the US empire have defended its existence by referencing a series of enemies whose supposed power made it necessary for Americans to dominate the world. As such, one of the most important projects to which leftists can dedicate themselves in 2020 and beyond is threat deflation—persuading their fellow citizens that we’re actually extremely safe and have nothing to fear from terrorists, or Russia, or China, or whomever the next enemy is. While this won’t be enough to end US imperialism, it’s a crucial first step in building the public consensus necessary to begin drawing down the American Empire. Indeed, it’s especially important to move beyond a Schmittian framework given that the United States needs to cooperate with Russia and China to solve global problems like climate change, inequality, and—as is particularly apparent at the moment—pandemics.

Americans act like it’s always the 1930s, a decade in which there were clear good guys and bad guys. Today, we must recognize that it’s almost never the thirties—the future of humanity might very well depend on it.