Ethics and the American Empire

Dr. David Perry
Professor of Ethics, U.S. Army War College

Presented at Dickinson College, 18 November 2003


I'm very grateful to Prof. Susan Feldman for inviting me to participate in this important and timely symposium. (Please note that although I'm a member of the faculty at the Army War College, I'm not an official spokesperson for it or the Department of Defense, and none of my comments should be construed as necessarily reflecting official U.S. views or policy.)

I'm persuaded that the U.S. is an imperial power in important respects, but also that the American empire can be a force for justice today, as long as its policies and actions reflect certain moral values and limits. Allow me to explain.

We may be tempted to think that when the U.S. gained its independence from the British Empire, it became something entirely other than an empire. Now in some ways it was different: our new state and federal governments were much more accountable to their citizens than Britain had been to its colonists. But soon after the U.S. gained independence, it began acquiring additional lands from European empires-some peacefully, some coercively, but all without the consent of their inhabitants:

- Territories west to the Mississippi by treaty with Britain in 1797;

- The Louisiana Purchase in 1804;

- The annexation of Florida by 1820;

- The conquest of New Mexico and California in the 1840s;

- The purchase of Alaska in 1867;

- And the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines in the late 1890s.

In addition, there were many occasions during the 20th Century when the U.S. forcibly intervened in foreign countries to overthrow governments that displeased it for various reasons, such as the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Granada and Panama.

So I think it's accurate to say that the U.S. has had many "imperial moments" in its history. Perhaps the American empire has been relatively benign compared with the treatment of conquered peoples by other large empires of the past, such as the Persian, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian, Japanese, German or Soviet empires. But to the extent that possessing an empire implies a lack of consent on the part of communities thus acquired or subjugated, it clearly bears some burden of moral justification no matter what form of central government it has, but especially in the case of the U.S. which claims to embody and promote principles of republican democracy.

Can we nonetheless identify instances of U.S. "imperialism" that have been admirable in at least some respects? Well, after our military helped to defeat Germany and Japan in 1945, we occupied those countries in many ways like an imperial power, installing new political and economic systems, and even trying to mold their cultures to make fascism and militarism less palatable. The Soviet Union did those things in Eastern Europe, too. In both cases the long-term interests of the occupying powers were served. But unlike the Soviet empire, American imperial occupation shortly left Germany and Japan with independent governments that were subject to domestic democratic controls, and economic systems that allowed their citizens to prosper. Within the past decade, we can also point to our military interventions in Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo as instances when we acted with intentions that were largely humanitarian.

In regard to Afghanistan and Iraq, it's certainly fair to point out that prior to 9-11 we were not willing to intervene militarily to overthrow the governments of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, in spite of the extremely brutal ways in which they governed.  On the other hand, even if our recent invasions and current occupations of those countries can be characterized as imperial in many respects, I'm persuaded that the President does not intend to establish puppet governments there, nor economic arrangements that will be only to our benefit. Why do I believe that? Because we're working with Afghanis and Iraqis to write constitutions that guarantee their basic rights, to elect their leaders democratically, to organize town councils, to run independent newspapers, and to rebuild schools, hospitals and clinics, utilities, roads and bridges.

Should the U.S. retain at least some imperial prerogatives? I think so, since there are very likely to be situations where no other option will realistically address a grave problem. But let me suggest a few guiding principles for ethical empires:

  1) Military intervention to depose a foreign regime may sometimes be justified in the interest of national defense or regional security, or to end its abuses of human rights.

  2) But out of respect for the U.N. Charter and other international agreements, and in order to minimize the incidence of unjust military aggression, unilateral military intervention should only be used as a last resort when international legal procedures prove inadequate to promote national or regional security or to end grave abuses of human rights.

  3) Interventions that remove governments should not result in long-term annexation of those nations or subjugation of their citizens. Rather, the goal should be to enable them to establish new governments that are independent, democratically accountable, and that have sufficient checks on internal abuses of governmental power.

Have we lived up to these and other important ethical principles recently? Not entirely. Here are some items that greatly
concern me:

First, although the threat to American citizens of indiscriminate mass murder by groups like Al Qaeda was and is quite real, in our response to their attacks, in waging a vague and potentially endless "war on terror," we've given ourselves permission to assassinate or detain "enemy combatants" without adequate legal constraints. This seems at the very least inconsistent with the President's claim in his September 2002 National Security Strategy that "America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity," which were said to include the rule of law, limits on the absolute power of the state, and equal justice (p. 3).

Second, neither we nor our NATO allies are doing enough in Afghanistan now to protect civilians from local warlords or remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Third, in addition to officially blaming the Taliban and Saddam Hussein for all civilian deaths that have occurred during our recent and ongoing wars, we also have not tried hard enough to count how many have died, let alone how often we were responsible for their deaths even if only unintentionally in attacking military targets.

Fourth, as we did during the Cold War, we've developed diplomatic and military relationships with authoritarian regimes like those in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which may share our concern about international terrorism but deny their own citizens basic rights. And in some cases we've reportedly sent Al Qaeda prisoners to countries that regularly use torture (e.g., Jordan, Egypt, Morocco).

Fifth, although I believe that our preventive invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Saddam Hussein were morally justified, some of the reasons cited by our senior officials appear now to have been weakly supported by hard evidence, or perhaps even intentionally misleading. This not only undermines our credibility, it sets a dangerous precedent for future wars by opportunistic states.

Finally, there are practical limits to the exercise of American imperial power. The most obvious one is that imperialism produces popular backlash and resentment, which can undermine the intended effects of even the most humanitarian of military interventions. A domestic limit on an expanding American empire is rooted in our long-term domestic demographic trends and economic entitlements. More specifically, in a few decades the number of elderly Americans on Social Security and Medicare relative to younger working adults will increase dramatically. Since working adults are not likely to feel good about significantly increasing their own taxes, our political leaders will probably not be able to sustain the level of defense spending that a robust global American empire would require. In other words, we may not be able or willing to pay for such an empire.


Recommended readings:

Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Imperial Tense: Prospects and Problems of American Empire, 2003.

Chris Brown, "Self-Defense in an Imperfect World," Michael Byers, "Letting the Exception Prove the Rule," and
Thomas Nichols, "Just War, Not Prevention," Ethics & International Affairs 17/1, 2003.

Pamela Constable, "A Role Model in Afghanistan," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 6-12 October 2003.

Ronald Dworkin, "Terror and the Attack on Civil Liberties," New York Review of Books 50/17, 6 November 2003.

Thomas Friedman, "The Least Bad Option," New York Times, 12 October 2003.

David Luban, "The War on Terrorism and the End of Human Rights," Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly 22/3
(Summer 2002).

Kenneth Pollack, The Threatening Storm, 2002.

Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, "U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," Washington Post, 26 December
2002.

U.S. Dept. of Defense, "Iraq Progress Report," 2 September 2003.


Go to Dr. Perry's CV.