Belatedly, but suddenly with intensity, Americans have begun to debate whether their country is some kind of empire. Most of the world has no doubt that the U.S. is an empire, but now it has plenty of doubt about the kind of empire that the U.S. wants to be. I shall argue that there are four dominant perspectives in contemporary politics and ethics regarding the relation of the United States to international politics; that all four of them have a theological version; that one of them is not compatible with Christian ethics; that that perspective is the one that is currently in power; and that we need a constructive alternative.
The question of imperialism is slippery and connotatively loaded. Imperialism does not apply only to overseas possessions; Native American reservations amount to colonies; and for almost ninety years the U.S. was a slave state, many of whose leaders wanted to create a Western empire based on the extension of slavery throughout the Caribbean. From the Monroe Doctrine onward, American presidents have issued doctrines about what a country has to do to deserve an invasion from the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, who viewed his imperial ambition as a natural outgrowth of the American story, was fond of saying that America's entire national history was one of expansion. His corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the U.S. reserved the right to invade any Latin American country that engaged in "flagrant wrongdoing." Latin Americans took that to mean any action that conflicted with U.S. interests.
Long before TR added the clarifying Roosevelt Corollary of 1906, the U.S. had an ample record of intervening in Latin America. Afterwards, up to World War II, it added interventions in Colombia, Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala; China was another frequent destination of American forces. In the sense of the term that applies only to the colonization of overseas territories, America's formal dance with empire began in 1898, when it annexed and occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillipines, and the Hawaiian islands. In the sense of the term that applies to global military networks, the United States became a world empire after World War II, beginning with its new military bases in western Germany, Japan, Korea, and the eastern Mediterranean.
In the dictionary sense of the term, setting aside the Native American reservations, the U.S. is not an imperial power. It does not exercise direct dominion over conquered peoples; it does not formally rule an extensive group of countries under a single sovereign authority. America's official colonies have been few and scattered, most of its occupations have been brief, the largest of its 14 dependent entities is Puerto Rico, and its domination of Latin America has been mostly indirect. Americans as a whole are very short on imperial consciousness. But since 1989 the United States has forged a new kind of empire--one not based on the conquest of territory--that outstrips all colonizing empires of the past.
The United States is the most awesome world power that the world has ever seen. Its economy outproduces the next eleven nations combined, accounting for 31 percent of the world's output. It floods the world with its culture and technology. It spends more on defense than the next eighteen nations combined. It employs five global military commands to police the world; it has 750 military bases in 130 countries, covering two-thirds of the world; it has formal military base rights in forty countries; each branch of the armed services has its own air force; the U.S. Air Force operates on six continents; the U.S. deploys carrier battleships in every ocean; and the U.S. Special Forces conducts thousands of operations per year in nearly 170 countries.
Moreover, the United States is not merely dominant; it assumes imperial responsibilities and reaps the benefits that derive from them. It is imperial in the sense of enforcing its own idea of world order in America's interest, presuming the right to lay down the rules of trade, commerce, security, and political legitimacy. It rewards or punishes nations on the basis of their willingness to create open markets, support American military policies, and establish pro-American governments. Today the U.S. is redesigning the economy of Iraq, ignoring longstanding Iraqi laws that limit foreign ownership and principles of international law that limit the powers of occupiers. Waging an offensive war to change the government of a sovereign country and restructure its economy is obviously an imperial enterprise. Doing it to consolidate one's power and change the political culture of a sprawling, explosive, multinational region halfway around the globe is more so on an unprecedented scale.
The central problem of U.S. foreign policy today is to modulate the natural tendency of an unrivaled power to regard the entire world as its geopolitical neighborhood. This would have been a defining challenge for the Bush administration even if terrorists had not struck the United States on September 11, 2001 and it would have been so even if Democrats had won the 2000 election. America at the turn of the twenty-first century was overdue for a moral and political reckoning with the compulsive expansionism of unrivaled power. But the problem of world empire increased by several orders of magnitude with the election of George W. Bush, his selection of a unipolarist foreign policy team, their urging after the fiendish attacks of 9/11 to conceive the struggle against terrorism as a world war, and his decision to do so. Thus the reckoning must grapple with the fact that the problem is both old and new.
Four distinct perspectives have long dominated national debates on foreign policy, but the key perspective--the one that is in power today--underwent a key transformation in the early 1990s. None of these positions is exclusively conservative or liberal; each has a wide-ranging right/center/left continuum; all have a history in modern Christian social thought. The first is liberal internationalism, which emphasizes world management in some of its forms, enterprise cooperation and trade in others, and democracy-building in others. In all its forms the liberal internationalist approach seeks to secure world peace and stability by securing collective agreements from nation states to comply with international law. Proponents of this strategy invest great importance in the attainment of multilateral state agreements to respect each other's national sovereignty, maintain the rule of law, uphold human rights, and minimize trade barriers. In its more aggressive or idealistic forms, liberal internationalism conceives the struggle for world peace and sustainable order as a struggle for world democracy.
For much of the past century, American liberal internationalism was the creed of a management-oriented diplomatic and religious establishment. During World War I, the Federal Council of Churches called for the creation of a League of Nations to promote cooperation and carry out international police functions. In the 1920s and 1930s, after Americans returned to the normalcy of isolationism and nationalism, mainline Protestant leaders campaigned for American participation in the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand Pact to Outlaw War, and other international institutions. After World War II, liberal internationalists played the leading role in creating the United Nations, the World Bank, and various security alliances designed to promote Western-style international …