In his provocative cover story “Why Liberalism Means Empire” for The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy makes a rather astounding claim: that liberalism, or rather laissez faire secular order, needs a state hegemon to be long-lasting. I call this argument astounding because McCarthy often advocates non-intervention in foreign affairs. He’s never one to shy away from damning the bellicose transgressions of the United States government. Yet he, at times, seems to be defending Washington’s vice grip on global affairs, and claims that such mastery is necessary for liberal democracy and the free flow of trade. He writes:
“Liberal imperialism is not directed toward gratuitous conquest but toward maintaining a global environment conducive to liberalism.”
Whether McCarthy’s argument is correct or not will not be addressed here. Rather, the question of intentions behind empire will be examined, as they receive scant attention in McCarthy’s polemic. It’s certainly true that governments are driven by people trying to shower their universal values upon the planet. But is it really the case that the U.S. government is interested in promoting liberal democracy abroad?
McCarthy points out that the British Empire played a key role in engendering autonomy within the early years of the U.S. He notes that with “Britain keeping any possible global predator at bay, American statesmen could pursue their ends through means other than war.” Following World War I, and Britain’s war losses at the hands of Germany, it was time for a new world power to rise up and reestablish the liberal order. The United States, which had largely minded its own business prior to the Great War, was thrust to the forefront of being the globe’s protector of classical liberalism.
Decades later, neoconservative ideology adopted the “spread democracy abroad” trope as an excuse for imperium. But today, as the American economy remains bogged down in stagnation, and the national debt climbs ever higher, the salad days of U.S. worldwide influence are waning. Empire is expensive. In a representative democracy such as America, it also requires both the votes and tax dollars of citizens to sustain itself. Public perception is leaning more towards non-intervention. The warmongers and elites in D.C. decry the shift in sentiment, and are busy trying to find excuses to continue propping up the Empire. Their efforts will be in vain mainly because their rhetoric is no longer trusted. The lies, deceit, and subterfuge used to justify foreign adventurism is finally coming to a head.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose unfettered U.S. intervention abroad. But one, I suspect, is having a stronger effect than others: the American people, along with many citizens in Western countries, no longer believe empire means the promotion of equality, rule of law, and liberalism around the world. Due to Washington’s contradictory alliances, the ostensible need for imperium comes off as a wash. Blood and treasure aren’t being wasted on making the world more conducive to the West’s values; rather it’s for the aggrandizement of the political class above all else.
One country in particular is demonstrative of the American government’s hypocrisy-ridden foreign agenda. According to a new leak by famed whistleblower Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency is working closely with the Saudi Ministry of Interior, an agency described by journalist Glenn Greenwald as “one of the world’s most repressive and abusive government agencies.” Saudi Arabia is notorious for its horrendous human rights record. Yet the NSA has cultivated an ever-closer relationship with the Arab theocracy in recent years. In a top secret memo from 2013, the intelligence agency admits to providing “direct analytic and technical support” to the repressive regime. This was after the State Department determined that the Saudi Ministry of Interior officials “sometimes subjected prisoners and detainees to torture and other physical abuse.” The agency’s report also states the regime is responsible for:
“torture and other abuses; overcrowding in prisons and detention centers; holding political prisoners and detainees; denial of due process; arbitrary arrest and detention; and arbitrary interference with privacy, home, and correspondence.”
The Saudi regime is not only being propped up by the American taxpayer, but it’s given expertise from government officials on how to better suppress political dissidents. It’s these kind of instances of glad-handing with dictators that turn off normal, working people. Americans see pols give lofty sermons about promoting freedom and democracy on television, and then witness their tax dollars go toward brutal authoritarians to retain global standing. It’s a perverse message that even a child can detect is painfully dishonest. From Egypt to Kuwait, coffers of oppression are filled with U.S. dollars swiped via payroll taxes. How long was the dissonance supposed to last before suspicion set in?
The current push to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 – a crime there is still no evidence he or his government committed – is gaining no ground. After the boondoggle of Iraq, there is little confidence in another full-on ground invasion. Last summer’s threat of war in Syria was challenged outright by angry voters. The working class in flyover country is tired of the half-truths and propaganda. They don’t care much for universal values or overthrowing despots or maintaining a worldwide liberal hēgemōn.
McCarthy may be correct that liberal social orders require the threat of a strong, centralized state. Even so, control rendered from on high cannot last. As he writes, “[L]iberal democracy is unnatural. It is a product of power and security, not innate human sociability.” Democracy from afar is a house of cards, poised to fall when those in charge demonstrate effete management. If a house divided cannot stand, then a house of lies cannot keep up the charade. People want a bargain for the money they pay; they want a tangible result that matches their expectations. In the case of American empire, they aren’t getting the goods.
The world is no more safer than it was when the War on Terror began. Some of the Middle East’s most brutal dictators were removed from power, but radical jihadists have filled the vacuum of authority. Men and women are still coming home in caskets draped with Old Glory, or they come home mentally and physically debilitated. And for what exactly? The Persian Gulf is arguably more tyrannical and dangerous than before Uncle Sam made a point of establishing liberal democracy at the turn of the century. Either the mission was a failure, or there was another objective involved. If Smedley Butler was correct, and war is a racket, then there was another measure of success at work. And it sure wasn’t the promotion of universal democratic values. If empire can’t bring that, then there isn’t much of a point outside of domination. In other words, somebody benefits from imperium, and it’s not the average voter. Sooner or later the jig is up.