Yes, We Should Call Them Imperialists

Neoconservatives like Max Boot are fooling themselves if they think imposing 'values' on the rest of the world isn't a matter of empire.

Recently while reading a book by an Israeli scholar named Yoram Hazony with the provocative title The Virtue of Nationalism, I encountered a distinction drawn by the late Charles Krauthammer between empire building and American global democratic hegemony. Like the editors of the Weekly Standard, for which he periodically wrote, Krauthammer believed it was unfair to describe what he wanted to see done, which was having the U.S. actively spread its own form of government throughout the world, as “imperialism.” After all, Krauthammer said, he and those who think like him “do not hunger for new territory,” which makes it wrong to accuse them of “imperialism.”

Hazony responds with the obvious answer that control can be imposed on the unwilling even if the empire builders are not overtly annexing territory. Meanwhile, other neoconservatives have given the game away by pushing their imperialist position a bit further than Krauthammer’s. Max Boot, for example, has been quite open in demanding “an American empire” built on ideological and military control even without outright annexation.

The question that occurred to me while reading Krauthammer’s proposal and Hazony’s response (which I suspect would have been more devastating had Hazony not been afraid of losing neoconservative friends and sponsors) is this one: how is this not imperialism?

The Virtue of Nationalism Yoram Hazony Best Price: $11.40 Buy New $15.40 (as of 03:50 EDT - Details) Certainly the use of protectorates to increase the influence of Western powers in the non-Western world goes back a long time. As far back as the Peloponnesian War, rival Greek city-states tried to impose their constitutional arrangements on weaker Greek societies as a way of managing them politically. According to Xenophon, when the Athenians then surrendered to the Spartan commander Lysander in 403 BC, they had two conditions imposed on them: taking down their great wall (kathairein ta makra teixe) and installing a regime that looked like the Spartan one. This makes arguing that territory has to be annexed outright in order for it to become part of an American empire so utterly unconvincing.

One reason the views offered by Krauthammer and Boot did not elicit more widespread criticism—and have enjoyed enthusiastic favor among Republicans for decades, culminating in the oratorical wonders of George W. Bush—may have been the embrace of another neoconservative doctrine: “American exceptionalism.” The belief that the U.S. is a supremely good nation founded on universal principles has consequences that go well beyond electoral politics. Dennis Prager, a nationally syndicated talk radio host and co-owner of the website Townhall.com, extols American exceptionalism, which he says springs from American values.

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