Empire and Global Hegemony: Neo-conservatism and American Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Richard Immerman, in a book titled “Empire for Liberty,” argues that “through the lens of America’s ideology, empire and liberty are mutually reinforcing.”[1] American ideology supposedly is one that is both of liberty and for liberty. Immerman also states that the purpose of his book is to “persuade the reader that America is and always has been an empire.”[2] Immerman also uses the term “hegemon,” to describe the United States. Instead of delving into the semantics of “empire,” Immerman shifts to the discussion of “imperialism” and how “empire” stands relative to that famous term. According to Immerman: “[Imperialism] refers to a process by which one state employs instruments of power to acquire control over peripheral peoples and territory.”[3]

Immerman unequivocally states that America was and is imperialistic. But what Immerman adds is that the pretext and “redeeming idea” of American imperialism has never really changed, and that is the promotion of “liberty.” Unconstrained terms like “liberty” are hard to define. One could cite Edmund Burke’s definition of liberty, which equates to “freedom” and “proportionality,” or even James Madison’s definition of liberty as standing for freedom with religious responsibility. But according to Immerman: “[When] it comes to liberty, about the only thing Americans agree on is that it is good.”[4]

One of America’s chief policy architects in the early 21st century was Paul Wolfowitz. During George W. Bush’s administration, Wolfowitz served as deputy defense secrecy and was in the public eye a great deal during his tenure. Apparently, personal experiences shaped Wolfowitz’s imperialistic tendencies. Wolfowitz was “raised to feel the perils of the world and his great fortune at being an American.”[5] Either Wolfowitz genuinely thought the United States could shape the world in its image, or his personal opinion was a carefully crafted pretext to expand American economic and military power throughout the globe.

Nevertheless, Wolfowitz has said that “America’s greatest power is what it stands for.”[6] In other words, what makes America powerful is essentially its ideology, and when Immerman spoke of an American ideology, it was that America was an empire underpinned by the concept of “liberty.”  The concept of “American Exceptionalism” also stems from the applied principle of “liberty.” To spread “liberty” through military force is a tendency stemming from a foreign policy school of thought known as “neoconservatism.” In a nutshell, the quintessential “neocon” was someone who “stood for a self-confident and militantly interventionist Americanism.’[7]

Combining force with ideology to conquer the world was what the neocons stood for. Neoconservatism was the one tool which neocons like Wolfowitz could use in “turning [their] vision into reality,” according to Immerman.[8] Neocons accepted nothing less than U.S. hegemony starting from the peak of the Cold War in the early 1970’s. Neocons also opposed détente and its different forms of manifestation such as the SALT process and “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) because they believed it “legitimized Soviet communism and allowed the Soviet Union to keep itself on a military par with the vastly more productive United States.”[9] What the standoff between the United States and Russia amounts to is a zero-sum game, and both countries showed characteristics of imperialistic civilizations based on ideology and hard power. Any concession to the other side meant a loss of one’s own prestige and standing in the world, or in other words, the diminution of one’s “empire” in the most basic sense of the term.

Immerman describes the American empire in the following manner:

“[t]he definition of empire is no less dynamic than the history of American expansion. Appreciating the dynamism of both is essential in order to weigh the varying motives that drove American empire-building: greed and racism, for example, versus progress and protection. That appreciation is likewise essential in determining whether the American empire is and has been an ‘exceptional’ antidote to truly ‘evil’ empires.”[10]

The question of whether greed and racism or “progress and protection” drove the Neoconservative effort at empire-building in the 21st century is now a rhetorical question. But the institutions that America built after World War II to keep the peace around the world were legitimate:

“[W]hat NATO has succeeded in demonstrating is that an alliance based on common values of freedom and democracy has had more staying power than any historical alliance built purely on a narrow coincidence of interests. It has also demonstrated that NATO is an alliance with the flexibility, at different times, under vastly different circumstances, to be relevant in confronting changing threats and seizing new opportunities.”[11]

Employing these institutions and bringing progress and protection to parts of the world that were under repressive regimes like Afghanistan are worthwhile, according to Wolfowitz:

“The campaign in Afghanistan, along with many other efforts now underway by many instruments of our government, has contributed to the disruption of the global terror network in tangible and far-reaching ways. Our task extends well beyond Afghanistan, and even in Afghanistan it will still be a long and difficult one, but the stakes are enormous.”[12]

What Wolfowitz and his colleagues engineered after 9/11 was not merely a “war on terror.” Rather, it was an imperialistic quest to conquer the world, intended to a certain degree to plant the seeds of Americanism – or liberty – in the greater Muslim world, which turned out to be an utter failure. Conquest, as we saw, led to chaos as well as the antithesis of stated goals. Neoconservative “self-confidence” was seen as repugnant across the world. As Francis Fukuyama puts it:

“By invading Iraq, the Bush administration saw itself not as acting out of narrow self-interest but as providing a global public good. The administration’s belief in its own good motives explains much of its failure to anticipate the highly negative international reaction to the war.”[13]

Of utmost priority to the United States is its defense, or national security.[14] Since World War II, U.S. national security had expanded to global proportions, and U.S. “interests” began taking root in almost every region of the world. What complicated matters in the 21st century for the United States was that the neocons called for an American demeanor that had elements of militancy and unilateralism. Neocons were one of the first within the foreign policy establishment in the late 1970’s to denounce the “Nixon Doctrine” developed by Henry Kissinger because they believed global hegemony had to replace co-existence with adversaries. While in the Pentagon during the Carter Presidency, Wolfowitz proposed that the United States go forth with establishing an “increased visibility” in the Middle East, which entailed “creating new U.S. bases in the region, improving runways and airlift capabilities for American troops, and constructing new storage facilities to hold military equipment and supplies.”[15] Before the Cold War had even reached its conclusion, the neocons and Wolfowitz were setting the state for America’s global conquest.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2003, Wolfowitz stressed that the United States was concerned with “a lot more than just physical security or economic health.”[16] While serving as Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific in the mid-1980’s, Wolfowitz objected to the double standard upheld by the Reagan administration of turning a blind eye toward totalitarian allies like Marcos in the Philippines while condemning the totalitarianism practiced by those who were in the communist bloc. It was mainly Wolfowitz who “helped develop the idea that the United States should support democracy in both adversary and allied nations” during his stint in the State department under Reagan.[17] Wolfowitz apparently convinced Reagan that it would be wise to compel Marcos into considering democratic reforms for his country. Wolfowitz contends that “the fact is that it remains in our interest to do the kind of thing that we did with Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, that we did with Chun Doo Hwan in Korea, that we did with the whole Eastern Europe/Soviet Union, that we’ve done since then with promoting democracy in places like Serbia.”[18]In terms of his view on democracy, Wolfowitz states that:

 “Democracy, one could say, has solved, not solve perfectly, but they represent one of the best solutions to one of the most fundamental instabilities in politics and that’s how to replace one regime with another. It’s the only orderly way in the world for doing it.”[19]

Wolfowitz also argues that “liberty” is an integral part of any American empire. It is the mechanism upon which the American empire functions, as well as the element of Americanism which the United States wishes to export to other countries. As Immerman puts it:

“Indeed, there has been one constant in the evolution of the United States, and it is suggested by this book’s title. The American empire, regardless of what the term denoted and connoted at any given time, has always been inextricably tied to establishing and promoting “liberty” in the contemporary context.”[20]

For some, “liberty” may mean the opening of overseas markets and cultural exchange. But in reality, “liberty” was a pretext for a reckless regime change policy that has fostered the proliferation of drug mafias and terror groups and thus instability around the world. Wolfowitz demonstrates his delusion as to the outcome of the Iraq War, by stating that “the history of atrocities and the punishment of those responsible are directly linked to our success in helping the Iraqi people build a free, secure, and democratic future.” Neocons wrongly equate their actions to those undertaken by the United States during World War II and the Cold War, which were totally different contexts. According to Immerman: “Over the last half-century Americans had defeated two enemies of liberty: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Again, the United States must defend the Free World.”[21]

As NSC-68 served as the underpinning for the Cold War, the Defense Planning Guide of 1993 set the stage for risky and scatterbrained U.S. post-Cold War activities around the globe:

“The most enduring legacy of the process of drafting the DPG is that it provided a conceptual framework for unifying the pessimistic Cheney-type ‘apostles of brute force’ and the optimistic Wolfowitz-type proselytizers of liberty. Both perceived that mankind’s hope lay solely with the United States. Yet while Cheney believed that America had to save the world from itself, Wolfowitz preached that America had the capability to remake the world.”[22]

The “Defense Planning Guide” of 1993 encouraged the United States to employ its superior military and economic power in a cavalier manner. The DPG also promoted a dangerous form of unilateralism by expressing that the United States will “not ignore the need to protect our critical interests and honor our commitments with limited additional help, or even alone, if necessary.”[23]America would go it alone because no one else would support America’s efforts at global hegemony and the conquest of the entire world. In retrospect, one can conclude that the neocon plan for global hegemony was an abject failure simply by using Afghanistan and Iraq as cases in point. At its roots, America is a country that fought British colonialism and imperialism, and what the neocons advocated was antithetical to the basic character and DNA of America.

            It would be futile to argue that the United States is not an empire with imperialistic designs due to the influence the neocons have had on America’s government. By using “liberty” as a pretext and a “redeeming idea” in the words of the late Edward Said, neocons taught America a way in which one can conceal the pursuit of empire and global hegemony in a self-righteous manner.  

WORKS CITED

“Afghanistan: Building Stability, Avoiding Chaos”. Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, 107th Congress, Second Session, June 26, 2002.

“Bridging the Dangerous Gap between the West and the Muslim World”. Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the World Affairs Council, Monterey, CA, Friday, May 3, 2002. <http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2002/s20020503-depsecdef.html&gt;

“Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Sam Tannenhaus”. Vanity Fair. May 9, 2003. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outfit=pmt&requesttimeout=500&folder=339&paper=543&gt;.

“Iraq: Status and Prospects for Reconstruction – Resources”. Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 108th Congress, First Session, July 29, 2003.

“Online NewsHour: Paul Wolfowitz”. Interview with PBS, September 14, 2001. Accessed on November 15, 2010. < http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/terrorism/july-dec01/wolfowitz-9-14.html&gt;.

“Wolfowitz on U.S. Role in Other Nations’ Affairs”. Interview with NPR, September 5, 2009. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112591394&gt;.

Dorrien, Gary. Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana. Routledge (New York, 2004). Pages Cited.

Fukuyama, Francis. America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2006. Pages Cited.

Immerman, Richard H. Empire For Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010. Pages Cited.

Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Arundel House, London, England, December 2, 2002. International Institute for Strategic Studies. <http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2002/s20021202-depsecdef.html&gt;

Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. “Defense Strategy for the 1990’s: The Regional Defense Strategy”. January, 1993. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/pdf/naarpr_Defense.pdf&gt;.

Solomon, Lewis D. Paul D. Wolfowitz: Visionary Intellectual, Policymaker, and Strategist. Praeger Security International (Westport, CT, 2007). Pages Cited.

Velasco, Jesus. Neoconservatism in U.S. Foreign Policy under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: Voices Behind the Throne. Woodrow Wilson Center Press: Washington, D.C., 2010. Pages Cited.


[1] Immerman, Richard H. Empire For Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010, Pg. 5.

[2] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 4.

[3] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 10.

[4] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 6.

[5]Dorrien, Gary. Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana. Routledge (New York, 2004), 43.

[6] “Bridging the Dangerous Gap between the West and the Muslim World”. Remarks Prepared for Delivery by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz at the World Affairs Council, Monterey, CA, Friday, May 3, 2002. <http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2002/s20020503-depsecdef.html&gt;

[7] Dorrien, Imperial Designs, 7.

[8] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 208.

[9] Dorrien, Imperial Designs, 49.

[10] Immerman, Richard H. Empire For Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010, Pg. 4.

[11] Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Arundel House, London, England, December 2, 2002. International Institute for Strategic Studies. <http://www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2002/s20021202-depsecdef.html&gt;

[12] Afghanistan: Building Stability, Avoiding Chaos”. Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, 107th Congress, Second Session, June 26, 2002.

[13] Fukuyama, Francis. America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2006, Page 95.

[14]Velasco, Jesus. Neoconservatism in U.S. Foreign Policy under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush: Voices Behind the Throne. Woodrow Wilson Center Press: Washington, D.C., 2010, Pg. 199.

[15]Solomon, Lewis D. Paul D. Wolfowitz: Visionary Intellectual, Policymaker, and Strategist. Praeger Security International (Westport, CT, 2007), Pgs. 25-26.

[16] “Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Sam Tannenhaus”. Vanity Fair. May 9, 2003. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outfit=pmt&requesttimeout=500&folder=339&paper=543&gt;.

[17] Solomon, Wolfowitz, Pg. 30.

[18] “Wolfowitz on U.S. Role in Other Nations’ Affairs”. Interview with NPR, September 5, 2009. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112591394&gt;.

[19] “Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz Interview with Sam Tannenhaus”. Vanity Fair. May 9, 2003. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://ics.leeds.ac.uk/papers/vp01.cfm?outfit=pmt&requesttimeout=500&folder=339&paper=543&gt;.

[20] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 5.

[21] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 214.

[22] Immerman, Empire For Liberty, Pg. 219.

[23] Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. “Defense Strategy for the 1990’s: The Regional Defense Strategy”. January, 1993. Accessed on November 15, 2010. <http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/pdf/naarpr_Defense.pdf&gt;.

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