Perhaps the main reason as to why a two or three-decades long policy of American global hegemony failed is because the American system was never designed for empire and hegemony. Rather, the American system is one of checks and balances along with separation of powers so that one individual or cabal does not exploit the system for imperial and hegemonic designs. In fact, the American system as designed by the ‘Founding Fathers’ was a system created out of resistance against empire and hegemony and is thus a repudiation of empire and hegemony.
Of the ‘Founding Fathers’ who sought to foster the potential for empire and hegemony was Alexander Hamilton. For one, Hamilton advised George Washington that the United States foster close ties with the status quo power of the time, namely, Great Britain. Hamilton also designed a “National Bank” which many other American leaders opposed at the time. But Hamilton’s imperial designs were put to a halt after Aaron Burr summoned Hamilton to a duel because of Hamilton’s imperial designs. Hamilton lost the duel, and the tradition of repudiating empire and hegemony continued in the American system.
John Quincy Adams famously admonished: “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of democracy.” But this admonition is part of a bigger quote that deserves to be addressed fully:
“Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be America’s heart, her benedictions and her prayers. But she does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence for all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She well knows that by once enlisting other banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extradition, in all wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom…. She might become the dictress of the world but would no longer be ruler of her own spirit…. Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy.”
What gets sacrificed for imperial and hegemonic designs which in turn are masked and shrouded under terms such as ‘national security’ and so forth are freedom and liberty. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither, and lose both.” Thus, there are both moral and rational considerations when one puts a whole-of-government policy based on empire and hegemony under the microscope. As Albert Camus said: “It is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of executioners.”
One final point to consider is that power impairs moralistic and rational thinking. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus, the ‘Founding Fathers’ limited the size and scope of government in order to put limits on the size and scope of power, given that power impairs moralistic and rational thinking. Therefore, the critique of American whole-of-government policy which eccentric individuals like myself have undertaken is not for naught.