TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Unsatisfactory Discourse on American Foreign Policy

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Frederick Wertz looks at Elliot Neaman’s “The New (Old) Discourse on the American Empire and the War in Iraq” from Telos 132 (Fall 2005).

Critiques of American imperialism are easy to find at the domestic and the international level, especially in today’s partisan and reactionary political climate. The contemporary discourse is beginning to focus on the decline of the American empire, despite the fact that there is very little consensus as to whether or not America ever even had an empire to begin with, in any objective historical context.

In an article written in the midst of a heated debate about American imperialism and the War in Iraq, Elliot Neaman takes a step back from the fray and takes a look at the development of the contemporary discourse surrounding the issue. While the debate may or may not have evolved significantly from where it was in 2005, Neaman’s analysis of various critiques of American empire has enduring aspects that pertain far beyond the scope of American foreign policy. By looking at various pro- and anti-empire positions from both the Left and Right, we can draw meaningful lessons about the development of discourse and the interpretation of history.

Neaman does an excellent job of showing that both left- and right-leaning thinkers have both pro- and anti-empire positions, and that “old demarcations of radical, liberal and conservative no longer lead to predictable foreign policy positions” (155). Neaman marks “pro-empire realists, pro-empire liberals, anti-empire realists, anti-empire leftists and anti-empire conservatives” (155) as the various positions that were chiming in on the issue in 2005.

Some positions had changed very little over time, such as the anti-empire leftists, whose Marxist critique still viewed American imperialism as a “handmaiden of expanding capitalist markets and repression of non-capitalist societies” (55) in 2005, just as it did during the Cold War. On the other hand, some positions had evolved significantly, such as a realignment of neo-liberals and neo-conservatives, who held in common a “skeptical, anti-Wilsonian critique of American overreach.”

Of those critical of the American imperialism in 2005, Neaman finds that “both the left and the right critique of the American empire have been found either ungrounded or unoriginal” (181). The critique from the left in particular “has hardly evolved out of its Marxist framework since the likes of William Appleman Williams wrote in the 1950s that American foreign policy could be explained solely by the need for expanding foreign markets and creating a false consensus at home” (170). Neaman interestingly points out that the belief that America needs to deal with domestic problems first is held by both the neo-left and neo-right, although of course the two sides would radically disagree about communism.

Neaman also notes that among those in favor of imperialism, both members of the Left and Right hold that the United States is still the best guarantor of liberal values throughout the world. In 2003, President Bush promised to end the American habit of supporting dictators in the Middle East in the name of stability, proclaiming that “stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty” (162). On the other side, many liberals agreed in principle that the United States should be more proactive in world affairs, and that “neutral” often means ignoring human rights abuses. Both Christopher Hitchens and David Reiff pointed to the situations in the slave-state of North Korea and Rwanda as examples of crises that a liberal imperialist approach could bring an end to.

Being a country born out of an anti-imperialist revolution, the United States has never been comfortable with its role as a global superpower because of the archaic connotation still attached to imperialism.

Neaman also points out important gaps between the rhetoric and action of politicians and governments on both sides. Most obvious would be President Bush’s aforementioned declaration swearing off the practical support of less-than-democratic regimes in the name of spreading democracy. Neaman admits that while Bush’s “rhetoric is expansive and idealistic, his directives are pragmatic and involve compromises and half-steps” (162). But of course, one doesn’t need to conduct any sort of in-depth analysis to see that even today, the United States still supports its fair share of governments in direct ideological conflict with our most sacredly held values. The Arabian Peninsula alone holds several repressive U.S.-backed regimes; Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen are the most preeminent examples.

However, Neaman also points out that those critical of imperialism don’t always practice what they preach. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets often simply threw accusations of imperialism at whoever happened to be opposing them at the moment; claiming the liberation of nations like Israel and India as triumphs against imperialism, then decrying those very governments as “imperialist” the moment their views conflicted with the USSR.

In this sense, Neaman identifies the outdated negative connotations surrounding imperialism as a potential roadblock to reaching any objective understanding of its manifestation. Indeed, he notes that being a country born out of an anti-imperialist revolution, the United States has never been comfortable with its role as a global superpower because of the archaic connotation still attached to imperialism.

At the heart of the issue seems to be a misunderstanding of historical change. Even Jürgen Habermas, one of the most outspoken critics of the American War in Iraq, admits that thanks to globalization, nations have to act as a global community rather than as independent nations conducting “international relations.” Combine this realization with some of the necessary services the United States supplies the global community (providing naval and air security for the entire world to secure global commerce), and anything close to imperialism begins to gain a very different connotation than it did at the height of the British Empire.

These problems Neaman finds are indeed no small issues. He insists that a coherent critique of American imperialism would result from framing “the discussion as a comparison between the ideals of the pro-empire positions and the empirical realities of implementation” (181). Though the idea seems simple enough, it relies on a consensus regarding the extent to which America actually was an empire “in any historically provable comparative perspective” (181). Neaman sorrowfully concludes that given his examination of the discourse, “such agreement does not seem likely in our polarized age when theorizers in the social sciences begin, not with the facts of external realty, but rather with the assumption that their theories must be correct and everything else follows by deduction” (181).

This conclusion endures far beyond the discourse surrounding foreign policy, and permeates every aspect of contemporary scholarship, politics and discourse. At the very least, Neaman’s analysis causes us to question the underpinnings of liberal/conservative dichotomy of American politics. Truly, we will not be able to produce a relevant discussion of foreign policy, or anything for that matter, until positions are formed from a more unbiased and realist based thought-process.

Read the full version of Elliot Neaman’s “The New (Old) Discourse on the American Empire and the War in Iraq” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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