On the Neo-Imperial Interest

Who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively?

Thomas Jefferson, Second Inaugural, 18051

The “neo-” in the uncertain designation “neo-imperial” would assert the historical uniqueness of a transformational political-economic project that would be global, “federative,” and liberal-democratic, universal in concept whether or not fully elaborated. For neoconservative pundits and other vulgar exceptionalists in the United States, as well as for the liberal internationalists whose outlook still defines the Democratic Party and the broad American mainstream, a neo-imperial interest and the national interest would be effectively the same interest, but most or all of those involved, when speaking to the home crowd and quite likely when speaking to themselves, will aim to define the former in terms of the latter, converting a defensive or impartially conservative neo-imperialism or the presumption of the global status quo on its own terms into an aggressive and chauvinistic neoconservative imperialism or the presumption of indefinitely extended domination. In the abstract, and during periods of retrenchment, the latter self-understanding may be as unpopular if not intolerable as in the moment of crisis it will be irresistible. Those moved to oppose or to seek or pretend to oppose either conservative neo-imperialism or neoconservative imperialism or both from within the neo-imperial center geographically or ideally may look to the libertarian reflexes that are sometimes identified as original Americanism; or to attitudes of the current political moment as once upon a time in the aftermath of the Vietnam War; or to Marxist-Leninist, anti-colonialist, Islamist, and other polemics in mixed inflections and under moralistic cover: Much easier to turn an exhausted yet undead praxis into a cliché than to outline a course of transition from here to some theoretically or merely wishfully more desirable there; easier to point to one-sidedly estimated costs of empire, costs of all types, costs as comprehensive as empire is all-embracing; easier, at opportunity, to laugh at the contortions of those trying to defend supra-national commitments as simple patriotism, than to engage on the consequences of unraveling those commitments. “It is not possible to be rid of it either,” says the miserable tyrant, of tyranny.2

Notes:

  1. Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Kindle Locations 6825-6826 []
  2. Xenophon, Hiero or Tyrannicus, 7:12 – Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 15 []

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28 comments on “On the Neo-Imperial Interest

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  1. So, what’s your opinion, do we need to project force in certain areas for prolonged periods of time, against irregular forces, or is it an abrogation of our country’s founding principles, Kipling or Twain,
    to be reductionist.

    • I think that may describe two sides of the actual discussion, but I’m not sure they’re the terms that need or ought to be discussed. I’d put it more that we are committed to defend a world-spanning network against all comers, and furthermore a mass liberal-democratic polity will insist on its own right to exist and defend itself, which means defend its way of life as it understands it (and the way and the understanding are connected). So we’re already “projected,” and irregular forces of opposition are an inevitable by-product of that condition. Any alteration or process of alteration that isn’t going to be subject to boomerang effects, or going to have to be forced on us, will be evolutionary, which doesn’t mean that we won’t do lots of things that have boomerang effects or that are forced on us.

      • I feel like being somewhat brief tonight:

        Is it that, assuming the public understanding about our way of life & it requiring global dominance is correct, to oppose such dominance as unjust is to effectively state that our way of life itself is unjust?

        Is there no first step to ending it that doesn’t amount to demanding a New Man?

        • I feel like being brief, too, but won’t manage it.

          “Global dominance” is your word, and how the nationalist pundits unintentionally end up sketching what I’m calling the “neo-imperial interest,” while they consciously are seeking to appeal to our or their own selfishness and our traditions at the same time – or our traditional selfishness, or the presumed lowest common denominator, inertial selfishness, limited vision of people. (This doesn’t preclude altruism and generosity, it just acknowledges selective perception: People are collectively selfish because their sociobiological altruism rarely extends beyond what they know or think they know.)

          This neo-imperial interest was for Jefferson and contemporaries Heaven coming to Earth, justice almost for the first time, for the first time on the level of nations, spreading worldwide, not domination but the real throwing off of domination. 200 years later, it was the force that defeated totalitarianism and created a world political-economic system capable of supporting 7 billion people, at overall much higher standards of living, and still counting – approaching 70 years without a major war on the scale in destructiveness of the world wars.

          It’s not perfect justice – not hardly – but why should people believe that perfect justice is attainable at all? Even if they could believe that it was attainable at all by effort, how certain would they have to be of success to put relative justice and relative comfort and a possible gradual evolution toward greater justice at risk? How much destruction and injustice are you willing to accept on the way to your perfection? At what rate does humanity have to improve in order to be spared your judgment?

          • I don’t expect perfection. I just want to stop paying to manage a world that doesn’t want to be managed.

            If people in different countries wish to live in different ways, let them, any spreading of our ways should be only by example, not by secret manipulation or threats. It’s not like we’re doing so hot really, what with finance having us by the short hairs still after nearly crashing everything.

            • Not sure exactly what you’re referring to by “manage a world,” nor what you have in mind by “spreading our ways… by secret manipulation or threats.” Financialization is closer to the heart of the system as it is, but that’s because it’s been going on for a very long time, and is typical of the problem that “the tyrant” was referring to: “Not possible to be rid of it either” resembles “too big to fail.” But there’s also a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation mixed with fear and simple envy around the financial system.

              Nothing I’ve said here should be taken to suggest I don’t see any problems: We tell ourselves that everybody matters, and that they should be engaged citizens, so shouldn’t expect those who want to matter and want to be engaged to react well to powerlessness. When I describe a conservative neo-imperial interest I’m not suggesting it’s an exclusive interest or one that I’m convinced will be sustainable over the long term in its current form.

  2. See the whole thing, like Ware’s missive, strikes me like that bizarre colocquoy on PBS, that featured Jennings, Ogletree and Fallows on one side, and Major Downs on the other.

    • somehow missed that one, but you’ll probably hear a lot of it, mostly minus any Maj. Downs, if you tune into the “Talking Hubris” special on MSNBC tonight hosted by Chris Hayes. I wonder how self-consciously they meant to echo “Talking Dead.”

  3. I guess pretty much everybody agreed the Louisana Purchase was unconstitutional, and legally invalid in terms of existing treaties, not to mention aboriginal rights to the land. Yet there it is. Jefferson put aside all the happy constitutional talk, rights of man rhetoric, limited govt claptrap and said, if we don’t do this we’re screwed. Of course he did it with some right skillful word slinging.

    You’re quite right. When we look for the justification for how we assess natl security legalities, this, not the constitution is the source document.

    I know that the acquisition of Louisiana had been disapproved by some from a candid apprehension that the enlargement of our territory would endanger its union. But who can limit the extent to which the federative principle may operate effectively? The larger our association the less will it be shaken by local passions; and in any view is it not better that the opposite bank of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family? With which should we be most likely to live in harmony and friendly intercourse?
    Jefferson’s 2nd Inaugural

    • Thanks for the larger context, though I’m less inclined, even just in a manner of speaking, to dismiss the limited government stuff as claptrap: It’s just one of those indispensable paradoxes: To limit government you need government, so only more government can provide for less government, while less government always implies more government, illimitably.

      Also illustrates how typical the typical exception is, or how the constitutional exception is authentically or materially constitutional, constitutionally-exceptionally constitutional so simply constitutional, etc. A parallel irony was played out just a few years later in the War of 1812, frequently cited as an immensely pointless and quite costly blunder, Mr. Madison’s War, but which for Wood amounted to the completion of the initial national-constitutional process amidst another set of foundational antinomies.

    • bob, it turned out that Jefferson wasn’t everyone…….. and that everyone did not at all agree that the purchase was forbidden by the Constitution…….

      it seems that neither the Senate, nor the House of Reps, nor even John Marshall and his associates decided that it was.

  4. The Embargo Act, was futile and dangerous, in the short term, although as with the Mexican War, these larger expansions had a medium term negative effect, then again can one imagine the US, except in Gibson’s alt steampunk, the Difference Engine any other way.

    As to the counterfactuals, had their been no significant deBaathification, wouldn’t that have suggested that the struggles of the Kurds and Shia were for not. in addition, how does one deal with the regional powers, the Kingdom, the other Baathist redoubt, and Iran, who were threatened by a democratic Iraq.

  5. As for ZD 30, it is essentially Maya’s detective story, the details from Ammar, who is a composite of Baluchi and Quahtani, is just the first step, she has a touch of Marshal Girard in her intensity,

  6. There’s one scene I didn’t get,when Abu Faraj is out by that mosque in Lahore or someplace, and runs into the burka clad rifle corps, and the deus ex machina of how they get Sayeed’s number is interesting,

    • Will reserve comments on 0D30 until I get around to writing on it. If you want to compose some notes on it, to be worked into a post perhaps, that might be useful, since you seem to know the b.g. details quite well. As for how exactly the burka corps got to Abu Faraj, I think we’re just supposed to assume “it got worked out.” “Deus ex machina” is a good phrase for buying someone off for a major lead with a speed yellow Lamborghini at 2:00 AM.

  7. I think it’s a flashback, since he was captured in Abbotabad, right, he was held by the Pakistanis meaning ISI, interesting who the’Wolf’ is, he seems to the figure profiled by the Washington Post, to head the Counter Terrorism Center

  8. So according to Bergen, he says the Al Kuwaiti’s number was gotten through a third country, so the Kuwaiti businessman might be the right scenario,

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "On the Neo-Imperial Interest"
  1. […] the U.S. and therefore its interests even are or should be. [I was thinking here in part of the "neo-imperialism" and "exceptionalism" questions.] Within Diehl’s familiar framework, for example, an Al Qaeda […]

  2. […] by traditional American political practice from saying, is that Obama seems unwilling to assert an American imperial interest. A coherent argument for this interest, and for related actual divisions between nominally left and […]

  3. […] difficulty provides us with an opportunity to re-consider the notion of a positive neo-imperial interest somewhat more concretely, though my remarks will remain somewhat generalized, since connecting this […]

  4. […] symptoms of a widespread terminological or conceptual allergy, Daniel Drezner tweeted back at my characterization, as above, of his recently articulated thesis […]

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