The democratic state has seldom been tempted to undertake the burdens of empire without suffering from a discordance between its domestic and its foreign policy. Again and again, Thucydides describes the efforts of the Athenians to reconcile their imperialism abroad with democracy at home.
The deeper peril for democracy seems to lie in the effect of war upon its institutions and on the morality of its people. As Hamilton writes in The Federalist: “The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”
I typed these words this morning from the concluding paragraphs of the introductory essay to the Great Idea of Democracy in volume 2 of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World: The Great Ideas. I was chilled as I typed them, even as they seemed especially fitting material for Remembrance Day.
This problem of reconciling imperialism abroad with democracy at home remains as acute today as it was in the time of Thucydides in the 5th century BC. And, as Mortimer J. Adler says in that same introduction:
The denouement of the Peloponnesian war, and especially of the Syracusan expedition, is the collapse of democracy, not through the loss of empire but as a result of the moral sacrifices involved in trying to maintain or increase it. Tacitus, commenting on the decay of republican institutions with the extension of Rome’s conquests, underlines the same theme. It is still the same theme when the problems of British imperialism appear in Mill’s discussion of how a democracy should govern its colonies or dependencies.
And it’s still the same theme today with the American empire. According to Chalmers Johnson in his excellent Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire:
A decade after the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of American troops are stationed on over 61 base complexes in 19 countries worldwide, using the Department of Defense’s narrowest definition of a “major installation”; if one included every kind of installation that houses representatives of the American military, the number would rise to over 800.
That was in 2000; the numbers will be higher now. So it is an empire of garrisons rather than an overt expansion for Lebensraum, which the United States does not need. And the reason? Overtly, it will no doubt be close to that enunciated by President Jimmy Carter in his State of the Union address in January 1980:
An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
Here you have the rationale: the idea of defense shifts from defense of your country to “defense” of its “vital interests”. And what are those? In Carter’s speech he was talking about oil from the Persian Gulf “region”. But one’s vital interests are wherever one says they are.
The Wikipedia article on the Carter Doctrine includes this interesting point:
In “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power”, author Daniel Yergin notes that the Carter Doctrine “bore striking similarities” to a 1903 British declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Lord Landsdowne warned Russia and Germany that the British would “regard the establishment of a naval base or of a fortified port in the Persian Gulf by any other power as a very grave menace to British interests, and we should certainly resist it with all the means at our disposal.”
(Incidentally, I regard The Prize as one of the best nonfiction books I have ever read.)
In 1903 Britain was the world’s dominant imperial power. Now they’ve been reduced to the status of helpers (“stooges”, I suppose, in Communist-speak) of the dominant imperial power (earning Tony Blair his “poodle” tag), a status shared to some extent by Canada. Our “me too” military actions such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Libya help provide consensual cover for the key actor, and also entitle us to a share of any spoils.
In Blowback and the other two books in his trilogy on the American empire, Johnson warns of the growing degradation of America’s democratic institutions by militarisman observation that apparently places him in a line of similar commentators stretching back to Thucydides.
In another very good book, “Exterminate All the Brutes”, author Sven Lindqvist shows how the tension between the civilized, lawful society at home and the brutality of the imperial frontier warps and damages the perpetrators of empire. The title of his book is taken from Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and represents Kurtz’s final word on his civilizing mission to Africa. You need to be made of stern stuff, as Winston Churchill was, to be able to slaughter darkies by the thousand in Africa and then come home to sip tea with the ladies. Most men, including Kurtz, can’t step back and forth over that line; for them it’s a one-way trip to hella hell of which they are the lords.
Imperialism and human rights don’t mix. It turns out people don’t like being invaded and occupied, don’t like garrisons of foreign soldiers in their cities. They don’t value your interests as much as you do. They resist and thereby invite liquidation. Or sometimes you just make mistakes like blowing up wedding parties. It’s unfortunate, but you have to accept these things when your interests are at stake.
Yes, I was lucubrating on all this while Kimmie and Robin headed off into the rain to attend the Remembrance Day observances at the cenotaph in Victoria Park nearby. I don’t attend Remembrance Day celebrations and I don’t wear a poppy. It’s not because I don’t appreciate Canada’s armed forces, because I do; or that I don’t feel sorrow at the death and suffering that they have endured, because I do. And it’s not because my father and his mother, as Latvian refugees in Germany during World War II, had to dodge Allied bombs and bullets, and barely escaped with their lives, although they did.
No, it’s because “honoring the glorious dead” and “supporting our troops” are some of the most cherished slogans of a militarist regime, and some of its best propaganda tools. It wasn’t my idea to send Canadian troops to Afghanistan to find out why it’s called The Graveyard of Empires, and it never would be my idea. My idea of supporting the troops is bringing them home for good, and letting them stand on guard here. Speaking for myself, I’d feel a whole lot more secure with Canadian forces in Canada rather than assisting in the American imperial project.
One slogan I feel more sympathy with is “lest we forget”. But I’m afraid that the fact that a Chalmers Johnson, 2,500 years later, has to repeat the message first enunciated by his ancient colleague Thucydides, means that we have yet to learn the thing that we shouldn’t forget.