As the world watches aghast at another US and allies’ attempt to engineer a coup in Venezuela, I would like to offer a few insights from Stephen Kinzer’ provocative chapter, “The deep hurt,” (pp. 227-250) in his book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire (2017). This remarkable text carries some hope and lessons for all of us. It tells the story of the great conflict around the turn of 20th century about the role that the US might play in either dominating the world or building a cosmopolitan democracy where all people feel secure that they reside in one country, the earth.
Indeed, Kinzer states:
“Anti-imperialists decisively influenced American history by helping to ensure that the first burst of American annexation would be the last” (p. 228).
Even swash-buckling Teddy Roosevelt was influenced, losing his zest for the idea of conquest. When he charged into the White House he held two views simultaneously, intervene to help other people, without oppressing them. Kinzer thinks that this dichotomy “torments our national psyche” (p. 229). In the early parts of the book Kinzer sets out the anti-imperialist (Mark Twain) and pro-imperialist visions (Henry Cabot Lodge). These speeches are worth gathering round for reflection.
During the following hundred years much of what the anti-imperialists predicted has come to pass. The United States has become an “actively interventionist power. It has projected military or covert power into dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica”(ibid.). George Frisbie Hoar was right, Kinzer points out, when he “warned that intervening in other lands would turn the United States into a ‘vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical force”” (ibid.).
Anti-imperialists also predicted that an “aggressive foreign policy would have pernicious effects at home” (ibid.). Military budgets have soared to heights unimaginable in the days of fervent expansionism in the 1898 war with the Philippines. The armaments industries wield extraordinary clout. The wealth-soaked elites dominate politics. The invasion and overthrowing of distant regimes resides in the hands of a few decision-makers. And militaristic values and rituals saturate American life and expunge peaceful ones.
To be sure, American intervention brought some material blessings (good schools and orderly systems of justice, etc) and rising American power was perceived as “good for everyone simply because it means strengthening the world’s most beneficent nation” (p. 230). The expansionists of 1898 believed that America was “inherently benevolent,” and subject nations would rally around the May pole in celebratory dance. “The opposite happened….Carl Schurz was right when he warned that dominating foreigners would ultimately force Americans to ‘shoot them down because they stand up for their independence’” (p. 231).
Kinzer states that: “In the face of profound new challenges, Americans are once again debating the role of the United States in the world. Should it intervene violently in other countries? This remains what Senator William V. Allen called it in 1899: ‘The greatest question that has ever been presented to the American people’” (p. 231). American culture carries a current of anti-imperialism and commitment to an international legal order. They played a big role in the establishment of the UN and nurturing global governance. They remain the world’s only superpower with enormous capacity to move towards building the cosmopolitan world order. What is evident now in this dark moment of history is that the world as it is, is not the way it has to be.
It is difficult, I think, for the United States with its inordinate military might and present delusionary self-understanding to wrench itself free from wanting to intervene for political and economic reasons. Many in the post-WW I world had placed their bet for a better world on the Presbyterian professor Woodrow Wilson. Famously, Wilson triggered immense hopefulness to the disenfranchised in the colonies of European powers. He preached that they should “choose the sovereignty under which the shall live” (p. 232). In office, American troops were dispatched to intervene in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Russia….Like his predecessors—and successors—Wilson insisted that he was doing it for the good of the target countries. Americans would leave them alone, he promised, as soon as they learned ‘to elect good men’” (ibid.). Today scholars speak of the “shattered peace” of the post-WW I world. Was the desire to begin building, slowly, carefully, a cosmopolitan world order, as Jan Smuts thought, an “impossible dream”?
Kinzer observes that “this most compassionate of presidents not only invaded countries that defied the United States, but studiously ignored appeals from colonized people outside Europe, notably in Egypt, India, Korea, and Indochina. His hypocrisy set the stage for generations of war and upheaval” (ibid.). Margaret MacMillan’s lively and densely detailed book, Paris 1919 (2001), provides the stories for these outcast colonized countries.
Today, the US has intervened one more time. The difference now may well be that there is little pretence that the US is engaging in the bully politics of “might is right.” They don’t care two hoots about what the world thinks. They do not give a damn about the self-determination of all countries and peoples. This invasion is stripped of any moral or legal justification. The US has decided to declare the Speaker of the House, Juan Guaido, president. This is unheard of! And Canada has forsaken the best of its liberal and social democratic traditions of adherence to rule of law to hitch its caboose to the US’s rampaging imperialist train.
There are several lessons that Kinzer draws from American history of intervention that our worth careful reflection.
1) American imperialists (and many Americans) truly believe that they are superior and that the world would become a better place if nations submitted to their leadership. The United States would be better off, Kinzer says, if it became a learning nation and not a teaching one.
2) Early promoters of American intervention were zealous patriots. They proclaimed love of country and loyalty to the flag. Yet they could not imagine that people from non-white countries might feel just as patriotic. Love of country was a mark of civilization. Lesser peoples, therefore, couldn’t grasp it.
3) Americans have been said to be ignorant about the world. They are, says Kinzer, but so are other peoples. The difference is that American leaders, puffed with a sense of mission, acted on ignorance. American leaders see little reason to bother learning about the nations whose affairs they intrude.
4) Violent intervention in other countries always produces unintended consequences. Cuba was turned into a protectorate in 1901. A fine idea? It led ultimately to a bitter anti-American regime. Intervention in the Philippines sparked waves of nationalism across East Asia that contributed to the Communist revolution in China in 1949. Later American interventions also had terrible results planners never anticipated. From Iran and Guatemala to Iraq and Afghanistan, intervention has devastated societies and produced violent anti-American passion.
5) Generations of American foreign policy makers have made decisions on three assumptions: the US is the indispensable nation that must lead the world; this leadership requires toughness; and toughness is best demonstrated by the threat or use of force. Thus: America is inherently righteous; its influence on rest of world always benign.
6) Most American interventions are not soberly conceived, with realistic goals and clear exit strategies. But violent invasions always leave so-called “collateral damage”: families killed, destroyed towns, ruined lives, damaged land.
7) The argument that the United States intervenes to defend “freedom” rarely matches facts on the ground. Many (most?) interventions prop up predatory regimes. The goal is simply to increase American power rather than to liberate the suffering.
8) Foreign intervention has weakened the moral authority that was once the foundation of America’s political identity. Today many people around the world see it as a bully, recklessly invading foreign lands. The current invasion of Venezuela is such an example. The name “United States” is associated with bombing, invasion, occupation, night raids, covert action, torture, kidnapping, and secret prisons. Who wants to be saved by America? John Bolton recently threatened Maduro with prison in Guantanamo if he doesn’t get the hell out of Venezuela.
9) Nations lose their virtue when they repeatedly attack other nations. That loss, as Washington predicted, has cost the United States its felicity. Kinzer says that the US can regain it only by understanding its own national interests more clearly. He thinks it is late for the United States to change its course in the world—but not too late.