Is America a Republic or an Empire?
By: Dr. Robert R. Owens
Over the years in this column I have written about the American Empire. I have advocated jettisoning the Empire to save the Republic. This topic has sparked debate and controversy even among the most dedicated readers. Usually the argument runs like this, “America is not an Empire, never has been and never will be,” or “America’s far-flung military deployments are not the garrisoning of an empire it is instead a forward defense of the homeland.”
In my most recent column along these lines, aptly entitled, “Republic or Empire?” in several publications there was spirited debate about whether or not America could be called an empire. Some people seemed to take offense at the very idea. Others who usually agree with my political stands find this and my other foreign policy positions such as bringing our troops home, concentrating on defending America, and equitable trade with all unacceptable. I present and promote these foreign policy positions as requirements for restoring limited government. It is my belief that as long as we are involved in endless war there is no real possibility to re-gain control of our government, our budget, or our future.
What I propose to do in this column is examine the hallmarks of empire and ask my readers to honestly ask themselves, “Is America a republic or an empire?”
First, it makes no difference whether it is the President, the Paramount Chief, an Augustus, the First Citizen, the Dear Leader, the Great Helmsman or der Fuehrer. It doesn’t matter if it is an executive branch, a Politburo, a Central Committee, the Cabinet, or the collective leadership. Whatever form it takes, an empire is always dominated by a highly centralized executive power.
America was designed not to be an empire but instead to be a federal republic made up of a central government and state governments which were the precursors and creators of the central government. This central government founded upon and constrained by a written constitution originally presented the world with something new, a national government made up of divided co-equal powers. The Congress to make the laws, the executive to enforce the laws, and the judicial to judge if the laws conformed to the Constitution: the guiding light and touch-stone of American limited government. This worked well to establish and maintain a republic but it would not foster nor perpetuate an empire.
Thus the Constitution established the framework of what became known as the system of checks and balances. Only congress could make laws, but the President could veto them. Congress could over-ride a president’s veto, but the Supreme Court could declare laws unconstitutional making them null and void. The president is in charge of foreign policy and is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but the Congress controlled the purse and could cut off funding. Upon petition the Supreme Court could declare the actions of the president unconstitutional yet the president could appoint justices to the Supreme Court.
Did this work perfect? No, there were always swings one way or another. There have been powerful Supreme Courts such as under Chief Justices Marshall or Warren that changed the complexion of the country. There have been powerful Congresses such as the one from 1865 to the mid 1870’s that virtually ignored presidents and set policy. There were powerful presidents such as Jackson or Lincoln. However the pendulum always swung back and forth. If you examined all three institutions there was one thing missing. Where was the sovereignty? Who was the nation?
In the highly centralized state, which is an empire whether personal or national, the leader or leadership operates according to the sentiments of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France who said, “I am the State.” During the birth of the American system, our Founders had spent more time debating this than any other aspect of the government, who would be the sovereign power. They had just fought and defeated one tyrant and they did not want to exchange one for another. They didn’t trust the sovereignty of the nation in the hands of an executive because of the long and bloody history of Europeans with absolutism and divine right. They didn’t trust an assembly after their recent history with the tyranny of the British Parliament and their Stamp Act, Quartering Act and other attempts to bring the colonies to their knees. They couldn’t place it in the hands of the Supreme Court for that body would be merely judicial.
Instead they came up with a new idea in the world. They placed the sovereignty of the nation in the hands of We the People.
The Constitution is designed to empower the people not the government. Though today it is stretched and interpreted to give the government the power to do whatever it wants whenever it wants originally it was constructed to limit government.
We the People could vote the Congress in or out, we could choose our own president, and if the Supreme Court said something was unconstitutional that we wanted we could change the Constitution using a mechanism embedded within the document itself. For the first time no leader or oligarchy owned the state, instead the state belonged to the citizens.
What do we see in America today? We have a president who says, “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won’t act, I will.” When Congress after deliberation decides not to pass the Dream Act giving amnesty to millions, the President uses an executive order to make it law by decree. When the Congress refuses to pass a cap-and-trade law that many believe will hamstring our industry and hobble us in the race with other nations, the president orders his EPA department to enforce it anyway. Without consulting Congress the President takes us to war against Libya and deposes a government.
These are the actions of an executive out of control. Under the original American system if anyone would have asked, “Who speaks for the people?” the answer would have been the House of Representatives because they were elected every two years and were thus closest to the people. It wouldn’t have been the Congress as a whole because under the original system the senate was chosen by the various state legislatures and was designed to represent the states. It was the House which spoke for the people. Today it is the President who uses the bully pulpit magnified by a subservient press and a thousand government media pressure points and outlets saying in effect, I have a mandate from the people. I am the embodiment of their will. I am the state.
The next hallmark of an empire we will look at is that domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy. The American President is constitutionally in charge of foreign policy so there is no better place for the holder of that office to act without any restraint. Treaties must be ratified, so our presidents began in the 1940’s to forge personal agreements with the leaders of other countries that had all the force of treaties with none of the messy Senate confirmation required. Using their power as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces modern presidents have also used their authority to start wars as in Kosovo and Libya, to sign cease fires as in Korea, and to commit America to the support of dictators and tyrants through deployments and equipment transfers, all without any Congressional oversight.
If we ask ourselves, has domestic policy really become subordinate to foreign policy think about whose infrastructure are we being taxed to rebuild? In Afghanistan and Iraq our money and our companies are building new schools while ours fall apart, we are building new roads in Afghanistan while we watch our own bridges crumbling. We give billions to countries and governments that despise us. We borrow money to give it away and then sometimes borrow it back all in a bizarre dance balancing foreign interests at the expense of We the People.
Another hallmark of an empire is that the military mindset becomes ascendant to the point that civilians are intimidated. Think about the Defense budget. In 2012 it was over 600 billion dollars. Does anyone believe Congress or anyone else really knows where all that money is going? The size, scope, and unbelievable waste in the defense budget stagger the imagination. However, to even question the defense budget will immediately get someone labeled as an isolationist who wants to gut our defense and surrender to the enemy.
Many people will argue that we are in a war and that during war of course the defense budget will be bloated. Can you remember any time since 1942 that we haven’t been in a war? Yes, there were the brief days of the “Peace Dividend” under Clinton after the Soviet Union dissolved which actually became the rational for increased defense spending. And during those brief days of peace back in the 1990’s we fought a war and enforced a decade long no-fly zone in Iraq, attacked Serbia, sent troops, planes or other assets to Zaire, Sierra Leone, Bosnia (numerous times), Herzegovina, Somalia, Macedonia, Haiti, Liberia, Central African Republic, Albania, Congo and Gabon, Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Afghanistan, and East Timor. And this was our only decade of peace since the 1940’s, and to question any of this is considered tantamount to treason. We must ask ourselves, “Has the military mindset become ascendant to the point that civilians are intimidated?”
Perpetual war for peace has led the peaceful American people to be ensnared in the clutches of the military-industrial complex as president Eisenhower warned it would in 1961.
All empires develop and maintain a system of satellite nations. When we hear of this we immediately think of the old USSR and their slave states in Eastern Europe. Advance the idea that America has satellite nations and people become irate. “How could you say such a thing about America?” Look at our so-called allies. Do they fit the description as satellite nations? A satellite nation is one that the empire deems is necessary for its own defense. It is also one that feels it cannot stand alone and wants the empire’s protection.
That is the deal. The empire commits to protect the satellite and the satellite agrees to stand with its back against the empire facing a common foe. Add to that the fact that we supply money and material to build the national defenses of our satellite/allies as well as economic aid and a preferential trade system. Think about these ideas and decide for yourself whether or not America has satellite nations ringing the heartland of the empire.
Another hallmark of empire is that a psychology or psychosis of pride, presumption, and arrogance overtakes the national consciousness. We are all familiar with the twenty-first century incantation of “Too big to fail.” That was applied by our bailout happy leaders to their pet banks and companies during the opening days of the Great Recession. It is also an apt description for the way in which most Americans view our position as the most powerful nation on earth or as the silver tongued talking heads like to say, the world’s sole superpower. Since the end of World War One the United States has been the unchallenged mega power among the western block of nations. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union we have towered like a colossus over the rest of the world. In the memory of most people now alive it has always been this way.
To most people the way it has been is the way it shall be. We speak of embracing change and of realizing that change is the only constant but few can really think that way. The familiar seduces us into thinking that the momentary circumstances of today are the unshakable foundations of tomorrow. To the children and grandchildren of the greatest generation the world will always gaze in awe at the great American eagle soaring above the world. Our navies rule the waves, our masses of fighters, bombers, and drones can reach out and touch any corner of the globe, our troops are the best trained, best equipped, and best led armies the world has ever seen, so such a mega power could never fall.
So it seemed to the inhabitants of Rome the eternal empire. So it seemed to the British when the sun never set upon the union jack. And so it seems to us. Even though a rag-tag group like Al Qaeda defies our attempts to destroy them and continues to grow and multiply around the world. Even though the Taliban not only have withstood more than a decade of war they stand poised to reclaim their country as soon as we leave. Even though our deficit spending and the national debt it creates is leading us to a financial collapse that our own military leaders have identified as the greatest threat to our security, and our leaders only answer is more spending. This pride, presumption, and arrogance blinds us to the enduring truth of what comes before a fall.
Finally an empire is the prisoner of history. A republic is not required to act upon the world stage. It can pick and choose its own way seeking its own destiny as a commonwealth of citizens. An empire must project its power for fear that if it doesn’t another leviathan will arise to take its place. A free republic that has maintained its independence is able to decide where and when it will become involved. An empire is always the leader of a center heavy coalition comprised of the imperial core and the associated or satellite nations. As such it is the collective security against the barbarian, the other that drives the actions of the empire.
In the parlance of our day it is our turn. It is our turn to be the policeman of the world, our turn to keep the peace, to guard civilization from the unwashed hordes who seek to turn back the clock and bring darkness into the world. We are a vanguard of stability in a world beset by chaos, and so were the British and the Romans before them.
Other writers may say something has been left off these hallmarks while others may say some of these don’t apply. To all I would recommend a study of former empires to see if they agree these properties are found in all of them. Then ask ourselves, “Are these properties present in America today?” Once we have completed this process we will be able to answer the question for ourselves, “Is America an Empire?” If we decide, yes it is, we have to realize that there is a trajectory all empires follow: they rise and they fall.
We might decide that,we as the first empire that is not set-up to plunder wealth but instead to distribute wealth, are different, and therefore we will break the mold. We will stand while others have fallen. One look at our debt should persuade anyone that what we have built is as unsustainable as the British, the Roman, or any other empire we wish to use as a standard.
Do you say, “We can’t be an empire because our president is elected.” So were the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, so were the kings of Poland. It is the empire that empowers our executive. Do you say, “We can’t be an empire because we have a Congress.” So did Athens, Rome, and Britain. Do you say, “We can’t be an empire because we have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, why we even have the freedom to own weapons.” So did Athens, so did Rome, and so did Britain.
While we are yet on the glory side of the fall let us abandon the empire to save our republic. Let us resign from the great game of thrones, rebuild America, secure our own borders instead of those of Korea, or Afghanistan, and reaffirm our dedication to be the last best hope of mankind: a federal republic operating on democratic principles, securing our God given liberties, providing personal freedom, individual liberty, and economic opportunity to all its citizens.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion for Southside Virginia Community College. He is the author of the History of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2011 Robert R. Owens firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens