Jul 23, 2020 in Analysis

Crucible of Empire

The United States was founded upon an anti-imperialist sensibility. The founding fathers of the nation envisaged a nation whose foreign policy was largely tied to the concepts of unilateralism and isolationism. However, as time went by, the U.S. progressively gravitated towards expansionism and adopted an imperialistic-like orientation in its foreign policy. Consequently, the U.S. is increasingly establishing itself as an imperial power, having created an American empire through its interventionist approaches to foreign affairs. It is a role it is still grappling with given the values that informed the foreign policies at the time of formation. This paper interrogates whether or not the U.S. can remain true to its founding ideals rooted in isolationism and still manage to have an empire. To achieve that, the paper will examine the dynamics that informed the debate over the Spanish-American War delineating how the conversations on American imperialism today continue to resonate with those of the past. Analysis indicates that it is virtually impossible for the U.S. to uphold the ideals of anti-imperialism and isolationism and still have an American empire. For, to create an empire the U.S. has to embrace globalization through the advancement of exceptionalism and expansionism.


Isolationism to Imperialism

The United States was founded in opposition to imperialism. The founding fathers of the nation rallied and fought against the imperial British colonizers to secure the freedom of the United States colonies. It is the anti-imperialism sentiment that galvanized the various states to form a union that will make them stronger and better-placed to repel a foreign military incursion from the European colonists. As such, the ideals of the founding fathers were rooted in isolationism. The idea was to create a strong state that does intervene in international matters unless they directly affect the United States or its close allies. The ideals of Jeffersonianism advanced by Thomas Jefferson embodied the isolationist and anti-imperialistic nature of the U.S. foreign policies when the U.S. was in the fledgling phase.

Interrogating the reasons that prompted the Spanish-American War of 1898, it is evident that the U.S. had strayed from the ideals that informed the foreign policies of the earlier leaders. According to the film “Crucible of Empire” directed by Daniel Miller, the United States engaged the Spanish in the war to avenge the loss of USS Maine, the American battleship that was mysteriously blown up in Havana Harbor. The United States blamed Spain for the unfortunate occurrence and the tension that ensued led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. While that is a plausible reason for and explanation to go to war, some historians believe that it was not the core reason behind engaging in the war. It is widely believed that the decision to engage in the Spanish-American War was extensively influenced by the shifting ideals towards imperialism and expansionist designs. President McKinley was keen to have the United States bear the defense responsibilities of the Western hemisphere. The decision was informed by the need to curtail the Spanish influence in the Caribbean, and to an extent, advance those of the United States. The victory guaranteed Cuba partial independence; it was not under the Spanish dominance anymore, but its freedom was nevertheless controlled by the United States.

The decision to invade the Philippines, which was thousands of miles away across the Pacific, demonstrates that the U.S. was not solely prompted by the need to avenge its loss and ascertain its abilities to defend itself from foreign incursions. It ascertained the shift to expansionist perspectives that were rejected by the likes of President Thomas Jefferson and President Andrew Jackson. The invasion and defeat of the Philippines and Spanish in Cuba confirmed the status of the US as an imperial power. It had substantially deviated from its anti-imperialistic stance and was now advancing its interest at the expense of others. In as much as the general American public believed that it was for the best to create an American empire, it did not negate the fact that the U.S. was deviating from the true ideals of the founding fathers.

While it is apparent that imperialism can take various forms, it is also evident that the United States cannot assume its position as an imperial power and still manage to retain an isolationist image. The two approaches contradict one another. While the two can be integrated and merged, it is still difficult to seamlessly maintain a single identity. The Americans leaders at the time who were advancing the imperialistic tendencies, the likes of President McKinley and Roosevelt, conceptualized their exploits as different from those of the European colonists. In their reckoning, the United States embraced imperialism to protect itself and advance liberties while the rest just sought to enhance their selfish influence. However, if one is objective enough, it is evident that there were no substantial differences between the two forms of imperialism advocated for by the U.S. and European superpowers. The difference subsisted only in the covertness of the intentions. The British and other European countries were frank in expressing their interests; their exploits were solely rooted in expansionism. Their intention was to serve self-interest and gain material wealth that will then strengthen their home countries and enhance their status as superpowers in the world.

The U.S. intentions, however, were more subtle since they were masked in the ideals of exceptionalism. It is the belief that the U.S. holds a unique place and role in human history. As such, the U.S. is better placed to offer guidance on matters of worldwide importance through the advancement of desirable philosophies such as democracy and capitalism. While the intentions seem a lot less selfish as compared to those of the European colonists, the move to intervene in other countries and advance some form of interests also constitute imperialism. It is a ‘desirable’ form of imperialism, but imperialism nevertheless. Hence, while the cultures and circumstances of the imperialistic actions provide ample justification, the deviation from the anti-imperialism foreign policies is manifest. The U.S., therefore, cannot possibly strengthen its position as an imperial power yet still manage to remain true to the ideals of the forefathers. Regardless of the intentions and the form of imperialism the intervention will take, it will still conflict the non-interventionist and isolationist perspectives adopted by the founding fathers of the United States.

Contemporary Cases

Since the turn of the 20th century and the end of the Spanish-American War, the foreign policy of the U.S. has largely been one of expansionism and interventionism. The U.S. has, at times, abstained from engaging in matters of international concern, but not for long. In most of the instances, it has been drawn into them, except the World War I. Today, the U.S. has a foreign policy that prompts it to comment on global issues. Despite not having a “classical” Empire, the use of the U.S. power resonates with that of the past. The ideals of Wilsonianism are progressively upheld as the norm. The U.S. continues to assert itself as the model country and make interventions to correct errors and advance liberties.

Wilsonianism as an ideology was advanced by President Woodrow Wilson to counter Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism, which had long informed the U.S. foreign policy. Wilsonianism, a more robust form of Hamiltonianism ideology, underwrites the contemporary U.S. foreign policy as the U.S. increasingly positions itself as the leader of the free world. Wilsonianism advocates for the spread of democracy and capitalism throughout the world. It also vehemently opposes isolationism and non-interventionism.

The last two presidents that the U.S. has had have all embraced expansionism and interventionism. President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 respectively. The decision to invade the two countries was informed by the ideology of American exceptionalism. In fact, President Bush’s exceptionalism was so intricately intertwined with the ideology of manifest destiny that he believed that the U.S. has a mandate from God to rule over the world and provide leadership to the rest of the globe. President Bush believed, quite strongly, that the U.S. was chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a good model to the rest of the world.

Despite being of a different political orientation, President Bush’s successor, President Obama, has also embraced and advanced expansionism and interventionism ideologies. The intervention of the U.S. in the 2011 Libyan Civil War and the consequent ouster of Colonel Gadaffi further attest to the shift in the U.S. from non-interventionist and isolationist policies to interventionist. Furthermore, through helping countries such as South Korea, Ukraine, and other Balkan states, and setting up of military bases in strategic locations around the globe, the U.S. has devised its foreign policies to support expansionism.

In conclusion, it is evident that the U.S. was found upon an anti-imperialist sensibility. However, as time went by, the U.S. increasingly deviated from these ideals established by the starters of the nation. As demonstrated in the film “Crucible of Empire”, the Spanish-American War represents the exact point where the paradigm shift from anti-imperialism to imperialism and interventionism took place. Since then, expansionism and interventionism have been the mainstay of the U.S. foreign policy. It is virtually impossible for the U.S. to maintain a status as an imperial power and have an empire yet still retain the ideals of our founding fathers. Whether the U.S. foreign policy is informed by exceptionalism or expansionism, it will still conflict the isolationist and non-interventionist ideologies that influenced the foreign policies when the United States was formed.


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