The Irony of Manifest Destiny

The Irony of Manifest DestinyIn The Irony of Manifest Destiny, William Pfaff argues for a return to realpolitik—basing our foreign policy on our own interests rather than an ideology of “improving” the rest of the world. I am torn on this question, as I dare say most people are. On one hand, I really do hate the massive amount of injustice that I see throughout the world. I hate the explicit sexism throughout the world. And left to their own devices, it seems the one thing you can count on humans to do is to go to war with each other. On the other hand, I know that such an endeavor is hopeless.

Even more than this, there is an assumption at the base of our ideological foreign policy that I always argue against: the end of history. Underlying conservative thinking is always that wherever we are is basically the destination of our historical journey. This kind of thinking indicates that we may be rough around the edges, but otherwise we are perfect. And it is only people who think they are pretty much perfect who can rightly tell everyone else how to live. I don’t like people like that. Nations like that are a good deal worse.

But I can go back and forth on this issue. For example, the ideological imperialism of the Romans and of Napoleon Bonaparte had good and long lasting consequences. Just the same, I cannot bring to mind any American imperialism with similarly good consequences, unless we count the Marshall Plan. But we shouldn’t count it. The question is not whether Americans have fundamentally decent instincts; it is whether we can improve the world by force.

Pfaff makes the case against “helpful” imperialism in a couple of paragraphs toward the end of the book:

A policy of nonintervention would rely heavily on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, with particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems among nations are recurrent or have important recurring elements in them. Current crises concerning Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine-Israel all have origins in the Eurpoean imperial systems, and their dismantlement in the aftermath of the twentieth century’s totalitarian wars. They are the legacy or in a sense the residue of the history of the last century, and their resolution must be sought in terms of that experience, a fact generally ignored in American political and press references to history—which, despite the frequent polemical citation of historical “lessons,” is usually poorly know…

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solutions by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia and no Khmer Rouge genocide. Laos and its tribal peoples would have been spared their ordeal.

I find these arguments very compelling. The only counter argument to them is to point our atrocities where everyone wants to help: Darfur and Rwanda, for example. Pfaff counters that there is nothing in his prescription that stops international efforts at policing and so forth. However, he notes that even still, much care must be taken to assure that more good than bad is done.

If you are at all interested in foreign policy and especially the abuses of the Bush Jr years, I highly recommend reading The Irony of Manifest Destiny. It will make you think, even if it doesn’t provide final answers.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

6 thoughts on “The Irony of Manifest Destiny

  1. The primary virtue of "realpoltik" is exactly what the term suggests — that if America is going to use its massive military strength for selfish purposes, the policy decisions should be based on logical choices rather than wishful-thinking ideology (they’ll welcome us with open arms.)

    It’s really quite pointless to spend gazillions on intelligence services if we ignore their reports and fire/retire the people who make politically inconvenient analysis. Under no circumstances should anyone, ever, try to conquer Afghanistan. Whether or not the people running the country are assholes, ruling it is impossible, as even the slightest familiarity with history can demonstrate. Other means of driving the assholes from power may or may not work, but occupation never has and never will.

    That’s just one example; there are many more. Fundamentally I do not agree with Pfaff, as no-one who is repulsed by war (and "realpolitik") would. Yet, like Chalmers Johnson, he’s an informed expert — a real one — who calls idiocy by its name when he sees it.

    No-one but American foreign policy makers believes in the idea of using military force to remake the world (and I believe Pfaff does a good job of presenting that lunacy as part of our historical legacy.) All over the world, however, economists/bankers/politicians believe in remaking the world through fiscal deregulation. It’s almost as though most older colonial nations have learned the follies of imposing servitude via warfare, yet aren’t quite convinced that the same goals can’t be achieved with financial instruments.

    To me it seems like the same pattern; you get what you want at the start, then it all blows up in your face. Perhaps because fiscal shenanigans reward specific crooked individuals and the fallout is felt by others, this method of conquest is not as debunked.

  2. @JMF – Well put. I think that most of American imperialism has been hidden from the American public. Most people don’t understand just how big our empire is. Of course, as during the Bush administration: you can get Americans to go along with anything. So if you sold it as necessary for the country to be the shining city on the hill, they would go along with it. Just like they did torture.

  3. I think his point is fundamentally sound; no Great Power, and certainly the United States is not sui generis as a Great Power, can really hope to successfully “solve” regional or internal problems in places that the Power is not familiar with.

    The only hope of this – and this is where the Roman example you pick comes in – is if the Power is willing to use force combined with economic, political, and social “forces” ruthlessly over a very, very long time. In the short term it STILL sucks for both the locals and the imperials. The only real “hope” is that the effects are beneficial in the long term, and I’d argue that there’s no real way of assessing that from the jump, so the Power doesn’t know whether sinking all this blood and treasure into some place will eventually pay off, either for the Power, the colonized, or both.

    But this, in turn, is what indeed makes the United States sui generis among history’s Great Powers as completely unsuitable for this sort of Roman making-a-desert-and-calling-it-peace imperialism; our short-term, partisan-selfish political system. For good or ill, the U.S. simply doesn’t have the political ability to do Roman imperialism. That’s a big reason why our imperial adventures (The Philippines, Cuba, Iraq, several countries in Latin America…) have uniformly turned out so poorly.

    The “real” U.S. imperialism is, as JMF points out, a sort of soft economic imperialism. Not “soft” in the sense of gentle or kind – ask the residents of Bhopal about that – but in the “not hard military power” sense.

    • Long term is so impossible to see, isn’t it? Ten years ago I would have said our Marshall Plan was a huge success. Now, I’m not sure.

      If I had a time machine, a knowledge of ancient Latin, and a press pass, I’d love to know what those Roman rulers thought. (They were big on issuing press passes, right? Maybe?) Did they so confidently engage in empire/nation building for strictly mercenary reasons, or were they convinced they were doing the will of the gods? I’m reasonably sure our Gulf War I was purely mercenary, while Gulf War II was waged in absolute true feasance to the administration’s sacred Lord — named Marr-Khet.

      (His wrath is terrible and His judgement swift. Yea, lo, He rules the beasts of the fields and birds of the air, and whatever that shit is under the water, fuck it, dump fertilizer and plastic bags there. Yet He is a merciful God, and doth reward His followers. Great blessings will He bestow unto thee, including corporate board memberships and offshore account lawyers.)

      • Rome expanded largely because it found quickly that there was gold in them thar barbarians. Slaves, particularly, became a massive source of wealth. Of course…the slave economy ALSO just happened to destroy the foundation of Roman republicanism (the smallholders that formed the bulk of the legions) by making small farming untenable. The smallholders were pushed off their lands by the huge latifunda largely worked by slaves and forced into the cities to join the capti censi, the “headcount” plebs whose votes were taken in job lots because they had no property qualifications. These headcount Romans became the professional soldiers that took over the legions during the Civil Wars and became tied to their generals for the donatives those commanders could provide them, thus laying the foundation of military treason and Caesarism.

        The Romans had little or no use for religious fervor. Religion was a personal thing in private and a state function in public; any Roman with a hope for position on the cursus honorum, the official road to civic position, was expected to pay the proper formal respect to the public gods. Other than that an actual passion for religion was considered a trifle louche. No Roman ever conquered for Jupiter. It was personal glory and private as well as public wealth.

        • Destroying the middle class to serve the cause of expanding greed (if I’m reading your description correctly)? That’s so ancient times! Thank goodness it could never happen today!

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