Jeremi Suri: Is America Really an Empire?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is "Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama."

For more than a century, critics of American foreign policy have lamented that the United States is allegedly losing its republican values and sliding into the abyss of empire. In the 1890s and early 1900s, populists and progressives accused Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt of establishing “colonies” in the Philippines, Cuba and other territories that cost the United States its economic health and its democratic integrity. These political forces allied with conservative groups, who feared the growth of American foreign commitments, to reject the Paris Peace Treaty and oppose American military activities abroad as fascist violence spread through Europe and Asia. During the Cold War, citizens who opposed the Vietnam War and other American interventions condemned the United States for becoming an oppressor in the name of fighting communism. All of these criticisms assumed that corrupt economic and military interests had usurped the democratic will of the nation and led the country to emulate the institutions and behaviors of an empire. David Sirota’s thoughtful article follows this line of argument.

Many of the criticisms of American behavior are valid, but “empire” isn’t the appropriate term. It not only distracts from the real motivations and actions that constitute American foreign policy, it also implies the wrong solution for those frustrated with the nation’s actions abroad. Simply doing less overseas in order to appear “un-imperial” will not alleviate the sources of violence and discontent in our world. Nor will a kinder, gentler United States bring peace to regions we care deeply about, especially the Middle East and East Asia.

From its founding, the United States has been an experiment in building national power without empire. Figures like George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson recognized that democracy could not survive without the ability to grow and defend itself. They sought to create a republic, not an empire, that would grow and prosper while it also remained closely tied to the will of the people, ever more broadly defined over time. This was American nation-building: the creation of powerful, representative and accountable institutions to govern a growing society....

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