The Empire Strikes Back
In his 1983 study The Conquest of Morocco, Douglas Porch offers a fascinating description of the various stratagems used by General Lyautey and the other French imperialists to convince a skeptical French public to support this adventure, which many regarded as a costly distraction from the need to strengthen France's defenses against the real national threat, Germany. These ranged from religious appeals to convert Morocco through civilizational arguments about the need to create a modern Moroccan state, to suggestions that because Germany also had designs on Morocco, it was necessary to combat Germany there as well as in the fields of Lorraine.
In their efforts to rally democratic support as a defense against socialism at home, the capitalist elites in Europe before 1914 similarly relied much less on imperialism than on nationalism. And in 1914, the impulse that drove the European masses to support the war and to immolate themselves in it was nationalism, universally expressed in the belief that the homeland itself was in imminent danger of attack. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have given the Bush Administration a tremendous opportunity in this regard, one they have exploited to the hilt. For that matter, Bush's election campaign vastly played down his followers' imperial ambitions (remember the call for American "modesty"?) while appealing to "folk values" closely associated with what Walter Russell Mead has dubbed "Jacksonian nationalism," against the alien, European-influenced cultural elitism of Gore and the "East Coast elites."
But nationalism is a notoriously wild horse to let loose. At the time of writing, a critical question hanging over the American empire in the Middle East is whether, for the sake of that empire, Bush will be able to confront an Israeli nationalism that members of his own Administration themselves partly share, and that they have also inflamed and exploited for domestic political ends. If he is not willing to take the domestic political risk of confronting this nationalism (which for many Americans has become deeply entwined with their American nationalism), then his imperial project in the Middle East will become much costlier and more dangerous.
Even Mead, who gives a sympathetic portrait of the Jacksonian nationalist tradition in his splendid new book, also worries about the tendency of its adherents to be carried away by furious emotion, and to switch from contemptuous indifference to the outside world to a spirit of annihilatory ruthlessness if they feel that America has been attacked. As he and others have pointed out, democracies may go to war less willingly than autocracies, but when they do so, they have a tendency to fight with fewer restraints and to aim for total rather than partial victory.
The European nationalist death-ride unleashed in 1914 began by destroying the sons of the old European elites, and by 1945 had destroyed their dominance and in many cases their countries as well. They may have started the war; unlike the coolheaded nineteenth-century imperialists in their overseas campaigns, they were unable to stop it even when it became apparent that its course was disastrous to them and their countries. As Dick Diver puts it in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, "This was a love battle--there was a century of middle-class love spent here.... All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love."
Here lies one clue to the difference between the American imperialism of Clinton and that of Bush, a difference that is real but--like the relationships between nationalism, capitalism and imperialism--is also by no means simple. Clinton packaged American imperialism as globalism, and he was also genuinely motivated by a vision of global order in which America would lead rather than merely dictate. Bush is not just packaging imperialism as American nationalism; he and his followers are genuinely motivated by nationalism, in a way that Clinton was not, and, as nationalists, they are absolutely contemptuous of any global order involving any formal check whatsoever on American action.
Within the United States, empire as such still needs to be wrapped up. The United States has a tradition of hostility to empire going back to its own revolution against the British and its foundation as an independent state. This hostility therefore became one element in what Samuel Huntington and others have called "the American creed," or national ideology. But as American historians of many different political stripes have pointed out, the language of imperial expansion also dates back to the earliest years of the American Republic, and was not restricted to the North American continent. In the decades before the Civil War, the South in particular bubbled with demands for the annexation of Cuba and even Mexico. Although such thinking exploded in the run-up to the Spanish-American War of 1898, it had been percolating for some time.