The American Way of Empire: How America Won A World—But Lost Her Way; by James Kurth; Washington Books; 464 pp., $30.00
“The most important feature of an empire,” James Kurth explains in his brilliant new book:
"…is how it seeks to order not just its own territories but an entire world, to set the standard for the way of life and for the spirit of an age. This is exemplified in the empire’s particular vision of politics, economics, culture, and ultimately of such fundamentals as human nature and the meaning of life itself. These compose its imperial idea."
In The American Way of Empire, Kurth argues the imperial idea of the Habsburg Empire emerged from the Roman Catholic faith. In contrast, Protestant Christianity imbued British imperial projects with meaning and purpose. The French, meanwhile, ordered their empire around Enlightenment principles, such as reason. As for the Nazis, their vision combined the power of the German state with racial ideology. And the Soviets promoted an economic development model rooted in Marxism.
These empires likewise each promoted an ideal human type—the men and women who sought to bring order to the world. For the Habsburgs, the imperial servant strove to be a saint. In Britain, the virtues of loyalty, honesty, integrity, common sense, and good judgment were associated with the imperial soldier and the civil administrator. The French adored the man of action in the service of reason, while the Nazis and Soviets found their ideal types in the SS officer and the new “Soviet man,” respectively.
As for the American Empire, which is the central focus of Kurth’s analytical tour d’horizon, three elements have been central to the nation’s imperial idea: peace based on military protectorates; prosperity derived from economic reconstruction; and the ubiquity of its popular culture. In America, Kurth writes, the ideal human type was once found in the middle-aged men who designed the American empire and ordered the world in the ’40s and ’50s.
In contrast with other scholars who situate the beginnings of the American Empire either in the 19th century ideal of Manifest Destiny or in the Spanish-American War, Kurth asserts that the American Empire began on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay at the end of World War II. He does not dismiss these earlier “cycles of American foreign policy,” he merely suggests instead that they provide strategic lessons, which, when ignored, create great tumult for the United States.
No American grand strategy, for instance, can be sustained in the absence of unity. Hence, the territorial consolidation of the West could not be fully realized until America’s sectional conflict had been resolved. American grand strategy must also respect cultural differences as well as the presence of other great powers in the world. The Caribbean was culturally distinct from the United States, and Canada an extension of the British Empire. As a result, the United States showed restraint vis-à-vis its northern neighbor and constructed a sphere of influence in the Caribbean basin.
With the end of World War II, the country entered a new cycle of foreign policy, one in which it conceived of its interests globally. Again, the consolidation of new spheres of influence without complete annexation proved the most reasonable path to world order. Consequently, Western Europe and Northeast Asia became military protectorates in order to guard against Soviet expansionism and Mao’s China. To legitimize this new American Empire, Washington reconstructed the economies of these protectorates while also opening them up to American popular culture.
As Kurth tells it, the individual men who were “Present at the Creation” of this extraordinary and unprecedented imperial structure were emblematic of the American empire’s ideal types. Each was a truly wise man, most especially George Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and three successive presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower.
While many scholars conceive of empire in strict territorial terms, these men imagined a new American way of empire, even though they may never have used such an expression. This empire was not based purely on territory, nor was it exercised through a colonial system. Instead it relied on indirect rule, the use of alliances, spheres of influence, and international organizations to both maintain world order and spread economic prosperity.
But these ends served more lofty objectives as well. “The grand project of the American empire,” Kurth writes, “was to redefine, or even reinvent, the traditional American national interest, which preserved American values, into a new American-led global order, which promoted universal values.” With the end of the Cold War, it seemed this new world order was at hand, but the gap between a global ideology and the resistance of local realities has called the project’s aims into question.
In his book, Kurth takes direct aim at the “selfish elites” who have bungled the United States’ position in global politics, writing “they do not even think of themselves as American.” Since the 1950s, the “ideal human type of the American empire” has “become the popular entertainer or sports star.” The requisite qualities for this ideal type are “inherent talent, self-centeredness, energy, and aggressiveness.” None of these qualities, he asserts, are associated with maturity. Like the ideal types in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, they are the traits of the young, and in the case of the United States, the adolescent.
The emergence of this ideal type stems from the contradiction at the center of the American imperial ideal that our peace and prosperity produce a self-centeredness in our people, thereby undermining the entire edifice. Pax Americana “is becoming an empire of adolescents, by adolescents, and for adolescents.” But in the end, Kurth concludes, “an adolescent empire will be no empire at all.”
Kurth’s provocative and passionate prose, accompanied by his brilliant analysis, make for lively reading. Indeed, his discussion of the American imperial idea constitutes but one of the book’s many originalities. Divided into four sections, each following distinct thematic trajectories, The American Way of Empire investigates the rise and apparent decline of the American Empire from 1776 to the present. Eccentric, but replete with wisdom, the book draws on several fields: history, comparative politics, international relations, and political economy among others. Sometimes Kurth’s prognoses and conclusions alarm, but he also suggests possible methods for the nation to extract itself from its present quagmire.
In the book’s first section, devoted to ideology, Kurth contends that scholars have until recently ignored Protestantism in their assessments of American foreign policy. In what he calls a “deformation” of the Protestant faith, Kurth explains how the original Protestantism in the United States slowly passed through distinct phases and morphed into something distinct from its earlier iterations. This development, in Kurth’s view, has undermined American sovereignty.
In a second section on strategy, Kurth explains why the United States has not been able to develop a coherent grand strategy for the present global era. He places the blame for this failure on postmodernism, multiculturalism, globalization, and economic policies benefitting elites at the expense of everyone else. These trends have eliminated the most basic prerequisite for any grand strategy: unity. Imperial overextension and violations of other great powers’ spheres of influence have also aggravated the situation. Worse, the United States promotes global transformations that impede the nation’s capacity to provide global order, one of the mainstays of the empire’s legitimacy.
The third section of Kurth’s book, entitled “Insurgency,” investigates major challenges to U.S. imperial projects in the early part of the new millennium. While Kurth blames the globalist ideology and American imperialism for the rise of Islamic terrorism, he exhibits special scorn for neoconservatives, notably their inability to see the disaccord between local realities in Iraq and their dreamy-eyed visions for the country. He also writes ominously of Western immigration policies, stating that the mass migration of Muslims into Western societies “pose[s] serious problems for domestic security” in America and Europe.
Kurth’s concluding section, possibly the most outstanding of the entire work, examines the economic elites who shape American foreign policy. Here he argues that plutocracies have the ability to generate the resources and wealth necessary for a nation to become a great power. However, when they are based primarily on high finance and a multinational industrial class hell-bent on exploiting cheap foreign labor, they tend to offshore production.
Such results have not been good for the United States. Because of the resulting economic growth in other countries, poor investment decisions at home, and the internal strife between economic elites and the people who suffer on account of globalization, the United States’ relative power in the world has declined.
The American Way of Empire is an entirely original and interpretive exploration of the American imperial project from its origins in the 19th century up to the present. But the book is not without weaknesses. Because it is a series of updated articles originally published over the course of the last 30 years, the contents of the individual chapters sometimes overlap, and occasionally they do not fall perfectly into the book’s design. This shortcoming, however, has its advantages. The chapters possess stand-alone arguments that can be read individually. Moreover, all of them are highly rewarding for anyone willing to read closely.
Charles W. Sharpe Jr. is a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.
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Kirkus Reviews (11/29/2019):
A remarkably comprehensive account of the history of American foreign policy, coupled with unflinching predictions of its future.
Kurth (Political Science Emeritus /Swarthmore Coll.; Family and Civilization, 2008, etc.) notes that the general consensus in the international community is that “we are now nearing a major inflection point in world history”—one marked by the nearly certain end of the “American Empire” and the diminishment of its global influence. The height of the United States’ power, he says, will be from 1945 to 2020—the “American Century”—within which the nation managed to rebuild Europe after its victory in World War II and successfully defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War. With dizzying scholarly breadth, the author traces the development of America’s foreign policy from its inception, marking the birth of its imperial stature in the late 19th century—specifically, the Spanish-American War and aggressive expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean. Kurth explores the nation’s cultural and ideological traditions in his search for the nation’s identity—one that abides, despite oscillations in ideology between liberalism, conservatism, and socialism—and argues that Protestantism, as practiced by Americans, shows moral deterioration, due to “successive departures” from its original version. One could reasonably criticize the book for attempting to traverse too broad an intellectual landscape. Still, this is a compellingly astute study, and a brilliant indictment of the “extraordinary ambition, pride, greed, and fantasies” that left American influence “in ruins.” Over the course of this book, Kurth’s analysis is astonishingly exhaustive; he impressively covers the failings of the Iraq War, as well as the dangers of plutocracy, and he presents a conclusion that’s neither fatalistically grim nor cheerily hopeful: The United States will surely lose its worldwide dominance, he asserts, but not necessarily its prominence, and it will continue to persuasively offer the “most attractive…of the ways of life.” In order to do this, he says, it needs to maintain its technological superiority and recapture its economic strength.
A stunningly original work that provocatively explores the heights and depths of America’s global stature.
BookLife Review (11/23/19):
In this impressive and accessible work of scholarship, Kurth, professor emeritus of political science at Swarthmore, collects enlightening essays arguing that historic empire-building decisions—both successful and disastrous—shaped American foreign policy from the Revolutionary War to the present day. A theoretical overview of imperialist structures prepares the reader for analysis demonstrating how Protestant religious belief created an “American creed.” Kurth then explicates past military strategies and geopolitical events, examines how current strategies may enhance or impede the U.S.’s ability to accomplish its foreign policy goals, and thoughtfully extrapolates into the future. He makes connections that even dedicated readers of history will find both illuminating and applicable to current events.
The meticulously organized text and periodic references to previous talking points help the reader follow Kurth’s lines of reasoning. Readers new to the academic study of world events can easily parse Kurth’s ideas with the help of his strongly articulated theoretical framework. Kurth writes that the year 2001 ushered in “a long and trying period of descent and disintegration” from the peak of the triumph of the U.S. and its allies over Soviet Russia, and now sees that alliance system fracturing, heading toward “impending breakdown” both within the individual countries and in their alliances. The questions he then explores are what will replace this geopolitical system, and how the declining powers of the “Free World” will influence their successors. His essays provide an exceptional grounding in the whys and wherefores of American actions in relation to major powers such as Russia and China.
General readers will find some aspects difficult. Because the chapters were originally separate articles, primary concepts such as “the American way of war” are revisited in detail, which is an advantage for someone dipping into the book on different occasions but could prove irksome for some reading it straight through. The absence of maps is a challenge to readers interested in historical changes in boundary lines and areas of hegemonic influence. While not strictly necessary, such maps would be a bonus, particularly for a wider audience. Considered in terms of its arguments, however, this book has few flaws, and it would be a splendid gift for anyone seeking an in-depth look at the causes of current world tensions.
Takeaway: This deep dive into American imperial urges and their consequences will enlighten anyone interested in historical or present-day geopolitics.
Great for fans of Andrew Bacevich, Alfred McCoy.
"When it comes to deciphering the mysteries of American statecraft, no one can hold a candle to James Kurth. The American Way of Empire is, therefore, cause for gratitude and great rejoicing."
—Andrew J. Bacevich, author of The Age of Illusions
James Kurth is Claude C. Smith Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Swarthmore College. A Stanford graduate who received his doctorate under Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington, he has published over 120 articles and edited Orbis: A Journal of International Relations, as well as two books. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. A decorated Navy veteran, he taught strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, was advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group, and has been awarded the Department of the Navy Medal for Meritorious Civilian Service. A world-traveler who has visited more than 50 countries, he serves as an elder at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
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