Jackson Doughart
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Empires, Interests, and Contradictions

Prince Arthur Herald, 13 March 2014

I have always been sceptical of those who reflexively denounce the overseas actions of the United States as imperialist. Within this charge rests a potential misinterpretation of fact and an anachronism as well. First, it seems almost silly to categorically compare the actions of the United States with those of the European empires that collapsed in the middle of the last century. While the British, for example, were in India for two hundred years, the United States can’t be somewhere for two hundred days before calls will arise for exit strategies, troop reductions, and ultimate withdrawal. Secondly, we must not impose the attitudes and conditions of the past onto today; the world of European colonialism and the worlds of the Cold War and post-Cold War are fundamentally different and should be judged as such.

However, if the United States is to be admonished as an empire, one ought to be clear about how, and at what point, such an empire came to be constituted. Was it during the early years of the Monroe Doctrine, where the U.S. came to view the two American continents as the constituents of its “near abroad”, and thus outside the legitimate purview of European powers? Was it in the American engagement in the Spanish War at the close of the 19th century, which resulted in confrontations over both nearby Cuba and the faraway Philippines? Was it the American entry into the First or the Second World War, or its cold war with the Soviet Union and all of the injection of American power that came as a result? Or was it in the post-Soviet era, where the United States avoided a full retreat from the world stage and continued to exert its power, even absent an imminent existential threat from Moscow? The answer to this question speaks to the threshold of intervention that America may have passed, thus inviting the familiar anti-imperial critique. More importantly, it sets a standard for how other cases should be judged.

With the advent of the Ukrainian-Russian crisis over the Crimean peninsula, these distinctions have migrated from the province of history fanatics to the realm of immediate international circumstance. A principal argument from what one might call the Europeanist side of this issue (as recently articulated in these pages by my colleagues Nick Krawetz and Tom Stringham) centers on the specter of Russian expansionism and, ultimately, imperialism. The fear is stark: we are apparently experiencing the beginnings of a recrudescing Russian empire, embodied in the figure of Mister Putin, starting in Crimea and perhaps eastern Ukraine, but not stopping until all of the former Soviet republics are brought back under the control of Mother Russia.

As such, the supposed imperative of supporting the Ukrainian side is two-fold: on the one hand, we must oppose the Russian presence in Crimea and elsewhere in the country in solidarity with Ukraine’s ambitions for a free-trade relationship to Europe; on the other, Ukraine’s revolutionary and pro-EU government must be supported because it stands athwart the imperial appetites of the Russian Bear. Whether this explanation amounts to circular reasoning or to a self-reinforcing argument is up to the individual to judge; I would be curious, however, to learn whether the Europeanists can offer an identical two-pronged line vis-à-vis Syria (must we intervene both for humanitarian reasons and to challenge the influence of Putin in the region?) and to Iran (should we pursue the foiling of the mullah’s nuclear program for only its own sake, or also because Russia has opposed our sanctions?).

All of this bears heavily on the rhetoric surrounding Russia’s military presence in Ukraine. If we are to pursue the language of anti-imperialism, the history of arguably-imperial actions by the United States invites the charge of hypocrisy. One could simply concede that America is indeed an empire and that its interest in the Ukraine business is an imperial one; but this would rather weaken, if not eliminate, the argument that Russia is acting illegitimately. For if we can pursue imperial interests, why can’t Russia? And even if one resists the charge of American empire, it remains difficult to simultaneously level the accusation at Mister Putin; of all the historical cases rehearsed above, the only one that could possibly bear analogy to contemporary Russia is that of the “near abroad” sphere of influence—a standard which America has long surpassed and, thus, has rather forfeited the right to complain about.

There is also the possibility that the entire affair has little or nothing to do with empires, expansion, and reclaiming “Russian greatness”. The future will be the only way to tell, but while it could be that Crimea is only the beginning of many Russian aggressions, it seems more likely to me that this episode is animated by its own particular circumstances. The Europeanists seem unwilling to consider, and let alone believe, that Putin is intervening in Crimea for reasons of national, and not imperial, interest; namely, Putin opposes the violent overthrow of pro-Russian President Yanukovych (who was elected in a free and fair democratic election) and has intervened to protect the ethnic-Russian majority in Crimea, whose language rights were taken away by the new parliament before his troops had ever moved into Crimea. One can oppose Putin while taking these justifications on their face, but few of the Europeanists seem to do so. They prefer to moralize in a largely amoral conflict, with the duty to restrain evil Russia as their central plank. Of course, anti-imperialism makes for pithy rhetoric, but not when it ends in contradiction.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com