Thursday, January 04, 2007

Early American Exceptionalism

The theme of American exceptionalism obviously gets a new burst of life when people start openly talking about an American Empire. Thus the 'liberal internationalist' wing of American imperialism. Thus the neocons. Thus Hitchens. Julian Go tackles the theme head-on in a recent scholarly article, which is worth ripping off. (See The Provinciality of American Empire: ‘Liberal Exceptionalism’ and U.S. Colonial Rule, 1898–1912, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 2007:49(1):74–108.) That the empire is no longer a politely kept secret is established early on:

"The phrase 'American empire' appeared in 1,000 news stories over a single six-month period in 2003. That same year, the Atlantic Monthly observed that it had become 'cliche' to state that the United States possesses an 'empire.' In 2000, Richard Haas of the State Department urged Americans to 're-conceive their global role from one of a traditional nation-state to an imperial power.' Two years later, a senior-level advisor to the U.S. President stated: 'We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.' This proliferation of empire talk would suggest that the denial and displacement by which exceptionalist thought presumably operates may be abating. Even America’s imperial amnesia shows signs of recovery. As admissions of empire have surfaced, so too has new attention to America’s prior imperial experiences. 'Ever since the annexation of Texas and invasion of the Philippines,' declares Niall Ferguson, 'the U.S. has systematically pursued a imperial policy.' Apparently, the United States is no longer an empire that dare not speak its name."

That this goes alongside a set of claims for America as a benign, even meliorative, hegemon that even realists adhere to: "'America’s imperial goals and modus operandi,' claims Ikenberry, 'are much more limited and benign than were those of age-old emperors.' While European empires suppressed liberty, rights, and democracy, America’s empire has been aimed at spreading them. 'American imperialists usually moved much more quickly than their European counterparts to transfer power to democratically elected local rulers—as they are attempting to do in Iraq.'" Or, as Robert Kagan explains in Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, (2003),
"The United States is a behemoth with a conscience... Americans do not argue, even to themselves, that their actions may be justified by raison d'etat... [T]o the extent that Americans believe in power, they believe it must be a means of advancing the principles of a liberal civilisation and a liberal world order." Further, "The US-led Coalition's war against Saddam Hussein can be considered a liberal, humanitarian and entirely reasonable war ... The colonial period is over, and colonialism has, in any case, never represented the main trend in US policy." (Mehdi Mozaffari in Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War, 2005). Max Boot: "Compared with the grasping old imperialism of the past, America's "liberal imperialism" pursues far different, and more ambitious, goals. It aims to instill democracy in lands that have known tyranny, in the hope that doing so will short-circuit terrorism, military aggression, and weapons proliferation." And Adam Michnik: "No, we are not in Iraq as part of the empire; we are there for freedom." (‘Antitotalitarianism As A Vocation: An Interview With Adam Michnik’, Thomas Cushman & Adam Michnik, Dissent, Spring 2003). And so on and on, the ubiquitous verdict on America's imperial ambitions: a liberal empire rooted in specifically American virtues.

Go writes that this doctrine was formed during the early part of the 20th Century when America acquired "the unincorporated territories of Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Samoa". These were distinct from previous territorial expansionism, because: "Unlike previous territories (including even Hawaii), they were declared 'unincorporated' in a series of cases known as the 'insular cases' ruled by the Supreme Court. This meant that the new territories had the possibility for, but not the promise of, eventual statehood in the Union; the U.S. Constitution did not extend to them in whole." "'The Philippines are ours not to exploit,' insisted President McKinley, 'but to civilize, to develop, to civilize, to educate, to train in the science of self-government.' This so-called 'mission' of 'democratic tutelage' is what would distinguish American empire from the 'tyrannical' empires of European powers." Hoover declared at the time that "Our mission was to free people, not to dominate them." There were critics, such as Mark Twain, who insisted that the US did not intend to "free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines", and they had sufficient weight to make anti-imperialism the official position of the Democratic Party, but the ruling class consensus was certainly overwhelmingly pro-imperialist. That being so, to what extent did America's imperial engagements at that time distinguish it from the European empires?

Go notes that the language of Empire at the time was quite widespread, from popular literature to the New York Times. Justice Marshall, who ruled on the legal status of the "insular cases", referred to "American Empire" without a trace of criticism. Woodrow Wilson and Bernard Moses both held that what Moses called "lesser races" were to have "the standards of the West" imposed on them, as a matter of sheer inevitability in a shrinking world. But while Moses condemned the tyrannical nature of Britain's empire, which he claimed resulted from its "monarchical tradition", Wilson saw it as America's role to "moderate" the course of imperialism "in the interests of liberty", and to impart "the habit of law". Elihu Root’s 1899 report as Secretary of War described the doctrinal basis for colonising the Phillipines, in which America's role was to "make the interests of the people over whom we assert sovereignty the first and controlling consideration in all legislation and administration which concerns them, and to give them, to the greatest possible extent, individual freedom, self-government in accordance with their capacity, just and equal laws, and opportunity for education, for profitable industry, and for development in civilization."

Go adds that despite the racism and the many, many atrocities of the occupation, and despite the fact that the interests of American capitalism were deeply implicated in the whole effort, it did at least conform to some of the claims made by apologists (but not for the reasons given by the empire's aplogists, as we will see). He discusses the development of public schools, reprentational institutions, the creation of an indigenous civil service and so on. Asia saw its first national legislature under American occupation. It was a transformative occupation and, according to Go, provides the most favourable exhibit of 'benign' American imperialism. VG Kiernan, in America: The New Imperialism (2005), discusses some of the liberal reactions to the Phillipines in America, which was seen as "more a base for democratic experiment than as a fortified zone".

What's more, it doesn't stand alone. Puerto Rico was also run on the basis of tutelage, with public schools and representative institutions established. So, then, did we have an empire of progress, despite the atrocities and self-interest behind the sanctimonious rhetoric? Well: "Guam and Samoa, however, saw a very different form of rule. In neither colony did authorities endeavor to cast the colonized in metropolitan molds; talk of tutelage was markedly absent. Something of this is evident in the relative lack of public school systems. As late as 1920 there was only one state-funded school in Samoa and, while Guam saw a few more, neither saw the kind of educational program carried out in the Philippines or Puerto Rico." In Guam and Samoa, it was as much as the Americans could do to teach the natives "habits of cleanliness". Both islands were effectively made property of the Navy Department. In Guam, the position of local governors (gobernadorcillos) was bolstered rather than uprooted, and the limited suffrage that had persisted was abolished. In Samoa, the territory was divided into 'ancient' units of rule, and hereditary chiefs answerable to commanders at the naval base were put in charge. The differences, Go argues, are accounted for by two factors, neither with any relationship to peculiar American virtues: one is the need for legitimacy, and the other the need to take account of local conditions. These were not discontinuous with previous empires, as is usually asserted: all empires with perhaps the exception of the Belgians in the Congo have claimed to be representative of the needs of the colonised or occupied.

The first problem the Americans had faced in the Phillipines was opposition from armed revolutionaries, the strength of whose resistance produced concern among American state personnel that the only way to win would be to prove that "our intentions are good". Jacob Schurman, head of the first Philippine Commission, argued that "magnanimity" was America's "safest, cheapest and best policy with the Filipinos". To put it another way, to stop the revolutionaries from creating their own independent, national political structures, the yanks killed a few tens of thousands of them, terrorised the population and then pacified them with political reforms. Indeed, as Go doesn't mention, most of the seats in the new national legislature went to the nationalists who demanded immediate independence in their electoral appeals (they did not, of course, get that, but the 1916 Jones Act in which it was officially promised that the Philippines could be independent as soon as a "stable government" was available, can be seen as one of many attempts to attenuate the nationalist sentiment). In Guam and Samoa, where there was no revolutionary insurgency, the concern was more to conserve and conciliate, maintaining rule by winning "confidence, respect and affection" (or "hearts and minds" as they like to say in the current pseudo-technical shorthand). Further, unlike the other three instances, Samoa had no experience of direct European rule and had therefore not been forcibly inserted into the global capitalist economy. It was important as a fortified military outpost, not as a site for direct extraction. "Compared with Guam and Samoa, both Puerto Rico and the Philippines had been more deeply penetrated by export production for the world market long before American occupation. Land in Puerto Rico had been increasingly taken over by coffee and sugar production in the nineteenth century; in the Philippines land had been increasingly devoted to a wide variety of export crops at the same time." And since the Americans were convinced that their control over the island relied upon them not disturbing the traditional conditions of social life, they instead modified the existing structures in their interests. Pressed by Christian missionaries to promote public education, they replied that this would only make the otherwise contented and docile natives increasingly discontented.

The penetration of capitalist production and international markets into the Philippines and Puerto Rico created European-oriented landowning and merchant elites, whose progeny were often educated in European institutions. Their resistance to colonialism was framed in political discourses acquired in Europe. The United States, aside from spending hundreds of millions conquering these territories, spent a lot of time acquiring the knowledge that would enable them to rule all the more effectively. In the Philippines, the Schurman Committee held hearings, conducted interviews, studied revolutionary documents, collected information on field commanders etc. Further, in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, they had acquired information on the disaffection of substantial parts of the population from the Spanish, their demand for political reforms from Madrid. Investigations in Puerto Rico consulted with the political elite and national ruling classes. On the basis of this, not a special and unique historical destiny or set of commitments deriving from domestic insititutions, they devised their colonial policy.

Examples beyond the remit of Go's study are worth looking at. Take Haiti and Iraq: two instance of a mixed approach, in which the buttressing of feudal structures were made to coexist with modernising practises. In Iraq, of course, the British sponsored a diffuse network of tribal rulers, who together had more power than the central government, while at the same time creating the basis of a liberal state according to commitments forced on them by a combination of rising Arab nationalism and the rising power of the US (which sought to opportunistically support anti-colonial movements where European powers were affected). In Haiti, the Americans built schools, roads and hospitals, but at the same time enforced a feudal form of slave labour (which is to say that Haitians built the schools and roads and hospitals under American rule). It goes without saying that both occupations were marked by callous atrocities on the part of the colonists. But the modes of rule were carefully calibrated and constantly revised to take account of a) the specific interests of the colonisers in the territory; b) the conditions inhering in the territory; c) the need for legitimacy. Of course, when American troops landed in Haiti, as Kiernan points out, there was no shortage of liberal commentary claiming that the US was present "primarily for benevolent reasons".

Today, we have a new lexicon, with "failed" as well as "rogue" states requiring "humanitarian intervention" and "democracy promotion". We have an increasing incidence of direct occupation, mostly under the rubric of the United Nations or Nato. These occupations are also seen as short-term, tending toward independence, but they are now cast in the therapeutic terms of nation-building, state-building and institutional enhancement. The only thing that is exceptional about it is the extraordinarily ambitious scope of the empire, its desire not to rule over any territories for long periods of time, but to intervene repeatedly. Niall Ferguson tells the story in Colossus of the US Ambassador to London's conversation with foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey in 1913, in which he explained that America would not recognise a government in Mexico led by General Huerta, and that if the Mexicans would not "vote and live by their decisions", the United States would be around for 200 years and could "continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves". Well, you decide for yourself whether the US was more interested in 1,200 million dollars of investment and a huge stake of residential planters, traders and engineers, as well as the interests of Standard Oil, or whether it cared that the "great shambling Indian Republic", as it was contemptuously called, had the right vote for its leaders - Ferguson, ever the apologist, doesn't mention any material interests. But the principle that the US will continue to intervene over and over until people start doing as they are told is neither exceptional nor history. It is the organising principle of the empire of capital.