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How empire is destroying the American republic

Our leaders and elites have eschewed constitutional restraint and balance of power in favor of an imperial culture.

Analysis | North America

Many American hawks fail to grasp one of the most axiomatic rules of history: when a republic becomes an empire, it is no longer a republic.

For all their concern about spreading democracy abroad, many hawks show a decidedly noticeable failure to recognize that imperial adventures weaken republican government at home. The devolution from republic to empire has a number of causes, some practical and some cultural, with most on display in our current politics. 

On a practical level, the massive national security commitment necessary to maintain an empire tends to overwhelm the republican safeguards against unnecessary wars. In recent decades, for example, the national security state has gone to war in numerous countries — Libya and Syria are only two examples — on the basis of an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that was enacted by Congress to sanction attacks on the perpetrators of 9/11.

The use of that AUMF to justify wars unrelated to 9/11 made these wars blatantly unconstitutional. Yet it is apparent that most of Congress is now a mere appendage of the national security state and no longer protects its constitutional prerogative to sanction war as this would require difficult votes as well as jeopardize the largesse bestowed by defense contractors. Madison’s famous argument in Federalist #51 that, in a republic with separated powers, one branch of government would “resist encroachments of the others” becomes obviated in an empire. Empires tend to ignore republican rules. 

The other practical difficulty of maintaining a republic when it aspires to empire is that the technologies created to fight wars abroad end up undermining republican government at home. In imperial Rome, the legions themselves became a threat to domestic order; in the present U.S. the domestic attacks are more subtle. 

Numerous media reports indicate, for example, that an anti-Trump PAC, Defeat Disinfo, is employing retired Army General Stanley McCrystal to deploy a Defense Department-developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool to counter candidate Trump’s social media posts and to create “counter-narratives” using a network of “paid influencers.” The AI technology was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to counter the propaganda of terrorist groups overseas. The culture of our present officer corps seems a long way from that of General George Marshall who once remarked to Eisenhower, “I may make a thousand mistakes in this war, but none will be the result of political meddling!”

McCrystal’s deployment of anti-terrorism technology to manipulate domestic political opinion during an election is surely incompatible with republican values. One would have thought that the McCrystal revelation would have generated more controversy as it comes on the heels of the astonishing abuse of another anti-terrorism tool, NSA surveillance, by FBI agents who submitted phony warrants to the FISA court in order to frame Trump campaign operatives. 

As observers from both parties have noticed, military technology and tactics have bled into domestic policing with local police departments deploying armored vehicles and drones. One need not be a Trump partisan, nor a rabid libertarian, to conclude that the technologies developed to maintain the American empire are now being used to undermine our republican traditions. 

Tufts law professor Michael Glennon has concluded that the national security state has in fact grown so large that the “Madisonian” branches of government — the presidency, Congress and the courts — are no longer in charge of national security policy. Glennon asserts that we now have a “double government” in which policy decisions are made by “a largely concealed managerial directorate, consisting of the several hundred leaders of the military, law enforcement, and the intelligence departments and agencies of our government” who “operate at an increasing remove from constitutional limits and restraints, moving the nation slowly toward autocracy.” Despite his clear desire to do so, Trump’s inability to extricate us from Afghanistan is confirmation that the Madisonian branches of government no longer determine policy.

The rise of a double government was captured perfectly in a Tweet by Michael McFaul, an Obama national security official, who commented that, “Trump has lost the Intelligence Community. He has lost the State Department. He has lost the military. How can he continue to serve as our Commander in Chief?” To those with an imperial outlook, the President serves at the pleasure of those who run the empire, not the voters. To Michael McFaul, the unelected members of the foreign policy establishment determine the legitimacy of elected leaders. 

While legal breakdowns and the technologies of American empire are overwhelming our republican traditions, the much deeper problem is that American leaders have eschewed a constitutional culture and adopted an imperial culture. 

Republican institutions cannot operate unless its leaders embody a certain temperament or “constitutional personality.” They must demonstrate measured and restrained habits even with political opponents. They will seek common ground and compromise. They would, in Hamilton’s words, “withstand the temporary delusion” of popular pressures and engage in “more cool and sedate reflection.”  

In foreign policy, this constitutional temperament would, in Washington’s words, “observe good faith and justice toward all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all” and “nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded.”  In other words, republics have leaders of a certain quality and type, leaders who demonstrate restraint not only in domestic politics but on the world stage. 

Contrast this constitutional temperament with our current crop of leaders. In domestic politics, we have fierce, vituperative and irrational partisanship. There is no spirit of compromise and no willingness to show good faith with political opponents. Our politics, as Hobbes said of the state of nature, exhibit “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” In foreign policy, the imperial personality shows itself in “maximum pressure” campaigns, an “inveterate” antipathy toward Russia, and chest-thumping assertions of American exceptionalism. The constitutional personality exhibits a certain humility; the imperial personality exhibits none. 

Removing the practical dangers of empire would be hard, but not impossible. Restoring congressional authority in matters of war and peace and banning the domestic use of military and intelligence technologies are both achievable goals for those wishing to restore republican values. However, the imperial culture of our national security elites flows out of a will to power that is, at root, a character flaw. Changing laws is easy compared with improving character. 

Shutterstock/Benny Marty
Analysis | North America
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