Why the quest for US superiority is baked into the soul of American politics
Current American foreign policy under the Trump administration has frequently been characterised as new or radical, with criticism often focussing on the assertiveness of American dominance in the world. This concern is based in a fundamental misunderstanding of how US politicians have operated in the past and viewed the country relative to other nations. Imperialism and the quest for US superiority are baked into the soul of American politics and are constant threads that run throughout the nation’s historical narrative. The current posture is not so much a new approach to the world as it is a return to fundamentals. Current US postures and political rhetoric can been seen as echoes of previous eras of US expansion and imperial tendencies. Recognising this will help in understanding the current approach.
The history of US imperialism can largely be divided into four eras. The first was the quest to secure the North American continent. Partly a cause of, and partly born from, the American Revolution, this dream informed much of early American expansion and has current echoes in the rhetoric on borders and security. The second era was the beginning of US confidence and assertiveness in its regional sphere – the Americas more broadly. This was a period where American expansionism came into direct conflict with American racism – both official racist policies and unofficial political attitudes. It is largely characterised by an America that was at once both reclusive and meddling and it casts its long shadow over the current American obsession with keeping out illegal immigrants and dominating regional trade partners. The third era was when the United States fully embraced European-style imperialism and sought to dominate other lands both militarily and politically, waging wars of conquest and repression against native populations overseas and exerting military strength against other nations. This period has very clear parallels in how the US is approaching other nations, both traditional allies and rivals, in an attempt to extract specific concessions. The fourth, and final, era of American imperialism is the softer version experienced by the world after the Second World War. This period was characterised by the United States largely content with cultural and military dominance employed in order to promote states that mirrored its perceived values – effectively democratic and free-market-friendly. Importantly, the seeming failure of this approach to garner material benefits for the United States is what has sparked the current turn in the American approach to the world
Empire of Liberty: Nascent American Imperialism
The United States was born in war against an extra-continental power caused in part by that power’s resistance to American efforts to expand westward into the Ohio valley. These facts inform much of how the early US approached its imperial project and the tendrils of these circumstances reach forward into Americans’ views of their place in the world and on the continent. During the American Revolution, politicians dreamed of ‘liberating’ all of North America and subsuming all the peoples of the continent into an ‘Empire of Liberty’. The first tentative steps in this direction were the occupation of the Ohio valley – an activity that significantly contributed to the Revolution itself and wasn’t fully realised until after the US became independent and was free to pursue its own objectives and goals.
After the end of the Revolution, American expansion across the continent began in earnest with the occupation and settling of the Ohio valley. Not content with one river basin, the US government purchased the Mississippi territory in 1803, bringing the entirety of the Mississippi watershed under American control. These massive land acquisitions were in part related to issues of security. The politicians of the newly minted American state were obsessed with threats from other powers and the need to maintain security and provide a buffer for the densely populated and economically important eastern states. This preoccupation led directly to the settlement of land to the west in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and would subsequently create a political imperative to incorporate the territories to the north and south into the United States.
A need to secure the northern border manifested as an effort to conquer the remaining British territory of what is now Canada. This objective was a direct attempt to achieve control of the entire continent and remove the last vestige of British territory from North America. The failure of the United States to conquer Canada in the War of 1812 necessitated a rethink of how to secure the borders of the territorial United States since transcontinental domination was no longer possible. In the years following, the obsession with the borders, both north and south, led to a series of diplomatic solutions that culminated in the demarcation of the northern and southern borders in 1818 and 1819 respectively. By settling the issue of border integrity, these treaties paved the way for rapid westward expansion all the way to the Pacific.
This American obsession with territorial integrity and protecting its borders leads directly to the modern preoccupation with the same, particularly the southern border. Donald Trump’s promise to secure the southern border is an echo of the rhetoric of the early American imperial project and its efforts to establish a continental empire or, failing total continental domination, a secure territory unthreatened by rivals to the north and south.
Manifest Destiny: Accelerating Conquest
The second era of American imperialism began with the implementation of the Monroe doctrine and the assertion that the Americas were the purview of the United States and that other powers should not interfere there. This idea of Manifest Destiny would combine with racial prejudice to create at once both a monstrous and conflicted imperial project which would foreshadow current American issues with dominance and race in the Americas.
With the consolidation of its northern and southern borders, the United States’ began to push ever westward, disrupting and displacing the aboriginal peoples already occupying that territory. The explicit racial superiority embodied in law during this period made the forcible removal and extermination of aboriginal peoples the favoured approach, culminating in the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears. This realisation of racist expansion within the claimed territorial boundaries of the United States would not be so easy to mimic outside of its borders and would lead to conflicted efforts to impose US authority over other countries in the region.
In 1848 the United States made its first major attempt at foreign territorial expansion in this period with the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War. This chain of events was a southern realisation of Manifest Destiny as the US attempted to dominate the territories to its south. With the conclusion of the war, the United States debated the annexation of the entirety of Mexico. Many politicians advocated its complete annexation as the only way to ensure peace; but racial issues quickly bubbled to the surface with many politicians – mostly from the southern states – arguing that the annexation of Mexico would necessitate the inclusion of its population as citizens, thereby disrupting the race-based hierarchy of the American system. In the end, the argument from the south won the day, and the annexation of Mexico was averted. The outcome of this debate would inform American expansionism for the rest of this period and presaged the current neglectful turn of American policy with its non-white majority territories.
With a consensus established that American expansionism could not accommodate the acquisition of non-white citizens, US imperialism took an unconventional turn. The need to maintain dominance interacted with the implicit prohibition on annexing many territories in the western hemisphere to produce a series of unofficial and irregular armed invasions which became known as filibustering. These expeditions were generally carried out by local imperial entrepreneurs who wanted to secure land, money, resources, or overthrow governments. They were never officially sanctioned, but they were tacitly endorsed, often being outfitted with government arms and supplies that would be reported ‘missing’ – frequently entire state arsenals would ‘mysteriously’ disappear overnight. None of these expeditions were terribly successful in their stated aims, often fizzling out into pure banditry as soon as the private armies crossed the border, but it was not for lack of trying. The decentralised entitlement inherent in the undertaking of filibustering is a thread that runs through the American imperial project and can be seen today in the local militias and vigilante groups patrolling the southern border with the current administration’s tacit support.
This conflict between race and expansionism has left marks on the American psyche that can still be felt today. The two classes of citizen present in the United States (those resident in one of the 50 states, and those resident in ‘territories’) is a direct holdover from this tension and its perpetuation is a modern manifestation of it. This is particularly true with the Trump administration’s handling of Puerto Rico – the lack of any substantial federal action to rebuild the island and provide assistance for its people in the wake of the recent hurricane is an explicit incidence of this racial-expansionist tension paralysing government policy. The United States currently wants to maintain territories like Puerto Rico as part of the United States, but does not view their non-white majorities as worthy of the same level of government responsibility as other territories. Similarly, the pardoning of Joe Arpaio and other tacit approvals of the current vigilante activity on the Mexican-American border is a repurposing of the filibustering drive for domestic purposes with all its inherent racial biases. This is coupled with a determined effort to dominate trade relations in the western hemisphere; effectively an attempt to control the fates of nations within the region while simultaneously discriminating against people from those nations. The racial-expansionist tension currently at play in America’s policies on everything from its territories to immigrants is not new; it had an equally insidious past life as an effort to expand the American Empire.
White Man’s Burden: Zenith of Empire
The end of the US Civil War ushered in a new era of American imperialism. By resolving the official government stance on the question of race, the door was opened to the direct acquisition of new territories and their residents. Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem ‘White Man’s Burden’ as an homage to this new-found American imperial confidence and the US government made every effort to embody its ‘civilising’ theme. This was the beginning of an era of American assertiveness coupled with a general contempt for the other major powers of the world. The belief that America could do what it wanted wherever it wanted perfectly encapsulates the prevailing view during this era and nicely reflects the current shift in how the Trump administration expresses its foreign policy.
Almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, and in truth it more closely coincides with the resolution of the race question by the federal government during the war, the US began to assert itself in other parts of the world. Small expeditions in the style of European empires were dispatched to the far corners of the earth in attempts to promote American interests, particularly in the Pacific and Asia. From Japan to Fiji and China to Samoa, the United States extracted trade concessions, resource monopolies, and territorial enclaves through the use of gunboat diplomacy. True to form, wars were fought in an effort to open countries to American goods and territory was conquered and annexed to build the American Empire.
This ramping up of imperial expansion culminated in the Spanish-American War where US beliefs of dominance collided with US contempt for European powers. The conflict ended with the single largest acquisition of territory outside the continent of North America with the US gaining control of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. American conquest continued apace with Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic falling under US occupation soon after. The free-wheeling nature of American imperialism and intervention characterising this period and the reckless use of military means – whether explicit or threatened – to achieve its objectives finds current parallels in the Trump administration’s approach to allies and rivals alike.
Probably the most evident aspect of the Trump administration’s shift in foreign policy is the increasingly bellicose language used to describe other nations, regardless of whether they are allies or rivals. This jarringly aggressive stance is reminiscent of this third period of American empire, when the expansionist drive was combined with a pronounced American superiority complex. Other nations, even allies, were viewed with contempt and American power was freely brandished in an effort to exert American dominance. The United States threatened and bullied its way into trade agreements, the disarmament of other nations, and foreign interventions of all kinds. This is not unlike the current American efforts to realise foreign policy objectives today. Whether it be trade agreements, defence pacts, or the pacification of rivals, the United States has begun implementing a much more aggressive tone. Trade partners are ‘extorting’ or ‘stealing’ from Americans; allies are ‘freeriding’ or ‘not paying their fair share’; and American rivals such as North Korea or Iran are threatened with military action. This form of brash American entitlement has old roots and truly reflects the direction the country’s imperial policy took in the late nineteenth century.
Defender of Liberty: New Face of Empire
After the Second World War the American imperial project underwent a significant change. The advent of the Cold War and the dynamics of competition with the Soviet Union shifted the manifestation of US imperial policy to a more outwardly benign form when compared to previous iterations. This shift in policy is not so much reflected in the current American shift in policy in so much as the seeming failure of Cold War-era policy was a driving force for the Trump administration’s turn.
During the Cold War American imperial policy was embodied in a ‘soft’ political imperialism. The US government was largely content with promoting states that looked like it economically and politically or were compliant in US foreign policy objectives. This drive to create democracies and free markets did often take violent turns with coups, wars, and interventions around the world, but they were often masked as collectively supported actions in consort with other states in the interest of the whole. The extent to which this was actually true is obviously debateable, but suffice it to say the effort to couch even the most aggressive actions in the language of protecting and helping was a significant shift from the era of the ‘White Man’s Burden’.
This effort at spreading American influence reached its peak with the collapse of the Soviet Union as former communist states dissolved into free-market democracies. In the last decade of the twentieth century the softer efforts at imperial expansion seemed successful as academics and commentators hailed the ‘End of History’ and the supremacy of the American model. The first decade of the twenty-first century would test this with the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. These last hurrahs of the most recent era of US imperialism were characterised by perceived failure and beset with difficulties. These difficulties and an increasingly troublesome domestic situation in America itself has contributed to a feeling that the most recent iteration of US imperialism has not actually worked out for America itself. This feeling is what Trump tapped into and has been forming his foreign policy around.
Overall, the perceived failure of the post-war era of imperialism is the legacy that lives on in the Trump administration’s policy shift. Whether or not this inadequacy is justified is not relevant insofar as it is viewed as having been detrimental to American interests by Trump and his followers. This ‘failure’ has been cited on numerous occasions by Republicans, the administration, and Trump himself in a direct effort to justify the current changes in policy and in an attempt to prove the necessity of a more aggressive stance.
America First: A Return to the Past
In his effort to ‘Make America Great Again’ Trump has tapped into several latent trends from America’s past imperial projects and rehabilitated many of the attitudes, approaches, and beliefs of previous periods. In this sense, the current Trumpian turn in American policy is not so much a new tack as a rediscovery of previous trends. The new America seems to be increasingly trying to threaten and cajole its way towards reaffirming relationships with the rest of the world based on extraction and direct gain. Understanding the threads that underlie this and the latent tendencies used as touchstones by this new administration is important for understanding how and why the US government is acting the way it is.
These changes in America’s approach to the world are not inherently new. Trump’s efforts to reassert America’s dominance and his preoccupation with borders and the purity of citizenship all reflect past iterations of American imperial policy. From the obsession with border security in the nascent United States to the conflict between race and entitlement of early nineteenth century America to the unabashed dominance of the United States at its imperial height, premonitions of the Trump administration’s policies and drives can be seen in all of them. The fundamental reason this policy turn has been well received by politicians and many citizens of the United States is that imperialism and the drive for American superiority are inherent aspects of the US project. These tendencies have been with the country since its very inception and they are there today. These drives and beliefs are visible for all to see and will continue to push American and Trump administration policy in the years to come. Recognising and understanding how these tendencies manifested previously will go a long way to helping the world understand and deal with the Trumpian turn.