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Liberal Imperialism

July 2024
14min read

At a time when it can offer answers to urgent questions, we have forgotten America’s long history of “nation building.”

In late January 2002 Hamid Karzai, the newly installed leader of Afghanistan, visited Washington and New York. He received a standing ovation at the President’s State of the Union address, and glowing press attention, in no small part because of his gentle demeanor and splendid attire. But he did not receive what he had come for, an enlarged U.S. peacekeeping presence in his wartorn country. President Bush turned him down cold, offering him economic aid, military aid, anything but what he really wanted: U.S. troops to patrol his country and bring peace to his people. America was not going to engage in “nation building,” Bush declared.

This should have come as no surprise. To large segments of the Republican foreign policy establishment and the military, nation building became anathema in the 1990s, thanks to the debacle in Somalia so powerfully depicted in Black Hawk Down. During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice, now Bush’s national security adviser, complained that our troops had no business escorting children to kindergarten, a reference to the American peacekeeping role in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet U.S. attempts at nation building—otherwise known as imperialism—long predate the Clinton administration.

The most successful examples are, of course, post-World War II Germany, Italy, and Japan. The U.S. Army helped transform three militaristic dictatorships into pillars of liberal democracy—one of the most important developments of the twentieth century. Critics of nation building argue that those examples aren’t relevant to today’s world, that Germany, Italy, and Japan were advanced industrialized nations that had some experience with the rule of law and democratic institutions. And besides, the United States made a very large, very long-term commitment to those countries, a commitment justified by their importance to the world, but one that can not be so urgent in small Third World countries like Afghanistan and Haiti.

Fair enough. Let’s leave Germany, Italy, and Japan aside, and look at the U.S. peacekeeping record in what is now known as the Third World. Between the Spanish-American War and the Great Depression, the United States embarked on an ambitious attempt at “progressive” imperialism in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific. Successive administrations, from McKinley to Wilson, were emboldened to act by a variety of concerns. There were strategic reasons (keeping foreign powers out of areas deemed vital to American interests, such as the Panama Canal Zone) and economic ones (expanding opportunities for American businesses in promising markets, such as China). Above all, there was the pull of “The White Man’s Burden,” the title of a famous poem written in 1899 by Rudyard Kipling in an attempt to persuade Washington to annex the Philippine islands.

The United States did annex the Philippines. It also occupied a number of territories that remain part of the United States to this day, under various legal guises: Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. A number of other places were occupied temporarily: in addition to the Philippines, the Panama Canal Zone, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and the Mexican city of Veracruz, the shortest occupation being that of Veracruz (seven months) and the longest that of the Canal Zone (almost a century). In the process the United States developed a set of colonial administrators and soldiers who would not have been out of place on a veranda in New Delhi or Nairobi. Men like Leonard Wood, the dashing former Army surgeon and Rough Rider, who went on to administer Cuba and the Philippines; Charles Magoon, a stolid Nebraska lawyer who ran the Panama Canal Zone and then Cuba during the second U.S. occupation (1906–09); and Smedley Butler, the “Fighting Quaker,” a Marine who won two Congressional Medals of Honor in a career that took him from Nicaragua to China.

They were tough, colorful, resourceful operators who used methods not found in any training manual. There is, for example, the story of how the Haitian-U.S. Treaty of 1915, which gave a legal gloss to an American occupation that would last 19 years, came into being. For years Marines told one another that when Major Butler was sent over to the presidential palace to obtain the signature of President Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave, the president, not wanting to sign, hid in his bathroom. Butler simply commandeered a ladder and climbed up through the bathroom window to present the treaty and a pen to the startled Dartiguenave. “Sign here,” the major commanded, and the president did. Whether or not this “gorgeous legend” (as one Marine called it) is actually true, it gives an accurate flavor of how U.S. rule was consolidated.

Most of these occupations followed a pattern. The United States was usually drawn in by political unrest and a threat to its foreign financial interests; Washington often feared that if it did not act, some other power would. The United States would then occupy the capital, and its armed forces, usually a handful of Marines, fan out over the countryside to establish order. Often there was some guerrilla resistance, but it was usually put down quickly by a small number of American troops, who had more sophisticated weaponry and (even more important) better training than their adversaries. In Haiti in 1915, 2,000 Marines pacified a country of two million people, at a cost of only three dead Americans. The longest and most arduous American colonial campaign was waged in the Philippines. It took 70,000 soldiers four years and more than 4,000 American casualties to consolidate American control over the islands.


Having established its rule, the United States would set up a constabulary, a quasi-military police force led by Americans and made up of local enlisted men. Then the Americans worked with local officials to administer a variety of public services, from vaccinations to schools to tax collection. American officials, though often resented, usually proved more efficient and less venal than their native predecessors.

A priority was improving public health, partly out of altruism and partly out of a desire to keep U.S. troops healthy in a tropical clime. The pattern was set in Cuba, where Walter Reed, an Army doctor, proved that yellow fever was spread by a particular variety of mosquito. A mosquito-eradication campaign undertaken at gunpoint drastically reduced the incidence of malaria and yellow fever, which had been ravaging the island for centuries. In Veracruz in 1914 the Army general Frederick Funston cleaned up the water supply, improved sewage, and even imported 2,500 garbage cans from the United States. The death rate among city residents plummeted.

American imperialists usually moved much more quickly than their European counterparts to transfer power to democratically elected local rulers. In 1907, under U.S. rule, the Philippines became the first Asian state to establish a national legislature. In 1935 the archipelago became a domestically autonomous commonwealth headed by President Manuel Quezon, a former insurrectionist who once complained of the difficulty of fostering nationalism under this particular colonial regime: “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?” (Total independence came in 1946, after Filipinos had fought side by side with GIs against the Japanese.)

In many of the countries the United States occupied, holding fair elections became a top priority, because once a democratically elected government was installed, the Americans felt they could withdraw. In 1925 the Coolidge administration refused to recognize the results of a stolen election in Nicaragua and the following year sent in the Marines, even though the strongman who had stuffed the ballot boxes, Gen. Emiliano Chamorro Vargas, was ardently pro-American. The United States went on to administer two elections in Nicaragua, in 1928 and 1932, that even the losers acknowledged were the fairest in the country’s history. “The interventions by U.S. Marines in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in those years,” writes the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, “often bore striking resemblances to the interventions by Federal marshals in the conduct of elections in the American South in the 1960s: registering voters, protecting against electoral violence, ensuring a free vote and an honest count.”

That is certainly not the popular impression. The interventions in Central America and the Caribbean have become infamous as “gunboat diplomacy” and as “banana wars” undertaken at the behest of powerful Wall Street interests. Smedley Butler helped solidify this myth when, after his retirement from the Marine Corps, he became an ardent isolationist and antiimperialist. He spent the 1930s denouncing his own career, claiming he had been “a racketeer for capitalism” and a “highclass muscle man for Big Business.”

In fact, in the early years of the twentieth century, the United States was least likely to intervene in those nations (such as Argentina and Costa Rica) where American investors held the biggest stakes. The longest occupations were undertaken in precisely those countries —Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic—where the United States had the smallest economic stakes. Moreover, two of the most interventionist Presidents in U.S. history, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, were united in their contempt for what TR called “malefactors of great wealth.” Wilson was probably the most imperialist President of all, and his interventions had a decidedly idealistic tinge. His goal, as he proclaimed at the start of his administration, was “to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”

How well did the United States achieve this aim? The record is mixed. Its greatest success (outside those territories that remain under the Stars and Stripes to this day) was in the Philippines, which was (no coincidence) the site of one of its longest occupations. Among the institutions Americans bequeathed to the Filipinos were public schools, a free press, an independent judiciary, a modern bureaucracy, democratic government, and separation of church and state. Unlike the Dutch in the East Indies, the British in Malaya, or the French in Indochina, the Americans left virtually no legacy of economic exploitation; Congress was so concerned about protecting the Filipinos that it barred large landholdings by American individuals or corporations. The U.S. legacy was also a lasting one: The Philippines have been for the most part free and democratic save for the 1972–86 period, when Ferdinand Marcos ruled by fiat. That’s more than most other Asian countries can say.

The U.S. legacy in the Caribbean and Central America was more fleeting. It is not true, as some critics later charged, that the United States deliberately installed dictators such as Duvalier, Batista, and Somoza. The governments left in power by American troops were usually democratic and decent. But they were also too weak to survive on their own. In the past the United States might have intervened to support democratically elected regimes. In the 1930s, however, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt renounced the interventionist policies of his predecessors, stretching back to the days of his cousin Theodore and beyond. Henceforth, FDR said, U.S. relations with Latin America would be governed by the Good Neighbor policy, which meant in essence that Washington would work with whoever came to power, no matter how.

The U.S. ambassador to Managua, Arthur Bliss Lane, was shocked and upset when Anastasio (“Tacho”) Somoza, the commander of the Nicaraguan National Guard, murdered the former rebel leader Augusto Sandino and deposed the democratically elected president (who was also his uncle), Dr. Juan Bautista Sacasa. Lane wanted to intervene, as the United States had in the past, but Roosevelt refused. Of Somoza, FDR famously (if perhaps apocryphally) said, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” But make no mistake: Somoza did not attain power because of U.S. support; he attained power because of its indifference. The same might be said of François Duvalier in Haiti, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and other dictators who took over after U.S. withdrawal.


Although its effects often wore off, U.S. rule looks pretty good by comparison with what came before and after in most countries. Haiti offers a particularly dramatic example. Prior to the U.S. occupation in 1915, seven presidents were overthrown in seven years. After the last U.S. Marines left, in 1934, the country lapsed back into instability, until, in 1957, the black nationalist Papa Doc Duvalier assumed power. He and “Baby Doc,” his son Jean Claude, ruled continuously until 1986, presiding over a reign of terror undertaken by their savage secret police, the Tontons Macoutes. After Baby Doc’s overthrow it was back to chaos, leavened only by despotism. In 1994 the United States was driven to intervene once again to oust a military junta and restore to power President Jean Bertrand Aristide. But no matter who’s in charge, the Haitian people continue to suffer horrifying levels of poverty, crime, disease, and violence; their country is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the poorest on earth.

By contrast, the almost two decades of American occupation stand out as an oasis of prosperity and stability. While not exactly democratic (the United States ruled for a time through an appointed president, Louis-Eustache-Antoine-François Borno) the American occupation was undertaken with minimal force. There were fewer than 800 Marines in the country, and life was freer than just about any time before or since. The Americans made no attempt to exploit Haiti economically; in fact, the U.S. authorities actively discouraged large American companies from setting up shop, for fear that they would take advantage of the people. The American administrators ran this government fairly and efficiently, and by the time they left they could tick off a long list of achievements: 1,000 miles of roads and 210 bridges constructed, 9 major airfields, 1,250 miles of telephone lines, 82 miles of irrigation canals, 11 modern hospitals, 147 rural clinics, and on and on.


Unfortunately, most of the physical manifestations of the American empire—roads, hospitals, telephone systems—began to crumble not long after the Marines pulled out. This should be no surprise; it has been true whenever more technologically advanced imperialists leave a less sophisticated area, whether they be the Romans pulling out of Britain or the British out of India. The two most lasting legacies of American interventions in the Caribbean may be a resentment of the Yanquis, now perhaps fading, and a love of baseball, still passionately felt.

That does not mean, however, that U.S. occupation is entirely futile. American troops can stop the killing, end the chaos, create a breathing space, establish the rule of law. What the inhabitants do then is up to them. If the American goal is to re-create Ohio in Kosovo or Haiti, then the occupiers are doomed to disappointment. But if the goals are more modest, American rule can serve the interests of occupiers and occupied alike. Put another way, nation building is generally too ambitious a task, but state building is not; the apparatus of a functioning state can be developed much more quickly than a national consciousness.

Most successful examples of state building start by imposing the rule of law—as the United States did in the Philippines, and Britain in India—as a prerequisite for economic development and the eventual emergence of democracy. Merely holding an election and leaving will likely achieve little, as the United States discovered in Haiti in 1994. For American occupation to have a meaningful impact, it should be fairly lengthy; if Americans are intent on a quick “exit strategy,” they might as well stay home.


History teaches another important lesson: that occupation duty sometimes leads troops into committing what are today called human rights abuses. It’s easy to exaggerate the extent of these excesses. Brian Linn’s recent history The Philippine War, 1899–1902 suggests that the conduct of U.S. soldiers from 1899 to 1902 was not nearly as reprehensible as everyone from Mark Twain to New Left historians of the 1960s would have us believe.

But whenever a small number of occupation troops are placed in the midst of millions of potentially hostile foreigners, some unpleasant episodes are likely to occur. During the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic (1916–24), a Marine captain named Charles F. Merkel became notorious as the Tiger of Seibo; he personally tortured one prisoner by slashing him with a knife, pouring salt and orange juice into the wounds, and then cutting off the man’s ears. Merkel killed himself in jail after, rumor had it, a visit from two Marine officers who left him a gun with a single bullet in it. When word of such abuses reached the United States, it caused a public uproar. In the 1920 election the Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding sought black votes by denouncing the “rape” of Hispaniola perpetrated by a Democratic administration. This kind of criticism is not so different from the questions raised today about U.S. treatment of Taliban prisoners.

American troops must take great care to avoid heinous conduct, not only for moral reasons but also for practical ones. If imperialists are provoked into too many grisly reprisals—as the French were in Algeria, or the Americans in Vietnam—support for their enterprise back home is likely to evaporate. And it is also much harder to win the “hearts and minds” of uncommitted civilians if you are routinely torturing or killing their relatives. Some criticism of their conduct notwithstanding, this is a danger that U.S. troops have largely avoided in Afghanistan with the discriminating use of “smart” weapons.

It is not just civilians who risk getting killed in nation building; so do U.S. troops. The most notorious recent example is the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3–4,1993, which left 18 Americans dead, 82 injured, and 1 captured. The Rangers and Delta Force commandos who took part in this all-night firefight did not feel defeated afterward; they were prepared to get on with the job of freeing Somalia’s people from the rule of warlords. But the Clinton administration decided it could not tolerate casualties and pulled out. This is the worst possible outcome because it sent a message of irresolution that emboldened America’s enemies, most notably Osama bin Laden, to step up their attacks against various U.S. targets.

It is inevitable that any nation bent on imperialism will encounter setbacks. The British army suffered major defeats with thousands of casualties in the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–42) and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879). This did not appreciably dampen British determination to defend and extend their empire. If Americans cannot adopt a similarly tough-minded attitude, they have no business undertaking nation building. This is not to suggest that America should sacrifice thousands of young men for ephemeral goals but that policymakers need to recognize that all military operations run certain risks, and the United States should not flee at the first casualty. More important, Washington should not design these operations (as with the occupation of Haiti in 1994) with the primary goal of producing no casualties. That is a recipe for ineffectuality.

Given the costs, moral and material, what is the case for undertaking imperialism at all? It’s not so different today from 100 years ago. There’s the economic argument: The United States can add areas like Central Asia and the Balkans to the world free-trade system. (They might seem like economic basket cases today, but so, a few decades ago, did Taiwan and South Korea. Both have prospered under U.S. military protection.) There is also the idealistic argument: The United States has a duty to save people from starvation and ethnic cleansing. This is a direct descendant of the “white man’s burden,” except today it’s not limited to whites or to men but extends to everyone in the West. If these were the only reasons for America to undertake nation building, then it would be a hard sell, as indeed it was for large segments of the public in the 1990s. But since September 11, 2001, another argument for imperialism has come to the fore: self-interest.

We can only wonder what might have happened if after the Soviets were driven out in the early 1990s, the United States had helped build up Afghanistan into a viable state. It might not have become the home of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the World Trade Center might still be standing.

This is only speculation, of course. But in the Balkans we can already see a payoff to nation building undertaken by the United States and its allies. The violence that claimed some 300,000 lives in the Wars of Yugoslavian Succession is over. Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia live in a state of uneasy peace under the eyes of Western troops. Aside from saving lives, there’s another reason for the United States to take satisfaction in this outcome. Islamic extremists, who migrated to the Balkans in the early 1990s to help their fellow Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia resist Serb oppression, have been denied a toehold in the region. NATO troops have been able to arrest and deport a number of terrorist suspects in Albania and Bosnia before they could blow up American installations. If U.S. troops had never intervened in the first place, it is likely that the Balkans would have turned into another Afghanistan, a refuge for terrorists, and this one located near the heart of Europe. Similar action may be necessary to drain other potential swamps that breed crime and violence.


Any call for a renewed campaign of nation building by Western states is likely to run into an obvious objection: Didn’t imperialism go out of style decades ago, when European administrators were chased out of one colony after another? True enough. Europeans found that the cost of ruling Third World countries whose young men were fired up by nationalist doctrines was too high to pay. Then, too, in the wake of the Holocaust, the racist assumptions that had justified a small number of whites ruling over millions of nonwhite people lost their intellectual respectability. The British withdrew more or less gracefully from most of their empire, while the French fought to keep Vietnam and Algeria and suffered humiliating defeats. If the Europeans, with their long tradition of colonialism, have found the price of empire too high, what chance is there that Americans, whose country was born in a revolt against empire, will replace the colonial administrators of old?

Not much. The kind of imperial missions the United States is likely to undertake today are very different. The Europeans fought to subjugate “natives”; Americans will fight to bring them democracy and the rule of law. (No one wants to put Afghanistan or Bosnia permanently under the Stars and Stripes.) European rule was justified by racial prejudices; American interventions are justified by human-rights doctrines accepted (at least in principle) by all signatories of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. European expeditions were unilateral; American missions are usually blessed with international approval, whether from the U.N., NATO, or simply an ad hoc coalition.

This is not to suggest that American attempts at nation building are destined to be easy or painless. Dealing with local warlords is a difficult task that, if mishandled, can lead to disaster, as in Lebanon in 1983 or Somalia in 1993. But it is important to note that these days the bulk of ordinary people are likely to support, at least in the beginning, an American peacekeeping presence in their country. From Kosovo to Afghanistan, GIs are seen as liberators, not oppressors. Most inhabitants of these war-torn lands want American troops to stay as long as possible. The question is whether policymakers in Washington will heed their pleas for help and launch another period of “liberal imperialism.”

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