Category: Archive

Op-ed: Imperial impulse incompatible with republican institutions

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In some ways, the story simply confirmed what many people have already concluded — America, as the only superpower left standing after the Cold War, is more powerful, more all-conquering, than the empires of old. America can project military might all over the world; American popular culture is, winning the hearts (if not the minds) of young people everywhere; nations and people who defy America’s power do so at risk of their lives and perhaps even their sovereignty.
No doubt many Americans of good will and pure intent welcome the notion of an American empire and have no problem getting used to the idea. Irish Americans, however, should be among those leery of the whole idea. Our history, after all, offers a cautionary tale about empires and imperialism. So many Irish families came to America because they sought to flee an empire’s rule. So many Irish men and women spent their lives fighting imperialism. So many Irish people died or were cast aside as a result of cold imperial policies.
To be sure, many people, including some Irish Americans, will argue that the American empire of today is a good deal more benevolent and enlightened than the British empire of old, not to mention the Roman empire of Christ’s time.
Perhaps, but then again, the Romans considered their rule to be benevolent (they built those great roads in the provinces, didn’t they?), and surely the British believed they were bringing civilization to certain uncivilized corners of the world, including that little island across the Irish Sea.
The subjects of imperial rule, of course, had quite a different point of view. Whatever benefits they may have received from their imperial rulers, and there were some, they were overshadowed by the oppression that is necessarily a part of empire building. Empires, after all, do not maintain their rule by free and fair elections. They rule by fear, by intimidation, by bribery and by conquest.
Irish Americans bear witness to the failures and pitfalls of one of the world’s most-successful empires. The folk memories of the Irish are, or ought to be, filled with a thousand and one reasons why America ought to think twice before embracing the notion of empire.
Enthusiasts for the new American empire are among the loudest voices advocating war with Iraq, which sends a troublesome message to the rest of the world. Some of the political talk shows these days feature imperious commentators yammering on and on about what kind of friendly government America will “install” in Iraq, which sounds downright imperialistic and decidedly not in keeping with America’s past advocacy of self-determination.
It is not in any way traitorous or subversive to question precisely where American foreign policy is leading as we prepare to launch a war against a nation that has not attacked us. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that hawkish foreign policy, with its unsubtle hints of American global domination, is profoundly at odds with the vision of America’s founders. Pat Buchanan’s recent book reminded us that America is a republic, not an empire.
The book was written before the present crisis in Iraq and before Sept. 11, but its message actually has more meaning today, with American policymakers pushing around nations we don’t like. Buchanan, it doesn’t seem necessary to note, is hardly a squishy-soft liberal. But, in speaking against the notion of imperial America, he is part of a tradition of Irish-American writers and commentators who believe this country’s republican institutions are incompatible with the ambitions of an imperial power.
Patrick Ford, the founder and longtime editor of the Irish World newspaper, was among the most eloquent anti-imperialists of his day. Like many other politically active Irish immigrants in the mid and late 19th century, Ford embraced the idea of pure, anti-aristocratic, anti-imperial republicanism.
And he made no attempt to hide his disappointment with Americans who didn’t share his enthusiasm, who — worse yet — seemed determined to imitate the ways and means of Victorian Britons. For example, Ford lashed out at the imperial trappings that accompanied the wedding of General William T. Sherman’s daughter in 1874. It was quite the event for upper-crust New Yorkers, but Ford — the immigrant from Galway — was full of disdain. “These elaborate and gorgeous ceremonies are not quite suited to our taste. . . . Pomp and pageantry are perfectly in keeping with the customs of monarchial countries, but they are not consonant with the genius of the Republic, whose acts are plain and whose airs as ever simple and unpretentious.”
Similarly, the ambitions of today’s policymakers and leading politicians seem better suited of “monarchial countries,” particularly those with imperial ambitions. Irish Americans know better than most the true cost of empire building. They know, because their history teaches them that no empire, however benevolent its intentions, ruled without fear and intimidation.
Is that what we want for ourselves, a world in which we dominate through the timeless methods of oppression and cruelty? We kid ourselves, dangerously, if we believe an American empire can be achieved and maintained by any other means.
The United States and the Republic of Ireland were born after a long struggle with the same imperial power. Irish Americans rightly celebrate the triumph of these two republics. All the more reason why we should be leery of those who prod us toward imperial ambitions.

The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.

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