In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Andrew Bacevich (West Point graduate and Vietnam combat veteran, turned author and professional lecturer in history and international relations at Boston University) attributes the imperial expansions of the United States over the years to a “fever” occasionally afflicting its populations:
At periodic intervals, the American body politic has shown a marked susceptibility to messianic fevers. Whenever an especially acute attack occurs, a sort of delirium ensues, manifesting itself in delusions of grandeur and demented behavior.
Gripped by such a fever in 1898, Americans evinced an irrepressible impulse to liberate oppressed Cubans. By the time they’d returned to their senses, having acquired various parcels of real estate between Puerto Rico and the Philippines, no one could quite explain what had happened or why.
He goes on to attribute all of the US’s military adventures, up until today’s conflicts, to this curious ailment. It seems that, like so many Americans from every strata of society, Bacevich wishes to conjure some exceptional reasons for America’s imperial expansion that sets its actions apart from all the routine imperial expansions through history. But there is nothing at all remarkable about America’s imperialism. It is as ordinary as was Rome’s or ancient China’s, or Persia’s or Egypt’s, or the Mongols’. The only difference is the modernity of the economic system supporting it.
Americans might like to messianically believe that since they are so good, they should expand into every corner of the globe in order that they be great, but in various ways, so too did all the other empires. All Bacevich is doing here is trying to coin a new term for the well-worn idea of Manifest Destiny, substituting messianic fever for Manifest Destiny, as a more or less objectionable (it’s not clear) justification for what America is destined by her nature to do. The American Empire, consisting of the congealed and gelatinized remains of the European empires from which she sprang (particularly the British empire), is compelled to expansion by its very nature, and expansion is precisely what it has relentlessly done, ever since those first settlers arrived on her eastern shores. The rate of expansion has waxed and waned over time, but the fact of expansion has never wavered.
Whether Manifest Destiny or messianic fever is used to describe the compulsion to expand is irrelevant. What is relevant is understanding that the compulsion to expand, i.e., to propagate, is innate to empire, and particularly to the American Empire’s modern capitalist means of economic organization. Expansion in markets and populations is to imperial capitalism what propagation is to all living creatures. Imperial capitalism demands incessant growth if it is to survive. This relentless need for expansion destines imperial capitalism to sweep before it all competing economic systems just as Neolithic agriculture doomed the competing hunter/gatherers. The only question that remains is what happens when the expansion of American imperial capitalism meets a legitimate capitalist competitor, like Indian or Chinese imperial capitalism, and its growth is thwarted. Will the ensuing conflict be peaceful or horrific? If the clash of imperial capitalism represented by the world wars in Europe in the twentieth century is any guide, it could be quite horrific.
For a historian, Bacevich seems to have a quite myopic view of the American Empire and its relationship to historical antecedents.
Incidentally, I ran across the Bacevich article in the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web section, which unsurprisingly, excoriated Bacevich, but for opposite reasons than did I. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages are like Mayor Bloomberg’s View , so far as their opinion on the exercise of American military power goes. They each assume that American force projection is, like the Judeo-Christian God, inherently good in all times and circumstances. Neither sees America’s incessant wars and expansionism as either war or expansionism, or particularly necessary to the Empire’s continued survival, but almost as a burden the Empire selflessly bears to benefit the world, which is curious considering the foundation of selfishness upon which capitalism abides. The myopic afflictions of either The Wall Street Journal or Bloomberg, reflecting their belief that America’s greatness derives from its innate goodness, far exceeds that of Mr. Bacevich, so in that regard, his is the less repugnant analysis.
In any event, none of them are very good historians. The American Empire is destined to expand, like all others, so far as it is able, not because doing so is the right or wrong thing to do, or because its people become occasionally afflicted with a messianic fever, but because it is the inevitable thing to do. The only question is how far expansion can proceed.