Some Much-Needed Clarity on American Empire

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart has at last given us a sneak peek at some of the refreshing and illuminating thoughts on “empire” (which is to say, in our current setting, American empire) that have been gestating inside his fertile brain for the past couple years.  His uncanny ability to bring balance and clarity to highly polarized discussions thick with the fog of war is a great asset for this controversial topic.  Many right-wing Christians still need to be brought to a sober reassessment of their nation’s evildoings, but without losing all sense of perspective and hurtling headlong into whichever left-wing or anarchist ideology promises the most fervent denunciation of American empire.  

In his mini-essay, “Towards a Sensible Discussion of Empire,” Leithart offers ten modest theses, many of which are “truisms . . . so obvious that it is telling that they have become controversial.”  Indeed, it is remarkable how many of these truisms will immediately cause many readers (including myself) to bristle, become suspicious, or even to start casting accusations like those of one commenter who compared Leithart’s argument to something that might be “made by a German academic in defense of the Nazis during the period of their rise to power.”  Such suspicion is perhaps not a bad thing—we should always be suspicious of any claim that appears to serve the interests of those in power—but it should not keep us from being sensible, and recognizing the difference between a truth and the abuse of a truth.  I won’t of course repost the whole essay here, but will simply call attention to a couple of the most fruitful contributions it makes.

First, Leithart seeks to demystify the concept of “power” somewhat, by inviting us neither to demonize it, idolize it, or too narrowly define it.  On the one hand, he tells us right out of the starting gate that power is evil not by nature but by abuse, and although often abused, “in itself, power is preferable to powerlessness.”  “It is better to have the power of sight than to be blind,” he points out.  And yet he ends by reminding us of the transience of worldly forms of power: “Empires end, yet the world keeps going. . . . Much as the current world system depends on the U.S., the future of the world does not ultimately depend on our ability to remain the world’s superpower, nor does our survival as a polity. We do not represent the end of history.”  Between these two claims, he invites us to reflect on the variety of the forms that power takes, in a very provocative paragraph:

Abuses of power can be arrested only by an exertion of power. To rescue a victim, or to save a people from genocide, you have to exert power. Possession of power imposes an obligation to protect the weak. The power exerted in response to an abuse may not take the same form as the abuse itself. A persuasive orator can pacify a mob. Martyrs exercise a mystical power beyond the imaginations of their persecutors.”

Although the initial summary statement might appear more or less equivalent with the claim “force must be repelled by force” (as one careless reader seemed to take him as saying), it becomes clear that something more nuanced and interesting is being said.  Of course, force may need to be repelled by force, physical power overcome by greater physical power—Leithart’s stance here is forthrightly a just-war one—but the repelling power may be of a different kind altogether, and indeed, a non-physical power, like that of the orator or the martyr, may be far more powerful, as he suggests.  This, I think, is a clever and key move.  Too often, we tend to think of “power” in a very negative light, and treat all these other means as “powerful” only in a metaphorical sense.  But Leithart invites us to here to refuse to fall prey to the temptation to identify coercive force as the essence of power; power in itself is something much more pluriform and mysterious, and violence is but one, and in the end, one of the least powerful, of the forms of exercising power.  He also forces us to reckon with the fact that the martyr’s is an exercise of power, not merely a renunciation of it, echoing themes from his Defending Constantine and highlighting the problems with a lot of fashionable rhetoric.  To be sure, it is a renunciation, but the renunciation is simply a means to exercise a greater power.  The martyr’s sacrifice is not a despairing suicide, or a mere passive acceptance, but a triumphant conquest of his foe, just as was the cross of Christ.  We fear that using the language of “power” and “conquest” in this connection will give us a militaristic Christ, but perhaps such co-optation of the language of power is actually the best antidote to militarism.


Second, Leithart manages to be simultaneously forthright about the wickedness of empires, including our own, while also keeping this within proper perspective—a balance that seems to elude most Christian discussions of the topic.  On the one hand, we are reminded that many empires, and certainly our own, in fact do a great deal of good, intended and unintended, alongside their evils (as many contemporary intellectuals such as Niall Ferguson have been eager to point out), but this is quickly counterpointed with the insistence “The benefits from empires do not excuse the behavior of empires. We cannot give ourselves a pass on international folly and injustice by congratulating ourselves on the good things we do”—a principle that Ferguson does not appear to have grasped.  He enumerates just a few of our own unexcusable evils in a paragraph that is quite restrained overall (“Native Americans have many legitimate complaints against the U.S., as do Latin American countries” might be a little understated), but which still will discomfit many right-wing Christians at points (“While we Americans congratulated ourselves for our Christian charity in civilizing the Philippines, other Americans were killing Filipinos or herding them into concentration camps. For decades, we have deliberately dropped bombs on civilians and slaughtered hundreds of thousands.”)  

I will confess that I am not entirely satisfied with the balance that Leithart seeks to strike here; I think he goes too far, in his paragraph headed (sensibly enough) “American hegemony is not an undiluted evil”, in concluding “Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the neoconservatives are right.”  Of course, he is trying to be provocative, but I am still not sure that I would agree with the proposition (to which I take it he is alluding) that “on balance and considering the alternatives, America is a force for good in the world today.”  To “consider the alternatives” is a very difficult matter, both historically and morally, but I would like to see it asserted, a little more clearly than it was in this brief sketch, that many of America’s evildoings in the past few decades are not merely occasional incidents of bad behavior, but have been systemic and pathological.  On the other hand, Leithart is writing in First Things, so I expect there’s a limit to how far he can deviate from the Neuhaus party line.

In any case, I eagerly await the promised harvest of further reflection on this subject, to which Leithart intimates these theses are preparatory.

3 thoughts on “Some Much-Needed Clarity on American Empire

  1. It's a very interesting collection of theses (and I think I basically agree).One minor point – I thought his reference to Occupy was a little sloppy. I find this much repeated talking point fairly facile. Why does global capitalism own all technologies? Is there any kind of necessity to global capitalism's relationship to the internet? And indeed, is there any necessary incompatibility between the main ideas and ideals of Occupy and capitalism? (That is, many in the movement see themselves as critiquing obscene forms of capitalism, while others obviously see capitalism itself as the problem).


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