Category Archives: Empires

History: More than a Story

Broad based or narrow focused, history is not merely a collection of data, rather it is a story. At times, the story may seem dull, at other times captivating. The study of history can introduce us to the challenges and triumphs of the past. It can help us see patterns in the ‘action and reaction’ cycle of human relations.  It can help us learn from the past events which have paved the way for present actions. However, it can only teach us if we are willing to learn. Simply hearing the story is not enough. Regardless of how enthralling, action-packed, or awe-inspiring, history is not simply a story to be heard. It is a story to be understood.

Whether we look at the rise of Hitler, the arms race of the Cold War, or the growth of empire through colonialization, history can teach us about how groups of humans react when they feel threatened by other groups of humans. During the inter-war period in Germany, the people felt sorely abused by the rest of Europe. They sought a change and a savior from the economic oppression they felt was unjust. During the Cold War, citizens on both sides sought powerful military might as a means of protection from a threat often ideological more than physical. They didn’t simply want a powerful government, they wanted an all-powerful government that could protect them from phantoms as well as from armies. In both of these historical stories, if we take the time study them rather than simply hear them, we can learn that people are willing to give up basic human and civil rights in order to feel protected from outside threats. Additionally, if we go beyond the simple narrative often taught in history primers, we can see cases where people were easily persuaded to put aside their moral compass in order to achieve group affiliation and protection. While the story of Hitler and his atrocious reign of power might more easily provide examples of how people can become swayed by nationalism and nativism, the story of the Cold War also provides examples. Foreign relations, the relations between nations rather than individuals, often times reflect the very nature of human relations. Just as human and civil rights were often trampled upon in both the United States and the Soviet Union by their own respective citizenry, national sovereignty and the right to self-determination were often trampled upon by the superpowers as they spread their economic, political, and military influence. The notion that ‘might makes right’ was not constrained.

The notion of ‘might makes right’ is clearly depicted in the colonization period leading up to the twentieth century. Peoples who seemed to be less civilized in comparison to the social and political norms of Europe were to be suppressed and subjugated, or eradicated if they would not accept their place in the more ‘civilized’ society. Moral qualms were assuaged by dehumanizing those who did not fit the norm and who did not hold the power. This was not the first time the process of dehumanizing the ‘other’ for social or political gain occurred in history, but it did normalize it as culturally acceptable. Even as slavery lost support, colonial conquest and rule, including the westward expansion of the United States, reinforced the idea that certain peoples were more valuable than others. The mighty western nations viewed their culture to be better than the rest, and believed that forced assimilation was right and justified.

To the victor goes the spoils and also the chance to write the story, but history is more than just one person or nation’s account. It is a compilation of stories from many different perspectives. Like the heroic sagas of old, history can inspire and teach lessons to the listeners, but the study of history can do more. It can dispel notions that any one group of people is more perfect or more sinful than the others. It highlights the shared humanity of man; a humanity that is full of valor and full of vice.

Prosperity through Diplomacy

As a young nation, the United States found itself in a conundrum. The desire to avoid the entanglements of European politics clashed with the desire for economic prosperity. Some early leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that the plentiful natural resources of the Americas would remain in high demand by Europeans and would ensure that a predominately agrarian society would continue to prosper for decades, even centuries to come. Others were more doubtful and recognized that trade would mandate political interaction. While idealists would cleave to the notion that the demand for U.S. raw materials would force the nations of Europe to treat the new nation with respect and dignity, others rightfully worried that it would take strength to bring about international respect.

The United States would spend much of its first one hundred and fifty years debating how to be taken seriously as a world power while at the same time remaining distant from the conflicts of Europe. However, isolation was never the viable option that many envisioned it to be. By the end of the Second World War, the United States fully understood that international respect came both from military strength and from economic influence. Political finesse was also vital for peaceful coexistence, but it was too often overlooked or dismissed in the eyes of the general public. Even though the United States had produced a few outstanding diplomats during its youth and adolescence, too often the role of diplomacy was overshadowed by the feeling that military and economic strength could get the job done without diplomatic pageantry. Like a few of the early founding fathers, many in the twentieth century believed that the peoples of the world would wish to purchase U.S. products and thereby highly value peaceful relations with the United States. On the other hand, there were many who derived lessons from the decades when a strong navy equaled security at home, and encouraged prosperity through protected shipping routes and foreign markets. In the years following the end of the Second World War, U.S. economic and military might certainly seemed to be the key to prosperity, and not just to the prosperity of the United States, but prosperity for Europe as well. Unfortunately, what many failed to foresee was a day in which the rebuilding of Europe would be completed. Furthermore, many failed to anticipate a day when Europe might wish to free itself from the protection and economic influence of the United States.

Prosperous international relations, whether they are economic, military, or political, are dependent on diplomacy. At different times, the idea of isolation has appealed to policy makers and the public alike. At other times, policy makers and the public support aggressive relations and even war with the other nations of the world. In either case, diplomacy is underrated by those who hold to the notion that prosperity is something that can be controlled by one nation at the expense of others. History shows that such beliefs are founded on a limited understanding of the vital role of diplomacy during periods of strife and in times of prosperity.


Further Reading:

Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Lind, Michael. The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life. Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Military Superiority Leads to Decline

As the twentieth century ended and the specter of the Cold War appeared to be fading into history, political scientists pondered the question of how a new world order would take shape under the direction of a victorious superpower. As John Ikenberry stated, victors try “to find ways to set limits on their powers and make it acceptable to other states.”[1] The United States, having spent a century building its image as military power determined to protect the world from evil and in doing so spread democracy, found itself in a dilemma. While talking heads and braggarts proclaimed U.S. superpower greatness, diplomats faced the harsh reality that yesterday’s protector can quickly become today’s bully and tomorrow’s enemy. Additionally, the economic strain military spending places on a society can become politically detrimental once victory occurs. In the past it was said that to the victor goes the spoils, but in modern times with plundering being frowned upon, the victor tends to win a headache both at home and abroad without seeing any real benefit. Without change in policy, particularly policy pertaining to its military superiority and status, a victorious nation discovers that military superiority can lead to economic and political decline.

Of the many headaches the United States developed as a single superpower in the years following the end of the Cold War, probably the most contentious one was the headache of being asked to intervene in conflicts great and small. Seldom was there a clear right side and wrong side to support. In many cases the crises that prompted the debate over intervention occurred in regions that had been previously under the political, economic, and military supervision of the Soviet Union. Even when using the umbrella of the United Nations, U.S. intervention could stir conflicting emotions in the crisis region. The United States had been both the enemy and possessor of enviable commodities for fifty years. Envy and distrust were not feelings easily eradicated simply because war was over. In a world that seemed to be rupturing in the absence of Cold War superpower dominance, the United States struggled with its expanded role of policeman, banker, and social worker.

Military dominance, which had spurred the U.S. economy in the years following World War II, became a burden following the end of the Cold War. In the wake of international cooperation and the perception of peace, nations could shift away from military technology as a basis of economic growth. Nations which remained entrenched in military development became economically dependent on wars that seldom required Cold War technology. Furthermore, Cold War technology had been all about fighting a war from a distance, and the conflicts of the twenty-first century required boots on the ground. When President Truman and President Eisenhower put their support behind the development of nuclear technology and behind the technology to deliver nuclear weapons from a distance, part of their justification was that it would save U.S. casualty and hypothetically shorten, if not prevent war. Their reasoning was based predominantly on the notion that nations would fight nations, and that the days of tribal warfare were becoming part of the past. When the theories and perception of modern war shifted after the attacks on the United States in 2001, the world powers seemed taken by surprise. When the Second Gulf War did not produce the results predicted, when peace did not flourish, and when terrorism spread rather than diminished, the United States seemed not only surprised but confused. The U.S. war strategy and military development, so honed during the twentieth century, did not work in the twenty-first. A nation which had grown powerful through military superiority, found itself the targeted enemy rather than the celebrated hero. Furthermore, it found itself struggling to justify increasing national debt, made larger due to wars that seemed to have no end. Like many great powers which had come before, the United States faced decline despite continued military superiority. In fact, it could be argued, the United States faced decline because of its military superiority.




[1] John G. Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), xi.


Further Reading

Hixson, Walter L. The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Strong Military as a Path to Prosperity

There is a belief held by many that a strong nation can ensure stability and can promote prosperity by developing a strong military presence in a region. It is not a new theory nor is it difficult to validate when history is full of examples of empires formed by military strength who then add to their own prosperity through the quelling of regional conflict and instability. In fact, it is much easier to cite examples of empires made strong by force than by diplomacy; therefore, it should be of no surprise that the United States followed a similar path as it sought to expand its economic interests during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

What might be surprising, especially after the fact that the United States went on to flex its military might for the greater part of the twentieth century, is that there had been fierce opposition within the United States to the notion of militarizing, taking on the role of stabilizer and protector, and pursuing the status of empire.[1] Even during the years following the Monroe Doctrine many argued that the United States needed to simply concentrate on the lands of North American and leave the affairs of Europe to the Europeans. However, these well intended notions of independence and isolation failed take into consideration that sea trade could not be ‘free’ or ‘secure’ unless someone policed the waters. The United States was comfortable allowing the British Navy the job even though the British posed the greatest threat to U.S. interests at the time. However, by the end of the nineteenth century more U.S. voices were calling for a change. One of these voices was that of Alfred Thayer Mahan who wrote, “All men seek gain and, more or less, love money; but the way in which gain is sought will have a marked effect upon the commercial fortunes and the history of the people inhabiting a country.”[2] He argued that for economic gain to increase, sea trade must be protected, and rather than relying on the naval strength of others, the United States must get into the game and become a naval power. A few short years after he made his argument, the United States acquired territories and increased its markets overseas.  A larger navy was required.

When faced with questions and criticism concerning the appearance of imperial objectives, President Theodore Roosevelt responded, “When the Constitution was adopted, at the end of the eighteenth century, no human wisdom could foretell the sweeping changes, alike in industrial and political conditions, which were to take place by the beginning of the twentieth century.”[3] A few years later he would assure the critics, “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous.”[4] Whether Roosevelt was genuine in his assurances or whether he was fully aware that the nation was heading down an imperial path is debatable, but one thing that has been clear from that point forward – the United States was no longer theoretically a regional power but had become one in reality. During the next two decades, the United States would transition from regional power to world power and the transition would happen through the use of military might.


[1] Many will argue that the United States never pursued or achieved the status of empire. They will claim that the United States assimilated and incorporated territories rather than acquired colonies and that the peoples of the territories were treated as citizens rather than as subjugated peoples. The debate on the question of whether the United States is or was an empire can be quite interesting to follow.

[2] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influesnce of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890), Kindle.

[3] Theodore Roosevelt, “First Annual Message,” Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia, (December 3, 1901),

[4] Theodore Roosevelt, “Forth Annual Message,” Presidential Speech Archive, Miller Center, University of Virginia (December 6, 1904),

Obligated to Intervene

In 1820, the Congress of Troppau was convened. The great powers of the day determined that they held the right to intervene in the revolutionary conflicts of neighboring states. Maintaining the status quo and preventing the spread of nationalism and revolution was viewed as vital in the quest to quell the type of conflict that had erupted in Europe during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. While the beginning of the century had been fraught with what some called the first worldwide war, the remainder of the century saw only regional conflicts, most that were harshly quelled before they could spread outside their borders. However the policy of intervention did not quell nationalism. During the twentieth century nationalism would be at the heart of many conflicts, and the notion that great nations had the right to intervene to protect the status quo would be at the center of international policy for many nations including the United States.

In the case of the United States, intervention became a tool to either protect or disrupt the status quo in a region depending on which was most beneficial to interests of the United States. Intervention often placed the nation at odds with its own revolutionary history and patriotic rhetoric. Despite seeming hypocritical in nature, the United States was not forging new diplomatic patterns but rather following the patterns established by the great powers of the past. The U.S. Founding Fathers may have wanted to distance themselves from the politics and practices of Europe, but their decedents embraced the policies as the United States rose to international supremacy during the twentieth century.

During the rise to superpower status, the United States benefited economically and politically. The right to intervene allowed the United States to protect economic markets, and in some cases add new markets and resources to its growing stock pile. While the nation doggedly denied that it was an empire, by the end of the twentieth century the problems associated with empires began to plague the nation. Most prominently, it could be argued, the United States faced the growing international expectation that it would intervene when conflict threatened a region’s status quo. After a century of gaining prominence and wealth through international intervention, often with the sole goal of protecting resources and markets, the United States found that the right to intervene had transformed into an obligation to intervene.

Power and Chaos

Prior to the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, three great powers balanced the Western World: Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Far East and the Americas were still peripheral, with only the United States disrupting the colonial empire system in any fundamental way during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the three great empires faced ever-growing challenges as nationalistic zeal spread worldwide. In response to the chaos created by the both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the great powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia chose to form an alliance that they hoped would prevent a repeat of the decades of war. They also redoubled their efforts to contain and control their own territories. The great threat to political stability came from two entities: empire seekers and nationalistic zealots. Control and contain both, and it was believed that chaos could be avoided. Yet as well conceived as the Concert of Europe was for the age, there was an inherent flaw in the concert system. The very nature of forming alliances to prevent imperial expansion or nationalistic revolution also entangled the great nations, and would, in the early twentieth century, lead them into another great international conflict. Fear became the demon; fear of what would happen if a nation chose not to honor the treaties and pacts.

The twentieth century saw the rupture of empires and the colonial system that had made the empires great. While the rupture was often bloody and chaotic, there remained a level of control because as the great empires of the past declined, two even greater empires replaced them. Historians and political scientists argue over whether these two great nations ever became empires in the true sense, or if they were only empires of influence during the second half of the twentieth century. They do, however, agree that the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War suppressed a great deal of the chaos that might have erupted as colonial shackles were lifted and fledgling states emerged as independent nations. As fifty years of Cold War ended, and ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly, the world faced a daunting task of answering the ultimate question. What would come next?

One political scientist suggested an answer to the question. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[1] Unlike the independence movements that plagued international stability in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century, the twenty-first century has seen a greater surge of culturally driven conflicts, some contained to rhetorical mudslinging, and some violent, bloody, and devastating to the peoples who get in the way of power seeking individuals who achieve dominance through the spread of chaos. The rise in cultural conflict has grown during the last decade and it threatens both stable and week nations alike. It is not limited to the traditionally war-torn regions of the world, and it will take cooperation to counter it. Like the great nations that faced the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of today must find a way to combat this growing crisis; a way that recognizes that the chaos is the goal of the enemy and not simply a byproduct.



Further Reading

Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).


End Notes

[1] Gideon Rose,  ed. The Clash at 20, E-book (Foreign Affairs, 2013),


Idealism versus Realpolitik

Machiavelli advised, “… never in peaceful times stand idle.”[1]

The newly formed United States was idealistic in its desire to separate itself from the conflicts of Europe. Many believed that foreign nations would wish to maintain peaceful relations with the United States in order to obtain the vast raw materials provided by the new nation. The idealism of the founding fathers was challenged, both by the French and the British well before the nation had reached its fiftieth birthday. In order to secure the economic benefits of international trade, the nation had to be prepared to handle international conflict and intrigue. As the Adam’s administration quickly discovered in the late 1790s, this would mean investing in the military, particularly in the navy. The idealistic notion of ‘free trade’ among nations had turned out to be anything but free. While the United States had found a diplomatic solution with Britain, albeit a temporary one, their solution raised the ire of the French and led to what became known as the Quasi War. The United States faced the harsh reality that in order to become economically strong, it would also need to become militarily strong. In a world dominated by realpolitik, idealistic notions such as ‘freedom of the seas’ were viewed as naïve more than noble.


[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (Superior Formatting Publishing, 2010) Kindle.



Further Reading

Grey, Edward. “Freedom of the Seas.” Foreign Affairs. Last modified April 1930.

Fehlings, Gregory E. “America’s First Limited War.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 101.



Ideology, Revolution, and Change: A Slow Process

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the people of Philadelphia, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Eleven years later, the Constitution of the United States of America was created, reaffirming the goal to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence(sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” In 1789, the congress defined twelve common rights of U.S. citizens but only 10 of these became amendments to the constitution. The Bill of Rights defined what the Declaration had not; it defined which rights could be agreed upon as the unalienable rights of man. At the heart of these rights was the belief that sanctity of thought and property were key to liberty.

Beginning in the 1760s, arguments were made that government should not impinge upon these basic rights. Property was not to be surrendered unless it was done so willingly or due to the judgement of one’s peers. It was felt that the forfeiture of property was tantamount to the loss of liberty. While the social strata of the colonies was less structured than in the Old World, property was still closely associated to one’s identity and stature. The loss of property, even from taxation, was considered highly serious in nature. Laws impinging on property rights and laws which changed the colonial judicial system led most often to non-violent protestations. In many cases the laws were repealed, but they were followed by new laws equally objectionable to the colonists. During the decade leading up to the American Revolution and throughout the years of warfare, an ideology emerged that defined political representation as a fundamental right of the citizen. This was not a new ideology, but one that became well-articulated during the numerous debates of the revolutionary period. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the notion of a government “of the people” was becoming firmly planted in the American psyche. The Preamble stated, “We the people” rather than “We the states”. The new nation was formed with the people being the highest political unit rather than the states. In 1863, during a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he reiterated that the nation was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The American Civil War tested the strength of the constitution and the union it had created. However, it also highlighted that even after more than half century, the ideology that had declared the equality of man and the right to political representation had not become a universal reality in the United States and its territories. It would not be until the twentieth century that all U.S. citizens would gain the right to vote, and the protection to vote without constraint due to the lack of property or social standing.

The American Revolution had not been fought with the intent to change the social dynamics of the people, but the ideology that was established through decades of debate both before and immediately after the Revolution would eventually lead to social change. In the United States this social change was slow, sometimes terribly slow and with human suffering the consequence, but with slow change came stability. While many revolutions would follow in the footsteps of the American Revolution, few of the political entities formed from those revolutions witnessed the longevity and stability of that the United States with its slow and never-ending process of ensuring “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its people.

History: Context Matters

King George III of Great Britain and James Otis, Jr. shared more in common than merely being characters in what would develop into the American Revolution.[1] In 1762, Otis argued against the legality of the writs of assistance established by George III.[2] At the time, Otis was a well-respected member of his community, and his words would go on to inspire the very men history books would refer to as the founding fathers of the United States. George III was still new to his reign as the king and, although facing some criticism in London, was not yet showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him later in life. Both men, believing themselves to be rational and empowered to act on behalf of their fellow men through either birth or through education and profession, took differing stands on the issue of the constitutionality of the king’s authority to impose restrictions on the people of the American colonies. In short, the king was certain of his authority and Otis was certain that the king was acting without full understanding of the unconstitutionality of his actions. In 1762 neither man was suffering from mental instability, but that would not be the case a few decades later. If their words and deeds were taken out of the context of the day, with the mental instabilities both suffered later in life being attributed to their earlier actions, the interpretation of those actions would be marred and history would not be served. Context matters in the study of history. Even the most praiseworthy individuals will have said or done something that, when taken out of context, will seem to contradict how history has recorded their character.


[1] Otis (1725-1783), George III (1738-1820).

[2] Writs of Assistance Case

Further Reading

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, More Particularly, in the Last of the General Assembly by James Otis, Jr.

Project Gutenberg version

Scanned copy of the pamphlet (automatic download) from (link to document)

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.