America & Refusing Power

"Refusing the Ring:

The Road Not Taken"

in American Foreign Policy

© 2002 Jay Moynihan

Frodo: "Will you not take the Ring?"

Gandalf: "No!" cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. "With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. ...Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!"

"The Fellowship of the Ring", J.R.R. Tolkien

"I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded....We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard-of-power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin."

Edmund Burke, said about the British Empire during it's ascendancy.

Many Americans are eagerly awaiting the release of "The Two Towers", the second film in the "Lord of the Rings". But they seem to have missed the key point of Tolkien's novel when they watched "The Fellowship of the Ring" in 2001. No one can weld the ring of absolute power and dominance, not even if the intent is to do good. When the Soviet Empire collapsed, the leadership of the American Empire was offered the temptation of dominion over the Earth. Apparently, it has given in. 

This essay will explore the following areas:

The rise of the American Empire

The failure of the loyal opposition

The alternative road not taken

  Others will cast more tenderly in bronze 

Their breathing figures,

I can well believe, 

And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble, 

Argue more eloquently,

use the pointer 

To trace the paths of heaven accurately 

And accurately foretell the rising stars. 


remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples,

for your arts are to be these: 

To pacify, 

to impose the rule of law, 

To spare the conquered,

battle down the proud.

Virgil, Aeneid VI: lines 1145-1154

  "America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property."

George Bush II

1. The rise of the American Empire

It is no longer impolite in political discourse to refer to the "American Empire". Those who do not see it simply are thinking in an archaic manner. The strongest aspect of empire, from the Romans to the British, was not their military, it was their cultures and economies. As Woodrow Wilson pointed out in 1919, "The process of capital investment is the process of conquest".

Technology has freed the Americans from much of the garrison duty of their predecessors. Space-based sensing and communication, GIS systems, carrier battle groups, and the perfection of the tactics of vertical and horizontal envelopment permit less investment in permanent forward deployment in all but the most "necessary" cases. George Bush II announced his doctrine on September 20th, 2002, to use this capability to maintain the advance of American culture, economics, and values around the planet.


  "Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless... the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is [now] while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war, (the revolution), we shall be going downhill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion." 

Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia", response to query 17, (1781).


The rise of the empire can roughly be traced as follows.

1898 United States defeats Spanish Empire. U.S. takes control of Guam, Puerto Rico, Wake Island, American Samoa, Cuba, and Philiphines. Hawaii seized in U.S. backed move by local operatives.

1901 Theodore Roosevelt elected to Presidency. Builds blue-water navy to compete with European empires and Japan. Sets fundamental themes of imperial policy.

1902-1903 Imperial operatives with the support of the U.S. Navy carry-out a revolt in Northern Columbia, to create Panama. The new state acknowledges U.S. protection and grants rights to build and operate a trans-oceanic canal.

1913 Woodrow Wilson elected president. Coined the dictum in 1919, "The process of capital investment is the process of conquest". Wilson realized that actual occupation of territory was not usually necessary to control the territory. From 1914 through 1921 managed policies that created debt to U.S. banks and the U.S. government owed by most of the world, especially the other empires. In 1917 the U.S. entered the War of the German Accession, (second phase)1, decisively tipping the balance against the German Empire and its allied Empires. Authored the "14 Points', as an attempt to open markets dominated by other empires, and spread American values and culture.

1917 U.S. obtains Virgin Islands.

1919 Treaty of Versalles concluded, later rejected by the Senate.This results in The most powerful country in the world, the United States, exercising economic dominance but not a military role, by participating in the League of Nations. A perceived power vaccum develops globally.

1921 Four Powers Treaty. The American, British, French, and Japanese Empires agree upon their respective geo-political boundaries in the Pacific area.

1933 Franklin Roosevelt ("The savior of Capitalism") elected President. Revives the vision and practices of the Woodrow Wilson.

1939 Hostilities erupt between the British and French Empires on one side, and the German and Italian Empires on the other side. U.S. Supplies British and French on a "cash-and-carry" basis. British and French Empires begin to collapse.

1941 Japanese Empire attacks the pacific colonial territories of the American, British, and French Empires. The last time Congress exercised its power to delare war. United States brings its massive industrial might and fresh population to bear against Japan, Germany, and their allies.

1942 American naval forces destroy the aircraft carriers of Japan at the Battle of Midway. Americans go on to perfect the concept of the carrier battle group. This will help eliminate the need later for garrisoning troubling areas, and projecting imperial power without garrisoning.

1943 Strategic bombing becomes highly developed by American forces.

1944 Normandy landing and pacific campaign brings together the concepts of air control, naval-carrier battle groups, strategic bombing, and massed, mobile ground forces. This combination shows the futility of "garrisoning", due to new technologies.

1945 American imperial forces use the "atomic bomb" against the home island of the Japanese Empire. Defeat of Germany and Japan followed by a number of events. The American Empire absorbs the Empires of the British, Japanese, and the French, who become defacto dependencies. Germany divided by Americans and the Russian Empire. The "cold war" begins.

1962 First communications satellite, "Telstar", launched. The Empire begins to take control of the "high-ground", with observational satellites and complex positioning and communication systems. By the 1980's Imperial forces will suffer less from the traditional "fog of war", and perfect the concept of coordinated, vertical force insertion.

1965 Imperial forces begin to deploy in large numbers in Vietnam. Americans attempt a garrison style war with limited objectives and fail. In the process though, Imperial forces develop the concept of vertical insertion of force and advanced combined arms techniques. In the future, Imperial Forces will strike from the air (from a distance and from carrier battle groups), thereby eliminating the need for garrisoning for the most part. This greatly enhances the spread of stability for commerce and the appearance of benevolence. Animosity between Russia and China deepened by the conflict.

1968 Richard Nixon elected President. Skillfully uses existing animosity between the Empires of Russia and of China to weaken opposition in Eurasia. Earns gratitude of China by twice not "consenting" to Russian nuclear strikes on China.

1973 Congress surrenders to the President, exercise of its power to declare war under Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution of the republic, by passage of the "War Powers Act of 1973".

1976 Group of Seven, (aka "G7") established.

1989 The "fall of the Berlin Wall" symbolically marks the end of the War of German Accession, and the collapse of the Russian Empire as a global power.

1991 Imperial forces attack Iraq and impose crippling sanctions. Empire creates a potent example of the consequences for a smaller state exercising an unapproved foreign policy option, (in this case Iraq invading Kuwait).

2001 George Bush the Second, becomes president. When he came to power, only a few countries were left not open to free access by American commerce, (North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and Afghanistan). In September of that year, an asymmetric terror attack is carried out by an Islamic Fundamentalist group on American home territory with significant loss of life and property.

Bush II begins to articulate a Pax Americana doctine in response. Congress surrenders to the President the exercise of more of its powers from the Constitution, including passage of, "The Patriot Act". Imperial military response commences with Invasion of Afganistan, which hosted the group responsible for the attack on U.S. soil. Armed "Predator" drones used in combat for first time.

2002 The European Union decides to build an orbital GPS satellite system to allow development of their own "smart weapons", as part of a nascent effort to counter American dominance.

The United States declares itself exempt from international agreements and legal norms concerning criminal jurisdiction, war crimes prosecutions, agressive war, and climate change concerns. Bush II releases, "The National Security Strategy of the United States" on September 20th. While cloaked in buzzwords, it clearly embodies ideas discussed since Bush I. It is officially the stated policy of the Empire to maintain military dominance on a planetary scale, allowing no rivals. The Chancellor of Germany wins re-election with an Anti-American Campaign.


My chronology may to some seem arbirtary. But I decided to begin it with our expansion beyond the area commonly referred to as the, "Continental United States". This omits the conquest of much of Mexico, (1846-1848), and of course, the conquest of the Native Nations. I have done this to conform to the practice of the historical use of the term "empire". The British Empire as a period does not usually include the unification of the "British Isles", nor does the unification by the Latin States of the Italian peninsula is not usually counted in the Roman "empire" period.

I have also omitted the annexation of Midway,(1867), for stylistic reasons, as I have the purchase of Alaska in the same decade.

For the sake of brevity, I also do not mention the numerous invasions by Imperial forces to topple governments, restore businesses, banks, etc., and various proxy wars.

I have also tried to include not just acquisitions and acts of financial import, but also philosophical, law, and technological events of importance.

1 Commonly known as World War I. In hindsight, this is the the second phase of the War of the German Accession, (1870-1989). The war started in 1870 after the rise and consolidation of Germany, within a geo-politically crowded Europe. The ripples and ramifications of this flowed until 1989, when the Russian Empire lost control of the eastern part of Germany to the American Empire.

"World War" is a funny term. Actually, the "world wars", are:

1. Queen Anne's War, 1702-1713

2. War of the Spanish Succession, 1740-1748

3. Seven Years War, 1754-1763

4. Franco-British War, 1777-1783

5. Napoleonic Wars, 1803-1813

6. War of the German Accession, 1870-1989.

This is usually divided into: Franco-Prussian War, World War 1, World War 2, and the various proxy wars of the American-Soviet "Cold War". The grouping under one over-all name is similar to the current practice of referring to a certain period of European medieval history as the, "hundred Years War".

2. The Failure of the Loyal Opposition

The homeland or internal opposition to the growth and maintenance of an American Empire, is usually referred to by the media as, "The Left". This may be due to the opposition's refusal to adopt the language of the American Revolution, the first revolt against a planet straddling empire, and embrace the European language of socialism. The result has been an image problem for the opposition.

Consider these two statements, from Washington and from Eisenhower:

While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionally greater security from external danger, 

a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rival ships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter. 

Hence, likewise, they will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty. In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other."

George Washington, 1796

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. 

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." 

President Dwight Eisenhower, 1961

Further, and I would suggest, more importantly, this has allowed the "right" or pro-empire faction to use words from the Revolution, and the images of the founders, in a manner that would leave the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Washington and the thousands of rebel soldiers who died in the struggle for independence, speechless in disbelief. But, perhaps the most important failure of the opposition, is to articulate a practical alternate to imperial dominance.

When Bush II speaks of a foreign enemy's opposition to "our way of life", I think he should wink. I think we all know what he means. It is not buzzwords like "freedom". It is the cumulative nature of contempary American life. It is the freedom to choose from a multitude of brands. It is the inexpensive oil the underlies our economic strength. Marx did not foresee Franklin Roosevelt. He did not see the rise of the Consumer Class. From each according to their credit line, to each according to their lifestyle.

This makes the promotion of an alternative foreign policy difficult. Empire supports the lifestyle that Americans have become accustomed to. The cost to others is rarely seen by individual citizens. Only when someone manages the rare "terrorist" act, or the occasional challenge by a conventional competitor brings the cost element to the life of the citizen. And, no time is allowed for introspection then, as the bloody shirt is waved, and the call to arms made.

This is complicated by the fact that all great empires have had a beneficial aspect. The Romans brought roads, sanitation, postal service, courts with rules, and many other benefits to their subject territories. They outlawed capital punishment (except by themselves), and outlawed the stoning of women for moral offenses.

This is all further complicated by the "Left's" tendency to decry all deployment of military violence for any reason. They attacked the use of force against Serbian fascism by Clinton, did not call for intervention to halt inter-tribal genocide in Rwanda, and opposed the eventual toppling of a brutal government in Afganistan. The opposition vacillates between warning of another, "Vietnam", and calling America foul for its conquest when another Vietnam does not materialize.

The Left, or the Loyal Oppostion, lacks consistency and judgment, just as the Right does. If you support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, how would you keep from intervening in Rwanda? If your claim is justice, how can you argue the use of force to enforce 16 resolutions about Iraq yet hamstring the United Nations in acting on 35 years of ignored resolutions about a Israel and Palestine?

The question is in a way, the same question at the heart of the American Revolution. Who decides, and by what rules? Why did the World community allow the Taliban to rise, but still tolerate the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? It is because with the end of the Cold War, the extension of democratic principles of our own revolution did not truly take place. Instead, we accepted, the Ring. History teaches that absolute power not only decimates others. It corrupts the holder until it becomes what, it the holder, originally opposed. Eventually others unite against it and bring it to ruin, only for a new welder of a gastly power, to arise.

"I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference."

Robert Frost

3. The alternative road not taken

Bush II, and many American leaders before him cannot be falted as individuals for falling to the temptation to the Ring of Power. Much of human history is a story of this tragic tendency.

I propose that America does something the is, well, very American. Something new. Just as our founders rejected centralization of power in a person, we should extend the control of the use of force in a democratic way. We should have the strength of principle to begin a phased process to transfer the capability to use force, and the decision to use it, to a democratized United Nations.

We stand at a point in history, where Jefferson's dream, of "the eyes of the world open to the rights of man", is possible. But only if we have the strength to reject the bane of control. Given the real problems all the people of the world now face together, and the destructive power of weaponry, if we try to control, we may build the last great empire. For the effort by others to end it, the empire's attempt defend, will eventually, bring ruin to all Earth's cities and a grave for our specie.

Just as we would expect the police to end a shooting rampage in our community, should we not expect police to end an attempted ethnic cleansing or brutal repression of human rights, before it is to late? Again, the question is not if, it is who says, and why? It should not be made either by a rogue state and the greatest power. It should be made according to law. Law made with the consent of the governed.

The Security Council of the United Nations should be comprised justly. France and Britain should gracefully depart as permanent members, to be replaced by the European Union. India, Brazil, and Egypt should be added. The veto should be given to the rotating members.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is little more than an updated version of the Bill of Rights, should be the U.N.'s touchstone for action. The powers of the Northern Hemisphere should work to transfer their great military power to the world as a whole.

Yes, this would be a messy, imperfect process. Yes it would result in decades of negotiation, deal making, and intrigue. Truly, it would reshape the economic and political landscape of the planet. It might even come to look, like the games played by the representatives of thirteen countries meeting in Philadelphia and New York in the late 1700's. It might even come to look like, liberty.


© Hank Edmondson 2012