AN EMPIRE FOR LIBERTY? A Conversation with Paul Johnson

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Can America become an "empire for liberty"? British historian Paul Johnson believes that it can and should. The United States, he argues, is uniquely suited, as a result of both its principles and its current power, to bring about benevolent change throughout the world. But does empire suit the United States? We ask Johnson just how and why America can be this "empire for liberty" and to place American imperialism in its historical context.

Recorded on Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, can empire and liberty go hand-in-hand?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the United States of America as an empire for liberty--a conversation with British historian Paul Johnson.

Paul Johnson is the author of more than 28 books including, Modern Times and A History of the American People. He argues that the United States by virtue of its power but also by virtue of its principles, is uniquely situated to accomplish good in the world today. But is the role of imperial power suited to this country? We'll ask Paul Johnson just how the United States can become an empire for liberty.

Title: Post-Modern Times

Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself, "America's search for security against terrorism and rogue states goes hand-in-hand with liberating oppressed peoples. America is unlikely to cease to be an empire." So it's up to us to keep peace around the world?

Paul Johnson: That's how it begins to look. In the 19th century in Britain we used to call it the white man's burden. You wouldn't call it that nowadays but it is a burden and it's one which in a limited way, we carried out in the 19th century, which America's failure to carry out up to the beginning of the Second World War was I think probably a contributing factor to those two World Wars and which I am personally very glad to see it is beginning at long last to assume.

Peter Robinson: All right. We--that's a very nice summary statement of your case. Let's go back to the beginning and build your case bit by bit. I'll push you around a bit if I can. You assert that the United States, that the Americans were imperialists from the very get-go, even as colonialists, they were imperialists. I'm quoting you again. "The early Americans were more imperialist than the English." Explain that.

Paul Johnson: Well, you need to go back a bit into history for this purpose. The core meaning of the word "empire" is unlimited rule. And that was why when Henry VIII was casting off Rome during the Reformation, all his Reformation statutes began with the phrase, "This realm is an empire." That meant that we would no longer subject to Rome in any way at all. We were 100% sovereign, independent state. That theme was taken up by John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs, which was a famous bible of Protestantism. It was the most popular book in England in the 16th and 17th centuries and also in the early American colonies after the Bible. And the theme arose that because God had been dissatisfied with the Jews, he had replaced the Jews as the elect nation by the English, didn't call them British in those days…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Paul Johnson: …English.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Paul Johnson: And that was one of the inspirations behind the seamen and explorers and colonists who first went across the Atlantic to found colonies there. It was very much the idea that the English as the elect nation, had a duty to give a lead to the world in matters spiritual.

Peter Robinson: So the trend in the second half of the 20th century history in dealing with this period has been to suggest that what was going on was that the British--the English, excuse me, were driven by economic motives. And you however, want to assert right away the importance of moral or spiritual motives in the enterprise, founding of the Americas as an English empire from the get-go.

Paul Johnson: Yes, and I think this was strongly felt by the colonists themselves. I'm not talking about the government at home. They felt they were an elect body of people to found what they called a city on a hill…

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Paul Johnson: …for everyone to see. And this theme was tremendously important in early American colonial history.

Peter Robinson: Pilgrim John Winthrop, Ronald Reagan's favorite quotation, "We must consider that we shall be a city on a hill, the eyes of all people are on us." So they believed that but in what way do they, in their actions, demonstrate the impulses that are properly called imperialist?

Paul Johnson: Because they decided that sooner or later, they had to occupy the whole of the North American continent. I'm not quite sure what date that assumption became a dominant one in American thought but certainly the early states, although their north/south boundaries were quite carefully marked, their western boundary into the interior was unlimited. Eventually, of course, it was discovered when America became an independent state, it was discovered that the continent was so big that they had to create new states. But in those days, states like Virginia felt that their Western frontier went right across the continent. And that was a form of internal imperialism, which was much stronger than the home-based English imperialism because one of the reasons why the American colonies fell out with the home country was because the British government did not wish occupation to proceed beyond the Appalachian line. And for someone like Washington, for instance, who operated on the frontier, that was a more important issue than taxation without representation.

Peter Robinson: He's a surveyor and a land speculator and he wants to be able to operate on the other side of the Appalachians?

Paul Johnson: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: Throughout much of the 20th century, the United States displayed strong isolationist tendencies. How does Paul Johnson explain those?

Title: 100 Years of Solitude

Peter Robinson: If the United States has been an imperial power from the get-go, you've got a little trouble explaining its behavior during much of the 20th century, very reluctant to enter the First World War, likewise reluctant to enter the Second World War. Roosevelt even has trouble getting the Lend-Lease Legislation through Congress to help Churchill out with ships. It's touch and go whether we'll enter the war until Pearl Harbor, until we're actually attacked. Throughout the Cold War, constant chafing at the defense budget and our burdens during the Cold War. During the 1990s, as you, yourself write, President Clinton responds to the terrorist threat, "in traditional U.S. fashion by ignoring it and hoping it would go away." So throughout the 20th century, you've got a very strong strain of, if not isolationism, then let's put it this way, at a minimum, you've got demonstrated in American history a marked lack of enthusiasm for imperial adventures.

Paul Johnson: Yes, there were particular reasons for this. Washington himself used the word imperialism or empire in a positive sense, not in a hostile sense. And Thomas Jefferson spoke of the empire for liberty. He saw the United States as the empire for liberty. It was a collection of states--not a sole, single state, collection of states, which was committed to the pursuit of liberty. And I think that is a very important phrase because if an American empire comes into existence now, it will be precisely that, an empire for liberty, an empire which makes it possible for liberty to be more widely spread in the world. Now that was the first thing. Imperialism didn't become a nasty word in the United States until the 1860s when it was used as a word of opprobrium by the southern states against the north. And after that, you tend to get Americans using the word exceptionalism, American exceptionalism and so on.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Paul Johnson: However, there is a second reason for the ill repute in which imperialism was held during the 20th century and that is communism. A man called J. A. Hobson, as a result of the Boer War, wrote a book about imperialism which was really an attack to some extent, on the Jews, on the capitalist system, on international finance capital and so on. This was avidly seized upon by Lenin and in due course he brought the concept of imperialism in a very hostile way, into the matrix of his communist thought. And he wrote a book about it. And in that book he attacked all the empires including the Czarist Empire, which was one of the biggest. However, the Czars were still in power and their censors said this book cannot be published under any circumstances unless all allusions to Russian empire are cut out. So Lenin agreed and they were cut out. So this then became a canonical text in the communist armory.

Peter Robinson: Attacking every empire but their own?

Paul Johnson: Every empire except their own.

Peter Robinson: Next topic: why Paul Johnson believes that America is particularly suited to the role of global hegemon.

Title: The Language of Empire

Peter Robinson: I quote you to yourself once again. "There are compelling reasons why the United States is uniquely endowed to exercise global authority, language, technology and population." Let's take each of those in turn. Language, you write, "America has the language of the 21st century." Why is the fact the mere historical happenstance that we speak English in this country, of such importance?

Paul Johnson: Because it is very rapidly becoming a world language. It's a language which increasingly almost everyone can speak a little. And many people can speak it very well or at any rate fluently. So it is a natural language if you're dealing with a lot of foreign people, it is a natural language to communicate with them in. French has fallen right behind hand in that. Spanish doesn't have the same propensity to be available for technology and all that side of it. Anything which is now new in the world, any kind of new machinery, whatever, is now, as it were, scripted in English.

Peter Robinson: All right, this brings us to the next one. Technology, I quote you again. "America has and will continue to acquire the pioneering technology of the 21st century." Why?

Paul Johnson: Why, because America is the freest country in the world. And I think the lesson of the 20th century was, if you have real entrepreneurial freedom, you will retain the technological lead. And I think that was proved by the fact that although there was a period in the '70s say when people said the Japanese are catching up so quickly…

Peter Robinson: Yes, indeed.

Paul Johnson: …they're going to overtake and so on, all kinds of professors from Harvard and Yale, wrote very knowing books about the decline of America as a great power. All that is past history now. Because America is so uniquely free in the way it allows people to do business and to work on research, it will retain that technological leadership.

Peter Robinson: Population, I quote you yet again. "America has never exported people overseas. On the contrary, its growing power and wealth has reflected its ability to attract and absorb them." Contrast American population trends with those you see elsewhere, particularly Europe.

Paul Johnson: Well the figures from Europe and I hasten to add that demographic projections are notoriously a bit risky, more so than most projections. The figures from Europe are absolutely devastating particularly in the decline of the working population. That will decline absolutely before we get to 2050. They're projected on sort of half century point, while the American will expand quite rapidly. By 2050, America, the United States will have 400 million people. It will have a larger population than Europe, whether it's the Europe of the thirteen or a bigger and large Europe and so on. And that is not allowing for number of hours worked per week and days worked per year, where America works very much harder than Europe.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask Paul Johnson what the United States can learn from the models of past imperial powers.

Title: Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?

Peter Robinson: Let me put to you two models for the way the rest of the world responds to a hyper-power. First is Rome. There are long stretches in Roman history but I'm talking about the period of Pax Romana. So on the peripheries of empire, they're constantly engaged in disputes and fighting and so forth but within the empire, they do manage to achieve a real peace. Their rule is accepted, sometimes reluctantly but in many places with a certain degree of enthusiasm. They establish their own culture and for centuries, there is no real counterweight let alone a formidable opponent to Roman rule. Model one. Model two, Napoleonic Europe about which you know just a little having just written a biography of Napoleon. Napoleon takes France, moves into Northern Italy. As he begins to consolidate his gains in Europe, it takes them a while to do so but finally the British and the Russians and the Prussians unite against Napoleon. And there you have a case where the rise of an empire, in effect, calls forth its own opponents. I'm not saying that we're at all like Napoleon or that we're at all like Rome but which model for the way the rest of the world will respond to the United States is closest do you think?

Paul Johnson: Well I would not advise going to either of those two models. The Napoleonic model was no good because the whole thing was very transitory. It lasted just a few years.

Peter Robinson: Was that known at the time?

Paul Johnson: Some--yes…

Peter Robinson: It was?

Paul Johnson: Some welcomed Napoleon to begin with because he came with the rights of man and so on. They then found that he recruited all their young men for his wars of aggression and still more he raided their treasuries so that became very unpopular. The Roman Empire lasted 400 years and was a very substantial structure because it was an engineering empire. They were very good at roads and they're very good at bridges and so on. It helped them that way. But it had two fatal defects. One was that it had no technology or no concern for technology. If anything, its technology during those 400 years tended to stagnate. They could move huge weights but really they couldn't do much else. And secondly, they allowed inflation to become hyperinflation and destroy the thing from inside. Thirdly, I may say, they didn't protect their frontiers like your frontier with Mexico today and that's how the tribes got in as individuals and as family units and tribal units and so on. So they don't really apply. In fact, the nearest is the British Empire in the 19th century because it had similar objectives and so on. And I think that Americans could actually learn quite a lot from that. One of the things I would like to see developing--it's not enough just to have military operations with America where we're now very close indeed. I would like to see an Anglo-American or an American-British staff college for administrators, both civilian and military for running where you get a failed state and you have to occupy it and so on, for providing really first class administrators for that.

Peter Robinson: Next, more on the challenges of failed states and rogue states.

Title: Rogues Gallery

Peter Robinson: I'm quoting you yet again. "The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has left the United States no alternative but to construct an active global strategy in its own defense. This has already led to a punitive war in Afghanistan and a preventive war in Iraq. I have little doubt that a further one against North Korea is inevitable." First Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you really believe that we can establish functioning democracies in those countries? The war was easy. What about the peace?

Paul Johnson: I don't think we can easily establish functioning democracies but we can establish reasonably successful and even representative government in both. I think both will be difficult. Don't forget that before '58, the British in conjunction with some of the Iraqis were able to establish a very successful government. When I first went to Iraq, that was still in existence and it was using the oil money very sensibly to create a modern infrastructure and so on. Since then it's all been wasted so…

Peter Robinson: But it's been done. It's been done once. Iraq was once a modern pretty good country.

Paul Johnson: It can work.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Paul Johnson: I even believe Afghanistan can work too. But it won't be probably a democracy as we would recognize but it will be, to some extent, representative and, to some extent, honest and efficient.

Peter Robinson: A very much less bad country than it was just a couple of years ago, at a minimum?

Paul Johnson: I think so, yes. I believe so.

Peter Robinson: And economically viable and indeed possibly even vibrant country? Or are we letting ourselves in for two, three decades of bailing them out?

Paul Johnson: Iraq could be a very rich country.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Paul Johnson: In fact, if the old regime had not been destroyed in '58, by now it would be a rich country.

Peter Robinson: Second largest oil reserves in the world.

Paul Johnson: Afghanistan is a more difficult problem but I think they can make a living in the world.

Peter Robinson: North Korea, why is war in North Korea inevitable? Is it impossible in your view that we can persuade the Chinese to do the right thing and lean on the North Koreans?

Paul Johnson: I don't think it's impossible. Indeed I think in the end, the Chinese will be a key factor in it. But it doesn't seem very likely at present. And the mood of the North Koreans is so belligerent and so reckless, it seems to me, they are more or less saying yes, we are getting more and more material for nuclear weapons and if necessary, we'll sell them.

Peter Robinson: They're spoiling for a fight and that very fact may force us to do something. Is that roughly the way you see it then?

Paul Johnson: I think this is a much more difficult problem, Afghanistan or Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Iran? I'm sorry, I'm switching. I'm just trying to identify the problem area. Iran, 60 million people. That's a very big country. Iraq's big enough with 22 million but Iran, 60 million people. Are we going to get sucked into a conflict there?

Paul Johnson: Well it's interesting Iran is an empire itself. It's the empire of the Medes and Persians, goes back to the Bible and it can fall apart. I think as a matter of fact the present regime in Iran can be overthrown without the necessity for an Anglo-American invasion, particularly since the really key places in Iran are all in the southwest corner. I think that is a soluble problem. North Korea is a much more difficult one.

Peter Robinson: Last topic: Does America have the will to sustain the imperial project that Paul Johnson advocates?

Title: It Takes Guts

Peter Robinson: We had a very difficult time in this country sustaining a conflict in Vietnam. We know that. The question is here we are in Afghanistan, there we are in Iraq, here you and I are talking about what to do about Iran, 60 million people, North Korea, which is acquiring nuclear weapons. Does the United States have the stomach for this, to take action in Afghanistan, Iraq, elsewhere? The only way that political support can be sustained is if our leadership and, to some extent, the elites in this country agree that our way of life is better than theirs, that in some way or other we have the right to go in and help them rip out one messy government and institute another because we actually do know better. In other words, moral relativism won't cut it. We have to have a certain degree of élan and self-confidence. Do we? Can you see the American elite carrying out this imperial project?

Paul Johnson: Yes, I have enormous confidence in the moral resolution of America. And you rightly say this is a moral problem because it is about moral absolutes as opposed to moral relativism. It is about moral absolutes. And I think that Mr. Bush has pitched it on that level. That's the impression I get from reading his speeches, that what happened 11th of September was a moral outrage of such enormity that a revolution in the American policy and military doctrine was called for and is now in the process of taking place. Therefore, the whole change in America's attitude to the world, seeing the whole world as something which it has to take care of, has to take an interest in and has to be able to influence, that whole thing is based upon a moral absolute.

Peter Robinson: And do you believe then that as these questions get worked out in American politics, George Bush and his position speaks for the center in this country far better than say, to name a Democratic Presidential candidate, Howard Dean, who's been, according to all the polls as we tape this, he's been doing extremely well on the Democratic side but who is forswear against the war in Iraq. As between those two, the Bush view will prevail and America can sustain the project called for?

Paul Johnson: I believe it will because America, thank God, is a young country still. It is an idealistic country still. It's a religious country still. It does believe in seeing very clear distinctions between right and wrong and acting upon those distinctions. It has those really fundamental, moral qualities and therefore I trust America. I trust America to do the right thing but it will take tremendous leadership, wonderful articulation, skill at explaining policies and all kinds of instruments of explanation, radio, television stations, really putting the case for a moral world in which clear distinctions are made between right and wrong. And when evil appears to be triumphing, then action will be taken.

Peter Robinson: Dr. Johnson, Clare Booth Luce is famous for saying that history gives each man just a single sentence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Churchill faced down Hitler. Let me name a few names, it's television so we have to move quickly, let me name a few names and ask you for a sentence on each, the way you believe history should judge them. Osama bin Laden?

Paul Johnson: A horrible schoolboy written large.

Peter Robinson: Saddam Hussein?

Paul Johnson: What happens when the ethics of a Chicago gangster are put in charge of a huge oil rich country.

Peter Robinson: Jacques Chirac?

Paul Johnson: Why are the French so notorious for shiftiness? Because there's plenty of Chiracs there.

Peter Robinson: Last two. Tony Blair?

Paul Johnson: A promising young man who's doing very well but has the capacity and I believe the future to do very much better.

Peter Robinson: Last, George W. Bush?

Paul Johnson: All I can say is I'm very glad he is the United States President.

Peter Robinson: Paul Johnson, thank you very much.

Paul Johnson: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.