Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty, A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz.
The academic profile of Richard Immerman places him in the field of US foreign relations research. That is why a book about the American Empire viewed from a conceptual and rather philosophical side came as a surprise. Empire for Liberty, A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz is an effort to build along a chronological line, the argumentation to support today's existence of an American Empire. The book focuses on the evolution of the idea of an American Empire from the 18th century to present day. According to Immerman, the American Empire was built in two centuries, with extreme strains made not only by decision makers, but also by the people.
The six chapters of the book include the stories of six men who influenced the rise of the American Empire. Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz are powerful figures who have left a distinctive mark in the American history. With the exception of John Quincy Adams, who was the sixth president of the United States, all of them had remarkable positions in state affairs. What united them was the idea of building an Empire for Liberty, which was to extend the blessings of its nation to other nations worldwide and set an example as far as state evolution is concerned.
Immerman's choice of characters resides in each man's efforts made to accomplish this imperial dream. They were all true believers in America's exceptional destiny and each of them had pursued his own specific path to help turn the United States of America into an Empire. Franklin, for example, believed in the force of identity and citizenship, Quincy Adams advocated cementing liberty from slavery, Seward tried to establish a commercial empire, Lodge supported a US navy to pioneer US initiatives overseas, Dulles backed the idea of US leadership to ensure global peace and civilization and Wolfowitz embraced the credo that the US mission was to provide global democratization.
The topic is ambitious, being embedded in a wider literature characterized by similar endeavors. (2) The goal is to illustrate how these statesmen influenced and worked towards the goal of extending the newly forming United States to the status of an empire, within a dramatic historical context: slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq are a few examples.
An interesting approach that Immerman uses is to oppose antagonizing views; for instance, he contrasts the mere existence of the US Empire with the fact that the US always seemed reluctant to pose as just another empire. If George Washington and Benjamin Franklin started the development of an American empire, as the antidote and the superior of all other existing empires, George W. Bush tried to put an end to it by stating that there is no such thing, argues Immerman. However, he extracts brand new ideas which show the US as an expanding empire. Its inner growth and external expansion are concomitant and interdependent, and Liberty is an integral part of this empire
From Immerman's perspective, empire and liberty are mutually reinforcing. In the 20th century, the empire the US built, which according to Immerman is the most powerful in world history, was based on global leadership, military superiority and the worldwide spread of institutions that bear the US emblem: NATO, the UN, the IMF, the WTO and many others. Nevertheless, it appears that the 19th century was the climactic moment for this empire for liberty because, in the 20th century, America turned into an empire of liberty for its own people only. The 21st century signifies the nadir of the American Empire for/of Liberty, because of its recent humiliation in Iraq and the consequences of the economic crisis. It is here that Immerman refrains from making assumptions but rather sets the scene and let's his readers draw conclusions by themselves. Is there a use for this Empire? This is the point at which his narrative becomes critical. Although his writing is generally balanced, here the author points out the malfunctions that occurred in US policy throughout the time, which led to the present dilemma.
The central case of the book rests as follows: the American empire is not as centralized, integrated and huge as the Roman one, nor colonial like the British, but rather an entity of ideas, mentalities, values and interests. Each of the six profiled people developed one of these features. The key point of the argument stands as simple: greatness can only come from inside.
Immerman points out the good and the bad sides of each of these men in a balanced way. One's lack of substance is counterbalanced with another's pragmatic solutions. He is also very sincere as far as these statesmen's motivations. A good example is the abolition of slavery, for the Empire' benefit.
A relevant drawback of this book is that the author does not explore the nation of "imperialism" too much. A juicy term like this one should be better exploited. Immerman only defines it and appears to believe that if he argues the case of empire, this would be quite enough to send the necessary signals that an empire generates imperialism. Another criticism that can be brought to him is that he ends the book too quickly and abruptly, when there was a need for a more refined analysis to address the issue of American Empire/imperialism in the times of George W; Bush, since it was then that the term of "American Empire" was reborn.
Overall, the book is very well written, with an attractive title and a well-polished argument. Richard Immerman seems to be a versatile author, eager to emulate the opinions of the people he chose as examples, advocating that in time, the American Empire and consequently its imperialism, served to bring freedom from slavery, extend economic benefits to the world, fight international Communism and become the crusader against global tyranny. There is a synergy between its interests, power and principles, which proves that America has a destiny to model the world to come. Moreover, Immerman's approach is innovative. By choosing six important figures in the American history and using their life goals and accomplishments to portray the way in which the American Empire's ideas evolved accross centuries he makes connections which reflect, in a unique way, a page of American history. The present Obama administration is not really considered, but it would make an interesting exercise to connect Immerman's present work, with another to be written in, let's say, 100 years from now.
The book constitutes valuable reading for both academics and laymen. However, the numerous references to American foreign policy theory and US foreign relations make it more suitable for academic purposes rather than just good spare time reading. It is a strongly recommended tool for those interested in solving the mystery of what "American Empire" means and especially for those who would like to see how American political thinking evolved across the centuries.
University of Bucharest
(2) For example, A.J. Bacevich's American Empire: the Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2002), William Odom's Americas Inadvertent Empire (2004), Todd Emmanuel's After the Empire: the Breakdown of the American Order (2004), and Rodrigue Tremblay's The New American Empire (2004).
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|Publication:||CEU Political Science Journal|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2011|
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