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American Imperialism's Most Ambivalent Salesman

For Robert D. Kaplan, there's nothing imperialism can't fix—except for all the problems it creates.


You can’t get far in sales if you have doubts about the product you are peddling. The respected foreign policy pundit Robert D. Kaplan, author of such tomes as The Coming Anarchy (2000), often sounds like a used-car dealer incapable of disguising the fact that he’s trying to offload a real junkpile on some unsuspecting sucker. The dubious item that Kaplan keeps pitching is imperialism. The subtext of many of his recent articles is that the United States should adopt a policy of imperial domination to fix the spreading chaos in the Middle East. Yet Kaplan argues this position not explicitly but furtively, with enough hedging to offer an umbrella of plausible deniability.

The latest example arrived on Monday, when Kaplan published an article in Foreign Policy originally titled, “It’s Time to Bring Imperialism Back to the Middle East.” The headline was perhaps too blunt for its own good and was changed to “The Ruins of Empire in the Middle East.” Though likely an editor's decision, that walkback is nonetheless fitting, for there's a fatal ambivalence in Kaplan’s pro-imperialist stance. He sees imperialism as a positive and necessary policy but is aware that it’s a hard sell to an American audience. Moreover, it’s not absolutely clear that Kaplan himself thinks a new American empire is a genuine panacea or just a dose of snakeoil.

In typical pundit fashion, Kaplan’s policy prescription is sold through a selective reading of history. The traditional empires who ruled the Middle East and much of the world—notably, the Ottoman Empire and the British Empire—were, he argues, forces that promoted peace, trade, and a general prosperity. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” he contends. And order is what the world needs. “The challenge now is less to establish democracy than to reestablish order. For without order, there is no freedom for anyone.”

Writing in The New Republic last year, Isaac Chotiner made mincemeat of Kaplan’s historical argument by noting all the ways the older empires spread disorder rather than stability. And in his contradictory way, Kaplan seems to agree with this rebuttal to his own argument. Kaplan’s essay calling for a new imperialism acknowledges that some of the biggest problems in the Middle East are the artificial borders drawn up by the former imperial powers. 

Kaplan’s self-refuting argument boils down to the idea that we need imperialism to solve the mess created by earlier exercises in imperialism, as if binging at a bar was presented as a cure for alcoholism. “A new American president in 2017," he speculates, "may seek to reinstate Western imperial influence—calling it by another name, of course. But he or she will be constrained by the very collapse of central authority across the Middle East that began with the fall of Saddam Hussein and continued through the post-Arab Spring years.” But who caused this “collapse of central authority across the Middle East that began with the fall of Saddam Hussein”? Wasn’t that an example of the United States flexing its imperial muscle? As someone who ardently supported the Iraq war in 2003, Kaplan might well ask himself if more imperialism is the best cure for the chaos unleashed by a singularly ill-conceived imperial adventure. 

Kaplan even acknowledges that “the United States … since the end of World War II, has been a world empire in all but name.” He admits this is an “uncomfortable point,” but doesn’t dwell on the source of this discomfort—which might well be that however much the U.S. might value global hegemony and act in an imperialist manner, the American people are loath to see themselves as an empire following in the footsteps of the Ottomans or the British Raj. This is partially due to America’s own anti-imperialist national origins, but also the long history of sympathy for national liberation movements in other lands. Simon Bolivar, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Mahatma Gandhi all had countless American well-wishers. American wars only win popular support through claims that they are defending the homeland or the principle of collective security, rather than territorial conquest.

Nor is this instinctive anti-imperialism just a matter of popular sentiment. On an elite level, it’s long been the policy of the United States to see imperialism as the antithesis of the American effort to create a global liberal order. Throughout the twentieth century, both Democratic and Republican presidents have pushed close American allies like Britain and France to decolonize. In a National Security Council meeting on November 1, 1956, the very conservative Secretary of State John Foster Dulles explained the logic of American support for decolonization in the context of the Eisenhower administration's opposition to the Anglo-French attempt to seize the Suez Canal.

“For many years now, the United States has been walking on a tightrope between the effort to maintain our old and valued relations with our British and French allies on the one hand and on the other trying to assure ourselves of the friendship and understanding of the newly independent countries who have escaped from colonialism,” Dulles said. “Unless we now assert and maintain this leadership all of these newly independent countries will turn from us to the USSR. We will be looked upon as forever tied to British and French colonialist policies.”

The broader point that Dulles was making survives the Cold War context out of which it emerged: If the United States wants to earn the good will of the vast majority of the world’s peoples, it can’t act like a traditional European empire. This was the consensus view which dominated American foreign policy for decades.

To be sure, there were always a few dissenters on the fringes. The right-wing strategist James Burnham, who would go on to be a founding editor of National Review, argued in his 1947 book The Struggle for the World for an American Empire "capable of exercising decisive world control.” The sociologist Lewis S. Feuer made a similar pitch in his 1989 book Imperialism and the Anti-Imperialist Mind, which advocated the creation of a progressive and participatory global American empire.  

While Burnham and Feuer did have a certain impact on the right, it’s fair to say that both were eccentric figures who were wisely ignored by actual policymakers. Robert D. Kaplan is their heir and deserves their fate.