The Neo-Jacobin Ideology of American Empire
In the last few decades many American leaders have spoken much about America having a moral mission in the world. But the conception of virtue that they assume is different from virtue of the traditional kind in that it does not involve a strong sense of moderation and limits. On the contrary, this putative virtue has manifested and fed the will to power and a sense of limitless possibilities. Influential forces in both the American parties have wanted the world’s only superpower to attain global supremacy in order to promote the allegedly moral cause. They have espoused an outlook on man and society that contrasts sharply with that of the moral-spiritual and political heritage that gave shape to the Constitution.
In the last several decades an ideology of American empire became increasingly common in the American foreign policy and national security establishment inside and outside of government.[i] Needless to say, the advocates of this ideology do not aspire to empire in the old sense of permanent occupation of large territories. The United States can work its will on recalcitrant powers by other means. What the ideology advocates is armed and uncontested global supremacy.
The proponents of the ideology have been able to draw upon various American antecedents, such as the foreign-policy idealism of President Woodrow Wilson, but they have provided a more comprehensive and ideologically intense and systematic justification for U.S. interventionism.
The advocates of the ideology typically stress foreign affairs, but it offers a general view of man, society and the world. For example, the ideology assumes a particular understanding of the so-called “American Founding.” It is characteristic of the ideology that it views political and cultural arrangements with deep roots in history with suspicion. What is great about America, it asserts, is that America broke with tradition, which it regards as the bad old days. America was founded on abstract, universal principles and represents a fresh start for humanity. America, therefore, has a great mission: to spread its principles across the globe, to make possible a similar start for other nations.
The notion that America represents the cause of all mankind is by itself an argument for boosting and accepting American power. To assume in addition that the ideal for which America fights is very different from what history has produced in most countries accentuates the need for mobilizing and asserting American power. All decent, morally sentient people will of course flock to the American cause. As America’s goal is noble, so is the power needed to achieve it noble.
The ideology of empire questions the old American fear of concentration of power. It implies that power exercised for the sake of a better world can be exempted from ordinary restraint. During the George W. Bush presidency, the argument was advanced within and without the administration that especially in times of national emergency the prerogatives of the president trumps the powers of the other branches of government. This is the theory of the so-called “unitary” presidency. Needless to say, we are understood to be living today in a state of permanent emergency, due to Terrorism with a capital “T.”
As presidential advisors and speechwriters, proponents of the ideology of moral empire were able after 9/11 to help shape President Bush’s reaction to the attacks. The latter became the stated reason for launching an enormously ambitious new foreign policy, which was virtually the opposite of what the American people had been led to expect during the president’s 2000 election campaign. George W. Bush had then advocated a more “humble” U. S. foreign policy and had expressed strong reservations about interventionism and nation-building. Now America would not only pursue a world-wide campaign against terrorism but strike preemptively against potential threats; America would also promote freedom and better governance in the world; it would foster and take charge of what the president called “the global democratic revolution.”
The selling and implementation of the “Bush doctrine” was greatly facilitated by the fact that rarely had an ideology become so strongly entrenched in a country’s foreign policy and national security and opinion-molding establishments. Though President Bush became the ideology’s most prominent spokesman, he was assuredly not its originator. It had been spreading for decades. By 9/11 it had strong support in both of the major political parties. Many of its leading advocates had come out of the Democratic party. Some had in their youth been Trotskyite Marxists. Especially on foreign-policy issues, the ideology was well-represented in America’s major media outlets. In the daily press, this was particularly true of the Wall Street Journal, but the Washington Post and the New York Times also gave it much space, as did the main news magazines. Among the opinion magazines, the Weekly Standard supported it most enthusiastically, but very similar foreign-policy views were voiced in National Review. In think tanks that give prominence to foreign policy and national security the ideology was very common. The American Enterprise Institute had perhaps become its political-intellectual nerve-center. The same foreign policy agenda flourished, though certainly not uncontested, on the television networks and major cable channels. On the radio and elsewhere it presented itself as kick-butt American patriotism and attracted millions of flag-waving supporters.
Many of the ideology’s proponents had long promoted war against Iraq. Virtually all of them seemed to assume that its most immediate and urgent practical upshot was to sanitize the Middle East. Millions of so-called “evangelical” Christians here provided grassroots support. In anticipation of Armageddon, America had to be supportive of God’s chosen people, Israel.
Curiously, the political and intellectual activists who did the most to make government and public opinion receptive to the ideology and policies of American empire became known as “neoconservatives.” That designation can be shown to be rather paradoxical. You know who some of the most prominent neoconservatives are: Elliot Abrams, William Bennett, Max Boot, Midge Decter, Douglas Feith, David Frum, Frank Gaffney, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, the late Irving Kristol and his son William, Michael Ledeen, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Joshua Muravchik, Michael Novak, Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, James Woolsey, and Paul Wolfowitz.
Many prominent politicians besides President Bush made the ideology of empire their own. As vice president, Richard Cheney became an especially effective and energetic advocate. Donald Rumsfeld had long associated with and been cultivated by the neoconservative network. In the case of businessmen-politicians like them, the fondness for the ideology probably had less to do with intellectual considerations than with neoconservative rhetoric being politically useful.
Contrary to traditional conservatism, as represented by the British statesman-thinker Edmund Burke (1729-1797) or as represented by many of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, the ideology of American empire is not respectful of and conservative of an old historical heritage. Neoconservatives are prone to regarding traditional ways as inherently backward and outdated. What is old should give way to what all enlightened persons now realize is mankind’s destiny, which they call “democracy” or “freedom.” The late, much-celebrated political theorist Allan Bloom (1930–92), the author of The Closing of the American Mind (1988), is here representative of the neoconservative prejudice against traditional ways. Bloom was a leading disciple of the German-American political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Strauss is famous for his anti-“historicism.” In his best-selling book, Bloom argued that the essence of America is not its historically evolved, culturally distinctive traditions, which we know to be full of classical, Christian and British resonances. No, the U.S. broke with the past. It was founded not on an historically evolved cultural foundation but on abstract, universally valid principles. America is, Bloom asserts, first and foremost an idea, a “proposition.” What he calls “the American project” is for all peoples. The “principles of freedom and equality and the rights based on them are rational and everywhere applicable.” Because America the idea stands above historically generated notions and represents universal right, the United States has a special role to play in the world.[ii]
Bloom and other Straussians simply disregard that American political and other traditions have deep roots in ancient Western civilization, especially as mediated through British culture. Significantly, this old heritage stresses the moral and other weaknesses of human beings and that they need internal and external checks. Power must be constrained.
The ideology of empire points in the opposite direction. It justifies the removal of obstacles, including constitutional obstacles, to the triumph of the American cause. The ideology sanctions an unleashing of what it declares to be virtuous power.
That the United States of America represents the aspirations of all humanity became a staple of the speeches of President George W. Bush. He went so far as to say to his countrymen that advancing the values of freedom and democracy is “the mission that created our nation.” America sees further than other countries. In the State of the Union address in 2005 President Bush told Americans that “we live in the country where the biggest dreams are born.” By then he had long asserted that America’s values are for all people. “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise. And if the values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others.”[iii]
I have argued at length in various places that there are striking similarities between the proponents of the ideology of American empire and the Jacobins who inspired and led the French Revolution. Those French ideologues and political activists were members of clubs that had sprouted all over France. The clubs combined features of a debating society, school and secular church. The most prominent of these clubs met in an abandoned Jacobin monastery in Paris, hence the name of the larger movement. The Jacobins proclaimed “liberté, égalité, et fraternité.” They saw themselves as a great moral force in the world. They even called themselves “les vertueux,” the virtuous. They regarded themselves as champions of universal principles. They demanded a society and world radically different from what history had produced. They stood for liberation and popular rule. They felt called to destroy evil.
So there are good reasons to call the advocates of virtuous American empire “the new Jacobins.”[iv] Like the old Jacobins, the advocates of American empire see themselves as promoting universally valid principles. The demand for American intervention in the world springs from what they like to call “moral clarity.” America must conduct a global campaign for “democracy” and “freedom.” To borrow the title of a 2004 book by David Frum and Richard Perle about the objectives of U.S. Foreign policy, America should put “an end to evil.”
The French Jacobins were inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). This was particularly true of Maximilien Robespierre, who became the leader of France. Rousseau had argued, in The Social Contract (1762), that “man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.”[v] Historically existing societies had warped and imprisoned man’s natural goodness. For man to be liberated, inherited societies and beliefs had to be destroyed. The Jacobins dealt harshly with “evil,” guillotining representatives of the old order and employing a general ruthlessness that culminated in the Reign of Terror.[vi] Considering the vileness of existing society, there was for the Jacobins nothing paradoxical about liberating men by force. In 2002, President Bush informed the U.S. Congress that the “Department of Defense has become the most powerful force for freedom the world has ever seen.”[vii] One recalls Rousseau’s idea that those who resist political right will have to be “forced to be free.”[viii]
An obvious difference between the French and the new Jacobins is that the latter have chosen not France but America as the Liberator of mankind. An obvious similarity is that each would give moral carte blanche to a particular country.
On his European tour in the winter of 2005, President Bush solicited the support of Europe for America’s worldwide campaign for freedom and democracy, saying about Americans and Europeans that “our ideals and our interests lead in the same direction.”[ix] What that direction was had been indicated in a most telling way just a few days earlier in Paris by the president’s then newly-appointed secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. She made the connection between U.S. foreign policy and Jacobinism probably more explicit than she knew. She said that “the founders of both the French and American republics were inspired by the very same values and by each other.” [x] In other words, the American and French republics had origins in the same revolutionary spirit. This was a flagrant misrepresentation of history, but the statement amply confirmed the Jacobin-like impetus behind the Bush-administration’s foreign policy.
It is here pertinent to observe that, although the people called neoconservatives are not intellectually uniform, their movement is in its main thrust not a variety of conservatism. It is a special, ideologically intense form of modern progressive liberalism. As already mentioned, many of its leaders used to be Trotskyite Marxists, and from their past they brought with them a sense that the world needs to be remade in the image of their own principles.
A traditionally conservative concern for higher values, as in Edmund Burke, has nothing to do with a belief that a single political and social model fits all circumstances or with an urge to transform the world. Burkeans do believe that something better is always possible, and they grope for what is intrinsically right, for what advances the common good and moral universality—this in a complex and imperfect world. But they stress that any society must seek guidance in and build upon the best of its own past and adapt a sense of higher direction to the historical circumstances of time and place.[xi]
I have long pointed to the connection between American neo-Jacobinism and a prominent element in the thought of Leo Strauss and the Straussians. Strauss famously rejected what he called “historicism,” that is, any inclination to be guided in the formulation of moral goals by historical experience or to adapt to historical circumstance. For Strauss and the Straussians, the standard of right has but one source, ahistorical ratiocination. And so Straussians have taught Americans that real philosophers must be “alienated” from the society in which they find themselves and disdain the “ancestral,” that is, whatever is favored by tradition or convention. Do not look to history to learn who you are or ought to be. To philosophize properly is to consider “universal or abstract principles,” and this “has necessarily a revolutionary, disturbing, unsettling effect.”[xii] That neo-Jacobin ideology shares this prejudice against the old and sees abstract universal principles as unsettling should be illustrated further.
Most leading neoconservatives think of themselves as representing a progressive, even revolutionary force. Professor Harry Jaffa, another prominent disciple of Strauss, asserts the following: “To celebrate the American Founding is . . . to celebrate revolution.” The American Revolution in behalf of freedom may appear mild, “as compared with subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere [but] it nonetheless embodied the greatest attempt at innovation that human history has recorded.”[xiii] What is admirable about America, then, is how it differs from the past. What is at once distinctive, innovative and noble is the idea of America. For the late Irving Kristol, the reputed “godfather” of neoconservatism, who claimed to be an admirer of Strauss, the United States is defined by the abstract principles to which it is committed. America is, Kristol wrote, “ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear.”[xiv]
Straussians and neoconservatives are fond of referring to “the Founding,” because that term suggests that America had a fresh start. Adopting ahistorical universal principles, America turned its back on the bad old ways of Europe. This use of the term “Founding” conceals that prior to the War of Independence, which Straussians prefer to call “the American Revolution,” and prior to the framing of the Constitution, America already comprised well-functioning societies based on Christian, classical, and specifically British traditions. The term “American Revolution” appeals to neo-Jacobins because it conceals the great extent to which, after the War of Independence, America, including the U.S. Constitution, was a continuation, indeed, in important respects a reaffirmation, of that heritage.[xv]
Neoconservatives have long tried to transfer the allegiance of Americans to a redefined, Jacobin-style America. William Kristol has insisted that America must have great military and other governmental might vigorously to promote its universal principles. He has called for “national greatness conservatism.” He has argued that the old American suspicion of strong, centralized, activist Federal government must be abandoned.[xvi] According to Kristol senior, it was the historical role of neoconservatism “to convert the Republican party, and conservatism in general, against their wills” and to make them accept the new, far more ambitious conception of government.[xvii]
Another leading neoconservative, Michael Ledeen, an advisor on national security in the Reagan White House, openly portrays the America with which he identifies as a destroyer of existing societies. According to Ledeen, “Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day . . . Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity, which menaces their traditions . . . . [We] must destroy them to advance our historic mission.”[xviii]
It should be obvious that the term “neoconservatism” is very misleading.
The American Framers saw man as having both higher and lower potentialities. They were acutely aware of the moral preconditions of responsible freedom. They feared original sin in themselves and others. They stressed the need to check the darker potentialities of human nature, the unleashing of which could wreak havoc on the individual and society. They hoped that in personal life moral character would restrain the desire for self-aggrandizement and that in national political life the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution would contain and domesticate the all-too-human desire for power. Personal self-control and constitutionalism were but different aspects of the effort to tame the voracious ego. Freedom could not be bestowed on a people. It had to be achieved over time by individuals acting responsibly, which involved protracted inner and outer struggle. Freedom could be safeguarded in America only by the continuation of the kind of culture and personality type that had fostered it in the first place.[xix] The primary reason why the U.S. Constitution has become a mere shadow of its former self is that it cannot function as intended without the just-mentioned culture and character traits. [xx]
Today a more grasping, “imperialistic” ego is throwing off the old American constitutional self and related constitutional restraints. A desire for self-aggrandizement that is hard to reconcile with the original constitutional temperament is today transforming traditional limited, decentralized American government into a national security Superstate. The neo-Jacobin desire for armed global supremacy is less importunate at this moment only because of the enormous budget deficits and a staggering national debt.
It was partly to break free of the old American fear of unlimited power and the view of life that it implies that the new Jacobins tried to transfer the allegiance of Americans to a reinvented America. They propounded and keep propounding a new myth that I discuss at length in my 2003 book America the Virtuous—the myth of a morally noble, “exceptional” America—according to which America should be given free rein in its mission to transform the world. This myth provides the appetite for power with the moral justification that it likes to have.
The old Western notion of human moral and intellectual imperfection and the accompanying recognition of a need for self-control and humility can be traced back through Christianity, the ancient Greeks and the Old Testament. This view of human nature and the political attitudes that it fosters tend to forestall, censure, and defuse an inordinate desire for power, hence is not pleasing to the ego that wants to dominate other human beings.
The ideology of neo-Jacobinism, by contrast, offers a potent stimulant to the will to power. That will often breaks through the moralistic surface behind which it hides. One prominent media commentator, who gave expression to the will to dominate long before 9/11, is Charles Krauthammer. He kept telling his countrymen that America is no “mere international citizen” but “the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome.” It should be using its power to create a world more to its liking. It should “reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.”[xxi] Given America’s noble cause, why should its exercise of power not be “unapologetic” and “implacable”? Robert Kagan, another leading foreign policy commentator, similarly wants America to be more forceful and confrontational. He wrote in 2002: “America . . . can sometimes seem like a bully on the world stage . . . . But really, the 1,200 pound gorilla is an underachiever in the bullying business.”[xxii]
The U.S. framers assumed not only a need for restraints on power but for particular interests to accommodate each other. As applied to international affairs, this assumption would mean that states should check and balance and try to accommodate each other—which is the opposite of unilateralism. The notion that America knows better than all other nations and has a right to dictate terms to them is alien to the spirit that informs American constitutionalism.
The sharp contrast between neo-Jacobin supremacist thinking and the ethos of an earlier America is suggested by comments that Alexander Hamilton made in 1797 about the French government. Having been a leading champion of the U.S. Constitution, Hamilton was secretary of the treasury in the George Washington administration. He found the French government’s Jacobin-flavored desire to dictate to other nations unacceptable. France “betrayed a spirit of universal domination; an opinion that she had a right to be legislatrix of nations; that they are all bound to submit to her mandates, to take from her their moral, political, and religious creeds; that her plastic and regenerating hand is to mould them into whatever shape she thinks fit; and that her interest is to be the sole measure of the rights of the rest of the world.” Such claims, Hamilton argued, are repugnant “to the general rights of nations, to the true principles of liberty, [and] to the freedom of opinion of mankind.”[xxiii] The American constitutionalist temperament was and remains incompatible with the Jacobin spirit.
For Christians, the greatest sin is pride. Before them, the Greeks warned of the great danger of conceit and arrogance. Hubris, they said, invites Nemesis. Two inscriptions on the Apollonian temple at Delphi summed up the proper attitude to life. One was “Everything in moderation,” the other “Know Thyself.” To know yourself meant to recognize that you are not one of the gods but a mere mortal. In the Old Testament we read in Proverbs: “Humility goeth before honor.” (15:33) “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” (16:5) “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (16:18) “The Lord will destroy the house of the proud.” (15:25)
To the new Jacobins, such warnings and calls for humility have the quaint sound of something long outdated. Why should those who know how humanity should live question their own ideas or right to dominate? What the world needs is, to use again that favorite term of theirs, “moral clarity”—not obfuscation. This self-absorbed and self-applauding attitude could hardly be more different from the character type that the old Americans admired and that the Framers of the Constitution hoped would animate and sustain America’s political institutions. In 1789 President George Washington proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for all the good bestowed by Almighty God on the American people. He asked his fellow Americans to unite “in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the Great Lord and Ruler of nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” This is the voice of an older America that in recent decades has been shouted down by neo-Jacobin nationalism.
The vast influence of the new Jacobins was decisive in formulating and launching the Bush doctrine and in pushing through the war against Iraq. For obvious, reasons they have suffered a loss of prestige since then. But so numerous, well-funded and deeply entrenched are they in institutions that form American policy and opinion that they cannot be expected simply to fade away. They are more likely to regroup and to reappear in somewhat different garb, for the moment more prominently in the Democratic party. As for the old American constitutional republic, it suffered severe blows in the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first. A come-back for constitutionalism would, most fundamentally, require a cultural and moral renaissance that nurtures the constitutional personality in some contemporary form, but of such a development there are at present only flickering signs.
[i] The emergence, ideas, leading figures, influence, and historical context of the ideology of American empire are explored in depth in Claes G. Ryn, America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (New Brunswick, N.J. and London: Transaction Publishers, 2003). On the connection between this ideology and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, see Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[ii] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 153.
[iii] President George W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005, State of the Union Address, February 2, 2005, and remarks by George W. Bush in taped interview with Bob Woodward, excerpted in the Washington Post, November 19, 2002 from Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).
[v] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Basic Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), Social Contract, Bk. I, Ch. I, 141.
[vi] For a detailed account of the origins, ideas, main figures and stages of the French revolution, see Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1989).
[vii] Statement to the U.S. Congress, June 18, 2002, www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/06.
[viii] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Basic Political Writings, Social Contract, Bk. I, Ch. VII, 150.
[ix] President George W. Bush, Address in Brussels, Belgium, February 21, 2005.
[x] Condoleezza Rice, speech in Paris, February, 2005.
[xi] A classical example of this conservative attitude is Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. For a brief summary of elements of conservative thought, see Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986).
[xii] Strauss, Natural Right and History (Cicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 13.
[xiii] Harry V. Jaffa, “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” in William F. Buckley, Jr. and Charles R. Kesler, eds., Keeping the Tablets (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 86.
[xiv] Irving Kristol, “The Neo-Conservative Persuasion: What it was and what it is,” The Weekly Standard , Aug. 25, 2003.
[xv] For a discussion of the continuity of America’s “founding” with its past, including British tradition, see Ryn, America the Virtuous, esp. Chs. 5 and 12. See also, Joseph Baldacchino, “The Unraveling of American Constitutionalism: From Customary Law to Permanent Innovation,” Humanitas, Vol. 18, Nos. 1& 2, 2005, available at http://www.nhinet.org/baldacchino18-1&2.pdf.
[xvi] See, for example, William Kristol and David Brooks, “What Ails Conservatism,” Wall Street Journal, September 15, 1997.
[xvii] Irving Kristol, “Neo-Conservative Persuasion.”
[xviii] Michael Ledeen, The War Against the Terror Masters (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 212-213.
[xix] The points made in this paragraph are more fully argued and substantiated in Ryn, America the Virtuous and Claes G. Ryn, Democracy and the Ethical Life, 2nd,exp .ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990; first published in 1978). Regarding the British origins of the American constitutional order, see Russell Kirk, The Conservative Constitution (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1990) and The Roots of American Order (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2003; first published in 1974). See also, Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, The Symbols of the American Tradition (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995; first published in 1970).
[xx] On the relationship between the written Constitution and the unwritten one, including the constitutional personality, see Claes G. Ryn, “Political Philosophy and the Unwritten Constitution,” Modern Age, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Summer 1992), available also at http://www.nhinet.org/unwrit.htm.
[xxi] Charles Krauthammer, Time, March 5, 2001.
[xxii] Robert Kagan, Washington Post, November 3, 2002.
[xxiii] Alexander Hamilton, “The Warning” (1797) and “Pacificus” (1793), excerpted in Arnold Wolfers and Laurence W. Martin eds., The Anglo-American Tradition in Foreign Affairs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956).
Claes G. Ryn is a member of the Ron Paul Institute's Academic Board. Since the late 1980s he has been warning against an ideology of American exceptionalism with strongly interventionist and imperialist implications. He did so in his 1991 book The New Jacobinism and many subsequent writings, including the 2003 book America the Virtuous. With the George W. Bush administration in particular it was apparent that neo-Jacobin thinking had become a major influence on U.S. foreign policy. These remarks were made before the regular meeting of The Committee for the Republic, in Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2013.