As we celebrate Independence Day, honoring the American colonists’ successful fight to be free of the British crown and establish their own sovereign state, it is instructive to note that the US is, today, the greatest enemy of sovereignty on earth. When the British surrendered at Yorktown, the redcoat band played “The World Turned Upside Down,” in recognition of the overthrow of the Old Order and the inauguration of the New. As we enter the Bizarro World of the twenty-first century, however, one notes with a mixture of sadness and outrage that things have been turned on their heads once again, and the Old Order is back with a vengeance.
This historical inversion began in the wake of World War II, when the US emerged as the preeminent world power, taking the title from the British, who were in no position to fulfill its manifold duties. In placing the burden of empire on our shoulders we put history into reverse.
The American Revolution was a war fought for liberty against a distant and tyrannical authority, but it was also a battle for independence – that is, for the right of a people to assert their natural sovereignty against a colonial despot. After the success of the Revolution, the young American republic had to contend with the intrusions of the European powers on North American shores: we were encircled by the British revanchists up in Canada, the French imperialists in Louisiana, and the Spanish testing our boundaries in Florida. Yet we survived by staying out of the intrigues of Europe, and standing aside from the power politics that obsessed the Old World.
While abjuring intervention in the internal affairs of other nations, the Founders gave rhetorical support to the battles of oppressed nations against monarchical aggressors: but there they drew the line. When the Greeks revolted against their Ottoman overlords, in 1821, they sent out an international S.O.S. addressed to the Americans. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams answered their call in a speech delivered on July 4 of that year:
“Let our answer be this – America… in the assembly of nations, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has… without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations, while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
“She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: but she would be no longer the ruler of her own soul…”
We managed to follow Adams’s advice – interrupted only by a few abortive adventures in imperialism, from which we soon retreated – right up until the nineteenth century gave way to the bloody twentieth. And there we diverged from the Founders’ path and strayed into a “war to end all wars.” Abandoning the “isolationism” of Adams for the millenarian “progressivism” of Woodrow Wilson, American charged headlong into the European maelstrom – and in doing so paved the way for the rise of Nazism, of Bolshevism, of fascism, and the unprecedented slaughter of yet another world war that would put us on a course set for Empire. And there was no turning back. As Garet Garrett, that Cassandra who warned us and was never even heard, prophesied in 1952:
“We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night. The precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say, ‘You now are entering Imperium.’ Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: ‘Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.’ And now, not far ahead, is a sign that reads: ‘No U Turns.'”
As the cold war dawned, “the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence” began to fade, and that imperial diadem foretold by Adams started “flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power.”
The fading began in the guise of a defense of sovereignty – the alleged defense of the nations of Europe and Asia against the supposed aggression of the Soviet empire and the international communist movement. Yet it was the United States that was the aggressor in that historic struggle. From the very beginning the Western powers, including the US, tried to undermine the nascent Soviet state: a Western expeditionary force actually fought in the Russian civil war on the side of the anti-communist Whites. More importantly, by the time Stalin seized power, the Soviets had given up their revolutionary mindset in favor of establishing “socialism in one country,” and this became the official doctrine of the Stalinized communist parties of Europe and the Americas as well as the guiding principle of Soviet foreign policy.
There never was a threat to the sovereignty of the Western European states: and, as for eastern Europe, the West’s disrespect for their sovereignty was underscored when FDR and Churchill handed the countries of the Warsaw Pact over to Stalin’s tender mercies at Yalta.
America’s war on sovereignty continued in earnest as the former colonies of Washington’s European allies rose up in revolt. The communists, in their strategic wisdom, took the side of the Third World revolutionaries, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, while the US sided with the neocolonial regimes clinging to power against what seemed to be the tides of history. Fear of communist influence overruled common sense.
The great irony is that, when the ramshackle Soviet empire finally collapsed in a pile of failed Five-Year Plans, the US and its NATO allies did not support the rising of the oppressed nations. George Herbert Walker Bush feared the breakup of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the USSR, and did everything he could to forestall the implosion of the communist system under Gorbachev’s supposedly benevolent “reformist” rule. Both he and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dreaded the rise of a reunited Germany more than they hoped for the end of the Leninist nightmare that had haunted Europe for a generation. Indeed, when Bush went to Kiev to address the Rada he attacked “suicidal nationalism,” urged them to stay within the USSR, and praised Gorbachev. Ukrainian sovereignty – and the demand for independence in the Soviet bloc – was seen as a danger to Bush’s supreme value: stability.
In the post-cold war era, Washington brushed aside the concept of national sovereignty, literally declaring war on it in Kosovo, where the historically Serbian province was wrenched away from the former Yugoslavia and made a protectorate of NATO. Rearing up on its hind legs, the monster of American imperialism declared Washington’s “responsibility to protect,” that is, to initiate “humanitarian interventions” in the name of “human rights” without regard for the principle of sovereignty.
Applying this principle selectively, the US began to intervene all over the world – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria – engaging in violent “regime-change” on one pretext or another, or else funding and supporting proxies, as in the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon, which for the most part resulted in the enthronement of new despotisms or else ended in failure. In the cases of Libya and Syria, Washington’s regime-change operations caused these states to collapse, with no clear winner emerging from the rubble.
And so the world is turned upside down once again: America, formerly an exemplar among nations, is now the enemy of liberty worldwide, engaged in a relentless war against national sovereignty and seeking only to burnish that “imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power.” The would-be dictatress of the world, having sold her soul to the devil of a self-righteous and hypocritical imperialism, has become the spitting image of her old adversary and ruler: the British empire at the height of its self-infatuated and utterly blind arrogance.
We here at Antiwar.com exist to reverse that fateful course. This fourth of July holiday weekend we rededicate ourselves to John Q. Adams’s credo: that is, to a foreign policy of peace, nonintervention, and the benignant sympathy of the original American republic.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.