An engraving of negotiations between the Anglo-Dutch force and Dey Omar Pashaw of Algiers (3rd from left) in August 1816 (1231 AH). This treaty followed a similar one extracted from Omar Pashaw by an US Naval Force commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur the previous year.
As Jan 20, 2009 approaches and with it the formal endorsement of Barack Obama to the imperium of the United States, I wanted to anticipate the moment by reflecting on the notion of power and its application.
My use of the Latin terminology imperium above is deliberate as the term broadly means “command power” and in its original use the imperator exercising such commanding power was elevated to that position by the democratic acclamation of the legions of the Roman Republic. This armed forces-backed exercise of imperium in a republican context therefore approximates best to the Commander-in-Chief sobriquet applied to the role of the American President that is so beloved by Hollywood films, and harangued by America’s enemies.
I am reading at present, in parallel, John Burrows’ masterly History of Histories and Noam Chomsky’s incisive Hegemony or Survival – America’s Quest for Global Dominance and in a strange, but not unexpected way, I am drawn to the conclusion that in the thus far revealed character and political guile of Barack Obama America has elected a new Octavian, a new Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, a man who, according to his contemporary biographer Cassius Dio,
‘put an end to all the factional discord, transferred the government in a way to give it the greatest power, and vastly strengthened it. Therefore, even if an occasional deed of violence did occur, as is apt to happen in extraordinary situations, one might more justly blame the circumstances themselves than him.’
John Burrows in his book quotes his historian hero Thucydides’ 5th Century BC reiteration of the Athenian notion of imperium as
‘We have done nothing extra-ordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up…’
There is of course enormous debate as to whether the United States was offered such an empire in the aftermath of the First World War or whether it was acquired. For Noam Chomsky American imperialism is a 20th Century Wilsonian ideal determined to impose an American concept of world-order and thereby preserving an economic hegemony in perpetuity, with the consequent ‘intentional ignorance’ of international legal norms.
I feel that the origin of the American imperium goes back 100 years earlier to the Congressional declaration of war against the Barbary Pirate state of Algiers on March 3, 1815. The arrival of an American naval squadron in Algiers, a short battle with the corsairs and the imposition of a binding treaty (at the second time of asking either side of an Anglo-Dutch action – see picture above) was the first exercise of American force (leaving aside the disputes with England) to primarily protect their economic interests. A little later the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Frederick Jackson Turner in the 1890’s were to be highly influential in advocating a further aggressive expansion of this type of action. Turner promoted a ‘vigorous foreign policy’ mainly because westward US continental expansion was exhausted and America would soon need foreign markets for its goods. Mahan agreed and argued for a better merchant navy to carry those goods, a strong battle ready navy to defend the merchants and foreign bases to provide fuel and food for the ships. With this in mind and prompted by the outbreak of US-Spanish hostilities a joint resolution of Congress sanctioned the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 and the American imperium had fully arrived.
Barack Obama’s real strength I suspect, like Augustus, will be in the transformation of the way that the American imperium operates, when enemies – both national and international – will be sidelined by legal stealth rather than belligerence and in such a way that will leave those enemies wondering why they were enemies in the first place. George Washington in his Farewell Address warned the American people a ‘nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.’ Obama recognizes more than most the cruel obligations of slavery and is intent to shed those obligations. Hopes by the world community that his presidency will be selflessly inclusive will be disappointed to discover that his policies will not only obey Washington’s dictates of American security, honour, and self-interest but will transform the way in which they are fully satisfied.
I would also not be surprised if the graveside oration by Pericles, presented in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, does not echo resonantly in Obama’s acceptance speech. In thanking the American people who have given him such power, he will humbly ask that they applaud the democratic process that ensured it and not the recipient. In this way they and the watching world will be disarmed. I also have no doubt that the Obama presidency will be enormously successful, but because it will be the culmination of two centuries of American imperium expansion and maturity, the only way after will be for it to fragment.
Power by its very nature is self-defeating. Nothing else is required.