Reviews by Jill Harmston, Parker Meadows, Hannah Jenkins, and author response by David C. Hedrickson
In spring 2019, a group of undergraduates in the NIU Tocqueville Forum had the honor of hosting David C. Hendrickson, and talking with him about his latest book Republic in Peril, in which he criticizes American foreign policy since the Cold War. Here, three of these Forum participants react to his arguments, and Hendrickson responds.
Hendrickson’s Critique of American Imperialism
Throughout his Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition, David Hendrickson offers an array of arguments against imperialism, specifically against the United States’ new imperialism disguised as anti-imperialism. Hendrickson draws similarities between the American situation and both the Roman Empire and French Revolution.
Hendrickson describes Rome’s “self-image as a liberator, freeing the subject peoples of Greece and Asia from the despotic descendants of Alexander’s generals” (61). This brings to mind stark parallels to the self-understanding of the United States over the last several decades. After having established the analogy between the goals of United States and those of the Roman Empire, Hendrickson critiques Roman expansionism. Despite Renaissance fascination with antiquity and Machiavelli’s avid support for Roman values, the majority of the Florentine’s successors disdained Rome’s imperial tendencies (62). Hendrickson offers William Robertson’s striking words: “The dominion of the Romans, like that of all great Empires, degraded and debased the human species” (quoted on 65). Hobbes found the actions of the Roman Empire equally deplorable: “What sort of animal was the Roman People?” (quoted on 64) For as often as the Roman Empire is romanticized and glorified, Hendrickson presents very compelling evidence that it was, in actuality, a brutal imperialist regime. Hendrickson extends his argument by examining some imperialist facets of the French Revolution. American statesman Alexander Hamilton, as Hendrickson retells, accused France of taking, “hasty and colossal strides to universal empire” in the wake of their revolution (65).
Hendrickson’s work Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition makes use of many familiar early modern thinkers’ works in condemning empire and imperialism. In turn, he uses this evidence to reprimand American pseudo-imperialism. Hendrickson offers a compelling take on an issue plaguing American politics, as well as the politics of the whole world. Hendrickson again quotes Hamilton echoing his warning: “The spirit of moderation in a state of overbearing power is a phenomenon which has not yet appeared, and which no wise man will expect ever to see” (quoted on 64).
In Favor of American Imperialism
In his book Republic in Peril David Hendrickson makes arguments against universal empire and military intervention, relying heavily on early modern political philosophers including Hobbes, John Locke, Grotius and Burke. He focuses especially on Hobbes and his laws of nations, claiming to find support in this unlikely figure for his arguments against imperialism and interventionism.
Hendrickson’s main argument against universal empire and military intervention seems to lie with the United States flouting the rules it claims to hold dear: “Don’t infringe nations’ rights as sovereign states!” we say, as we meddle in elections and intervene in civil wars in foreign countries. “We support the rights of all people!” we say, as we infringe on the simplest forms of the right to privacy with our “universal panopticon.” Hendrickson argues that the United States is a bully who likes to make rules for others while following a completely different set of rules itself. Even if this is an accurate portrayal, I remain unconvinced of the fact that our hypocrisy matters. Of course, I understand the violations of rights that have occurred as a result of this hypocrisy, and these are bad, but history also gives us examples of great men who do not live by the rules they preach, who regardless of the few mistakes they made are nonetheless “the first men” in their societies, just as the United States could be supposed to be “the first man” among the nations of the world. Is it possible that power needs to coincide with a sense of justice in order to achieve the ideal order that Hendrickson wishes to see?
There is still the matter of Hendrickson’s solution to the ever-present international political question of what rules bind states in their interactions with one another. Hendrickson proposes a return to Hobbes’ laws of nature as guide, despite the thinker’s well-earned reputation as skeptic of a viable legal superstructure. In the state of nature, the laws of nature are at the mercy of arbitrary judges; in the international case, an effective judge would have to rule the entire world. Who, then, would be elected to rule over the whole world as arbitrator and as the one “above” or “outside” all earthly conflict? Clearly there can be no such arbitrator among men, as we are all of earth and subject to all the various forces that accompany humanity in society on it. If one person were supposed to be elected to such a position, from where would they be elected? Surely every country except the one such an arbitrator is elected from would find fault in the elected. If man cannot be judge in his own case without bias for himself, what makes it likely that a man could be an impartial judge in a case involving his homeland? Or even in cases that don’t concern his own country, what is to stop him from deciding in favor of his ally? If impartiality or rule of law is not possible, wouldn’t Hobbes be a more convincing advocate for a largely benevolent imperial power, even if hypocritical?
Political Philosophy Applied to US Foreign Policy
Hendrickson makes many convincing arguments about liberalism (in relation to other paradigms), military/humanitarian interventions, and universal empire by appealing to modern philosophers. One of Hendrickson’s most interesting uses of philosophers was employing Hobbes to describe global peace. Although it seemed peculiar in some sense since he is known for his cynical and absolutist positions, Hendrickson plucked out of Hobbes what I have always observed: that Hobbes wanted peace but was wary of how it could sustain itself. And, although he only directly discusses international relations in passing, he still demonstrates that, for Hobbes peace is possible. Therefore, I think it was clever of Hendrickson to utilize Hobbes to highlight how peace in the international arena is a possibility when following the relatively simple laws of nature derived from Hobbes. However, I can see how some might dismiss this argument by claiming Hobbes is all doom in gloom; these skeptics might argue that the reason Hobbes doesn’t apply the laws of nations international relations to derive a world Leviathan is simply because he thinks peace is a long shot and rare. Hence, he acknowledges that countries naturally have conflict and resist limiting rules and structures. But Hendrickson’s view more adequately captures the context and truth of Hobbes; he gave rise to thoughts of how states ought to treat one another (i.e. the Golden Rule, maintaining peace whenever possible) when he was writing in a time of extreme conflict and hard evidence that peace could be extremely difficult to reach. Hendrickson’s use of Hobbes helps show how destructive universal empire is for international stability and that equality and mutual respect need to be at the basis of international interactions.
David C. Hendrickson
I thank the reviewers for their thoughtful comments on my work. I appreciate the compliments and close reading by Jill Harmston and Hannah Jenkins, but also the criticism from Parker Meadows, who raises important issues. Responding to all the points “can’t happen,” as they say, so I will confine myself to one.
Meadows’ line of questioning shows the difficulty of finding an impartial point from which to adjudicate the issues of justice and power. Even sincere attempts to discover justice sometimes contain, on inspection, the “selfish gene.” The law of nature, which is my guide, does not deny this important point about human beings, whose innate selfishness is actually magnified, rather than contained, in the political collectives they form. To concede equal rights to others, to look to the future, not the past, in seeking revenge; to suppress hatred; to submit to arbitration—these and other laws of nature, as Hobbes and others defined them, are actually contrary to what might be called our “first nature.” Our basic inclination is to be selfish, the will and the appetite reigning triumphant and rendering restraint impertinent and eminently ignorable. Human history is what Gibbon said it was; our crowd-sourced age could find 1.78 trillion data points from this record of crime and folly to show that acting so reasonably and sweetly is the exact opposite of our native inclinations as human beings. Screw the other guy! Cast hatred upon him! Traduce his motives! Take his shit! A lot of that sort of thing, unfortunately, has gone down on Planet Earth.
Reason allows us to see that elevating such practices into norms of intercourse leads to the worst of places; ergo, we need norms that lead to a better place, commands of the reason that show a path to peace and self-preservation. Reflection on the law of nature, I submit, basically tells you what those are. There is one catch. It only works if you take it seriously. There is no higher authority to enforce it, and also no guarantee that your adversary will respect it. But it is all we have. It is better to have frail but workable foundations than none at all.