Read THE ROOT OF IMPERIALISM: CHAPTER XII of American World Policies, free online book, by Walter E. Weyl, on


We have seen how in Europe the outward expansion, which leads to international friction and war, has been due to deep-lying economic motives acting on ordinarily peace-loving populations. We have seen how national interest, blended with class interest, has distorted this expansion and has turned a wholesome process of world-development into a reckless scramble for territory and a perpetually latent warfare. Lastly we have seen how in all countries broad sections of the population have been sickened by the stupid brutality and imminent peril of this unenlightened nationalic competition and have groped for some plan by which commerce might expand and industry grow without the nations going to war.

Such a plan must involve a basis of agreement, if not a community of interest, among nations requiring economic security and industrial growth. The choice does not lie between national expansion and contraction but between an expansion which ranges the nations in hostile camps and one which affords more equal opportunities of development to all competing powers. For each nation it is a choice between a headlong national aggrandisement, which takes no account of the needs and ambitions of other powers and the development of an economic world system, in which the industrial growth of one nation does not mean the stagnation or destruction of its neighbours.

Like the nations of Europe, the United States is faced with the necessity of making this decision. The problem presents itself less clearly to us, since in the past we have largely expanded within; we have been able to grow by a more intensive utilisation of what was already conceded to us instead of spreading out into regions where international competition was intense. Those classes which in other countries are strongly driven by economic interest towards imperialism were in America otherwise occupied. But to-day we are beginning to overflow our boundaries, and we tend already to do instinctively what in the future we may do of set purpose. The men who wish to use army and navy to obtain American concessions in Mexico, South America and China are not distantly related to the imperialists of Germany, who believed that Kiau-chau was a fair exchange for two dead missionaries, or to those of Great Britain and France who drove their nations into the Boer War and the Morocco imbroglio. Our anti-imperialists also are animated by ideals similar to those of European anti-imperialists.

The issue between these two groups and these two policies and ideals does not result in a single act of the national will. We do not go to the polls and vote once for all to be imperialistic or non-imperialistic, to grab what we can or seek a concert of the world. The issue resolves itself into many immediate and seemingly unrelated decisions. What we shall do in Mexico to-day, what action we shall take in regard to a railroad concession in China, opposed by Japan, what part we shall take in the coming peace negotiations are a few of the many decisions, which slowly crystallise into a national state of mind and finally into a national policy. The policy need not be absolutely rigid or consistent. While in the early days America decided upon a policy of isolation, we did occasionally interfere in Europe, and despite our emphatic Monroe Doctrine, we made at least one agreement the Clayton Bulwer Treaty in flat contradiction to its principles.

The decision, which we are now making between Nationalistic Imperialism and Internationalism is of vast moment. It is a decision which determines not only our foreign but our domestic policy. For Europe it is equally important, since it influences the balance of power between those groups that are fighting for and those fighting against imperialism and militarism. By our comparative freedom of action, we can exert an immense influence either in accentuating the struggle between the industrial nations or in promoting a concert of action, based upon a discovered community of interest.

How we shall in the end decide is not yet certain. Though we are still upon the whole anti-imperialistic, voices already are raised in favour of a vigorous imperialistic policy. “The imperialism of the American,” writes one defender of a policy of indefinite expansion, “is a duty and credit to humanity. He is the highest type of imperial master. He makes beautiful the land he touches; beautiful with moral and physical cleanliness.... There should be no doubt that even with all possible moral refinement, it is the absolute right of a nation to live to its full intensity, to expand, to found colonies, to get richer and richer by any proper means such as armed conquest, commerce, diplomacy. Such expansion as an aim is an inalienable right and in the case of the United States it is a particular duty, because we are idealists and are therefore bound by establishing protectorates over the weak to protect them from unmoral Kultur."

It is not given to all imperialists to present their case with so naïve a self-deception. Not all would argue that it is our duty “to get richer and richer by ... armed conquest” to avert the “unmoral Kultur” of some other nation which also desires to get richer and richer. Yet in many other forms our imperialistic drift appears. Voices call upon us to perform deeds of blood and valour, which bring national renown. Ardent prophecies reveal that we shall become the first maritime power of the world and that we “are born to rule seas, as the Romans were to conquer the world.” But in the main American imperialistic sentiment is not vocal. It manifests itself in a vague determination to push American “interests” everywhere; to control Mexico and the Caribbean countries, to exert an increasing influence in South America, to be a decisive factor in China’s exploitation. Just how all these ambitions are to conflict with those of other imperialistic nations, our imperialists have not yet determined. Let us be strong enough in our own might and in our alliances and we can take what we want and find excellent reasons for the taking.

Such a policy is not less dangerous because inchoate and undirected. It is all the more dangerous on that account. Without thoroughly understanding the World into which they inject their undefined ambitions, our imperialists have not advanced far beyond a mental attitude. They are anxious to conquer and rule, to exert economic, financial and military dominion, but their future domains are not yet surveyed.

This new spirit has been strengthened by the passing of our isolation. Since we cannot hold aloof, our imperialists believe that we must do as other nations do, seize our fortune at any risk. We must repudiate “our idealistic past,” cease to be a dilettante in international relationships, take our share of the burden and get our share of the profits in the scrimmage which we call nationalistic imperialism. If we cannot live by ourselves, let us live as do other aggressive nations.

In the future this new imperialism may drift in one of two directions. We may build up an American Empire, a (probably plutocratic) Republic with outlying dominions, or we may enter into a close association with the British Empire, converting it gradually into an Anglo-American Dominion.

The first method is the more obvious but also the more dangerous. To secure a semi-economic, semi-political control over all North America, south of the 49th parallel, to rule the Antilles and islands in the Pacific, to control in part the policy of China, might be possible without a British alliance. But any further imperialistic development would meet with opposition. Almost all the valuable countries have been pre-empted. To absorb Canada, to conquer Australia or New Zealand, would mean relentless war against us by England and perhaps other powers. Such a conflict, though undesired, is not impossible. Even if it is not true, as one Latin-American writer confidently prophesies, that “the disintegration of the Anglo-Saxon Empire will be the work of the United States,"there may come many industrial or commercial conflicts which in an imperialistic atmosphere may lead to war. A policy of encroachment cannot but be dangerous.

A more secure road to American imperialism lies in a closer union with the British Empire. At present such a union would be opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans. In certain circles, however, there is a perceptible movement towards an agreement with England which might become an alliance and eventually a union.

For such a union there are strong arguments. The kinship in blood, the similarity in language, traditions and points of view as well as a certain range of common interests tend to bring these two nations into closer relations. It would be a step towards a world-peace if the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and Newfoundland were to be guaranteed against war among themselves. The chance of peace is probably increased when the number of possible conflicts between nations is lessened.

Unfortunately many who desire an Anglo-American alliance or union think of it only as a means of protecting rights, the defence of which would mean a circumscription of the rights of other nations and in the end a world war. Writing over twenty years ago, Captain Mahan extolled the idea of such an alliance (although he held it to be premature) on the ground that with a strong navy the United States could help England to control the seas. He deprecated the proposal that the coalition should surrender the right to prey upon hostile commerce. It was only from the relative weakness of Great Britain, “or possibly from a mistaken humanitarianism” that any concessions from the early rigours of naval warfare were wrung by neutrals. The alliance between Great Britain and the United States looks ultimately and chiefly to the contingency of war, and such an alliance would find the two (nations) united upon the ocean, consequently all-powerful there, and so possessors of that mastership of the general situation which the sea always has conferred upon its unquestioned rulers.... But why, then, if supreme, concede to an enemy immunity for his commerce."

Such an alliance would mean nothing less than an imperialistic predominance in the world. The trans-oceanic colonies of all nations would be held subject to Anglo-American consent. The power thus possessed might be used with wisdom and moderation or unwisely and immoderately. In either case the United States would enter upon the patrimony of the British Empire. The interests controlling and exploiting the vast resources of the Empire would come to be American as well as British. Wall Street would make money throughout the Empire, and we might some day find a Harvard graduate installed in the governor’s chair of Jamaica even if he did not actually become Viceroy of India.

The pressure towards such an imperialistic merger grows with the increasing sense in Great Britain of her precarious international position. The British Empire is over-extended; it has too narrow a base for the length of its frontier. In arguing for an Imperial Federation, the Round Table of London declared (in 1911) that “the safety of the Imperial system cannot be maintained much longer by the arrangements which exist at present.... Great Britain alone cannot indefinitely guarantee the Empire from disruption by external attack. The farther one looks ahead the more obvious does this become. A nation of 45,000,000 souls, occupying a small territory and losing much of the natural increase in its population by emigration, cannot hope to compete in the long run even against single powers of the first magnitude even Russia, for instance, with its 150,000,000 inhabitants, with America with its 90,000,000, with Germany with its 65,000,000 increasing by nearly a million a year, to say nothing of China with its 430,000,000 souls. Far less can it hope to maintain the dominant position it has hitherto occupied in the world, with a dozen new powers entering upon the scene.... What will be the position of the Empire then, if it has to depend upon the navy of England alone?"

Even with the addition of the self-governing colonies, the population of the United Kingdom is increased by less than a third, and the sixty millions of the six British nations are little more capable of defending the British Empire than are the forty-five millions of the United Kingdom. The advantage of far more than doubling the population back of the British Empire is therefore apparent. As compared with the United States, Great Britain is growing slowly. Moreover she is in a permanently perilous situation, lying near the strongest military powers and unable to recover, once her navy is destroyed. Great Britain preserves her empire only by alliances which  prevent the forming of a hostile European coalition, and in the future an American alliance may seem indispensable to the maintenance of the Empire and even to the safety of Britain. At such time it may appear better to divide and rule than risk the chance of ruin by carrying the burden alone.

This problem of defence is not one of valour but of economic resources and geographical position. The men of Britain are as courageous to-day as were their forefathers, but just as the brave Hollanders could not maintain supremacy on the sea because with their small numbers they were forced to make front against the French, so the English are now compelled to face an increasingly difficult international situation. In war, bulk, territory and weight of numbers count, and how these factors will affect the relation between Great Britain (even with her colonies) and other strong powers a half-century hence is a serious question. There is always the unpleasant possibility that a failure of the clever diplomacy by which Great Britain has hitherto divided her enemies will some day incite an attack from an overwhelming coalition of land-hungry powers.

To American imperialists an invitation to share in the profits, prestige and cost of maintenance of the British Empire might prove an overwhelming temptation. America would become an imperialistic people by adoption. Without having laboured and fought we should overnight enter upon a joint control of the greatest imperium the world has seen. Together with Britain it would be ours to enjoy, and in the common possession of these vast domains the divisive forces between the British and American peoples would vanish. Our American historians would forget that there had ever been a Revolutionary War or would interpret that incident as a purely internal conflict, which temporarily lost us a few excellent islands, since regained.

But if the British Empire, to say nothing of new rights, privileges and possessions would be ours to enjoy, it would also be ours to defend. An Anglo-American Empire would arouse the envy and the fear of other nations. We should have to defend not only our new joint dependencies but the most distant approaches to them. We could not rest quietly unarmed with these possessions in our house.

An Anglo-American imperialism, indeed any Anglo-American alliance which does not include France, Germany, Russia and other powers, thus brings us no nearer to peace or to a solution of the international problem. It is but the prelude to a new balance of power, a new alignment of hostile national ambitions. If Great Britain and the United States grow and prevent other nations from growing, exploit and prevent other nations from exploiting, we shall be merely reproducing the present fatal scission of Europe upon a large scale.

As against this ideal of American Imperialism, on its own account or in alliance with the greatest imperialistic power, stands the ideal of internationalism. It is an ideal which looks forward towards the creation of a concert of interest among the nations, the growth of international law and the more equal utilisation of the world by the nations. It is an ideal which can be realised only as nations perceive that their ultimate advantage lies in compromising their extreme demands and merging national interests in a larger international interest.

To-day an overwhelming majority of Americans desire a foreign policy looking towards internationalism. They prefer to strive for peace in America and Europe rather than to attempt any imperialistic expansion likely to perpetuate the war-breeding competition between nations.

To realise this ideal, indeed to make any progress whatsoever towards its realisation, we must seek to alter the economic web in which the nations of the world now live. There is at present a conflict between two principles, economic nationalism and economic internationalism. Each nation seeks to obtain for itself security, progress and a favoured position; each has its separate national ambitions. At the same time all the industrial nations have a common interest in maintaining themselves upon the resources of the agricultural countries, and in building up a vast system, in which the world’s resources will be utilised most efficiently for the benefit of the world inhabitants.

The problem, therefore, is to promote this economic internationalism and to limit as far as possible the disturbing influence of the divisive national interests. We cannot destroy and we cannot ignore nationalism. We cannot resolve humanity into a mass of denationalised atoms, citizens of the world with no economic or political allegiance to any state. All we can do is so to compromise and adjust strong and vital national claims, as to permit the growth of the international interest. The progress of economic internationalism, without which a permanent peace cannot be maintained, is to be furthered only as each nation attains to a political and economic security, both in the present and for the future. If a reasonable degree of industrial, commercial and colonial progress can be guaranteed, so that the great industrial nations do not live in constant peril, the vast forces which make for an international exploitation of the worlds resources will be unchained. A common right to the use of the highway of the sea, a joint imperialism, an international development of commerce and of industry, a mutual insurance of the nations against war, and against national aggression likely to lead to war, will be factors in the establishment of an economic internationalism, which is the next stage in the economic development of the world.

The United States cannot by itself create a new economic world system; all that it can do is to contribute with other nations to the removal of obstacles that retard the coming development. The opportunity to advance this movement, however, is greater in the case of the United States than in that of the nations of Europe. A nation tends to prefer its immediate national interest to its larger but more distant international interest directly in proportion to the economic or political danger in which it lives. Because of our wealth, our sparse population and our relative immunity from attack, it devolves upon us to be the leader in the promotion of an economic internationalism.

This potential leadership of ours, however, may be lost as a result of an unfavourable economic and social development in the future. What our attitude towards internationalism, nationalism, imperialism and war is to be ten, thirty or fifty years from now will depend upon our internal development. We cannot decide for a policy of internationalism if we grow to be an over-populated country of impoverished men, with great capitalists pushing us out towards foreign adventures, economic and military. An imperialistic war-like spirit will arise if the internal pressure upon the population becomes excessive.

In measuring this pressure, we are dealing with relatives, not absolutes. During many centuries the Chinese coolies have become so accommodated to a meagre life that they do not seek to conquer other nations but choose rather to starve quietly within their walls. There is a higher standard of living in Germany to-day than in the more pacific Germany of seventy years ago, but desires have increased more rapidly than wages. As a result the nation is forced outwards.

Though in many respects conditions of life in America are improving, discontent and frustrated ambition increase. As our numbers grow, farms become relatively scarce, and a class of tenant farmers and an agricultural proletariat develop. The chances of success for both these classes are slighter than a generation ago. Manufacturing is conducted on an ever larger scale and the opportunity to rise is becoming less. The openings in retail trade, though many, are small, and there are vast numbers of failures. Wages are less in relation to the standards of living surrounding the workman, and fear of unemployment is chronic. The country is full of poor men with no firm purchase on life. Income, it is true, is more evenly distributed than property, but even here a crass inequality reigns. Upon the wage-earners falls the heavy incidence of industrial injuries, disease, and unemployment.

It is of such conditions that imperialism and wars are made. To develop millions of landless men without wealth and with precarious jobs is to create a material superlatively inflammable. You can appeal to such men for a “strong” policy that will conquer foreign markets and therefore “jobs.” There is a group much lower in economic status the men submerged below the poverty line. These men, with no money in their pockets and no steady employment, but with voices, votes and newspaper organs, are susceptible to jingoism. They have a high narrow sensibility created by precariousness and hunger. Here we are creating a culture for war bacteria. The concentration of wealth at the top of our society acts similarly. We are developing in America, the type of big business adventurer, who desires an aggressive foreign policy, not only for his direct business interests, but also to allay unrest at home by pointing a minatory finger at the foreigner beyond our borders.

Already we have many of the elements that go to make up the war spirit. In the present conflict we have been pacific owing to the division of our sympathies, the deadening realisation of the immense forces engaged and losses incurred, and the realisation that our interests were not involved. To these factors there was added a sudden prosperity contingent upon our remaining at peace. But even as early as 1898, when the proletarisation of America was less developed, we had millions of inflamed patriots, who would willingly have fought all Europe rather than “haul down our flag” in the Philippines. What will happen twenty years from now, when our export trade is greater and more necessary and when (unless we change conditions) there will be more poverty and insecurity than to-day? If at such a time Germany, Japan or Russia, or all three, determine upon an action, which will injure our pretensions and throw many of our citizens out of work, we shall surely feel resentment. We cannot safely predict that we will adopt a gentle attitude. Like France in 1870, like Russia in 1905, we may stumble into a war over our rights and pretensions, may be rushed into it not only because of a conflict of interests which we did not foresee but because of a vicious internal development which we did not avert.

All our customary self-assurances that we shall never fight nations now friendly are mere deception. So we thought just before the war of 1812. We were never more pacific than in 1895 when we ventured on a desperate challenge to England, or in 1898 when we attacked Spain. Though we averted war with Germany over the Lusitania matter, our public mind was so uninformed that we might easily have been pushed into the conflict by a more bellicose President. We should have a better chance of keeping the peace if we were not so blindly confident of our peacefulness. It takes only one to make a quarrel, and the aggressor might not impossibly be ourselves. Nor can peace be predicted on the ground that we have given no offence and do not intend to give offence. The other nation will be the judge of that. And if we become imperialistic we shall have given offence enough.

Neither will our religion, our almost universal Christianity, strike the weapons from our hands. It is doubtful whether religion ever kept a nation out of war. The Germans and the English are both Christian peoples and therefore quite willing to fight God’s battle, which is their battle. If a crisis arose in America out of our economic conflicts with Europe and our own psychological instability, we should find the ministers of the Gospel on the same side as the editors, politicians, and the people generally, as they have been at most times when peace has been threatened. A war rooted perhaps in the rival interests of American and foreign oil companies in Venezuela would be hailed on both sides as a battle for civilisation and the Lord. Not even our diversity of racial stocks would prevent such a war, though it would no doubt make us hesitant. We should be loath to fight against Germany, Austria, Italy or England, because of the presence in our midst of natives of these lands. Once the fighting had begun, however, all opposition would be overcome, and the war would go on despite its spiritual costs.

If we are to decide therefore not for imperialism and imperialistic wars but for a policy which will mean peace for ourselves and peace and international reorganisation for Europe and the World, we must begin our labours at home. Unless we are able to build a democratic civilisation upon the basis of a thoroughly scientific utilisation of our own resources, unless we so direct our American development that we shall not be forced to fight for a larger share of the remaining exploitable regions, we shall make little progress towards a settlement of the grave problems which now divide the nations. To promote an economic internationalism we must make our own internal economic development sound; to help cure the World we must maintain our own health. Internationalism begins at home.