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The Importance of the Idealist Discourse in Defence of American Foreign Policy Initiatives: beyond rhetoric towards a new form of imperialism

L’importance du discours idéaliste pour défendre la politique étrangère américaine : vers une nouvelle forme d’impérialisme
Andrew Ives
p. 90-98


Les États-Unis font rarement appel à un discours basé sur la défense de leurs propres intérêts nationaux pour défendre sa politique étrangère. Dans leur discours officiel, ils tentent plutôt de subordonner l’intérêt national aux objectifs plus nobles de défendre les droits de l’homme ou la démocratie. Cet article commence par retracer les origines de ce discours idéaliste américain. Puis, il tente d’analyser le rôle important joué par ce discours, suggérant qu’il est révélateur d’une nouvelle forme d’impérialisme. Elle est nouvelle dans la mesure où l’État-nation dominant se présente comme l’incarnation de la démocratie libérale faisant en sorte que ses propres intérêts coïncident avec ceux de la démocratie libérale. Le discours idéaliste serait, selon l’auteur, non pas une façade, mais plutôt un élément essentiel d’une nouvelle forme d’impérialisme car la relation étroite qui s’établit entre démocratie libérale et interventionnisme américain renforcerait les intérêts du capitalisme moderne.  

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  • 1  David McKay, American Politics and Society, 6th edition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 350.
  • 2  If numerous examples can be cited in which national economic interests superseded the defence of d (...)

1An objective analysis of most American foreign policy decisions will tend to conclude that the primary motivation was the defence of national interests. For foreign policy analysts, policies whose goal is to achieve clear economic, strategic or diplomatic benefits for the nation-state are referred to as being realist, as opposed to other policies referred to as idealist in which the national interest is subordinated to more noble objectives such as defending human rights or democracy1. If an impartial analysis often concludes that defending the national interest was the main objective of American policy decisions, interventionist decisions are invariably presented as the vector of a set of idealist objectives, most commonly the spread of freedom and democracy throughout the world. In fact, in official discourse there is a clear attempt to subordinate the defence of the national interest to the defence of the principles of liberal democracy, or to couch national interest in a discourse of idealistic objectives. This article will not dispute the fact that national interest is central to American decision making2, but it will attempt to analyse the important role played by the idealist rhetoric in defence of American interventionism. In what way, we will ask, does this rhetoric reveal a new form of imperialism, new in the sense that the dominating nation-state has managed to present itself as the embodiment of liberal democracy, thereby making its own interests and the defence of liberal democracy go hand in hand. At a wider level we will also observe how, as a by-product of the tight grouping together of liberal democracy and American interventionism, the systemic interests of market capitalism have been reinforced.

  • 3  “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; (...)
  • 4  Quoted in Michael Reagan, The City on the Hill: Fulfilling Reagan’s vision for America, New York: (...)
  • 5  Nationally televised address to the nation, Sept. 11, 2001.

2The attempt to portray the USA, not as a vehicle of callous imperialism, but as the embodiment of democratic ideals and the vector for the expansion of liberal democracy, can be traced right back to the earliest settlers in the beginning of the 17th century. John Winthrop’s much quoted image of America as “a city on the hill”, and his warning to fellow Puritans that “the eyes of all people [are] upon us”3 has been revived in the modern era via politicians like Ronald Reagan for whom “America is a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.”4 This same theme can be found more recently in George W. Bush’s September 11th rhetoric in which he declares “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.”5 In all of these examples, we see the portrayal of America as a symbol for freedom, and the embodiment of democracy. In this type of rhetoric, America is not yet playing the role of an imperialist power, but is simply presenting itself as a passive example for other nations. However, exporting this idealised vision has been a predominant element in the justification of American foreign policy initiatives. Rather than claiming to defend national interests, the United States has consistently presented its foreign policy as one whose true goal is the defence, or the spreading, of freedom and democracy.

  • 6 Edward Saïd, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  • 7  Andrew Jackson’s second annual message to Congress, Dec 6, 1830.

3This has not always been the case. Examples of the USA acting as a traditional imperial power can be found in 19th century territorial expansion within North America. In these examples the rhetoric resembles the classic imperialist endeavours in the manner documented by Edward Saïd with regard to Great Britain in his seminal work Culture and Imperialism6. Just as the British would claim in India or Egypt, America, in its 19th century confrontation with the indigenous peoples of North America, presented itself as the agent of civilisation. The superiority of the imperialist culture and its traditions made domination of inferior cultures a logical, even inevitable outcome. This type of discourse was presented openly by President Andrew Jackson. In his much quoted address to Congress in 1830 in defence of the Indian Removal Act he declared: “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all that art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?”7

  • 8  John L. O’Sullivan,“The Great Nation of Futurity”, The United States Democratic Review, Volume 6, (...)

4Andrew Jackson, as seen in this quote, blatantly presents territorial expansion as an expression of domination, and the domination is grounded in the supposed superiority of European culture, and the inevitability of progress. A subtler and more effective discourse for justifying territorial expansion would soon be found in the writings of John O’Sullivan. Coining the phrase “Manifest Destiny”, O’Sullivan brought together the idea of the inevitability of expansion with the providential elements of “the city on the hill” message, in which America was to be a guiding light for humanity. America would no longer be simply a beacon of light to inspire others, the light would now go forward, lighting the way for the progression of democratic ideals. This was an important rhetorical change, for it took the focus away from a dominating nation-state, as seen in Jackson’s speeches, and introduced instead the idea of the spread of democracy and freedom. Native tribes were no longer to be “annihilated” or “to melt away to make room for the whites” as Jackson had said, but instead the individual tribe members were encouraged to join in the “development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life”8.  

  • 9 The present situation in Iraq is a case in point. Although realist objectives are obvious, expansio (...)
  • 10  Certainly Great Britain attempted to send the message that its Empire was synonymous with the conc (...)

5This basic idea has remained present in American rhetoric on expansion ever since, but there has been a further change, especially since their short-lived colonial experience in the Philippines. Expansion is no longer undertaken in the classical imperial sense, with occupying forces and organised bureaucracies to maintain direct control over conquered territories. Instead of conquering new territories in the name of the nation state or empire, the USA has managed to expand its influence in a new manner, as the tacit chaperone for liberal democracy and global market capitalism9. This innovation has carried with it a number of advantages, but it has also made the USA vulnerable to accusations of practising a hypocritical policy of realism, accusations which would never have been levelled against imperial Great Britain because the British openly acknowledged their defence of the interests of empire10.

6The choice of defending its national economic interests and expanding its influence, not with an openly imperialist posture, but instead as the by-product of the defence of liberal democracy and market capitalism has made America dependent on the rhetoric of idealism. This was clearly visible in the period following the Second World War when the USA had become the predominant western nation and had gained the power to act in the manner of past imperialist states. The Cold War confrontation was organised around ideology and America presented itself as acting in the defence of what it referred to as “the free world.” This was explicit in Harry Truman’s containment policy, developed in a 1947 speech to Congress, which would set the trend for almost half a century of American foreign policy:

  • 11  Harry Truman, Address to Congress, March 1947.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life […] One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.
The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms. […] The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.11

7We see here the United States formally taking on the role of the defender of democratic ideals throughout the world, and presenting this objective as the motivation for its foreign policy.

  • 12  Here we are referring to the CIA intiated coup d’état in Guatemala (1954) which led to the establi (...)

8The defence of democracy and human rights as the inspiration for foreign policy is a strong rhetorical characteristic of the Truman and Carter presidencies, which are remembered favourably by American liberals, but this is also true of the rhetoric used under Republican presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan, who are more easily taxed with being cynical realists. Certainly, critics have been quick to point to discrepancies between American policy decisions and the ideals presented in their official rhetoric. The most obvious examples of hypocrisy during the Cold War period can be found in American policy towards Latin America, or in the events in Iran in the 1950s12. These cases have been used by critics to present American idealism as little more than a cynical veil to hide blatant economic realism.

9Today, American conservatives looking back at the record in Latin America, in Iran, or elsewhere can present Cold War obligations and the fight against communism as the justification for any “regrettable deviation” from idealist objectives. Such aims have returned to the forefront in the post Cold War era. Indeed, we don’t have to look too hard to find a vibrant defence of democratic ideals as the explanation for US interventions abroad since September 11th 2001. To justify contradictions between democratic principles and economic interests, the Bush administration has found a new rationale: the fight against terrorism has taken over from the fight against communism as a justification for any observable deviation between principles and actions. If fascist regimes were tolerated during the Cold War, this could be presented as a “regrettable inconvenience” in the fight against communism; today individual civil liberties may have to give way to the fight against terrorism, as can be seen in the smooth passage of the Patriot Act, and the successful containment of public outrage over questions of the outsourcing of torture.

10As was said earlier, cloaking imperialist objectives in the language of idealism is advantageous on one hand, but can also be problematic. Certainly, it leaves the United States open to widespread criticism for hypocrisy when national interests and ideals do not converge. But as we have seen, these examples can be justified to public opinion if some other danger can be presented as being a more serious threat to the principles of liberal democracy than the deviations observed. However, the use of idealist rhetoric plays a much more important role than simply being a sort of cynical marketing tool used to preserve a veneer of respectability.

11First, the idealist discourse is essential on the home front as a means to maintaining Congressional support for foreign initiatives. Speeches that we may interpret in Europe as being a cynical façade might well represent the necessary response to a very real political current in the USA. Appearing to falter from the defence of democratic principles can lead to problems with Congress whose control over funding potentially gives it considerable power, and whose House members face re-election every two years. The necessity of maintaining Congressional support obliges the White House to insist on idealist objectives and to respond to the expectations of domestic public opinion, which is still very receptive to the centuries-old images of “a city on the hill” or “the spread of democracy”.

12But the need to gain the support of international public opinion makes the idealist discourse even more fundamental. If in its appeal to domestic public opinion the Presidency can at times call upon an alternative discourse based on “the national interest”, this will have little impact outside the USA. Within the zones that have been subjected to American domination via market capitalism, the “national interest” discourse will hold little water, and the rhetoric on spreading democracy becomes even more central to maintaining effective control. Public opinion in zones under the domination of the imperialist state is something that the British or Roman forms of imperialism could choose to neglect, but which presents a special problem for the United States. This is due to a novel feature of this American form of imperialism, namely its dependence on the market economy as a vehicle for liberal democracy, and as a vector for maintaining the economic interests of the imperialist nation-state. Yet, this market economy functions on the basis of individual freedom and individual initiative. This precept is central to both the political ideology and to the basic functioning of the economic model. Frederick Hayek and the Chicago School have presented as an axiom that individual initiative is the motor of economic growth. Linking economic efficiency to individual initiative requires the capitalist system to take an active interest in the defence of individual freedom. And this certainly does not pose a problem for American public opinion, for individual freedom is also at the heart of their set of democratic ideals. The whole system that is exported abroad is therefore directly dependent, both politically and economically, on individual freedom and on the tacit support of the local citizenry. In this type of environment it is absolutely essential to establish a set of principles and a set of values that will allow global market capitalism to gain the support of not only the ruling elite but also the general population.

13This represents the novelty of the American form of imperialism compared to previous imperialist ventures. If the USA is perceived as not supporting democracy and human rights in its foreign policy, the system could potentially lose its basis of support and people could begin to question the validity of the founding principles. In more simple terms people could ask: if the discourse is simply a façade for imperialist domination, why should we support it? And without this support in public opinion it has neither the means of maintaining itself, nor of defending the interests of the hegemonic state that remains in the shadows. On the one hand, the use of repression to maintain influence and domination would be difficult to justify politically within the constraints of the founding principles. On the other hand, it would also hinder the efficiency of an economic system driven by individual initiative and dependent on consumer confidence. This represents a very real source of vulnerability, and helps to explain just the how central the idealist discourse is to American policy initiatives abroad.

14In this article, the idea has been put forward that the United States of America has developed an innovative form of imperialism in which the interests of the dominating nation-state are symbiotic with the systemic interests of liberal democracy and market capitalism. This has been achieved by projecting the country as the embodiment of liberal democracy, and by presenting policy initiatives abroad, not as those that would serve the interests of empire, but instead as those that would serve a set of ideals, notably freedom, democracy, and human rights. This has been effective and up to this point it has allowed national interests to be preserved from within the idealist rhetoric. It has allowed the USA to expand its influence, while avoiding the costs associated with traditional systems of conquest. However, this new form of imperialism leaves the USA vulnerable. Their strict dependence on an idealist discourse can be cumbersome when national interests and idealistic pursuits do not converge. More importantly, the need to appeal to international public opinion, combined with the need to respect individual freedom as part of the economic model they are exporting leaves the whole system vulnerable to the internal contradictions of conquest and equality, of exploitation and freedom. These contradictions could be openly assumed by traditional imperialist powers, but the Americans, having chosen a different model of imperialist expansion, could easily become the prisoners of their own contradictions. Idealism in foreign policy initiatives, is more than just rhetoric, it’s an integral part of an American form of imperialism that cannot survive without convincing public opinion of its idealist objectives. The close linking of idealistic rhetoric and the expansion of market capitalism requires us therefore to look critically not only at the morality of American policy initiatives, but also at the morality of global market capitalism. It requires us not only to look critically at the reality of the American defence of democracy in its foreign affairs, but also at the reality of western liberal democracy as a model ensuring freedom and equality for all.

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1  David McKay, American Politics and Society, 6th edition, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005, 350.

2  If numerous examples can be cited in which national economic interests superseded the defence of democracy, instances in which American interests and the defence of market capitalism were at odds would be more difficult to find. The example of American protectionism co-existing with the official defence of free trade is cumbersome for American WTO negotiators, but it would be excessive to claim that this represents a major deviation from America’s traditional defence of market capitalism.

3  “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses […]” –John Winthrop, aboard the Arbella, 1630. Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, 1838), 3rd series, 47.

4  Quoted in Michael Reagan, The City on the Hill: Fulfilling Reagan’s vision for America, New York: Thomas Nelson, 1997.

5  Nationally televised address to the nation, Sept. 11, 2001.

6 Edward Saïd, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

7  Andrew Jackson’s second annual message to Congress, Dec 6, 1830.

8  John L. O’Sullivan,“The Great Nation of Futurity”, The United States Democratic Review, Volume 6, Issue 23, 426-430.

9 The present situation in Iraq is a case in point. Although realist objectives are obvious, expansion has been carried out officially under the banner of freedom and democracy. To those who see Iraq as an example of classic military occupation, it must be pointed out that establishing a democratic regime with friendly relations to the USA remains the favoured scenario, which would allow national interests to coincide with the discourse on democracy and human rights. Although the establishment of a permanent military base may have been considered in advance as a potential positive outcome of the operation, long-term military occupation does not correspond to American policy objectives, whether in Iraq or elsewhere.

10  Certainly Great Britain attempted to send the message that its Empire was synonymous with the concepts of civilisation, progress and order, but the imperialist quality of the endeavour was never hidden.

11  Harry Truman, Address to Congress, March 1947.

12  Here we are referring to the CIA intiated coup d’état in Guatemala (1954) which led to the establishment of an authoritarian regime, to the Bay of Pigs fiasco (1961), to the coup d’état in Chile (1973), which was followed by active support for the fascist regime of General Pinochet, to support for the Contras against Sandinista forces (1979-1990) even after the Sandinistas had been democratically elected in 1984, to covert action in El Salvador in support of an authoritarian government, including the documented participation of American military advisors in Salvadorian death squads. In Iran, the nationalization of petroleum by Mossedegh led directly to the 1953 CIA-directed coup d’état and the beginning of active support for the authoritarian regime of the Shah.

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Andrew Ives, « The Importance of the Idealist Discourse in Defence of American Foreign Policy Initiatives: beyond rhetoric towards a new form of imperialism », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V - n°3 | 2007, 90-98.

Référence électronique

Andrew Ives, « The Importance of the Idealist Discourse in Defence of American Foreign Policy Initiatives: beyond rhetoric towards a new form of imperialism », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. V - n°3 | 2007, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2009, consulté le 25 novembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.1611

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Andrew Ives

(Caen, France)
Andrew Ives is Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Caen Basse-Normandie. He was awarded the Marie-France Toinet Prize from the S.E.N.A. for his thesis defended in 2001 which deals with changes in political discourse in Canada over the course of the 20th century. He has published articles on political discourse, on Canadian political culture and comparative studies of electoral systems.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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