Chapter 2: Republic and Empire



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Chapter 2: Republic and Empire

The greatest challenge to managing an empire over the next decade will be the same challenge that Rome faced during the time of Caesar and Pompey—doing so without creating a threat to republican values. The United States was founded as a revolt against empire. The fact that the United States might be considered an empire today would therefore seem to be a violation of the most fundamental of American principles. An imperial relationship with other countries, whether intended or not, poses a challenge to the American founding. This is an issue that is already important, but will gain in importance in the next decade.


The United States was founded on the principle of national self-determination, which assumes a democratic process for selecting leaders reflected in the Constitution. It as also built on principles of human freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Imperialism would seem to undermine the principle of self-determination, whether formally or informally. Moreover the conduct of foreign policy supports regimes that are in the national interest but which don’t practice or admire American principles of human rights. Reconciling American foreign policy to American principles is difficult, and represents a threat to the moral foundations of the regime.
Imperialism threatens the American institutions as well. The Roman Republic was overwhelmed by the military system that the Republic’s foreign policy required. It became first a military dictatorship and then a monarchy. Alongside this, the money generated by the empire both became a tool for gaining power and favor, and something that became a goal of anyone contending for power. Indeed, the rest of the world learned that it was possible to control Rome by bribing officials. Rome became the center of the Mediterranean world, but it also became an arena that the rest of the world came to influence.
The Roman Republic was certainly not about democratic representation, but the underlying threat remains the same for the United States. The massive military required, in the hands of ambitious officers, might get out of control. Money has always been a corrupting influence in American politics, and it is not clear that it is worse today than in the time of Andrew Jackson. Still, foreign interests come to Washington looking for favors and with an understanding of how American politics works. Empires threat to the American regime is success. The more successful the Empire, the more American institutions are vulnerable. It also creates possibilities for Presidents to act directly, without recourse to Congress, in crafting and executing foreign policy.
An empire, by its nature, would seem to be a threat to the United States on all levels. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether the threat is intended or not. Since the United States can’t avoid being an empire, the problem is how to reconcile the reality of empire with the threats it poses. This isn’t a new challenge. Ever since the United States emerged as a global power, the tension between that power and American institutions and principles have been substantial. The solution did not rest with abandoning what couldn’t be abandoned, or with tinkering with institutions. The solution, as we saw in the last chapter, rested with Presidents who were able to manage, if not resolve, the tensions between what had to be done in the national interest and what had to be done as a matter of principle.
Individual personalities would seem to be a thin reed on which to base a country’s future. At the same time, the founders created the office of the President for a reason, and at the heart of that reason was leadership. The President was unique in that he was the only instance in which an institution and an individual were identical. Congress and the Supreme Court all consisted of a number of people. The Presidency is a President, the only official elected by representatives of all the people. Therefore we need to consider the President as the singular figure that will have to deal with managing the relationship between empire and republic over the next decade.
Let’s begin by considering the character of Presidents in general. Presidents differ from other people in that they, by definition, take pleasure in power. They place its acquisition and use before other things, and they devote a good portion of their lives to its pursuit. A President’s knowledge and instincts are so finely honed toward power that he understands it in ways that those of us who have never truly had it could never appreciate. The worst President is closer by nature to the best than either is to anyone who has not gone through what it requires to become President.
The degree and scope of the power that modern American President’s achieve, inevitably makes them see the world differently even in comparison to other heads of state. No other leader must confront so much of the world in so many different ways than the American President. And, in a democracy, he must achieve this position while pretending to be indistinguishable from his fellow citizen, a thought both impossible to imagine and frightening if true. The danger is that as the challenges of empire become greater and the potential threats more real, leaders will emerge who will need and demand even more power.
It is both fortunate and ironic that, in creating an anti-imperial government, the authors of the Constitution provided a possible roadmap for imperial leadership with republican constraints. They created the American Presidency as an alternative both to dictatorship and to aristocracy, an executive that is weak at home but immensely powerful outside the United States. In domestic affairs, the Constitution dictates an executive that is hemmed in by inherently unmanageable Congress, and by a Supreme Court that is fairly inscrutable. The economy is in the hands of investors, managers and consumers, as well as by the Federal Reserve Bank (if not by the Constitution then certainly by legislation and practice. The states hold substantial power, and much of civil society is beyond the President’s control. This is exactly what the founders wanted: Someone to preside over the country, but not to rule it. Yet when the United States faces the world through its foreign policy, there is no more powerful individual than the President.
Article Two, Section Two of the Constitution states “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” This is the only power that the President is given that he does not share with Congress. Treaties, appointments, the budget, and the actual Declaration of War require Congressional approval, but the command of the military is the President’s alone.
Yet over the years, the Constitutional limitations that reined in the diplomatic prerogatives of earlier Presidents have fallen by the wayside. Treaties require the approval of the Senate, but today, treaties are rare, and foreign policy is conducted with agreements and understandings—many arrived at secretly. Thus the conduct of foreign policy is now, too, effectively in the hands of the President. Similarly, while Congress has declared war only five times, Presidents have sent U.S. forces into conflicts around the world many more times than that. The reality of the American regime in the second decades of the 21st century is that the President’s power on the world stage is beyond checks and balances, limited only by his skill in exercising that power.
When President Clinton decided to bomb Serbia in 1999, or when President Reagan decided to invade Grenada in 1983, Congress could not stop them. American Presidents impose sanctions on nations and shape economic relations throughout the world. In practical terms, this means that an American President has the power to devastate a country that displeases him, or reward a country that he favors. Legislation on war powers has been passed but many Presidents have claimed that they have the inherent right as commanders in chief to wage war regardless.
It is in the exercise of foreign policy that the American President most resembles Machiavelli’s Prince, which isn’t that surprising when you consider that the Founders were students of modern political philosophy, and that Machiavelli was its originator. Just as we must own up to the existence of an American empire, we must acknowledge the value of that great realist’s insights and advice for our own situation. As per his teaching, the President’s main concern is foreign policy and the exercise of power:
A prince, therefore, must not have any other object or any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war, its institutions and its discipline; because that is the only art befitting one who commands. This discipline is of such efficacy that not only does it maintain those who were born princes but it enables men of private station on many occasions to rise to that position. On the other hand, it is evident that when princes have given more thought to delicate refinements than to military concerns, they have lost their state. The most important reason why you lose it is by neglectingi this art, while the way to acquire it is to be well versed in this art.
The fundamental distinction in U.S. foreign policy, and in the exercise of power by U.S. President—the distinction being discussed by Machiavelli-- is between idealism and realism. The idealist position argues that U.S. must act on certain moral principles, derived from the Founders’ elegantly stated intentions. The United States is seen as a moral project stemming from the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke and others, and the goal of American foreign policy should be to apply these moral principles to American actions, and more important, to American ends. Following from this, the United States should support only those regimes that embrace American values, and it should oppose regimes that oppose those values.
The realist school argues that the United States is a nation like any other, and that as such it must protect its national interests. These pragmatic interests include the security of the United States, the pursuit of its economic advantage, and support for regimes that are useful to the United States, regardless of their moral character. Under this theory, American foreign policy should be no more and no less moral than the policy of any other nation.
The idealists argue that to deny American’s uniquely moral imperative not only betrays American ideals, it betrays the entire rationale of American history. The realists argue that we live in a dangerous world and that by focusing on moral goals we will divert attention from pursuit of our genuine interests, thereby endangering the very existence of the republic. It is important to bear in mind that idealism as a basis for American politics is a non-ideological concept. The left wing variant is built around human rights and anti-war groups. The right wing version is built around neo-conservative desire to spread American values and democracies. But both share in common the idea that American foreign policy should be primarily focused on moral principles.
I think that the debate between realism and idealism fundamentally misstates the problem, and this misstatement will play a critical role in the next decade. It will either be straightened or the imbalance within U.S. foreign policy will parallel the imbalance of the United States in the world. The idealist argument constantly founders on a prior debate between the right of national self-determination and human rights. The American Revolution was built on both principles. What do you do when a country like Germany determines through constitutional processes to abrogate human rights? Which takes precedence, the right to national self-determination or human rights? What do you do with regimes that do not hold elections like the United States, but which clearly embody the will of the people based on long standing cultural practice? Consider Saudi Arabia, which does not practice Western style elections, but which clearly represents popular will based on cultural heritage? How can you support multi-culturalism and then demand that everyone select their leaders the way you do?
The realist position is equally contradictory. It assumes that the national interest of a 21st century empire is as obvious as that of a small, 18th century republic clinging to the eastern seaboard of North America. Small, weak nations have clear-cut definitions of the national interest—which is primarily to survive with as much safety and prosperity as possible. But for a country as safe and prosperous as the United States—and with imperial reach—the definition of the national interest is much more complicated. The realist theory assumes that there is less room for choice in the near term than there is, and that the danger is always equally great. The concept of realism cannot be argued with; who wants to be unrealistic? The precise definition of what reality consists of is a trickier matter.
The debate between realists and idealists is a naïve reading of the world that has held too much sway in recent decades. Ideals and reality are different sides of the same thing: power. Ideals without power are simply words—they can only come alive with power. Reality is the understanding of how to wield power, but by itself it doesn’t guide you in the ends to which your power should be put. And power as an end in itself is a monstrosity that does not achieve anything lasting and will inevitably deform the American regime. Realism devoid of understanding how to manage power is frequently another word for ruthlessness, and ruthlessness ungrounded in power is not realistic. Similarly, idealism is frequently another word for self-righteousness, a disease that can only be corrected by a profound understanding of power in its complete sense, while realism uncoupled from principle is frequently incompetence masquerading as tough mindedness. Realism and idealism are not alternatives, but necessary complements. Neither can serve as a principle for foreign policy by itself.
In the 16th Century Machiavelli wrote, “The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite ones, are good laws and good arms. You cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow.”
Power, according to Machiavelli, consisted of a good regime backed by military force, and good regimes back a good military force. One could not exist without the other. Idealism and realism resolve themselves into contests of power, and contests of power turn into war. Turning once again to Machiavelli, “War should be the only study of a prince. He should consider peace only as a breathing-time, which gives him leisure to contrive, and furnishes as ability to execute, military plans.”
In the 20th Century, the United States was engaged in war 17 percent of the time—and these were not minor interventions but major wars, involving hundreds of thousands of men. In the 21st Century we have been engaged in war almost 100 percent of the time. The founders made the President Commander in chief for a reason—they had read Machiavelli carefully and they knew that, as he wrote, “There is no avoiding war; it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”
Presidents are not philosophers, and the exercise of power is an applied—not an abstract—art. Trying to be virtuous will not only bring the President to grief but the country as well. The greatest virtue a President can have is to understand power. During war, understanding power means that crushing the enemy quickly and thoroughly is kinder than either extending the war through scruples, or losing the war through sentimentality. Thus I will argue that conventional virtue, the virtue of what we might call the good person, is unacceptable in a President. Again, as Machiavelli put it, “The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”
We will follow Machiavelli in using the term virtue in two ways. One is the conventional way in which it is used: a kind of personal goodness. The other way is as being cunning. The first is for ordinary people, the latter for princes. For princes, virtue is the ability to overcome fortune, luck. The world is what it is, and as such, it is unpredictable and fickle. The virtue of the prince is to use his powers to overcome the surprises the world poses. He must deal with the current crisis, and if he is extraordinarily insightful, he will concern himself with a time horizon that extends at least as far as the next ten years.

His task is to protect the republic, and he lives in a world full of men who are not virtuous.


Presidents may run for office on ideological platforms and promised policies, but their Presidency is actually defined by the encounter between fortune and virtue, between the unexpected—the thing that neither their ideology or their proposals prepared them for—and their response. The President’s job is to anticipate what will happen, and minimize the unpredictability, and to respond to the unexpected with keen and quick insight.
From Machiavelli’s point of view, ideology is a trivial matter; character is everything. The Presidents virtue, his insight, his quickness of mind, his cunning, his ruthlessness and his understanding of the consequences will be what matters. Ultimately it will be about his instincts, which in turn, is about his character.
The great Presidents never forget the principles of the republic and seek to preserve and enhance them—in the long run—without undermining the needs of the moment. Bad Presidents will simply do what is needed heedless of principles. But the worst Presidents are those that adhere to principles heedless of what the fortunes of the moment demand.
The United States is enormously powerful—an empire—but it is not omnipotent. The United States cannot make its way in the world shunning nations with different values, regimes that are brutal and simply carrying out noble actions. As we will see, the pursuit of moral ends requires a willingness to sup with the devil.
I began this chapter by raising the crisis of the American republic in the next decade. Regardless of the inclinations of the nation, the United States has become an empire. Whatever moral scruples we might have about being an empire, this is the role history has cast us in. The danger is that in becoming an empire, we lose the republic. Certainly the realist view of foreign policy would bring us there, if not intentionally, then simply through indifference to moral issues. At the same time, idealists would bring down the republic by endangering the nation, not through intent, but through hostility or indifference to power.
Over the next decade, Presidents won’t have the luxury of ignoring either ideals or reality. They must focus not only on the accumulation and use of power, but on its limits. A good regime backed by power, and leaders who understand the virtue of both the regime and of power is what is required in the next decade. The choice cannot be permitted to be between realism and idealism, but must be the uncomfortable synthesis of the two that Machiavelli recommended. It is not a neat ideological package that explains and reduces everything to simplistic formulae. Rather it is an existential stance toward politics, which affirms moral truths in politics, without, become its simple-minded prisoner, and celebrates power without worshipping it.
If the unintended empire is not going to destroy the Republic, it is not, in my view, going to depend on the balance of power between the branches of government as much as a President who both is committed to that balance of power and yet willing to wield power in his own right. But in order to do this the President must grasp the insufficiency of both the idealist and moralist position. The idealists, whether of the neo-conservative or liberal flavors, don’t understand the necessity of power in order to be moral. The realists don’t understand the ineffectiveness of power without a moral core. Either position can destroy the republic given the reality of its global position. But it must also be understood that there is no going back.
Machiavelli writes that “The one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not.” Morality in foreign policy might be eternal, but it must also be applied to the times. Applying it to the next decade will be particularly difficult, as the next decade poses the challenge of the unintended empire.


  1. iMachiavelli, Chapter XIV,

  2. The EU’s economy is larger than the American, but it is not a sovereign economy. In other words





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