An Imperial Shit

Readers of this blog will know—I hope—that I have a nearly physical revulsion toward all things imperial and militarist. But sometimes I have a reaction that points in the opposite direction. When terrible things happen to other people in other countries, and the cries for humanitarian intervention mount, I feel an emotional tug: We should do something to stop those terrible things! But then I think about someone who lives somewhere that doesn’t house a planetary armory. Does my doppelganger in Costa Rica or Lichtenstein feel that same tug? I don’t mean the natural human empathy for people who suffer; I mean that combination of guilt and duty that makes one feel like a shit, a bad person, for not doing anything or for opposing those who want to do something. I’m curious about this—how the state’s possession of a global artillery, and its assumption of a global duty, insinuates itself into the inner life of the imperial citizen, how a humanitarian sense of guilt and responsibility is the privilege, the lived experience, of imperial power. At least as that power is experienced by its holders.


  1. Avi Bueno (@JasperAvi) June 19, 2014 at 11:27 am | #

    This is a really great bit of introspection. I also often wonder whether that tug, not the natural emotional empathetic one (which you reference), but that motivation to do something, whether it comes from a place that is problematic at its core or can be said to have an overall negative slant when all things are considered.

  2. Jim Brash June 19, 2014 at 11:34 am | #

    Corey interesting post. There’s a film.on Netflix called, ‘The World Without Us’. It poses the question what would happen if an isolationist was elected president and US withdrew from the world stage. There’s interviews with Europeans, Arabs, Japanese, etcetera , and even the ones that disliked US foreign policy felt that its a dirty job and US gets hated for it but the US must continue to do it. I completely disagree with need of a world cop, but the posits interesting arguments.

  3. Jim Brash June 19, 2014 at 11:36 am | #

    I would also add that I’m no isolationist, and imperialism creates the need for humanitarian interventions in the first place.

    • Avi Bueno (@JasperAvi) June 19, 2014 at 11:44 am | #

      “…imperialism creates the need for humanitarian interventions in the first place.”

      That’s a pretty serious claim that, I don’t think, would stand up to even the minutest amount of scrutiny.

  4. s. wallerstein June 19, 2014 at 11:36 am | #

    Coming from Chile, I don’t feel the same tug that you describe. In fact, “saving the world for democracy and human rights” is not on the political agenda in Chile for either the left or the right.

  5. Stephen Zielinski June 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm | #

    It is difficult to believe oneself responsible for harms one cannot prevent or undo. What Earthling would feel obligated to stop a genocide on a planet one-million light years away? A crazy person. Likewise, would a Costa Rican of good will believe his or her country capable of halting ISIS, of liberating the Palestinians living in the occupied territories, of eliminating the arms trade in Africa, etc.? Citizens of the United States might believe themselves responsible for accomplishing these goods because their government may be the direct or indirect cause of these harms and because of the enormous military power their government possesses.

    “Ultra posse nemo obligatur.” (“Beyond all power no one is obligated.”) As Hegel might say, this maxim is a moment found in both subjective and objective spirit.

    Of course, having this power has been one of the many burdens carried by the white man has he has taken hold of the world. The burden issues from barbarism.

  6. David Chuter June 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm | #

    If you think about it, you’ll probably find that what you really want to happen is not very precise. “Someone,” the argument usually runs, “should do something.” For the last twenty years of intervention mania, very few people have ever offered to go and do whatever is necessary themselves – indeed, I have yet to meet one. Seeing something we dislike and want to stop tends to create a sense of guilt or moral obligation to “do something” which is then displaced onto some organisation or some country which is, at least theoretically, capable of “doing” it. We thus resolve our own feelings of disquiet by projecting the need for action onto someone else, either “the West”, “the international community”, some organization such as NATO or the EU, or an individual country, as was the case with the French in Mali. The US fits into this model. Because we know that we cannot actually influence events in, say Syria, we seek out an intermediate target, on whom we can exert pressure through political campaigns, the internet etc. and who we can then blame for not “doing anything”. In this way, people in quite small countries do share your view, although they don’t necessarily expect their own countries to play a major role, or any role at all.
    I don’t think many people in the rest of the world would want the US to intervene anywhere, ever again, at least for allegedly humanitarian purposes. The idea of the US as some kind of “world policeman” is not taken seriously in the rest of the world (though lip-service is sometimes paid to it for political reasons). Most people greatly fear the consequences of any American involvement, though they may welcome the US’s willingness to act in a way that would be legally and morally unthinkable for other nations – killing men with turbans, for example.
    I don’t think this is an imperial issue, except in the sense that, as always, powerful nations can control to some extent what it is regarded as important and what we are encouraged to feel guilty about. But if you were going to feel guilty, wouldn’t it be more logical to start with the organisation of the world economic system, or with the lack of clean drinking water and basic sanitation in many parts of the world? After all, that’s where much of the world’s suffering actually is.

    • willibro June 19, 2014 at 12:31 pm | #

      Interesting. Wonder how Medicins Sans Frontiers fits into that formulation.

  7. Jim Brash June 19, 2014 at 12:29 pm | #

    Avi, its US & European multinational corporations and how they conduct business in the world and use their varying lobbies in their “home” nations and “alien” nations to that cause most of the harm that leads to humanitarian interventions. Promoting democracy and extending goodwill are smoke screens. Afghanistan was about an oil pipeline being securely built. Going to Iraq helped Bechtel, Haliburton, & ExxonMobile. Panama is always about the canal. US imperialism didn’t bat an eye when genocide was happening in Rwanda, because there were no profits to be had.

  8. Aaron Gross June 19, 2014 at 12:41 pm | #

    Your doppelgaenger in Costa Rica or Lichtenstein didn’t grow up in a country steeped in a robust, missionary Protestantism. Of course American Protestantism was always tangled up in imperialism; that just underlines how impossible it is in your comparison to separate out the effect of the “global artillery” from the cultural effect of American Protestantism.

    • s. wallerstein June 19, 2014 at 4:32 pm | #

      Aaron Gross,

      I agree with you.

      • s. wallerstein June 19, 2014 at 5:02 pm | #

        The Dylan song “With God on our Side” sums it up. America is capable of every possible crime, but always with “good intentions”.
        Other nations are more aware of their lack of good intentions and their patent self-interest. That blindness is the inheritance of puritan messianism.

      • Aaron Gross June 20, 2014 at 2:14 am | #

        Right, but re “God on our side,” my point is that even if the US were to dismantle its empire, I think the American attitude described by Robin would remain. That’s because he’s as much of a secularized-Protestant shit as he is an imperial shit, and whatever the genesis of secularized-Protestant shittiness, it doesn’t depend on empire to exist.

        You can see this American-Protestant humanitarianism internally as well: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was not driven by empire. You can see it clearly in Marilynne Robinson’s explicitly Calvinist writings, like Gilead, which examined the relation between fanatical violence and humanitarianism.

        Of course I’m not saying anything original. James Kurth, Philip Jenkins, Paul Gottried, and others. I’m just saying that to the extent that you can even talk about an imperial factor separated from all the other causes, it seems weaker than the cultural Protestant influence. Even if America were to cease being an empire, we secularized-Protestants would still be hoping for someone to “do something.”

      • s. wallerstein June 20, 2014 at 10:46 am | #

        Aaron Gross,

        Once again, I agree with you. The American leftists who traveled to Nicaragua to suppórt the Sandinistas were as missionary as “winning the hearts and minds” in Viet Nam.

      • Stephen Zielinski June 20, 2014 at 11:13 am | #


        ” The American leftists who traveled to Nicaragua to suppórt the Sandinistas were as missionary as “winning the hearts and minds” in Viet Nam.”

        I have trouble judging every US left supporter who went to Nicaragua a missionary. What, actually, did they wish to convert the Nicaraguan’s to? Sandinistism? To another left political culture? I believe it more likely that they identified to some degree with the Sandinista cause and also wanted to oppose the imperial and state terrorist project which defined the actions of their government with respect to Nicaragua. The Nicaraguans needed help, not instruction.

      • s. wallerstein June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am | #

        Stephen Zielinski,

        Aaron Gross above traces the American tendency to want to “save the world” to missionary Protestantism.

        I of course speak for myself, not for Mr. Gross.

        I live in Chile myself and I’ve always been impressed by the incredibly good intentions of young Americans who came to Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and also to Nicaragua during the first Sandinista goverments (the Sandinistas still govern).

        I see something “missionary” about their willingness to travel to other countries to support them and I see nothing wrong with that.

        The French do it too, but I don’t see people from many other countries so concerned about “helping out” in foreign lands.

        I don’t see anything so strange in the fact that both rightwingers like George W. Bush or leftwingers are motivated by the same cultural phenomenon, in this case, by a culture of missionary Protestantism.

        One thing I do note in Americans. Whatever their intentions, they always rationalize them as being “good”. There are few American Machiavellians. Kissinger, the supreme Machiavellian, was German. Someone like Cheney was undoubtedly as Machiavellian in fact as Kissinger, but I doubt that he would have admitted that even to himself.

      • Stephen Zielinski June 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm | #

        s. wallerstein,

        My reply was directed to you and Mr. Gross. I apologize for failing to make this clear.

        A missionary participates in a religious mission. While on her mission, she speaks the word of God in the Name of God to those without faith. The word and the project is Christian in origin and content. A missionary seeks to convert the heathens. On the other hand, a pro-Sandinista US citizen need not to seek to convert Nicaraguans to any creed or political culture. She may have only wished to help them repel the Contra-Terrorists supported by her government. During that time, real protestant missionaries went to Central America to convert the heathens. No one confused these missionaries with the pro-Sandinista Americans. As for myself, I distinguish between acts of solidarity and self-defense and acts meant to convert the other to a doctrine, especially a religious doctrine.

        Although Protestantism strongly defined the culture of the United States, the First Amendment began to undermine Protestant hegemony right from the get go. The United States was always the land of religious diversity. It’s slide to secular pluralism was irresistible as long as it was committed to building an empire. I would say that a healthy respect for the diverse forms of life one may find in the world has more to do with anti-imperialism in the United States than any form of the Gospel. This respect has its objective correlate in the First Amendment.

        Using the word missionary in the manner that you and Mr. Gross use it threatens to turn the word into a floating signifier. There is no need to do this.

  9. Louise Bernikow June 19, 2014 at 12:54 pm | #

    I wonder, Corey, if that’s a gendered response. Personally, I don’t feel any identification with or pride in military prowess. If “we should do something” is, like, send $$ to Haiti after the earthquake, yes, I do feel “we” should — but for far too long and especially now, “we should: leads immediately to drones and I have to say, it doesnt tug at me at all. Survey yr female readers- I bet I’m not alone- thoughof course this sounds way too essentialist for my taste. keep writing

    • M H Carey June 24, 2014 at 9:40 am | #

      As a female reader, consider me surveyed, and in complete agreement with Louise. The “lived experience of imperial power” is gendered; I may be a citizen of a nation that strives for/is defined by imperial power through military might, but I am not of that (to put it lamely). Because of course when I think military history I think “white male”, as when I think Protestant history I think “white male”…as when I think school shooter I think “white male”…and my own “guilt/duty” combo-pack reaction to disasters elsewhere actually does NOT trigger a sense of duty, because I do not possess a sense of duty in the sense defined by an imperialist state, even though I live in one. And it does not trigger a sense of guilt, either. Disasters elsewhere trigger just a sense of connection to others in my species — as reminders of mortality always seem to.

  10. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg June 19, 2014 at 1:28 pm | #

    I suspect a lot of people in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates (and Indonesia, apparently) saw how inhumanely the Sunni in Syria/Iraq were being treated and felt they had to ‘do something’. There are competing agendae within the unnatural alliance of the US and the Saudis that causes train wrecks like this. Each has a faction within its elite class dedicated fanatically to directly competitive schemes for the region’s governance.

    • Aaron Gross June 20, 2014 at 2:01 am | #

      But what you describe isn’t humanitarianism. It’s solidarity along confessional lines. Humanitarianism would be if a lot of people in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates saw how inhumanely Hispanic immigrants were treated in the US and felt they had to “do something.”

  11. Yastreblyansky June 19, 2014 at 1:31 pm | #

    While you’re there, which is a place we should all try to go once in a while, note that the urge to have our government “do something” could be channeled into a peaceful activity. I’m thinking especially that the US could accommodate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees instead of 121 ( ), encourage other countries to do the same, contribute to the upkeep of decent camps on the borders, and in general work to empty the country and destroy the regime in that way, It would probably cost less than a meaningless, doomed air war too,

  12. Glenn June 19, 2014 at 4:30 pm | #

    It must be something in the water.

    The first Euros on North American shores must have felt they had to do something for the natives they encountered, and so they did.

    This is somewhat like Market Theology, where the maximum greed of each creates the maximum good for all. And probably springs from the same root.

  13. ZeitgeistFrog (@ZeitgeistFrog) June 19, 2014 at 9:51 pm | #

    I feel that tug, too. And I think this is where an effective United Nations with ‘teeth,’ free of superpower manipulation, could really make a difference. I naively envision tens of thousands of trained, PeaceCorps-like people of all nationalities swarming into troubled, war-torn areas, backed up by mega-tons of medicines and supplies and good will and, yes, if necessary, armed police for temporary protection. I wish….

  14. Roquentin June 19, 2014 at 10:22 pm | #

    I’m not as hostile to everything militaristic as you. I don’t like war, but sometimes it is necessary. It’s kind of like Vonnegut’s introduction to Slaughterhouse Five where he has that line about “writing an anti-war book makes as much sense as writing an anti-glacier book” even if that’s exactly what he was trying to do. I am not a pacifist, and I get frustrated with the inability of many on the left to address questions pertaining to use of violence and coercion in a realistic and sensible way.

    Regarding this blog post, to put it bluntly there is no way to separate military intervention from imperialism. Even if you intervene for no other reason than to say “Please stop massacring _____” there is still a power relationship there, you’re still dictating a set of values and protecting a certain culture. Not only that, what of past events? What if this particular massacre you decide you want to stop is just one in a long series of them, or that maybe this particular massacre is a group that is typically victimized turning the tables?

    Another question to ask is, do you believe in Enlightenment? Do you believe in any kind of universal values? I don’t really think you can divorce either of those from (cultural at least) imperialism either. Does social progress even exist? And if so, in what scenarios are you comfortable using violent coercion to see that it happens? It makes no sense whatsoever to talk about rights, laws, and morals absent a mechanism for enforcing them and I can’t say I have a lot of patience for those who do.

  15. Smyth June 20, 2014 at 10:58 am | #

    Good question.

    As little faith as I have in our government, I can’t buy that ignoring suffering is moral. Does our government’s responsibility, or at least culpability, in creating these situations really obligate us to ignore it? People unwilling to get on planes, and go block murders have no job to do? Many of these replies strike me as smug and simplistic. Not unlike W’s ignorant and evil ideas about how to be world.

    But I’m way over my head here, found this blog by accident. What do you all think about General Dallaire, the Canadian who witnessed the Rwandan genocide? I happened to hear him speak once, and thought his idea about the role well respected countries, countries without (as much?) baggage, might play in humanitarian situations. I googled to find a link to share, and see that he just resigned from the Canadian senate.

    The idea that support for “doing something,” knee-jerk or considered, is simply the white man’s burden, or capitalism in the DNA infuriated me. But maybe I should embrace it. I’m an Amurican who grew up in a family that traced most evil in the world to the British Empire. Idi Amin being in the headlines when I was 8 cemented that link. To picket the airport, my sign quoted some guy named Lech Walesa (who? why can’t they be normal?). Holocaust stories, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, etc… read before 12. Sophie Scholl was a girl to admire. But hey, the stuff I’ve considered informed empathy hasn’t served me all that well. Makes it tough to function well in this twisted world. Maybe accepting that it’s internalized racism will enable me to jettison it, and better adapt.

    But, never mind. Whether some of us privileged citizens of USA may be driven more by neurosis than internalized capitalism/racism isn’t important.

    • Mack June 20, 2014 at 2:22 pm | #

      Hear, hear! I find it hard to accept the explanations put forward by some commenters. Sure there is a component of American culture that contributes to us Americans seeing the problems of the world as being something for us (or even just a conceptual “somebody” to solve), but it’s also clear that the US doesn’t have a monopoly on that sentiment as has been pointed out. It’s also not a “gendered” issue – sure women are more likely to align Democrat than men, but the number of each sex identifying as Republican is close to parity (the difference is those who identify independent).

      This strikes me as a basic moral/ethical issue. It’s like a Trolley Problem where the consequences of act vs not are not absolute. We argue about the outcomes of each scenario, but essentially the problem is the same. And, even if we get it wrong, many times we follow the consequentialist path and make the decision that we think will result in the least harm.

      This is a separate discussion from whether we get the projected consequences of out action or inaction right.

  16. bill June 26, 2014 at 1:24 pm | #

    i think it’s called whitebread neurosis

  17. Ross Wolfe June 28, 2014 at 6:06 pm | #

    If it makes you feel any better, I regard Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia as one of the only successful “humanitarian interventions” in history.

    • Yastreblyansky June 28, 2014 at 6:23 pm | #

      Also Tanzania in Uganda 1978. Nobody’s ever really thanked them either.

      • Corey Robin June 28, 2014 at 7:52 pm | #

        Among liberal humanitarian interventionists, Vietnam/Cambodia and Tanzania/Uganda have long functioned as precedent-setting justifications for more general arguments re intervention. It’s an old trope in that literature.

        • yastreblyansky June 28, 2014 at 11:17 pm | #

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to be flip. The actions certainly do not provide a useful precedent. What they were was more or less justifiable, at least in conventional international-relations terms, in a way no US action is ever likely to be.

          They were “successful”, I imagine, mainly because they were as unlike a US action as imaginable. They weren’t even meant as humanitarian interventions in the first place, but as conventionally legitimate national security actions: DK had been actively waging war against Vietnam from 1975 onwards, Uganda invaded Tanzania first to go after the encamped Ugandan rebel forces there before. There were no coalitions of the willing, Vietnam and Tanzania both acted in complete isolation from ASEAN/China and the OAS respectively. The armies were too poor for shock and awe. Wikipedia says it took Tanzania almost 30 years to recover financially.

          And then, how successful? It took seven or eight years after the war for Uganda to achieve any kind of stability; a repressive government that is always better than the Amin dictatorship no doubt, but hardly satisfactory, and still dealing today with the LRA insurgency. The Vietnamese invasion defeated the Khmers Rouges and stopped the terror, but stabilizing the situation took ASEAN diplomacy and civil war lasting until 1989. Many Cambodians still hate Vietnamese for liberating them from the killing fields, suspecting that it was only because of their wicked hegemonic designs , a suspicion that is not exactly groundless.

          It may be that “we” should just resign ourselves to not being able to “do” anything at all about emergencies like these. We could also be looking for peaceful ways of changing situations like Syria (at least the way it was a couple of years ago, before it was just another front in a generalized Mesopotamia war), like providing for refugees in a big enough way to depopulate the area under the dictatorship’s control: “Suppose they gave a war and everybody left.” Our overlords would say taking care of millions is too expensive, meaning there’s not enough money in it for the MIC cut, but of course it would be a lot cheaper than heavy munitions, air strikes, and operating bases, and we’d be able to sleep at night.

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