WASHINGTON — There's a debate going on in Washington about whether the United States has become an imperialist power since the cold war ended little more than a decade ago. The debaters miss the point. The United States has been imperialist since the days of Thomas Jefferson.
It was Jefferson who said: "Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be."
We have fulfilled Jefferson's prediction, but not his hope.
In the 19th century, our imperialism was territorial; in the 20th, it was ideological. In the 21st, the debate ought to be not over the name, but the substance.
In the middle of the 19th century, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, including a heavy religious and racial strain, was developed in an effort to rationalize the Mexican War as inspired by something nobler than greed. This doctrine held that it was manifestly the destiny of the United States to occupy and uplift the entire North American continent, and possibly South America as well. This was not only America's divine right; it was America's duty, a mission assigned by God to the United States. And it was white people who received the assignment.
This doctrine reached its fullest development at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Listen to Sen. Albert J. Beveridge (R) of Indiana in 1900: " ... thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.... God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration."
These thoughts did not go unchallenged. The Mexican War was opposed by such distinguished statesmen as Abraham Lincoln, then a member of Congress, and Albert Gallatin, secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison.
The Senate rejected a treaty of the Grant administration to make Santo Domingo, now known as the Dominican Republic, a state. A condition of the declaration of war against Spain in 1898 was that the United States would not make Cuba American territory. But the United States did take Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
This marked the transition from territorial to ideological imperialism. The theme of spreading democracy and human rights has been consistently followed ever since. President Wilson called World War I a crusade to make the world safe for democracy. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed World War II to be for the Four Freedoms - of speech and religion, from want and fear - "everywhere in the world."
The cold war became as much a crusade against the ideology of communism as against the military power of the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Truman Doctrine was designed for Greece and Turkey, but applied worldwide. Efforts to contain communist China through the Vietnam War revived racist memories of the "yellow peril." Probably without intending it, the Bush administration's approach toward the UN conference on racism also has touched the sensitive race nerve of Manifest Destiny.
After the United States won the cold war so decisively, the Soviet Union did not simply collapse, it disappeared. American leaders have put even more emphasis on the expansion of human rights and democracy around the world, and they still view it as a divine mission. In accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, Bob Dole said: " ... we were placed here, for a purpose, by a higher power. There's no doubt about it."
In 1997, Madeleine Albright, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about her nomination to be secretary of State, said: "We must be more than an audience, more even than actors. We must be the authors of the history of our age." The same year, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told students at the Foreign Affairs College of China: "We do not see our insistence on freedom ... as an inappropriate incursion into another country's internal affairs. We see it as the greatest gift we can offer the world."
It doesn't matter whether we call this imperialism or world leadership.
What matters is that, unlike the ancient Romans or the 19th-century British, we consider the feelings of the people whom, depending on your label, we are either directing or leading.
Pat Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.