World War I and the Ideology of Empire

I am inclined to agree with Professor Moser’s assessment that “World War I was arguably the most important conflict of the twentieth century.” In terms of lasting historical legacy, it may well be the century’s single most important event of any kind.

Where Moser and I differ is on how best to frame the war’s importance. I am disinclined to do so by assessing its impact on the size and reach of the United States government. Indeed, as an episode in the emergence of the American Leviathan, U.S. participation in World War I trails in significance well behind the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and even the post-Cold War era.

Among other things, those later episodes lasted substantially longer than the eighteen months during which the United States was an active belligerent in 1917-1918. And whereas the passing of the “Great War” restored some semblance of prewar “normalcy” to American life, rearming for the next war against Germany ended normalcy for good. Or perhaps more accurately, it gave birth to a new normal in which American political elites came to regard global military dominion as an absolute imperative. Even today, except on the radical Left and the anti-interventionist Right, that radically revised conception of normalcy persists and prevents any serious reconsideration of basic U.S. policy.

Where’s the proof? It’s in the matchless size of the military budget, the vastness of the Pentagon’s network of foreign bases, and the design of U.S. forces as instruments of global power projection, with the actual defense of the United States and of the American people something of an afterthought. None of these can be attributed to events that occurred between April 1917 and November 1918.

What then imbues World War I with its singular importance? While there are several legitimate answers to that question, allow me to assign pride of place to the demise of race-based and ethnically defined imperialism.

Put simply, prior to 1914 the legitimacy of empires rooted in the principle of white supremacy or ethnic superiority had gone to a large extent unquestioned, especially in the West. I am not suggesting that subject peoples passively accepted subordination. They did not. But in terms of the reigning moral and civilizational calculus, the forces of the colonial order held the upper hand. More substantively, they enjoyed a clear advantage in terms of access to instruments of coercion. As Hilaire Belloc put it succinctly in 1898, “Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.”

Both the course of World War I and its outcome signaled the coming demise of racist and ethnic imperialism. That the standard bearers of western civilization blindly transformed Europe itself into a vast charnel house undermined confidence in their supposed superiority. After 1918, even in the West, it became increasingly difficult to justify the subjugation of peoples deemed inferior on the basis of race or ethnicity.

The pyrrhic Allied victory over Germany and the Ottomans did enable the British to expand their imperial holdings. But the burdens of imperial maintenance, whether in Ireland or India or Palestine, were now also increasing. Whether empire paid was becoming an open question. This was true not only for Great Britain, but also for France and the United States, even as the latter remained an empire in denial despite controlling various colonies, dominions, and protectorates.

So World War I undermined the traditional rationale for empire–superior people governing inferiors. Yet it also gave rise to a new rationale, with revolutionary ideology now offering a basis for exercising control, directly or indirectly, beyond the boundaries of a single nation-state. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and Hitler’s Third Reich offer prime examples. Some of these ideologically justified empires had a blessedly brief existence. Others, such as the post-1945 Soviet empire, based on Marxism-Leninism, and the post-1945 American empire, an outgrowth of liberal democratic capitalism, survived for a handful of decades.

Each of these Cold War empires could trace its lineage back to World War I. Each suffered from severe mismanagement. At the end of the 1980s, the decrepit Soviet empire collapsed with startling suddenness. In the first two decades of the present century, the American empire staggered through a period of rapid decay, although even today the cadre of imperial managers in Washington appear adamant on pretending otherwise.

From an imperial perspective, the commotion created by Donald Trump’s various shenanigans has provided an excuse for elites to ignore much larger forces at play both at home and abroad. But unless I miss my guess, whoever takes the oath of office as president on January 20, 2021 will find it increasingly difficult to sustain the pretense that the United States is history’s “indispensable nation.” As with Trump’s backlog of unpaid loans and back taxes, very large imperial bills are coming due, with little to suggest that the American people are in the mood to pay them.

If elected, Joe Biden promises to “save the soul” of America. He is not promising to refurbish the American empire.

Whether yet another variant of empire—centered perhaps on corporate behemoths rather than mere states—will impart yet another twist to the narrative of imperial evolution traceable to World War I is difficult to say. What we can say with some assurance is that the emergence of Leviathan, which is Professor Moser’s chief concern, is to a very large extent a byproduct of this larger story of modern empire.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • John E. Moser notes the strong initial appeal that the First World War held for Progressives. Many of them believed that war showed how the federal government could and should undertake a general refashioning of society. Indeed it did; while the United States did not turn socialist, as some progressives hoped, the federal government did vastly expand in scope and authority. The Progressives’ ideal of the permanent war footing, in which all relevant resources are put under unified federal control to achieve one or more pressing social ends, has been with us ever since.

Response Essays

  • Justin Quinn Olmstead looks at a time when U.S. engagement with the world wasn’t a given, and when the world needed the United States a lot more than we needed it. That time was immediately after World War I. He characterizes World War I as “only the prelude” to a state of affairs that has been with us for decades now, namely, a constant war footing that was formerly unknown in American society.

  • Andrew Bacevich argues that World War I changed the ways that western powers justified imperialist foreign policy. Prior to the war, imperial powers offered a frankly white supremacist rationale for their actions, but that rationale rang hollow when Europe lay in ruins. Later empires would need other justifications, including the ideological ones offered by systems as divergent as Marxism-Leninism and liberal market democracy. Yet these ideological empires have proven unstable, and our uncertain future may only be settled by whatever it is that replaces them.

  • Saladin Ambar describes early progressives’ infatuation with war as “a Faustian bargain” that they eventually repudiated, driven substantially by the example of World War I. Not only did the war not bring economic empowerment, it also dashed the hopes of many who looked for it to bring racial justice. The state that the war created was simply not what progressives wanted it to be, whether before the war—or especially after.