Empire as a way of life, revisted

Likely if we have talked about empire at some point (and likely we have) I would have urged you to read William Appleman Williams. If you were/are a student of mine, you had to read William Appleman Williams. Anyway, I have been continually struck by how thoroughly he captured the character and dominant drive of US foreign relations, and US empire in particular, and I regularly return to his writings with much appreciation.

And, as I also have probably pointed out to you at some point, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he transformed the study of American foreign relations. He taught my graduate school advisor, in fact, Tom McCormick. In some way I hope I have been carrying on the fine tradition of scholarship and teaching in the Wisconsin School of Diplomatic History these two giants (and others in Williams' seminar) pioneered.

McCormick just wrote a very interesting piece worth taking your time to read, "What Would William Appleman Williams Say Now?" McCormick lays out eight different postulates synthesizing the core Williams approach to the current state of things, and rather than summarize them, let me urge you to go read the article.

McCormick concludes:

One final observation. Ironically, much of what Williams said about empire and expansion is now accepted in intellectual and even political circles. When he first expounded his ideas in the 1960s, they were viewed as nothing short of criminal and subversive. He attracted the attention of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee and its Wisconsin assembly counterpart. Moreover, fellow members of the historical profession ridiculed, reviled and denounced him.

Now conservative political pundits and academics openly embrace the idea and the vocabulary of American Empire, as do some on the left who still find virtue in neo-Wilsonian interventionism. But Williams, I think, would have found no validation in that embrace. He would have had little use for these Niall Ferguson or Peter Beinart look-alikes and wannabes, these apologists for “good” empire—be it a rationalized version of British Empire past or a fantasized version of American Empire present and future. Indeed, he might well have observed that of all the so-called good empires, perhaps none was quite so good as the British Empire in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and yet the American Revolution dramatically demonstrated what Americans, at that point in time, thought of good empires.


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