...whenever the word imperialism is used, there is always the implication...of an aggressiveness, the true reasons for which do not lie in the aims which are temporarily being pursued; of an aggressiveness that is only kindled anew by each success; of an aggressiveness for its own sake, as reflected in such terms as "hegemony," "world dominion," and so forth. And history, in truth, shows us nations and classes -- most nations furnish an example at some time or other -- that seek expansion for the sake of expanding, war for the sake of fighting, victory for the sake of winning, dominion for the sake of ruling. (Schumpeter, Imperialism/Social Classes [pb. ed. 1974], p.5)He continued:
Expansion for its own sake always requires, among other things, concrete objects if it is to reach the action stage and maintain itself, but this does not constitute its meaning. Such expansion is in a sense its own "object," and the truth is that it has no adequate object beyond itself. Let us therefore, in the absence of a better term, call it "objectless".... This, then, is our definition: imperialism is the objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion. (Ibid., p.6)Schumpeter went on to note, among other things, that an "inner necessity to engage in a policy of conquest" could be translated into action only when a "war machine stood ready at hand" (p.61). Schumpeter, as Michael Doyle notes in Ways of War and Peace (1997), exonerates capitalism of any responsibility for imperialism more or less by definitional fiat, and then proceeds to argue that "democratic capitalism leads to peace" (Doyle, p.245).
The idea of a Schumpeterian 'objectless' expansion may seem odd, but in The Reactionary Mind (ch.8, "Remembrance of Empires Past") Corey Robin portrays American neoconservatives as, in effect, proponents of such a thing (though he doesn't put it quite that way).
Robin describes the distaste, even disgust, with which the neocons viewed the Clinton years. These writers (the Kagans, Kristols, and Robert Kaplan, for instance) saw Clinton's foreign policy, with its emphasis on free trade agreements and globalized markets, as "proof of the oozing decadence taking over the United States" (p.172) after the Soviet Union's dissolution.
Robin summarizes the neocons' perspective as follows (p.174; emphasis in original):
What these conservatives longed for was an America that was genuinely imperial -- not just because they believed it would make the United States safer or richer, and not just because they thought it would make the world better, but because they literally wanted to see the United States make the world.The neoconservatives were indeed repelled by what they viewed as Clinton's lack of virtú (cf. p.173) and 'vision' (not that George H.W. Bush or Reagan had an especially coherent vision either, but that's another story). However, the casual reader (and probably even the non-casual one) could come away from this essay (and one or two others in The Reactionary Mind) with the impression that only conservatives have been strongly attracted to an imperial and/or militarily assertive role for the U.S. Robin is aware, of course, that this is not accurate, but his argument that conservatives' attraction to war and imperialism is qualitatively different from that of non-conservatives can result in glossing over the fact that support for an imperial or expansionist or, at minimum, 'pro-active' U.S. foreign policy has not been the sole preserve of the Right.
Most obviously, Cold War liberals supported and/or designed many of the interventions of the 1950s and 1960s, including but not limited to the Vietnam War; and the aura of macho toughness cultivated by some members of JFK's inner circle is well known.
To go back further, one finds, for instance, at the turn of the twentieth century that support for an expansionary U.S. foreign policy crossed the ideological and partisan lines of domestic politics. (There was also, of course, an anti-imperialist movement at the time, though it wielded, on the whole, less influence.)
As Walter McDougall observes:
Historians stress the dynamic crosscurrents in turn-of-the-[twentieth]-century American society. Foster Rhea Dulles thought the era "marked by many contradictions." Richard Hofstadter identified "two different moods," one tending toward protest and reform, the other toward national expansion.... But the contradictions are only a product of our wish to cleanse the Progressive movement of its taint of imperialism abroad. For at bottom, the belief that American power, guided by a secular and religious spirit of service, could remake foreign societies came as easily to Progressives as trust-busting, prohibition of child labor, and regulation of interstate commerce, meatpacking, and drugs. Leading imperialists like [Theodore] Roosevelt, [Albert] Beveridge, and Willard Straight were all Progressives; leading Progressives like Jacob Riis, Gifford Pinchot, and Robert LaFollette all supported the Spanish war and the insular acquisitions. Even academic historians of the time applauded the war and colonies (except, in some cases, the Philippines), and elected A.T. Mahan [author of The Influence of Sea Power upon History] president of the American Historical Association. (McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997), p.120)Mahan was far from the only intellectual supporter of expansionism, but his book on the influence of sea power, published in 1890 (it was followed by a sequel), had a wide impact. Fareed Zakaria notes:
In the first chapter, which was the most widely read part of the book, Mahan clearly stated his central thesis: as a great productive nation, the United States needed to turn its attention to the acquisition of a large merchant marine, a great navy, and, finally, colonies and spheres of international influence and control. Not only was this necessary, Mahan asserted, it was inevitable, an inexorable step in the march of history. Mahan had expounded on these themes in his lectures at the Naval War College in the late 1880s, and he continued to propagate them through articles, books, and speeches throughout the 1890s. (Zakaria, From Wealth to Power (1998), p.134)It was not only in the U.S. that Mahan was influential. His book became, in Michael Howard's words, "the Bible of European navies at the turn of the century," from which they took his teaching that the "task of naval power [in war] was to gain 'Command of the Sea,' which made it possible to use the oceans as a highway for one's own trade and a barrier to that of the enemy; and that command was the perquisite of the strongest capital fleet." (Howard, War in European History (1976), p.125) [For more on Mahan, see, e.g., Philip A. Crowl, "Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian," in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. P. Paret (1986); J.T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command (1997).]
Is there, as some of the preceding might suggest, a close connection between attachment to a big navy and support for a far-flung, 'forward-deployed', quasi-imperial global role? This is perhaps a less obvious question than one might think. A big navy, for an 'insular' power like the U.S., is probably a prerequisite (necessary but not sufficient) for the maintenance of a global network of military bases such as the U.S. now has. But one might favor a big navy and advocate limiting its use to helping keep sea lanes open and assuring 'command of the commons,' while opposing the network of hundreds of bases (as well as the present and/or future military operations they might facilitate). Another position, of course, would simply be not to support a big navy, or at least not one of the current size. But this opens up a bigger subject, a question for another occasion.