We celebrate the fourth of July with fireworks, memorializing the American colonists’ struggle against the British empire by reenacting, in symbolic fashion, what was a war for independence – that is, an assertion of American sovereignty. As we’ve built an empire of our own, however, the celebration has naturally degenerated into an orgy of nationalist vaunting, with the original conception obscured and mostly lost. Indeed, the US government disdains the very concept of national independence, routinely violating the sovereignty of others – and even denying its own.
When the colonists declared their independence, they recorded their reasons in a document – a Declaration that demonstrated this wasn’t just a territorial matter. They asserted their right to make a revolution because sovereignty resided in the people – not the king and his councilors. They didn’t want to create a centralized European-style state that would mimic the imperial grandeur of Britain. They wanted a republic – and they wanted to be left alone.
Flash forward 236 years, and – poof! – the republic is a bloated empire, one that asserts its “right” to attack any nation on earth for any reason. Having divested itself of its modest republican cloth coat, and taken to wearing the imperial purple, Washington has also discarded the old-fashioned concept of popular sovereignty as conceived by the Founders. When the President can take the country to war with a single command, without consulting anyone, sovereignty is no longer in the hands of the people, but of one person – our de facto king.
If this hegemonic power has no respect for the sovereignty of other nations, neither does it honor its own. Instead of petitioning Congress to unleash the dogs of war, American presidents routinely go before the UN Security Council to seek international sanction first – while stoutly maintaining congressional approval is unnecessary. When George Herbert Walker Bush went to war against Iraq he did it in the name of a “New World Order” – a concept that takes old-fashioned imperialism to a new level. For it would not be an American empire so much as it would be a trans-national entity, one that hovers over the world, but owes no special allegiance to any particular spot.
The idea was taken up by Bush I’s successors. “In the next century, nations as we know it will be obsolete,” declared Strobe Talbot, Bill Clinton’s Deputy Secretary of State and one of that administration’s Deep Thinkers. “All states will recognize a single, global authority. National sovereignty wasn’t such a great idea after all.” The American revolutionaries, according to Talbot’s logic, should have saved themselves the bother of Valley Forge.