Republic in Peril Cover

Republic in Peril

American Empire and the Liberal Tradition

David C. Hendrickson

Oxford University Press, New York, 2018, 304 pages

Book Review published on: September 7, 2018

Author David C. Hendrickson is an accomplished academic and scholar. He has written many books and articles while serving as professor of political science at Colorado College, where he has taught since 1983. He has written extensively on U.S. foreign policy and contentious politics. Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition builds nicely upon that body of work.

His premise for this book is that the United States has professed to be a nation guided by liberalist principles, but over the past twenty-five years, it has done little to show it through liberalist-rooted behaviors. He asserts that the United States has chosen to recklessly rely on its military as the instrument of power to address discourse rather than interstate diplomacy, thus bypassing the very international institutions facilitating peace and conflict resolution that it helped to create.

He begins his argument by describing the U.S. abuses of its own liberal hegemonic power. He notes that the United States has come to see itself as the only righteous state capable of directing and enforcing international values and norms. The United States rationalizes this self-appointed position as necessary to ensure world order for the greater collective good, and it has consistently misused this self-proclaimed position by masking and nesting its interests with international values. American exceptionalism has led to the “rule maker” becoming a “rule breaker” for the professed greater good. One of the many examples Hendrickson includes is the role the United States played in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. The United States supported the “Maidan” protests against a newly elected president, demonstrating a callous regard to fundamental democratic tenets. Another example the author cites is the U.S. position in allowing nuclear weapons to be possessed by India and Israel while vehemently opposing Iran’s acquisition of them. The author then wages a passionate argument that the United States singularly divides the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” and rules it accordingly. This is a liberal interventionism of sorts with U.S. vital interests always at the forefront. The United States preaches internationalism but exhibits nationalism and is always ready to bring nonconforming states in line with prescribed human rights expectations, democratic principles, and U.S. interests. The United States continually chooses to dominate the system of states by maintaining an excessive military prepared to engage around the world including preemptive strikes as necessary.

Hendrickson believes this posture promotes resistance from the likes of China, Russia, and Iran. He makes you acutely aware that most of the military action taken by the United States around the world is in violation of the UN Charter, runs counter to liberalist convictions, and undermines international legal harmony. The author points out that the use of the U.S. military as the righteous global enforcer has also left a trail of costly disasters such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, and it has caused the United States irreparable, geopolitical, collateral harm. The extensive use of U.S. military forces to cure the ills disrupting world order only perpetuates the problem. It validates and necessitates the need for even more military capabilities, thus justifying increases in the size and use of the military. This creates an escalating upward spiral of military buildup.

The author asserts that too much U.S. power is held within the hands of a few political elites who plant seeds of geopolitical and economic fear by leading with domestic and international intimidation. He reiterates that U.S. foreign policy has become too aggressive over the past fifteen years. Instead of applying the “Golden Rule” of only do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself, the United States bullies friends and foes alike over issues such as trade, energy security, freedom of navigation, and threats of economic sanctions. As a result, the United States has had difficulty maintaining interstate rapport as well as garnering coalition support when needed.

Hendrickson further highlights the financial costs of maintaining such a large military that he believes adversely affects the federal budget, the government’s balance sheet, and the growth and well-being of the U.S. economy. The United States spends too much on traditional defense while it is increasingly vulnerable in areas such as cyber, which is a more likely target by its adversaries. Finally, he asserts that Americans are tiring of the expenses and political fallout of the United States policing the world.

Hendrickson recommends dismantling the U.S. empire arrangement and getting back to the true traditions of liberalism—a philosophy and practice grounded in respectful dialogue among nations in the spirit of peaceful resolution of disputes for the greater good of the international community. He does not support U.S. isolationism but does strongly advocate military restraint including minimizing the forward presence of U.S. forces around the world. This would entail stopping the illegitimate umpiring of the international system, a diffusion of U.S. military power, conducting less aggressive military exercises, significantly reducing forward basing of military forces, and establishing a foreign policy that is seen as radically less provocative to countries such as Russia, China, and Iran.

This is a fascinating, well-crafted, superbly articulated, and scholarly body of work that thoroughly informs and engages both the casual and the astute reader. Whether you agree with the author’s assessment or recommendations, you are left knowing that he put forward a well-informed, researched, thought-provoking, and compelling case in support of his thesis. Practitioners, scholars, and students of international relations, political science, state diplomacy, government policy, and civil-military relations will find this book a most interesting read and well worthy of their time.

Book Review written by: David A. Anderson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas