Democracy at Home, Imperialism Abroad


“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, oil on canvas, 1940. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, as it relates to the military and war, specifies that:

The Congress shall have power To . . . provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States (Clause 1);

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water (Clause 11);

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years (Clause 12);

To provide and maintain a Navy (Clause 13);

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces (Clause 14);

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions (Clause 15);

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States . . . (Clause 16).

In short, the elected representatives of the people in Congress are constitutionally empowered on military matters and warfare, including the declaration of war.

Danny Sjursen, an Army Major who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and now is an Army reservist, advances a critique of US militarism. In his view, “The President of the United States is now a veritable autocrat in the realm of foreign policy.” War, since the end of World War II, has been waged “by executive fiat or feeble open-ended congressional authorizations.” This state of “imperial war-making” raises a “grave question” for the American people: “Is the United States to remain a democracy (of sorts) within its borders, but a war-making empire beyond its shores?”

Major Sjursen is not optimistic that the war-making power of the imperial presidency can be overturned. It would take a sustained grassroots effort of the magnitude of the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era, which is not likely to happen given that there is no draft and no public stake in continuous warfare. As Tom Engelhardt observes in his introduction to Sjursen’s post, what was initially and dramatically called the “Global War on Terror” became the lowercase, commonplace “war on terror” and now, nearly 17 years after 9/11, is just “a no-name set of conflicts that have been uprooting millions, turning major cities into rubble, and spreading terror outfits in its wake.”

Indeed, the normalization of imperial warfare entails the deadening of the country’s democratic nerve. The people feel no pain, which makes the Major’s parenthetical “of sorts” the revealing qualifier in his question about democracy in the homeland coexisting with imperialism abroad. In arguing there should be a democratic check on the warmongering imperial presidency while acknowledging there is actually a disconnect, Sjursen appears to assume democracy “of sorts” can be sustained in the US even if it cannot constrain militarism.

The very acknowledgement that US democracy is anything but robust in an era of imperial warfare suggests that militarism corrodes democracy. It is only a matter of time until militarism further defiles and demoralizes democracy-of-sorts. Sjursen implies as much when he confesses a deep skepticism that the imperial war machine can be overturned. It would take a kind of democratic effort that already seems infeasible. “Hail, Caesar!,” the Major concludes.

Perhaps we have crossed the Rubicon of undemocratic governance at home. Perhaps the word democracy is an empty symbol with little, if any political import. Whether democracy in America is dead or dying, or just unhealthy, we need to revise the Major’s grave question to set aside the tacit assumption that democracy will forever survive the imperial war state.

The real question is whether democracy can be invigorated, whether democratic culture can be enriched and democratic practice can be strengthened; indeed, whether real democracy not only can be developed to restrain imperial warfare but ultimately to succeed empire.

This is the part of the equation that requires sustained thought and effort. It is easy to lose faith in the anemic version of democracy. It is hard to imagine real democracy as a defining presence in public life and a force for positive peace. Our collective skepticism borders on cynicism.

Are we ready to give up on democracy, even democracy-of-sorts, by remaining political agnostics in the realm of foreign policy and quiescent enablers of imperial warfare? If not, we need to think, talk, feel, and act the part of a democratic people holding our representatives accountable to Constitutional responsibilities. We need to believe in democracy as a meaningful and sustainable way of life now and after empire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s