Empire of Liberty

The BBC is running an excellent radio series on American history, written by David Reynolds, Professor of International History at Christ's College, Cambridge. The series starts this week and can be listened to online and will probably be available as a podcast. The series was launched with a panel discussion yesterday with people such as Howard Zinn, author of a People's History of the United States. The title of the series emphasises two of the defining (and contradictory) characteristics of American history.

  • Firstly, the importance of freedom, stretching from the days of the Pilgrim Fathers fleeing religious persecution in Europe to the moral force of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."
  • Secondly, the reality of empire, as liberty and prosperity for US citizens was built through the destruction of the native American people and theft of their land, and on the enslavement of Africans. Then, in the modern period, the empire spread overseas through economic colonialism, spearheaded by corporations and the IMF, and through military intervention in dozens of countries, most recently Iraq.
The 2008 election can be seen as a pivotal moment in US history when the American people decide which of these characteristics - Liberty or Empire - will guide their country, and impact the rest of us, in the coming years. Will they endorse the Bush policy of endless war, with diminishing allies, by giving the Republican party a third term in office. Or, instead, will they elect a man who is committed to multilateral partnership and who, only a generation ago, might have struggled to register to vote - let alone stand for office - on account of the colour of his skin. Their decision will determine whether America will be a "city upon a hill", taking a welcome and leading role in world affairs, or whether it will become increasingly irrelevant in a post-American world.