Progressive-Imperialist Hegemony and Its Follies

Kevin Doremus | @k_doremus

Liberalism has been the dominant philosophy in recent debates about the role of the United States’ leadership on the international stage. A foreign policy of liberal hegemony or primacy has grown out of progressive-liberalism, where the US is an activist country to provide global security, global capitalism, democracy, and peace. The combination of universal liberal values with the unmatched US military power leads to advocates ignoring the historical and cultural contexts of other countries. The unintended consequences of progressive-liberal policies on the international stage is a rise of illiberal political movements. If liberalism does not become inward thinking, the belief in universal values may be its downfall.

The Evolution of Imperialism

Many libertarians and non-interventionists are not fans of President Woodrow Wilson. He has commonly been blamed for changing the nature of US domestic and international politics. However, the evolution of US foreign policy did not develop towards an activist foreign policy overnight. It originally grew out of a mission to repair the US itself.

During the 1890s, the US faced social unrest following the depression of 1893. In addition to economic issues, some people were concerned that the social fabric of the US was eroding due to “urbanization, industrialization, immigration, and the reincorporation of the South…” There was also a growing separation between the urban and rural areas of the United States. To solve this problem, Theodore Roosevelt and other progressives thought of a way to unify the country.

Roosevelt appealed to a republican virtu, a solution to the societal problems in the 1890s. In his mind, liberalism, in its classical form, produced a decadence and undermined self-governance.

Material prosperity without the moral lift toward righteousness means a diminished capacity for happiness and a debased character. The worth of a civilization is the worth of the man at its centre. When this man lacks moral rectitude, material progress only makes bad worse, and social problems still darker and more complex. Roosevelt 1902


To prevent liberalism from decaying the American Republic, Roosevelt proposed a solution which was to engineer virtues people. This was his “Make American Great Again” program.  Roosevelt appealed to Americans of the past:

The old days were great because the men who lived in them had mighty qualities; and we must make the new days great by showing these same qualities. We must insist upon courage and resolution, upon hardihood, tenacity, and fertility in resource; we must insist upon the strong virile virtues ; and we must insist no less upon the virtues of self-restraint, self-mastery, regard for the rights of others ; we must show our abhorrence of cruelty, brutality, and corruption, in public and in private life alike. If…we develop these qualities in the future to an even greater degree than in the past, then in the century now beginning we shall make of this Republic the freest and most orderly, the most just and most mighty, nation which has ever come forth from the womb of time. Roosevelt 1903

According to Edward Rhodes, “To Roosevelt’s way of thinking, earlier American generations had in fact been blessed by the challenges that history placed before them.”

The challenge or task that Roosevelt set for the US was activism. The ambitious goal targeted “anarchy, backwardness, disease, injustice, poverty, tyranny.” This was the foundation for US military action in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

Different Ends of Hegemony

Today, US foreign policymaking is not concerned with domestic issues as Roosevelt was. Instead, the ends and means are flipped. The early progressives sought to restore virtue to US life. President Wilson and other progressive-liberals meant to bring American attributes to the rest of the world at the expense of American life.

Over time, progressives modified their message from preserving American life from classical liberalism to embracing Theodore Roosevelt’s task of slaying demons abroad. Progressives used Christianity as the means to justify American action in the international space. Americans were charged with a moral duty to help backward nations. The end for progressive foreign policy was universal peace and promotion democracy.

The quest for democratic peace and a liberal international order led by the US became the goal. Progressive’s appealed to “human rationality, man’s capability of maintaining peace, the ability to overcome power politics, and the peace-enhancing effects of trade.” The issue that prevented a perpetual peace was the state systems were not progressive-liberal. Illiberal states were viewed as autocratic, in which leaders only cared about their self-interests and not the interests of the people. In a pure liberal system, the interest of the people would take precedence.

The Quest for Peace

People are assumed to be predictable, and if the right political system exists, perpetual peace is obtainable.  Thus, power politics would not be relevant if there is a political structure that allows people to rationally pursue their preferences with little interference by others. Progressive-liberals appeal to human reason to help solve conflict:

Individuals are seen as able to improve their conditions, because their reason enables them to understand their interests are best served in a situation of human harmony and a world without conflicts.  [Followers of democratic peace] also believe people are able to overcome or neutralize the bad influences of the human vices and therefore have the potential to achieve this better world. van de Haar 2009

Additionally, progressive-liberals appeal to universal rights that apply to every person on earth. They are not afraid to appeal to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Following the Rwandan genocide, the international community came together in an attempt to prevent genocide and war crimes. Countries were called on to not only protect the rights of not only their citizens but people in other nation-states.

The quest of hegemony has evolved in the US. First, progressives focused on the social fabric of the United States.  Then over time, progressivism began to focus more internationally. What originally was about repairing America evolved to improving the world.

Follies of Hegemony

One major issue of the progressive-liberal influence in foreign policy is that it constrains the lens of analysis that a practitioner uses. With the assumptions of a universal standard (the assumption that individuals will act in a particular manner), a progressive-liberal prescription is a one-size-fits-all homogenous system. But the unintended consequence is the lack of consideration of the historical and cultural contexts.

In an attempt to spread the liberal sphere, cracks in the global system are beginning to show. Firstly, Kevin J. McNamara correctly points to the east/west divide that is occurring in Europe. Liberal institutions have evolved into bureaucratic unilateral decision-makers of not only economic cooperation but now all aspects of life, resulting in an illiberal response by Eastern European countries. Secondly, Velina Tchakarova (Head of the Austrian Insitute for European and Security Policy) writes of a decline in the unipolar US moment and the rise of the Dragonbear (China-Russian axis) challenging the liberal system on multiple fronts (from the global economy, finance and trade, to diplomacy and political links, to military, defense and strategic alliances).

Many assumed that by the spread of globalization, progressive-liberal values would spread as well. Yet we see a world that could see a divide between two systems again, instead of a single liberal system.

Populism and Imperialism

When it comes to the current populist movements, Bruno Maçães writes how populism is an international and geopolitical phenomenon. Populists in western countries continuously speak about how “their way of life” has eroded. Additionally, populists see the change in the global system as a “loss of control.”

The problem is that populism is not a national phenomenon—it is an international and geopolitical one. Populism is a direct result of significant shifts in the global distribution of power. Namely, it is a reaction to the loss of power by a formerly hegemonic West. Maçães 2019

In conclusion, politicians initially designed progressive imperialism to solve internal issues in 1890s America. But with time, the purpose of imperialism changed to focus on world issues. However, the assumption that the US would remain unchallenged has hindered adaptability of US leadership. There is no single prescription that will solve the problems the US faces. Overall the US should end its hegemonic policies, but that would require a change in its national ideology to be less universalist and be more tolerant of histories and cultures.

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