This Election Charts the History of US Imperial Ambitions in Unsuspecting Ways

News Abroad

Ms. Covert is a PhD candidate at Yale University.

Much has been made of the historical nature of this presidential election cycle: Obama, Palin, and Clinton have shattered major gender and racial barriers.  But this election is historic for another reason as well.  With candidates from Hawaii, Alaska, and the Panama Canal Zone at the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets, this election, like no other before, charts the history of U.S. imperial ambitions and reveals how that history has now become an integral part of the nation’s future.

John McCain has positioned himself as a Republican in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, the original maverick.  His most profound connection to Roosevelt, but one he never mentions, is the Canal Zone.  Roosevelt envisioned the Panama Canal as an essential component of the U.S. imperial project.  As a strategic commercial and military link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the isthmus canal was the fantasy of U.S. policy makers since the mid-nineteenth century when the U.S. defeated Mexico and acquired the western half of the country through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The subsequent discoveries of gold in California and Alaska, the Spanish-American-Filipino War of 1898, and the rise of the United States as a naval power made a more expedient route between East and West all the more imperative.  Previous plans to construct a canal failed, but when he ascended to the presidency Roosevelt made a canal one of the centerpieces of his administration.  In 1936, twenty-two years after the Panama Canal opened for business, John McCain’s birth in the Canal Zone evidenced the success of Roosevelt’s imperial ambitions: McCain’s father was stationed at a Naval base in the Zone.

Hawaii, Barack Obama’s birthplace, also is a former outpost of American empire.  Officially annexed by the United States in 1898 as part of Spanish-American-Filipino War effort, Hawaii became a strategic Pacific fueling station enabling U.S. expansion into Asia.  But Hawaii functions as a gateway to Asia in another way as well.  Hawaii has long been the destination of Asian immigrants (forced and willing).  This multiracial milieu is one of the main reasons Hawaii was not granted statehood until 1959, two years before Obama’s birth.  The nation was reluctant to incorporate territories like Hawaii and New Mexico because their large non-white populations would receive full citizenship; several outposts of empire remain in a liminal state between statehood and independence, partially on these grounds.  Hawaii’s historic ties to Asia also help to explain why Obama’s mother met and married an Indonesian man in Hawaii and later raised her son in Indonesia.  Hawaii continues to link us to the East, albeit in ways the imperialists never imagined.

Indeed, McCain’s and Obama’s personal histories map out the United State’s imperial past, but they also shed light on the role of empire in America’s future.  During the turn-of-the-century imperial acquisitions like the Canal Zone and Hawaii played symbolic roles as new frontiers for the renewal and regeneration of the American spirit. 

It was no coincidence that the United States returned to its expansionist mission with renewed zeal only a few years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis on the closing of the American frontiers in 1893.  Whereas the United States once sent soldiers, missionaries, and businessmen out to domesticate the empire, we are now bringing the empire back in to domesticate the body politic.  Both McCain and Obama bring messages of change and reform from the outposts of empire.  But their methods of bringing about change tell us much about their very different imperial experiences.  McCain’s heavy-handed, tough-talk approach is reminiscent of the big stick that Roosevelt carried; Obama’s intellectual, internationalist approach reflects his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia.  Whoever wins, our imperial past will be an inextricable part of our nation’s future.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/15/2008

This election also charts the end of the unprecedented phase of a single universal imperial power: America's sole imperial status and performance of the 1990-2008 era.
Throughout this period the USA was the unchallenged universal power until it failed drastically politically, militarily and economically not only on the international arena but also internally.

The calamity of US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the dead end with North Korea, Iran and lately Georgia and the doctrinaire and total collapse of the theology of free market and market self regulation in, practically, Wall Street and, potentially, Main Street of the ongoing financial crisis sum up the history of the USA in this same era.

The simultaneous accumlation of these failures being the inevitable , (the historically preordained?), outgrowth of political and economic neo-conservatism do NOT herald the end of an imperial USA as much as they confirm it.
It is only fit and proper that that also coincides with the end of term of the epitome of neo-conservatism; President Bush.
The people of the USA is fortunate in that it has, so soon after the event, the option to reconsider its past, very recent, mistakes and to choose a new alternative path for its future