Over the years, the United States has gained global military, economic, cultural, scientific, and political dominance, which has allowed the country to have a significant influence on other nations. For instance, American influence and power have extended across different countries such as Iraq, spreading democracy and liberty through military invasion and the War on Terror. In addition, the United States’ political influence has been strengthened by its financial support to foreign countries through the U.S. foreign aid. For instance, Buchan argues that the U.S. has played a significant role in enhancing the relationships of the free nations of southern and Pacific Asia and spreading democracy in Western Europe (206). Besides, the country has played a critical role in influencing development processes in the third world through either trade liberalization or aid (Buchan 206). As a result, America’s global influence and power have raised a debate about the extent to which the American presidency has gained imperial power. This is because the U.S. has become less democratic, more authoritarian, and has reduced its ability to solve broad and complex issues (Johns 97). This paper argues that American imperialism, circumstances emanating from national crises, Constitution that allow the sitting president to obstruct justice, and congressional ineffectiveness and desuetude have significantly influenced the American presidency to become imperial.
Imperial power in American imperialism
Right from the outset, the American presidency has been exercising imperial power, with the past presidents portraying the United States as the global power. This has resulted in the development of the term “American imperialism” in the late 1800s. American imperialism refers to the military, cultural, political, and economic influence of the U.S. on other nations (Chau 31). The term became popular in the late nineteenth century as the U.S. gained imperial power by focusing on spheres of influence through covert foreign policies or direct interference. For instance, empire theorists like Minister Josiah Strong, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Brooks Adams advocated for expanding Christian doctrine, republican institutions, civilization, and fulfilling social Darwinism (Chau 32). The imperial agenda gained attention to U.S. presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and William Howard Taft (Chau 32).
In the 1890s, the United States had started to adopt the imperialism ideology and stepped out into the world to gain significant political influence and power. The country gained major political power to the extent that Richard Olney, the Secretary of State boasting, “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition” (Chau 32). This was an idea that American was exceptional from other nations, and it engaged in a mission to spread democracy and liberty. For instance, towards the end of the nineteenth to World War I, America was in the “Age of Imperialism” as the country exerted social, economic, and political power over countries like the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea, Germany, and Cuba (Chau 32).
At the beginning of the First World War, America extended its power and influence more aggressively by intervening in the Russian Civil War, China’s Boxer Rebellion, Latin American affairs, and the Mexican Revolution (Chau 33). Through the leadership of President Wilson, the U.S. climbed to the top of the world-power ladder. Through the “liberal capitalist internationalism,” President Wilson used the U.S. greatest and global capitalist power to extend the country’s influence in Europe during World War I. The U.S. maintained much political and economic strength during World War II. At the end of the war, the U.S. emerged stronger than before as the greatest world power (Chau 33).
As a result, American history indicates that although the U.S. did not focus much on conquests and colonies, it paid more attention to the sphere of influence to enhance American imperialism. Despite gaining territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. stepped out to gain global influence over other nations. Chau asserts that the United States gained global power and commanding heights of wealth and power, which helped the country to achieve exceptional global influence despite being attacked and criticized (36). From the end of the nineteenth century throughout the twentieth century, America has gained substantial global influence and power. However, new challenges in the twenty-first century, such as Russia’s resurgence and the emergence of new global powers such as India and China, have significantly affected the American imperial power. Nevertheless, the American presidency seems to have gained more imperial power than ever before.
As the U.S. continued to gain more world power and transition to the superpower, the presidency gained more imperial power. As illustrated above, American presidents supported American imperialism by extending the country’s influence on other nations. However, as the country contributed to pursue empire, it overlooked the essential fabric of its constitutionalism, in which government is limited by federalism, check and balance, and separated powers (Federici 5). Significantly, Federici reveals, “the quest for empire, even in the modern ideological form of spreading democracy, liberty, and equality around the globe, diverts the American imagination from the center of constitutional politics and life” (5). Therefore, this illustrates that American imperialism, as shown above, provided a fertile ground for the American imperial presidency.
Imperial presidency has gained significant momentum in the twenty-first century after its rise between the end of the nineteenth century to the twentieth century. During the First and Second World Wars, the American presidents supported American imperialism, hence seen as having imperial powers. Imperial presidency involves a presidency in the U.S. whose great powers, such as using military force, extend beyond what is allowed by the Constitution (Wolfensberger 36; Pearlstein 373). Therefore, this illustrates that the imperial presidency is not a new idea but a temporary idea that is likely to be rejuvenated during national crises (Wolfensberger 41). For instance, presidents such as Roosevelt and Harry Truman have failed to seek congressional approval when making vital decisions, especially on American imperialism (Wolfensberger 37-38). However, the imperial presidency wave stopped after the Great Depression because of the cautionary and negative associations.
The emergence of national crises such as the 9/11 terrorist attack rejuvenated the idea of the imperial presidency. Although since the great depression, Americans had stopped “electing a president under the shadow of an international emergency like the Cold War or World War II or an economic crisis,” the 9/11 attack brought the idea of the imperial presidency back to life through President George W. Bush (Wolfensberger 36). Although both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush sought congressional authorization before engaging troops to war on terrorism, they used force against international terrorists and Iraq (Wolfensberger 40). They claimed that the president has inherent powers to use force against terrorism because doing so protects the national interests (Wolfensberger 40).
However, although the presidents hold the inherent power to use force for counter-terrorism measures, presidents have been criticized for using excessive force, which characterized him as imperial. For instance, President George W. Bush was criticized for his military tribunals, detention policies, interrogation techniques, signal statements, broad executive power’s conception, firing U.S. attorneys, and surveillance (Prakash 627). For instance, the Bush administration is criticized for supporting the Karimov administration in Uzbekistan despite various claims of human rights violations (Slater 1382).
During the Cold War and World War II, Congress discouraged presidents from defining the national interest completely, but President Bush insisted that the president has the power to do so (Wolfensberger 36). Therefore, Mr. Bush’s war against terrorism was an operation that overlooked constitutional requirements (Wolfensberger 36). As a result, unconstitutional measures and unilateral actions serve as a significant indication that the presidency is becoming imperial. In addition, this illustrates that national crises are critical conditions for the American presidency to become an imperial power.
President Barack Obama also followed his predecessors’ footsteps to exercise excessive force that suggested the rise of the United States’ imperial presidency. Despite rigorous critics of Bush’s administration when he was a Senator, President Obama inherited the imperial powers that he once used to go hard on them. For instance, during his presidential campaigns, he promised to heal the United States by being transparent on executive power. Mr. Obama viewed that the president should not take a country to war, condemn statutes to be unconstitutional, or overlook statutes that regulate the military (Prakash 628). However, his recommendations and views changed once he got into the White House. This supports the earlier argument that national crises are significant influences of the imperial presidency. Once the United States faces crises, the president’s executive powers are on the test, and in most cases, as history indicates, tends to bend towards imperial powers.
President Obama found himself amid crises that influenced him to operate outside the Constitution despite promising not to do so. For instance, he took the U.S. into war against Libya without congressional approval, denounced statute as unconstitutional, and acquired the right to overlook statutes that constrained his presidential authority (Prakash 628). He also upheld the detention policies established during Bush’s administration (Prakash 628). As a result, President Obama’s regime was considered as the continuation of President Bush’s administration (Prakash 628). Despite being a major critic of the presidency’s imperial powers, President Obama became a critical supporter of such powers once he made it to the presidency. This implies that presidents should not be blamed for exercising imperial powers as individuals but as presidents because the problem lies with the presidency.
For example, Prakash recommends that Presidents should not take the whole blame because the situations force them to become an imperial power. Prakash suggests “an iron law of politics: where stand on executive power turns on where you sit” is a situation that supports the argument that the imperial presidency is influenced by the situations (628). In other words, Senator Obama criticized President Bush because, as a Senate, he could not see how different and modest the presidency is. The same ‘irony law of politics applies to President Trump. During Trump’s presidential campaign, he criticized President Obama for abusing presidential power, but these “were just nothing more than the jetsam and flotsam of campaign rhetoric” (Prakash 629). When Trump occupied the White House, his actions were no different from President Obama’s as his regime is characterized by expansive presidential power (Prakash 629). For instance, in many instances, President Trump has despised the investigation into electro fraud through Russian hacking (Prakash 642).
Today, the American presidency is embracing imperial power by having a president who exists outside and above the rules and statutes that were initially designed to limit presidential power. For instance, similar to other presidents such as President Nixon, President Trump has been accused of justice obstruction. In May 2017, President Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s director, James Comey, because he failed to stop investigating Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor (Hemel and Posner 1278). As a result, Trump was accused of obstructing justice because he interfered with prosecution, investigations, and other actions of law enforcement with a “corrupt” intent (Hemel and Posner 1278). President Trump enjoys the privilege offered by the American Constitutional system that elevates the presidency’s imperial power.
However, Trump is not the only president to obstructing justice because former presidents such as Nixon interfered with the investigation of the Watergate scandal while George H.W. Bush interfered with the investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. Besides, President Bill Clinton was accused of withholding evidence and telling lies to a grand jury. As a result, “the law of obstruction of justice has evolved into a major check on presidential power, without anyone noticing it” (Hemel and Posner 1279). This is because the Constitution states that only private citizens are liable for the obstruction of justice. The Constitution allows the president to fire anyone in the executive branch, which does not has his confidence and has control over the law enforcement (Hemel and Posner 1279). This indicates that the U.S. has had a largely unchecked presidency, which is another situation that influences the American presidency to become imperial.
A counter-argument may suggest that presidents are not becoming an imperial power because the Constitution bounds them. For instance, it might be seen that since the obstruction of justice is only applicable to private citizens, presidents obstructing justice are doing nothing unconstitutional (Hemel and Posner 1279). However, the Presidents balance a need to be seen as acting within the confines of the law with their desire for power and their desire to satisfy their base and advance its interests” (Prakash 641). Although President Trump has been disregarding the law pervasively and constantly, he cannot be prosecuted when he is the sitting president. President Trump has taken this advantage to stretch his authority’s limits to safeguard his personal interests, hinder investigations into his official and personal actions, and maintain his power privileges. Contrary to President George W. Bush, who stretched his presidential authority because of the national security, Trump is doing so to safeguard his personal interests. Consequently, this indicates that the American presidency is becoming more imperial than ever before.
Trump has increased imperial power by not only acting in accordance with the law in domestic affairs but also through the influence over other states. Similar to other past administrations that sought to promote American imperialism by gaining political and military influence on other countries, Trump’s administration has portrayed America as a superpower. For instance, Trump continued America’s influence on the politics of the Middle East by ordering the execution of Abu Mahdi Al-muhandis, an Iraqi militia commander, and General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January 2020 (Yahaya 62). Some people feared that the assassination of General Soleimani would mark the beginning of the new political order in Baghdad by establishing a military regime (Yahaya 62). This indicates that American imperialism is a lively ideology that lives within the American presidency in the twentieth-first century and can be rekindled by any national crises.
President Trump’s unilateral power to influence foreign relations has been highly influenced by the rapid growth and spread of social media. Trump has been using his Twitter account to portray American imperialism and showcase his imperial power. For instance, after the assassination of General Soleimani, President Trump tried to convince Iran to join the negotiation table through his Twitter account. Trump tweeted, “Iran has never won any war, but it has not lost any negotiations” (Yahaya 63). Through his Twitter account, President Trump has constantly provoked other nations and their leader. For instance, Trump twitted to threaten Iran’s influence on Iraq by suggesting that Americans would attack fifty-two cultural sites in that country (Yahaya 72). Trump’s presidency has suggested continuously that his administration is not concerned about democratization efforts and human rights, rather than the relations between Ian and the Iraqi government (Yahaya 70).
Rather than the Congress exercising the constitutional powers in foreign and domestic policy, the American presidency has seized these powers, indicating the imperial power’s rise. However, as suggested above, the imperial presidency is not a new concept, and the current president understands its power and does all they can to take advantage of this power. For instance, similar to President Nixon, who claimed, “if the president does it, it not illegal [,]” President Trump cited “an article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as a President” (Johns 97). As a result, this has given the presidency the imperial powers either through exigent situations or congressional ineffectiveness and desuetude (Johns 97). This has made the country more authoritarian, less democratic, and have a weak capacity to solve broad and complex issues that necessitates a broad spectrum of thought and perspectives (Johns 97). In this case, Congress, which is supposed to limit the president’s power, has surrendered more powers to the executive branch, which gives the presidency imperial powers. Therefore, the American presidency is becoming imperial power not only because of the situations but also the congressional ineffectiveness and desuetude.
As elucidated above, the Imperial presidency has been there, but the idea comes to life when various factors come into play. For instance, this essay has shown that factors such as American imperialism, circumstances emanating from national crises, Constitution that allows the sitting president to obstruct justice, and congressional ineffectiveness and desuetude are sources of imperial power. From the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first-century, presidents have been extending their power to help them address national crises and emergencies. For instance, some Presidents have been overlooking congressional approvals while seeking to enhance American political, social, and economic influence and power on other foreign countries. The American presidency is, in most cases, operating outside and above the rules and statutes of the land. Rather than Congress limiting the president’s power, they have surrendered more powers to the presidency, hence making it imperial. Although presidents obstructing justice are doing nothing unconstitutional, it can be seen that their actions and motives are not within the law as they stretch their authority to serve their personal interests. However, the authoritarian presidency trend has emerged more prevalent currently during the Trump Administration, especially due to social media spread and growth. Through Twitter, President Trump has been directing provocations to the foreign country to portray America as superpowers while proclaiming the presidency power.
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