The United States imperial journey has varied in such a way as to violate many of the agreed procedures of international affairs worked out over many years in Europe. It invented its own characteristic methods, such as waging war unofficially, as on Indians, Spaniards, Canadians, and Mexicans, employing and repudiating filibusters. Its racism has promoted cruelty and massacre, but above all it had sought to destroy imperial competitors. In the twentieth century Spain, France, Russia, Britain have all fallen victim to this often clandestine assault, and it is clear now that China is in its sights.
The United States' political system, as it has developed over two centuries, puts control of foreign policy in the hands of the President, while largely leaving domestic policy, at least in theory, in the hands of Congress. And yet, presidents are elected for almost any reason except expertise in foreign policy. The result is incoherence, a condition exemplified above all by the erratic and ignorant interventions of President Donald Trump. That the United States should elect such a man as president is a shock that suggests a certain dysfunction in its political system. (Why elect an anti-politician to its pre-eminent political post and then expect him to know what to do?) It is therefore fortunate that presidents are time limited.
It is clear also that presidents require to be surrounded by experts; unfortunately, they are too often surrounded by lackeys and favourites – the White House is a court, not an administrative centre - and that way disaster looms. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that Trump's methods in foreign policy, notwithstanding his personal obnoxiousness, chaos, and ignorance, are not dissimilar to those of his predecessors - Andrew Jackson (as unpleasant a man as Trump) with Florida and the Indian nations, Polk and Mexico, McKinley with Spain, Franklin Roosevelt with Britain, the Cold War presidents' policy toward the Soviet Union. He was just noisier, ruder, and more insensitive about it. One scarcely expected him, however, to go so far as to deny his re-election defeat, and apparently attempt a coup to stay in power – but that had been part of the methods of the United States' foreign policy; it thus rebounded on its author.
If the United States is to progress beyond its present imperial paralysis, and not go into a gradual, fractious, and dangerous decline, it is going to be necessary for it to modernize its political system and to reach a clear and distinct conclusion as to its purposes as an empire. Survival as the lone superpower maybe a source of pride, but being the lone superpower confers wide responsibilities, and will involve it in constant difficulties. The United States has not yet accepted those responsibilities fully and with determination.
The United States has always been an imperial state, either as a member of an empire, or aiming to gain its empire, or ruling it. Yet, having got an empire, it has signally failed to work out what to do with it. The rest of the world is meanwhile suffering from its indecision.