afghanistan, bernard porter, Britain, coca-cola, darth vader, death star, empire, george w. bush, iraq, james monroe, jay-z, joseph nye, michael mann, neoconsertavism, neverending story, niall ferguson, rage against the machine, rome, ronald reagan, soft power, star wars, stormtroopers, united states
The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I’ve just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away.
-Grand Moff Tarkin
Few ordinary Americans conceive of their country as an empire. American politicians, while perhaps more familiar with the notion, are probably even less likely to endorse it. But the idea is making headway in historical and political academia. On its face an American Empire sounds far-fetched, but there are compelling reasons why it might be classified as such, and some even contend that the designation is useful and necessary. In this column I’ll outline some of the arguments for and against labeling the United States as an empire, and submit them to your judgment.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve done two historiographical papers (where you talk about the current scholarly opinions) on this very topic in the last year. This won’t be as dry. When most people think of empire, they probably think of modern Britain, or ancient China, or Star Wars, or the child-like Empress from the Neverending Story (or as my dad calls it, “the movie with the flying dog”). “The Land of the Free” seldom makes the list. We’re a republic! A representative democracy! The leaders of the free world! Well…guess what: one of the most important parts of having an empire is pretending you don’t have one. Buckle up.
For an exercise like this, a lot depends on the definition. Empire can be defined in a multitude of ways. Here are some of the most popular:
Merriam Webster: “a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially : one having an emperor as chief of state (2) : the territory of such a political unit b : something resembling a political empire; especially : an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control.”
That’s helpful, but pretty general. You can see most of the important components they hit though – territory, sovereignty, emperors. There are a couple more academic definitions we should put on the table.
Soft Power/Informal Empire – This is a pretty nebulous concept, but generally it refers to the kind of “influence” that doesn’t hold a gun to anyone’s head, but basically leaves them with no choice but to cooperate with your wishes. Harvard wonk Joseph Nye coined the term, referring mainly to diplomatic forms of negotiation and influence. Informal empire usually refers to economic ways and means. For instance, you may not have military control over a given state or control its politicians, but if your investors monopolize the state’s banks and industries, it’s pretty easy to get your way.
Coca-Colonization – also related to economics and investment, I like this term because of its cultural component. Riding the coattails of globalization, exporting your culture to foreign and often less-developed countries has powerful effects. Adopting culture aids the adoption of ideology, and it certainly helps in the realm of economics. If you can get foreigners addicted to your tea, soft-drinks, or jeans, you get to juice your own GNP with their consumer spending.
To summarize, the most basic way to define empire is when one state appropriates sovereignty (the ability to make decisions) from a foreign state or people. You can do this in many ways, including military occupation, political manipulation, setting up a formal colony, controlling a foreign economy, and supplanting a foreign culture with your own. The “harder” factors should obviously earn you more empire points, but you can’t rule out the “softer” factors completely.
Square Peg; Round Hole
There’s a good argument that the United States and empire just don’t mix. For starters, all good empires tell you so. We don’t have an Emperor/ess, we don’t run colonies, and we don’t have a Colonial Office staffed by dudes in silly hats. Comparing us to the British, for instance, who had all those things, is just apples and oranges. And they aren’t just meaningless fluff, either. They’re important symbols that help extend and maintain imperial control.
Politically speaking, things just don’t add up. Empires are supposed to be monarchical, or something resembling monarchy. Liberal democracies don’t go colonizing people. Furthermore, there’s no political will in the United States for such a thing. Would you vote for a candidate who loudly proclaimed “I will uphold and expand the might of the American Empire!” Didn’t think so. How could we be unwitting participants in a project we weren’t aware of and don’t support?
We don’t annex territories (at least, we haven’t for a while), and we aren’t looking to expand our borders. So it’s hard to see some kind of parallel to Rome: a giant, contiguous land-empire. We don’t appoint Moffs to rule foreign zones, and we don’t center our government in a giant Ivory Tower or a moon-sized space station with the ability to destroy worlds.
Must Be Shit
So, since we don’t own up to being an empire, any argument that we are one must use the “looks like shit, smells like shit, must be shit” model. Let’s start with territory. Sure, at the moment we aren’t looking to add more lebensraum, as they say. But things weren’t always that way. Remember Manifest Destiny? We started out as 13 states on the Atlantic seaboard. Over a long century, we marched steadily westward, annexing vast territories at the political expense of Spain, Britain, France, Mexico, and Russia (all rival empires, by the way), and in the process we either liquidated or displaced the indigenous population of the land we took. At least Rome let its conquered live and keep their religion. We handed out smallpox blankets and bibles to ours. In our next phase of expansion, we went further abroad and started work on some overseas possessions that would let us create a strategic naval network. Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, and Palau were brought into the fold this way. When the dust settled, we had a vice-grip on the Caribbean and after World War II, supremacy in the South Pacific.
Next criterion: military and defense networks. These are important as they underpin global military hegemony and facilitate the trade networks of informal empire. Rome’s frontier legions were indispensable for curtailing barbarian raids, and Britain’s network of naval bases from Africa to India to Asia made it the wealthiest and most broadly-dispersed empire in history. Well, we’ve got that box checked. Dig this map. It gives some sense of perspective on the dispersion and sheer number of American troops across the globe. In extremely rough numbers, we operate around 700 military bases worldwide in around 70 countries. Many of these are places we simply never left after victory in war, such as Germany and Japan. With a network like that, we can quickly and efficiently move resources around the globe while maintaining and projecting American power. The Navy’s most recent ad campaign uses the slogan “America’s Navy: a global force for [what we define as] good.” That slogan tells you a lot. And this doesn’t even get into our strategic satellite/missile defense umbrellas.
Politically speaking, there’s some debate as to how far back to trace our imperialistic tendencies. The Manifest Destiny policy is pretty obvious, though people often dismiss it, partly because we were so dismissive of its implications (human and otherwise) back then as well. A concrete policy position with imperial implications was the Monroe Doctrine, initiated in 1823 and designed to keep Euro-types from meddling in our hemisphere, and paving the way for our economic mastery in these continents. With empire-tinged projects around the turn of the century and during the Cold War, the next obvious stopping point is neoconservative ideology, which urges intervention in any foreign situation deemed critical to American interests, unilaterally if necessary.
Finally, the United States is hardcore on soft/informal power. Free trade is a great agent of empire, a tactic perfected by the British, as it allows the ascendant power to impose its will and capital on less-developed regions under the pretense of “openness.” This is evident in American policies such as NAFTA, which ensures maximum US penetration into North American markets. Our music, fashion, food, and culture are nearly ubiquitous in the contemporary world, especially via the insidious and pervasive Internet, which we largely control. Only this year was the creation of domain names in non-English characters made possible. Coca-Cola is back in the veins of Saigon. Regardless of your preference for Rage Against the Machine, “No Shelter” addresses precisely these issues. Lyrics here.
(Sorry about the Godzilla version, it was the only one that would embed. You can see the real video on YouTube if desired)
Let’s bring it back full circle to that key issue of intentionality. A few comparisons to history may be instructive here. Britain had around 40 so-called “Protectorates” – places where Britain technically had no role in foreign or internal affairs but had “jurisdiction.” Aden/Yemen, Barbados, Kuwait, Kenya, Uganda, Egypt and Afghanistan all fall under this category. Ordinarily, these places just seem like other parts of the British Empire, but on paper they were no different than our interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, British people themselves had truly mixed or even nonexistent feelings about the Empire. Famous historian Bernard Porter wrote an entire book, The Absent-Minded Imperialists, arguing that the vast majority of Britons were barely even cognizant that the Empire existed, and only the extreme upper class took any role in its maintenance. If the American Empire thesis is true, the same argument would have to apply.
“Fear will keep the local systems in line”
There are valid arguments for and against an American Empire. Many prominent scholars of empire currently subscribe to the idea, or at least use empire as the primary interpretive framework for understanding contemporary American foreign policy. At the bare minimum, empire may be a good context for understanding our role in the world, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your own politicians do. Prominent neoconservatives from the Reagan to Bush II administrations studied the Afghan and Iraqi British protectorates extensively. Both countries have a long history of imperial interference. Both are under American military lockdown. Both have installed systems of American political ideology in the form of democracy, a kind of politics not native to those regions. Both remain under external control for the purposes of foreign and American domestic security for the foreseeable future. Both arouse widespread opinion. Both are incapable of doing anything terribly contrary to our wishes. You could have said all those things about any given colony in many of history’s cut-and-dry, bona fide empires.
If we are an empire, some people think admitting it is a good idea. Harvard historian and TV personality Niall Ferguson has written books urging the United States to embrace its imperial identity and mission, so it can do a better job policing the world. UCLA sociologist Michael Mann wrote a book called Incoherent Empire which argues that not admitting our obvious empire only inhibits our ability to run it effectively.
So maybe we’re in denial and it’s in our interests just to admit this and get it over with. Or maybe we’re the land of the free and this article itself is offensive. Embracing our new identity could be costly, though. Bored Apple employee Ryszard Gold calculated that the cost of building a Death Star in real material would be $15.6 Septillion. That’s 24 zeros. No wonder the Emperor was so pissed and the Stormtroopers so sad when the Rebels blew up the first one. Anyway, what do you think? Are we living in the core of a global empire? Leave a vote and explain your choice in the comments.