American Empire is a term referring to the political, economic, military and cultural influence of the United States. The concept of an American Empire was first popularized in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The sources and proponents of this concept range from classical Marxist theorists of imperialism as a product of capitalism, to modern liberal theorists opposed to what they take to be aggressive U.S. policy, to neo-conservatives who believe the U.S. must embrace an imperial role.
Definition of empire
The term imperialism
was coined in the mid-1800s. It was first widely applied to the US by the American Anti-Imperialist League
, founded in 1898 to oppose the Spanish-American War
and the subsequent post-war military occupation and brutalities committed by US forces
in the Philippines
The Oxford English Dictionary gives three definitions of imperialism:
- An Imperial system of government; the rule of an emperor, esp. when despotic or arbitrary.
- The principle or spirit of empire; advocacy of what are held to be imperial interests.
- Used disparagingly. In Communist writings: the imperial system or policy of the Western powers. Used conversely in some Western writings: the Imperial system or policy of the Communist powers.
Debate exists over whether the U.S. is an empire in the politically-charged sense of the latter two definitions. Confusion also exists over the distinction between empire, a form of polity, and imperialism, a form of policy. The conflation of these two entities has become commonplace, as illustrated by the inconsistency between the title of this section ("Definition of Empire") and its contents ("definitions of imperialism"). Nevertheless, many polities that are not empires nonetheless behave imperialistically at times, and vice-versa.
However, the historians Archibald Paton Thorton and Stuart Creighton Miller argue against the very coherence of the concept. Miller argues that the overuse and abuse of the term "imperialism" makes it nearly meaningless as an analytical concept. Thorton wrote that "imperialism is more often the name of the emotion that reacts to a series of events than a definition of the events themselves. Where colonization finds analysts and analogies, imperialism must contend with crusaders for and against." Political theorist Michael Walzer argues that the term "hegemony" is better than "empire" to describe the US's role in the world.
Stuart Creighton Miller points out that the question of U.S. imperialism has been the subject of agonizing debate ever since the United States acquired formal empire at the end of the nineteenth century during the 1898 Spanish-American War
. Miller argues that this agony is because of United States’ sense of innocence, produced by a kind of "immaculate conception
" view of United States' origins. In Miller's view, when European settlers came to the United States, they saw themselves as miraculously shedding their old ways upon arrival in the New World
, as one might discard old clothing, and fashioning new cultural garments based solely on experiences in a new and vastly different environment. Miller believes that school texts, patriotic media, and patriotic speeches on which Americans have been reared do not stress the origins of America's system of government, that these sources often omit or downplay that the "United States Constitution
owes its structure as much to the ideas of John Locke
and Thomas Hobbes
as to the experiences of the Founding Fathers
; that Jeffersonian
thought to a great extent paraphrases the ideas of earlier Scottish philosophers; and that even the unique frontier egalitarian has deep roots in seventeenth century English radical traditions.
Philosopher Douglas Kellner traces the identification of American exceptionalism as a distinct phenomenon back to 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who concluded by agreeing that the U.S., uniquely, was "proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived.
American exceptionalism is popular among people within the US, but its validity and its consequences are disputed. Miller argues that U.S. citizens fall within three schools of thought about the question whether the United States is imperialistic:
- Overly self-critical Americans tend to exaggerate the nation’s flaws, failing to place them in historical or worldwide contexts.
- In the middle are Americans who assert that "Imperialism was an aberration.
- At the other end of the scale, the tendency of highly patriotic Americans is to deny such abuses and even assert that they could never exist in their country. As a Monthly Review editorial opines on the phenomenon,
- "in Britain, empire was justified as a benevolent 'white man’s burden'. And in the United States, empire does not even exist; 'we' are merely protecting the causes of freedom, democracy, and justice worldwide.
Schools of thought
"Empire at the heart of US foreign policy"
Many Marxists, anarchists, members of the New Left, as well as some conservatives, tend to view US imperialism as both deep-rooted and amoral. Imperialism as US policy, in the view of historians like William Appleman Williams, Howard Zinn, and Gabriel Kolko, traces its beginning not to the Spanish-American War, but to Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, or even to the displacement of Native Americans prior to the American Revolution, and continues to this day. Historian Sidney Lens argues that "the United States, from the time it gained its own independence, has used every available means—political, economic, and military—to dominate other nations. Numerous U.S. foreign interventions, ranging from early actions under the Monroe Doctrine to 21st-century interventions in the Middle East, are typically described by these authors as imperialistic.
The conservative critique of US imperialism has been identified with historians such as Charles Beard and Andrew Bacevich, part of a tradition of non-interventionism, often referred to derogatorily as "isolationism". While Beard believed that American policy had been driven by self-interested expansionism as far back as the writing of the Constitution, many conservative critics of imperialism have a more positive view of America's early era. Writer and politician Patrick Buchanan argues that the modern United States' drive to empire is "far from what the Founding Fathers had intended the young Republic to become. A conservative anti-imperialism is defended both by some on the Old Right, such as Buchanan, and by libertarians such as Justin Raimondo.
For both leftists and conservatives, a critical historical view is typically continued to present US foreign policy. Bacevich argues that the US did not fundamentally change its foreign policy after the Cold War, and remains focused on an effort to expand its control across the world. As the surviving superpower at the end of the Cold War, the US could focus its assets in new directions, the future being "up for grabs" according to former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz in 1991. Marxist sociologist John Bellamy Foster argues, in fact, that the United States' sole-superpower status makes it now the most dangerous world imperialist.
Lens describes American exceptionalism as a myth, which allows any number of "excesses and cruelties, though sometimes admitted, usually [to be] regarded as momentary aberrations. Linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky argues, like many, that exceptionalism and the denials of imperialism are the result of a systematic strategy of propaganda, to "manufacture opinion" as the process has long been described in other countries. "Domination of the media", according to Chomsky, allows an elite to "fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place.
U.S. military bases abroad as a form of empire
After WWII, the US allowed many of its overseas territories or occupations to gain independence. The Philippines (1946), the Federated States of Micronesia (1986), Marshall Islands (1986), and Palau (1994) are examples. Some, such as Guam, and Puerto Rico, remain under U.S. control without all the rights and benefits of statehood. However, of those former possessions granted independence, most continue to have U.S. bases inside their territories, sometimes despite local popular opinion, as in the case of Okinawa.
Proponents of the idea that the U.S. is an empire point to the multiplicity of United States military bases abroad as evidence. As of 2003, the United States had bases in over 36 countries worldwide. Some see another sign of an empire in the Unified Combatant Command, a military group composed of forces from two or more services that has the entire world divided into five areas of military responsibility. Chalmers Johnson argues that America's version of the colony is the military base. Chip Pitts argues similarly that enduring U.S. bases in Iraq suggest a vision of "Iraq as a colony". In this context, it is interesting to note that certain historians of the British Empire have emphasised that, prior to 1850, official government policy was generally in favour of acquiring military (especially naval) bases overseas but opposed to the government-backed acquisition of new colonial territories. It is seldom doubted, however, that British policy pre-1850 was nevertheless essentially imperial in nature.
Theories of U.S. empire
Though writers of diverse politics share a conception of the US as an empire, and describe many of the same policies and institutions as evidence of empire, even within the ranks of anti-imperialists explanations for US imperialism vary widely. Journalist Ashley Smith divides theories of the U.S. as an empire into 5 broad categories: "liberal" theories, "social-democratic" theories, "Leninist" theories, theories of "super-imperialism", and "Hardt-and-Negri-ite" theories. According to Smith,
- A "liberal" theory asserts that U.S. policies are the products of particular elected politicians (e.g. James K. Polk) or political movements (e.g. neo-conservatism). It holds that imperial policies are not the essential result of U.S. political or economic structures, and are clearly hostile and inimical to true US interests and values. This is the original position of Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League and is held today by a good number of Democratic critics of US imperialism, whose proposed solution is typically electing better officials.
- A "social-democratic" theory asserts that imperialistic U.S. policies are the products of the excessive influence of certain sectors of U.S. business and government - the arms industry in alliance with military and political bureaucracies and sometimes other industries such as oil and finance, a combination often referred to as the "military-industrial complex". The complex is said to benefit from war profiteering and the looting of natural resources, often at the expense of the public interest. The proposed solution is typically unceasing popular vigilance in order to apply counter-pressure. The left-leaning Johnson holds a version of this view; other versions are typically held by conservative anti-interventionists, such as Beard, Bacevich, Buchanan, Raimondo, and, most notably, journalist John T. Flynn and Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler - simultaneously highest ranking and most decorated U.S. Marine, including two Medals of Honor and a 1935 Republican primary candidate for the Senate.
- A "Leninist" theory asserts that imperialistic U.S. policies are the products of the unified interest of the predominant sectors of U.S. business, which need to ensure and manipulate export markets for both goods and capital. Business, on this Marxist view, essentially controls government, and international military competition is simply an extension of international economic competition, both driven by the inherently expansionist nature of capitalism. The proposed solution is typically revolutionary economic change. The theory was first systematized during the World War I by Russian Bolsheviks Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, although their work was based on that of earlier Marxists, socialists, and anarchists. Chomsky, Foster, Kolko, Lens, Williams, Zinn, Marxist anthropologist David Harvey, and, most notably, Indian writer Arundhati Roy each hold some version of this view, as does Smith himself.
- A theory of "super-imperialism" asserts that imperialistic U.S. policies driven not simply by the interests of American businesses, but by the interests of the economic elites of a global alliance of developed countries. Capitalism in Europe, the U.S., and Japan has become too entangled, in this view, to permit military or geopolitical conflict between these countries, and the central conflict in modern imperialism is between the global core and the global periphery rather than between imperialist powers. Political scientists Leo Panitch and Samuel Gindin hold versions of this view.
- A "Hardt-and-Negri-ite" theory is closely related to the theory of "super-imperialism", but has a different conception of power. According to political theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, the world has passed the era of imperialism and entered a new era.) This new era still has colonizing power, but it has moved from national military forces based on an economy of physical goods to networked biopower based on an informational and affective economy. On this view, the U.S. is central to the development and constitution of a new global regime of international power and sovereignty, termed "Empire", but the "Empire" is decentralized and global, and not ruled by one sovereign state; "the United States does indeed occupy a privileged position in Empire, but this privilege derives not from its similarities to the old European imperialist powers, but from its differences. Hardt and Negri draw on the theories of Spinoza, Foucault, Deleuze, and Italian autonomist marxists. Many in the traditions of postcolonialism, postmodernism and globalization theory hold related views.
"US empire never existed"
Many citizens of the United States, however, defend the historical role of the US against allegations of imperialism. This is especially common among prominent mainstream political figures; former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for example, has said: "We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been.
Stuart Creighton Miller states that this interpretation is no longer heard very often by historians.
"The Benevolent Empire"
Military historian Max Boot
defends US actions in the Philippines, claiming that the "atrocities" committed there were relatively insignificant in scope and circumstance, and defending the US motives, which he views as well-intentioned and ultimately beneficial for both America and the Philippines.
Boot argues that the United States altruistically went to war with Spain to liberate Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos from their tyrannical yoke. If US troops lingered on too long in the Philippines, it was to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy. In the Philippines, the US followed its usual pattern:
- "the United States would set up a constabulary, a quasi-military police force led by Americans and made up of local enlisted men. Then the Americans would work with local officials to administer a variety of public services, from vaccinations and schools to tax collection. American officials, though often resented, usually proved more efficient and less venal than their native predecessors... Holding fair elections became a top priority because once a democratically elected government was installed, the Americans felt they could withdraw."
Boot argues that this was far from "the old-fashioned imperialism bent on looting nations of their natural resources." Just as with Iraq and Afghanistan, "some of the poorest countries on the planet", in the early 20th century:
- "The United States was least likely to intervene in those nations (such as Argentina and Costa Rica) where American investors held the biggest stakes. The longest occupations were undertaken in precisely those countries--Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic--where the United States had the smallest economic stakes... Unlike the Dutch in the East Indies, the British in Malaya, or the French in Indochina, the Americans left virtually no legacy of economic exploitation.
But Boot in fact is willing to use the term "imperialism" to describe United States policy, not only in the early 20th century but "since at least 1803". This marks a difference in terminology rather than a difference of fundamental historical interpretation from observers who deny that the US has ever been an empire, since Boot still argues that US foreign policy has been consistently benevolent. Boot is not alone; as columnist Charles Krauthammer
puts it, "People are now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire.'" This embrace of empire is made by many neoconservatives
, including British historian Paul Johnson
, and writers Dinesh D'Souza
and Mark Steyn
. It is also made by some liberal hawks
, such as political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski
, and Michael Ignatieff
For example, British historian Niall Ferguson, a professor at Harvard University, argues that the United States is an empire, but believes that this is a good thing. Ferguson has drawn parallels between the British Empire and the imperial role of the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though he describes the United States' political and social structures as more like those of the Roman Empire than of the British. Ferguson argues that all these empires have had both positive and negative aspects, but that the positive aspects of the US empire will, if it learns from history and its mistakes, greatly outweigh its negative aspects.
"Empire was an aberration"
Another point of view admits United States expansion overseas as imperialistic, but sees this imperialism as a temporary phenomenon, a corruption of American ideals or the relic of a past historical era. Historian Samuel Flagg Bemis argues that Spanish-American War
expansionism was a short lived imperialistic impulse and "a great aberration in American history", a very different form of territorial growth than that of earlier American history. Historian Walter LaFeber
sees the Spanish-American War
expansionism not as an aberration, but as a culmination of United States expansion westward. But both agree that the end of the occupation of the Philippines marked the end of US empire - they deny that present United States foreign policy is imperialist.
The United States Information Agency writes:
- "With the exception of the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, American territory had remained fixed since 1848. In the 1890s a new spirit of expansion took hold... Yet Americans, who had themselves thrown off the shackles of empire, were not comfortable with administering one. In 1902 American troops left Cuba... The Philippines obtained... complete independence in 1946. Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth... and Hawaii became a state in 1959.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that the US does not pursue world domination, but maintains worldwide influence by a system of mutually beneficial exchanges:
- "If we really are imperial, we rule over a very funny sort of empire... The United States hasn't annexed anyone's soil since the Spanish-American War... Imperial powers order and subjects obey. But in our case, we offer the Turks strategic guarantees, political support — and money... Isolationism, parochialism, and self-absorption are far stronger in the American character than desire for overseas adventurism.
Liberal internationalists argue that even though the present world order is dominated by the United States, the form taken by that dominance is not imperial. International relations scholar John Ikenberry argues that international institutions have taken the place of empire;
- "the United States has pursued imperial policies, especially toward weak countries in the periphery. But U.S. relations with Europe, Japan, China, and Russia cannot be described as imperial... the use or threat of force is unthinkable. Their economies are deeply interwoven... they form a political order built on bargains, diffuse reciprocity, and an array of intergovernmental institutions and ad hoc working relationships. This is not empire; it is a U.S.-led democratic political order that has no name or historical antecedent.
I.R. scholar Joseph Nye argues that US power is more and more based on "soft power", which comes from cultural hegemony rather than raw military or economic force. This includes such factors as the widespread desire to emigrate to the United States, the prestige and corresponding high proportion of foreign students at US universities, and the spread of US styles of popular music and cinema. Thus the US, no matter how hegemonic, is no longer an empire in the classic sense.
Factors unique to "age of imperialism"
A variety of factors may have coincided during the "Age of Imperialism" (the later part of the nineteenth century, when the US and the other major powers rapidly expanded their territorial possessions) to spur on American expansion abroad:
- The industry and agriculture of the United States had grown beyond its need for consumption. Powerful business and political figures such as James G. Blaine believed that foreign markets were essential to further economic growth, promoting a more aggressive foreign policy.
- Many of the United States' peer competitors (e.g. the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Portugal) were engaged in imperialistic adventures, and the US felt that in order to be a "great power" among "great powers," it had to behave in a manner similar to its peers.
- The prevalence of racism, notably Ernst Haeckel's "biogenic law," John Fiske's conception of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, and Josiah Strong's call to "civilize and Christianize" - all manifestations of a growing Social Darwinism and racism in some schools of American political thought.
- The development of Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis," which stated that the American frontier was the wellspring of its creativity and virility as a civilization. As the Western United States was gradually becoming less of a frontier and more of a part of America, many believed that overseas expansion was vital to maintaining the American spirit.
- The publication of Alfred T. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, which advocated three factors crucial to The United States' ascension to the position of "world power": the construction of a canal in South America (later influencing the decision for the construction of the Panama Canal), expansion of the U.S. naval power, and the establishment of a trade/military post in the Pacific, so as to stimulate trade with China. This publication had a strong influence on the idea that a strong navy stimulated trade, and influenced policy makers such as Theodore Roosevelt and other proponents of a large navy.
The controversy regarding the issue of alleged US cultural imperialism
is largely separate from the debate about alleged US military imperialism; however, some critics of imperialism argue that cultural imperialism is not independent from military imperialism. Edward Said
, one of the original scholars to study post-colonial theory
, argues that,
He believes non-US citizens, particularly non-Westerners, are usually thought of within the US in a tacitly racist manner, in a way that allows imperialism to be justified through such ideas as the White Man's Burden.
Scholars who disagree with the theory of US cultural imperialism or the theory of cultural imperialism in general argue that what is regarded as cultural imperialism by many is not connected to any kind of military domination, which has been the traditional means of empire. International relations scholar David Rothkop argues that cultural imperialism is the innocent result of globalization, which allows access to numerous US and Western ideas and products that many non-US and non-Western consumers across the world voluntarily choose to consume. A worldwide fascination with the United States has not been forced on anyone in ways similar to what is traditionally described as an empire, differentiating it from the actions of the British Empire--see the Opium Wars--and other more easily identified empires throughout history. Rothkop identifies the desire to preserve the "purity" of one's culture as xenophobic. Matthew Fraser has a similar analysis, but argues further that the global cultural influence of the US is a good thing.
Notes and references
- Bacevich, Andrew (2008). The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. Macmillan.
- Boot, Max (2002). The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-00721-X.
- Brown, Seyom (1994). Faces of Power: Constancy and Change in United States Foreign Policy from Truman to Clinton. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Buchanan, Patrick (1999). A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny. Regnery Pub. ISBN 0-89526-272-X.
- Burton, David H. (1968). Theodore Roosevelt: Confident Imperialist. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Callahan, Patrick (2003). Logics of American Foreign Policy: Theories of America's World Role. New York: Longman.
- Card, Orson Scott (2006). Empire. TOR. ISBN 0-7653-1611-0.
- Daalder, Ivo H.; James M. Lindsay (2003). America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
- Gaddis, John Lewis (2005). Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press.
- Hardt, Michael; Antonio Negri (2001). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. online
- Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Johnson, Chalmers (2000). Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. ISBN 0-8050-6239-4.
- Johnson, Chalmers (2004). The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. ISBN 0-8050-7004-4.
- Johnson, Chalmers (2007). Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. ISBN 0-8050-7911-4.
- Kagan, Robert (2003). Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. New York: Knopf.
- Kerry, Richard J. (1990). The Star-Spangled Mirror: America's Image of Itself and the World. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Lundestad, Geir (1998). Empire by Integration: The United States and European Integration, 1945–1997. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Meyer, William H. (2003). Security, Economics, and Morality in American Foreign Policy: Contemporary Issues in Historical Context. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Nye, Joseph S., Jr (2002). The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Odom, William (2004). America's Inadvertent Empire. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300100698.
- Patrick, Stewart; Shepard Forman, eds. (2001). Multilateralism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Ambivalent Engagement. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Perkins, John (2004). Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. ISBN 1-57675-301-8.
- Rapkin, David P., ed. (1990). World Leadership and Hegemony. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
- Ruggie, John G., ed. (1993). Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of an Institutional Form. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Smith, Tony (1994). America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Tomlinson, John (1991). Cultural Imperialism: A Critical Introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Tremblay, Rodrigue (2004). The New American Empire. Infinty publishing. ISBN 0-7414-1887-8.
- Zepezauer, Mark (2002). Boomerang! : How Our Covert Wars Have Created Enemies Across the Middle East and Brought Terror to America. ISBN 1-56751-222-4.
- Bellah, Robert N. (2003). "Imperialism, American-style". The Christian Century 20-25.
- "America and Empire: Manifest Destiny Warmed Up?". The Economist Argues that the U.S. is going through an imperial phase, but like previous phases, this will be temporary, since (they argue) empire is incompatible with traditional U.S. policies and beliefs.
- 9/11 and the American Empire. Retrieved on 2006-05-05.. A website that looks at the events of 9/11 which point towards government orchestration with the intention of using mass public fear as a catalyst for creating a stronger American Empire.
- The American Empire Project. Retrieved on 2008-08-16.. A series of related books by the authors Chalmers Johnson, Michael T. Klare, Alfred W. McCoy, Walden Bello, Jeremy Brecher, Jill Cutler, Brendan Smith, James P. Carroll, Noam Chomsky, Robert Dreyfuss, El Fisgn, Greg Grandin, and Peter H. Irons.
- An American Question. ''tygerland.net by AS Heath. Retrieved on 2006-06-10.. July 25, 2005
- Boot, Max (2003). "American imperialism? No need to run away from label". USA today Argues that "U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century."
- Hitchens, Christopher, Imperialism: Superpower dominance, malignant and benign. Slate.com. Retrieved on 2006-06-10.., warns that the U.S.—whether or not you call it an empire—should be careful to use its power wisely.
- Johnson, Paul, America's New Empire for Liberty. . Article from conservative writer and historian, argues that the U.S. has always been an empire—and a good one at that.
- Motyl, Alexander J. (2006). "Empire Falls Alexander J. Motyl". Foreign Affairs Two new books attempt to explain U.S. power and policy in imperial terms.
- Empire?. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved on 2006-08-07..
- Niall Ferguson "Empire Falls". Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 2006-10-01..
- The American Empire:Pax Americana or Pox Americana?. Monthly Review. Retrieved on 2007-03-20..
- Is President Bush Destroying the American Empire? An Update on America's Inadvertent Empire Transcript of presentation by Robert Dujarric on April 14, 2004
- On the Coming Decline and Fall of the US Empire. transnational.org. Retrieved on 2006-07-30..