The US of Empire

This is a thesis that could use far more development than I can give it at the moment, but I hope I can lay it out clearly enough that to generate some interesting discussion and perhaps revisit it later.

It’s frequently complained that the US is in danger of becoming a global empire. Traditionally one elaborates on this by quoting Washington’s farewell address if one is of the right, and by citing the evils of colonialism if one is of the left.

I’d like to suggest that the imperial horse has pretty much left the stable a long time ago. The US has been a global empire since World War II, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the sole global power. Although, like the later Roman Republic, the US has not actually taken direct political control over countries beyond its traditional borders (nor does it collect tribute from abroad) it has a sphere of influence covering much of the known world and is repeatedly involved in exerting pressure or deploying force to ensure regional conflicts do not spin out of control.

This in itself is perhaps not a terribly unusual thesis.

Lots of people denounce the US as a global empire. But I’d like to suggest two things and put them out for discussion:

1) Generally it is a good thing that the US is a global empire. Throughout histories, empires such as the Hellenistic Greeks, the Romans, the Carolingians, the Spanish, the Austrians and the British have helped to spread culture and technology, keep a lid on nationalistic conflicts, and kept the peace.

2) For the US to go back to its pre-WW2 isolationism would be a near catastrophic event for the world. Having taken an imperial place, the US should hold its global role as virtuously as possible and hope that when the time comes for it to fade in the flow of history it can hand off to a similar and friendly power (as Britain did to the US and as the Greeks did the to Romans) rather than imploding or being overtaken by an oppressive empire on the model of the old USSR or China.

29 Responses to The US of Empire

  • What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.” Do their voices matter?

    Are global empire and “isolationism” the only alternatives?

  • Also:

    Empires are obviously not the only means of “keeping the peace” and spreading “culture and technology.” What of those who see the u.s. not as a force for peace but of destabalization? The Iraq experience should at least clue you in to this possibility. Do the views of these people not count?

    Does the u.s. “keep a lid on nationalistic conflicts”? Really? Has it done so in the Middle East? Elsewhere? What of the u.s.’s own nationalism?

    I could go on. But these questions are glaringly absent in your brief reflection.

  • Its okay for me for the US to step back and let other nations resolve international issues. France has attempted to do so in Georgia and the EU has attempted in Iran.

    The problem is that these countries also have to be willing to do the heavy lifting (financial aid, military intervention etc.) when called to do so.

    As my dad says, “You drive the car, you gotta pay for the gas.”

  • One other thought. As Mr. Obama is about to find out, its one thing to make pronoucements from the grandstands, its another to actually try to call the plays on the field. I look forward to the efforts of other countries.

  • Michael,

    What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.”

    Certainly everyone “matters”, but when there is disagreement among people as to which of two alternatives should be followed the supporting of one side over the other does not mean a rejection of the worth or human dignity of those one opposes.

    The question I would ask in this regards is: Overall, do people _want_ the US to withdraw back within its own boarders and keep to itself, or do they sometimes find their pride offended by the US’s power, and yet actually appreciate the results of having it be a global power.

    I’m reminded, tangentially, of the interview I read some years ago with an Iraqi man who’d been wrongly jailed (they got the wrong guy) and suffered some of the abuse at Abu Graib. At the end of the interview he was asked, “What can the US ever do to make up for what it’s done to you and your country.” He answered immediately, “I would really like a green card.”

    Also instructive is the experience of many former British colonies. They pretty universally wanted Britain out, and yet increasingly people in places like Singapore and India are realizing they are actually much better off as a result of their colonial experience. Historical evidence would similarly suggest that most peoples brought into the Roman sphere of influence at first resented Rome’s presence, and yet the world still benefits from the legacy of Rome’s empire.

    What of those who see the u.s. not as a force for peace but of destabalization? The Iraq experience should at least clue you in to this possibility. Do the views of these people not count?

    I would tend to think that their analysis is wrong. Remember, the reason the US was even in the area in the first place is that Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, with the result that the US stepped in and pushed them out again.

    It’s certainly a subject that could be debated, but my current impression is that the US is more stablizing than destablizing.

    What of the u.s.’s own nationalism?

    As I wrote recently, I think the modern US is actually pretty free of nationalism properly definied. In that sense, it’s well placed to act on the global scene in a way that more nationalistic powers (such as China) are not.

  • Philip,

    Its okay for me for the US to step back and let other nations resolve international issues. France has attempted to do so in Georgia and the EU has attempted in Iran.

    The problem is that these countries also have to be willing to do the heavy lifting (financial aid, military intervention etc.) when called to do so.

    Agreed. I guess my contention is: I think we and the rest of the world have got used to the benefits of having some sort of global power keeping order — and none of the other candidates (as shown by the failures of the UN, EU, France, etc.) are really cut out to do the work.

    I’m not at all sure that I like that we’ve got to this position, but it strikes me that it may be a situation we need to recognize and live with.

  • What of — not only lefty americans but — the countless peoples throughout the world who do not see u.s. imperialism(s) as “generally a good thing.” Do their voices matter?

    Of course they matter, but keep in mind that neither their disapproval nor the general approval of the right makes or breaks the argument. As I note, I only bother saying this because too often I’ve encountered relativistic discourse in which “feelings” alone are the guide to anything. Arguments for or against American imperialism need to consider a number of prospects like the question you asked at the end of your first comment:

    Are global empire and “isolationism” the only alternatives?

    I like this question, because it is probably one of the most serious questions we can ask. As a global power, can we only either hide away from the world or be overbearing in the world? I would argue that global empire and isolationism are not the best way to set up the question as either-or. I would say that the first either-or is either we can interact with the world, or we can isolate ourselves. After that, if we choose interaction, we then have to ask to what degree and in what realms.

    Economic interactions seems quite sensible, since trade typically benefits both parties involved (unless one partner runs up a huge deficit importing and does very little exporting). But once economics are involved, politics have to become involved in order to protect trade investments. (I know this may be a point of contention, but simply put, do we really believe, given fallen human nature, that without political involvement trade will always proceed peacefully and justly?) And once politics are involved, then the military necessarily becomes involved, at the very least as a means of last resort.

    This does not mean that a global power must needs be overbearing in dealing with other nations. Hubris is always a problem when power is involved. But here there are also important questions to ask. Why is a particular nation a global power? If it is because it is doing things right, one could make an argument for having a stronger influence on neighbors, allies, and others. If it is because it is doing things wrong, then one could make the argument that national influence should be kept to a minimum. But then, who thinks it is going to be one way or another?

    Let’s look, for example, at the case of “exporting” democracy to the world. Now, we know that–for quite a while, anyway–that the American experiment of a democratic republic has worked with amazing results. Because we’re doing something right in here, it makes sense that we’d want to encourage others to do the same. What many–Bush included–got wrong was that they supposed some sort of “immaculate conception” of democracy, that anyone with a democracy will automatically find themselves in a better society. Yet underpinning the success of our democratic experience is the strong Christian principles that we are rapidly sloughing away. Without any firm grounding of moral, social, political, and even theological truths, democracy is nothing more than the “tyranny of the majority”. Anything goes, as long as a majority of people agree with it. Thus we have democracies that we’ve backed immediately elect terrorists into office, or at least people who hate Western values and would revert the newly democratic state back to a dictatorship.

    Back to the question of how influential a global power should be. This question essentially boils down to: what are the power’s legitimate needs, and how threatened is that power by other powers in the world? For example, how important was it to the United States to keep Hitler from conquering Europe? How important was it to the United States to keep Europe from falling under the Iron Curtain? How important is it to the United States to protect Europe from a) itself b) secularism and c) Islamic radicals? How important is it that United States deals with terrorism abroad? I’ll concur that Iraq wasn’t really necessary, by the way, but what about Afghanistan and the Taliban?

    Frankly, I think the United States could step back a ways from the national scene and let others shoulder some of the burdens, but we can’t forget that because of her power, the United States has grave responsibilities to the rest of the world. The degree of influence, I believe, is what we’re talking about, and let more learned men than myself haggle over the details.

  • “Agreed. I guess my contention is: I think we and the rest of the world have got used to the benefits of having some sort of global power keeping order — and none of the other candidates (as shown by the failures of the UN, EU, France, etc.) are really cut out to do the work.”

    Yup, I think they’ve gotten pretty used to having the military (and a large part the financial side) taken care of by the US. I just think there won’t be a desire by most countries to shoulder the responsibility their decisions will entail. At least not till we’ve refused to follow their lead and they’ve had to pay for the gas.

  • “Frankly, I think the United States could step back a ways from the national scene and let others shoulder some of the burdens, but we can’t forget that because of her power, the United States has grave responsibilities to the rest of the world.”

    I would agree. But I would also say the rest of the world has responsibilities towards the US in the use of its power. I think the debacle in diplomacy leading up to the Iraq war was fueled in large part by international powers not addressing legitimate US concerns. Also the occasionally hinted at hope for an Athens/Rome nature of a future European/American relationship smacks of European intellectual arrogance not to mention historical amnesia.

  • Ryan,

    a sphere of influence covering much of the known world and is repeatedly involved in exerting pressure or deploying force to ensure regional conflicts do not spin out of control

    I think you’ve done a great job of defending the notion that this interaction is largely good for the world.

    US of Empire…evils of colonialism

    I would suggest that opposition to the use of “empire” and “colonialism” to describe this interaction is in order as well. While it’s common in left-wing and certain right-wing rhetoric to use such language, I think that America’s world position is decidedly different from one of colonialism or empire. All of the nations in the US sphere of influence are completely free to leave that sphere and many have. They do not need to fear military reprisal, or even, in most cases economic reprisal. The use of force or sanctions against any country by the US has not been a result simply of departing the “empire” but due to other obvious reasons.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • All of the nations in the US sphere of influence are completely free to leave that sphere and many have. They do not need to fear military reprisal, or even, in most cases economic reprisal.

    You ARE aware of the history of u.s. military interventions since WWII, right? A good overview is William Blum’s book Killing Hope. It may open your eyes just a little bit.

  • How about the Friedman-ites’ economic meddling in Central and South America, oftentimes complemented by U.S. military power…

  • Michael,

    I am aware of the history of u.s. military interventions since WWII. Why don’t you tell me which ones involve a state that tries to leave the US sphere of influence and is met with reprisals? Of course, the example could not involve cases where US citizens are kidnapped or killed, US embassies are bombed, genocide or massive human rights violations are involved, as those circumstances would at least arguably be the principle reason for the US reprisal.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Mark,

    perhaps it would be best to discuss a particular instance rather than vague generalities?

    To be clear, US foreign policy has not always been ethical, and benevolent to a particular country. I’m simply on the one hand agreeing with DarwinCatholic’s assertion that US interactions have on the whole been beneficial, and on the other hand that the US sphere of influence can not be reasonably called an “empire”.

    When Ceasar puts down a rebellion he doesn’t do it with economic meddling or low-level covert operations….

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Interesting post, DC… it reminds me of a a couple books that I’d started back in November but had to return to the library before I could finish (all in good time, I guess), both by Andrew Bacevich, a conservative who came to see US policy and culture as overly militarized. (It’s one of those unfortunate realities of human nature that I was more willing to give this thesis a hearing from someone like Bacevich precisely b/c of our broader agreements… I need to keep working on that. :-)

    He did prompt me to reexamine some of the premises which serve as the foundation for my own views on US foreign policy, among them my somewhat reflexive assumption that a foreign policy which has (military) power projection as a key component is an absolute. As he notes, this is a view which is taken for granted on both sides of the aisle in Washington, but which *needs* to be reconsidered.

    More apropos to DC’s post, I think we need to look again at the idea that if we don’t do “it”, no one else will… perhaps that’s true, but perhaps rather than simply going it alone, we might make new, differing attempts to rally others to the cause (advancing the common good of humanity). People who’ve known me for years will be shocked that I’m saying this, but wouldn’t it be great if we could redirect a significant portion of our defense budget in another manner, whether by giving it back (tax cuts), paying down the debt, or other domestic programs?

    Okay, time to shut down the rambling. As I said, DC, nice post.

    (Sorry for the absence of late, btw… between work, holidays, impending birth, and sickness, it’s been a crazy couple months.)

  • Matt,
    Read about Guatamala in 1954. The coup backed/initiated by the Eisenhower administration against the socialist government.

  • How do you see the principle of subsidiarity coming into play, in the situation of a U.S “empire” generally, but especially in those countries that experience the influence of the U.S.?

  • Zak,

    I won’t defend the CIA backed coup in 1954. However, let’s be honest about the facts around it and the concerns that led to US support for it.

    Unlike you I will actually make a case instead of telling you to read a book. In my point that this was not empire-building it is necessary to consider the point of view of American leadership, and not 20/20 hindsight.

    1. Arevalo the overthrown leader’s predecessor had greatly expanded freedoms and was moving Guatemala towards stable democracy while preserving a free-market economy. At the same time, there was a degree of communist penetration into his administration.

    2. The key opponent of Arbenz to succeed Arevalo, Franciso Arana was killed in a gunfight. While it appears this was the result of a failed coup on his part, Arbenz and Arevalo concealed this and reported that he was killed by unknown assassins. This led CIA to conclude that Arbenz had done away with his opponent to ensure his subsequent electoral victory.

    3. The US initially had hoped to work with Arbenz and considered him a moderate. He received US military aid early in his regime.

    4. Communism was becoming stronger under Arbenz. Given the the Cold War, a strong communist presence in Central America was seen as a serious threat to US security.

    5. As Arbenz electoral coalition began to fold, he relied heavily on his close friends in the PGT (communist party), this was particularly concerning to the US.

    6. A “land reform” law (read confiscation of private property, which was ruled unconstitutional by the supreme court untel Arbenz fired all the justices) that was believed to be initiated by PGT began to radicalize the moderate revolution which had been occurring in Guatemala. This radicalization would empower the PGT, and was thought to be under the influence of the Soviet Union. This radicalization was criticized by the Catholic Church.

    Subsequent investigations have mostly proven that the action taken by the US was not justified, and was unduly influenced by private concerns (US Fruit), that doesn’t change the fact that at the time the US was deeply afraid of communist expansion. Bear in mind that this was during the Korean War, which we suspected then, but now know involved participation of the Soviet Union in attempting to expand communism by force in a region that it was able to establish a foothold.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Kyle,

    US foreign policy does not well respect the principles of subsidiarity, buy then again neither does the federal government’s domestic policy, at least since FDR.

    On another note, if the US “sphere of influence” is an “empire” it seems to be a particularly ineffective one because we can’t even get our “colonies” to vote with us in the United Nations.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Matt,

    I think that you’re right generally speaking “sphere of influence” is a more accurate term than “empire” for what the US currently has. The reasons I chose to use the more inflammatory terms were basically:

    1) A case of adopting the terminology of those who advocate a much smaller global role for the US while arguing challenging their assumptions as to whether those terms necessarily connote something negative.

    2) Trying to work towards awareness. It strikes me that in many ways the US right now is in the position of the Roman Republic circa 200-150 BC, post Carthage but prior to actually taking control of any lands outside of Italy. At that point, it did not have an “empire” but was behaving increasingly imperial in the sense of enforcing order outside Roman territory, and then retreating back to Italy once they’d secured a friendly power in charge.

    It strikes me that if this way of looking at the US position in the world is accurate, it’s important to realize it so that we can make the right kind of decisions for ourselves and for others. In many ways, it was the Romans’ refusal to admit that they were running an empire of influence that led to some of their decisions which resulted in running an empire of direct authority instead.

  • Kyle,

    From a subsidiarity point of view, I don’t really like the situation, though as I said: One of my fears is that since we’ve effectively been doing this for the last 60 years, we can’t really back out now without either passing power pretty obviously to another power (as the Brits did to us after WW2) or creating a lot of chaos.

    However, I think the right course of action would be to maximize subsidiarity within the existing order in the sense of being clear about what sort of things we _should_ push for in order to maintain international order and otherwise knowing to back the heck off and let people do their own thing.

  • Michael & Mark,

    I’m not trying to argue by any means that every time the US has intervened in international situations in the last 60 years, it necessarily made things better or did the right thing. More that the benefits of the US being an empire of sorts outweight the negatives — and that since this seems to be the situation it should perhaps be acknowledged more clearly in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm.

    Nor would I necessarily say that the US has some sort of innate right to hold this role, or is ordained by God to do so or some such nonsense. Clearly, other nations have done similar things before, with varying results. The Soviet empire was pretty appalling. The British empire a mixed bag but certainly seems to have done the “anglosphere” a lot of good in the long term. The Hellenistic Greeks and the Romans both ran empires that were are times cruel and clumsy and oppressive in their actions, and yet in the long run did the world great benefit.

    I’m mostly arguing that we should both recognize what we are for what we are, and following from that seek both to do the best that we can at the position that we have taken upon ourselves and also think to the future and make sure that we work well with our potential successors (at the moment, India springs to mind) since no nation holds international hegemony forever.

  • Darwin/Brendan,

    a fair point, I guess I’m a little leery of surrendering the language on this. Your concern about crossing a threshold to true empire is valid, and something that is important to discuss while attempting to avoid the blind rhetoric.

    God Bless,

    Matt

  • Matt,
    My principle goal was to point out to you a case where a state tried to leave the US sphere and was met with reprisals. Your description of the events makes clear that you recognize that it happened, so your scepticism about it in your comment to Michael seems unwarrented. I will not defend Arbenz, but I will say that “fear of Communism” is the position used to justify a multitude of sins in US foreign policy, just as fear of Islamic extremism has been used to justify torture, preventive war, and a foreign policy that has diminished our ability to secure allies to achieve our goals.

  • principal, not principle, althoughI think my goal was principled.

  • DC,
    Are you familiar with the work done on Empire as an alternative model of international relations (as opposed to anarchy, unipolarity); not as a pejorative criticism? One of my professors at Georgetown, Daniel Nexon, has been exploring this subject at length.

    http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=F0168951CF6824F3DB911A28D402F80E.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=1028252

    He argues that since WWII, the structure of international relations has definitely been imperial, and that understanding US relations with Pakistan, for example, is best done using this framework (like understanding Roman relations in the Near East from 50BC through 100AD).

  • Zak,

    My principle goal was to point out to you a case where a state tried to leave the US sphere and was met with reprisals. Your description of the events makes clear that you recognize that it happened, so your scepticism about it in your comment to Michael seems unwarrented.

    I guess I should have been more clear in my post and that is my fault. Referring back to my original post:
    The use of force or sanctions against any country by the US has not been a result simply of departing the “empire” but due to other obvious reasons.

    The other obvious reasons are fear of Communist take-over followed by aggression which would ultimately lead to the destruction of the USA and her allies.

    I will not defend Arbenz, but I will say that “fear of Communism” is the position used to justify a multitude of sins in US foreign policy,

    It was expressly not my intent to defend this, or any other particular US action, but to demonstrate that it was not aimed at building or maintaining an empire, but at protecting itself from Communism (justifiably or not).

    just as fear of Islamic extremism has been used to justify torture, preventive war, and a foreign policy that has diminished our ability to secure allies to achieve our goals.

    Are you saying that the fear of communism or Islamo-fascism are not legitimate and grave enough to take extraordinary measures?

    In any event, there is no justification for torture, nor has their been any significant defense of it. Only an important argument about what torture is.

    God Bless,

    Matt
    ps. on a side note, I think the people of Guatemala today are doing much better than those still imprisoned under Castro…The ensuing events in Cuba suggest that the dangers of a communist takeover were serious and long-lasting to the inhabitants and to the USA.

  • I’m mostly arguing that we should both recognize what we are for what we are, and following from that seek both to do the best that we can at the position that we have taken upon ourselves and also think to the future and make sure that we work well with our potential successors (at the moment, India springs to mind) since no nation holds international hegemony forever.

    On the contrary, rather than simply “recognizing what we are,” perhaps we can think of what we are called to do christologically (as we are supposed to do in ethics, right?). The united states, rather than “recognizing what we are” needs to engage in a little bit of political kenosis or self-emptying, as Paul talks about. If Jesus is really Lord, and if we are really supposed to follow him, then we can’t isolate our foreign policy from his influence.

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