American Empire is a term relating 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, although the founding fathers of the American republic also spoke about "empire". 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 neoconservatives who believe the U.S. must embrace an imperial role. Debate about whether or not America has ever had an empire is complicated. The word "imperialism" is itself open to different interpretations and definitions. Empires, too, do not always apply the word in self-description. On the other hand, few deny that after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is the major power in the world. Whether the U.S. is an imperial or a non-imperial power may be a question of semantics.
At root, the issue is whether America's actions on the world stage have more often than not been altruistic or self-serving. Has America more often than not defended liberty, or enslaved people? The argument that U.S. action in the world has enslaved more people than it has liberated is difficult to sustain, which does not mean that the U.S. has never exploited other people or that it has always promoted democratic governance. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported many anti-communist dictators as the lesser of two evils. At times, the U.S. has acted as a nation over other nations, which is the negative and destructive expression of imperialism. Yet, that the world community is increasingly able to speak about shared values and of universal human rights to a large degree follows from the fact that huge portions of the planet formerly lived under imperial rule. Humanity may be evolving to a stage when exploitation of others and promotion of self-interest over—and against—that of others will yield to a new way of being human, in which humanity seeks to promote the well-being of the whole, and to restore its broken relationship with the one planet on which all live. America's role as a nation among nations will be judged by whether it aids or hinders this process.
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 during the Philippine-American War.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives three definitions of imperialism:
Debate exists over whether the U.S. is an empire in the politically-charged sense of the latter two definitions.
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 regards "imperialism" as a term used less by "imperialists" than by "those who adopt a particular attitude," thus "imperialism," which he describes as "a critical term for activity let loose" is "always a listing in someone else's index, never one's own." Political theorist Michael Walzer argues that the term "hegemony" is better than "empire" to describe the US' role in the world.
Ferguson describes America's "founding fathers" as "self-confident imperialists" although the "the empire they envisaged was … very different in character from the empire from which they have seceded," that is, the British Empire. For George Washington, the US was a "nascent empire." Thomas Jefferson thought that the Constitution of the United States was the perfect foundation on which an "extensive empire" could be built. For Alexander Hamilton, America was the "most interesting empire in the world." While a few argued that a western boundary ought to be set for the US, "the idea was thrown out" at the 1776 Constitutional Conference. What was later called Manifest Destiny would extend the Republic from sea to sea, disproving the theory that "a republic could be preserved only in a small territory." For Jefferson, the original 13 colonies were the "nest from which all America, North and South" would "be peopled." America was by "some way or other" to become "a great and mighty empire: we must have an army, a navy" yet "liberty" would remain central to the American spirit, "liberty … was the primary objective. Jefferson's empire, though, was to be one of "liberty." However, until the 1898 Spanish-American War, expansion was within the continental US except for annexation of Hawaii, which took place July 7, 1898 while that war was being fought. This process of territorial expansion was regarded as extending the ideals and principles of the Constitution, based on liberty and self-government, throughout the continent of America. When that expansion was completed, it seemed not only logical to some but even a moral duty to extend the promotion of democracy and the defense of freedom to the rest of the world. By 1898, the US was strong enough militarily to contemplate helping the remaining Spanish colonies to throw off the yoke of imperialism, as the original 13 colonies had thrown off British rule.
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. When European settlers came to the United States, in Miller's view, they miraculously shed their old ways upon arrival in the New World, as one might discard old clothing, and fashioned 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 egalitarianism has deep roots in seventeenth century English radical traditions."
The American exceptionalism was a term first used with respect to the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville "during his first visit to America in 1831." He noticed that the American idea of "nationality" was "different, based less on common history or ethnicity than on common beliefs." He saw no limits to America's potential for progress.
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:
"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."
Marxists, anarchists, and members of the New Left 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 in his 1971 book, updated in 2003, 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 twenty-first-century interventions in the Middle East, are typically described by these authors as imperialistic.
There is also a conservative critique of US imperialism identified with historians such as Charles Beard and Andrew Bacevich, part of a tradition of non-interventionism, often referred to derogatorily as "isolationism." Dating back to the founding fathers, this represents a reluctance for America to become entangled in foreign alliances and foreign wars. The founders wanted to avoid Europe's history of incessant war. 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. Commentator 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 senior Defense Department official 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."
After World War II, the US allowed many of its overseas territories or occupations to gain independence. The Philippines (1946), the Federated States of Micronesia (1986), the 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 emphasized that, prior to 1850, official government policy was generally in favor 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.
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. Theories of the U.S. as an empire have been categorized under five broad headings: "liberal" theories, "social-democratic" theories, "Leninist" theories, theories of "super-imperialism," and "Hardt-and-Negri-ite" theories.
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 more patriotic interpretation is no longer heard very often by historians.
Military historian Max Boot defends US actions in the Philippines, pointing out 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 twentieth 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 twentieth 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 twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, though he describes the United States' political and social structures as more like those of the Roman Empire than of the British. Like the Roman Empire, the American Empire began as a small republic "like Rome, it was an inclusive empire" although also like Rome it had, for a time, "disenfranchised slaves." Thus far, though "unlike Rome" it has preserved its republican constitution. 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. The US, in this view, needs to pay attention to how the Roman Republic collapsed, as well as to the end of Rome's empire.
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. By "the time of the Civil War, the Monroe Doctrine had been extended as far as Hawaii, but important American interests were developing still farther West." 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.
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."
International relations 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 American styles of popular music and cinema. Thus the US, no matter how hegemonic, is no longer an empire in the classic sense.
This point of view might be considered the mainstream or official interpretation of United States history within the US. The United States Information Agency writes that,
"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."
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 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, wrote,
So influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism and opportunity, that imperialism in the United States as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of the United States culture, politics and history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture in North America, and in particular in the United States, is astonishingly direct.
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 - such as Britain's conduct during 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.
The concept of "empire" is slippery, because nations that acquire empires do not always use the term. During the Cold War, those territories that fell under the influence or control of the Soviet Union were commonly referred to as the "Soviet Empire" but no official Soviet source would ever come close to using the word "empire" in self-description. Whether use of the term with reference to the United States is accurate or not, it can be argued that for much of the twentieth century, the US did possess what looked remarkably like an extra-territorial empire. There is little doubt, too, that the US has often acted in its own interests with little or no real regard for the interests of the people of the territories it has invaded or occupied. Yet America is not alone among great powers, whether they represent "empires" or not, in believing that it has a special mission to act morally on the world stage. The very idea of American exceptionalism has had positive and negative consequences. On the one hand, America has tried to act as a nation among nations promoting its own ideals of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, America has acted as a nation above nations pursuing her special self-interest at the expense of other people's liberty and happiness.
Many nations, ancient and modern, have regarded themselves as having a special role to play, sometimes blessed by God. Pinnacle nations such as the United States, regarded by many as the only superpower in the post-Cold war world, can be forces for good or for evil in the world. History suggests that pinnacle nations that temper power with morality, with the aim of maintaining peace, of spreading justice or of defending human rights may have a crucial role to play in securing a sustainable future for the planet and for the human race. Findlay and O'Rourke point out that "Periods of sustained expansion in world trade have tended to coincide with the infrastructure of law and order necessary to keep trade routes open being provided by a dominant 'hegemon' or imperial power, as in the cases of the Pax Mongolica and Pax Britannica." Ferguson argues that empires (he includes the "American Empire" here) are "necessary," arguing that as a "liberal empire," America promotes freedom, "economic openness" and the "institutional foundations for successful development." Former imperial powers are among the world's strongest champions of human rights and human equality.
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