America as Empire, Now and in the Future

July 23, 2008

America as Empire, Now and in the Future

 The United States is an empire- indeed, one of the most powerful empires in all history-but refuses to acknowledge the obvious.


 The United States is an empire- indeed, one of the most powerful empires in all history-but refuses to acknowledge the obvious. This is part of the problem, for at present, America is a colossus with an attention deficit disorder, practicing cut-price colonization.

Lest we forget, the purpose of the American Empire, as it presently exists, is to spread free markets, to entrench the rule of law so as to eliminate the mainsprings of terrorism (which are commonly to be found in places where there are tyrannies and civil wars), to impose order in those territories and to pave the way for representative government in those territories.


In military terms, we know that roughly 750 military bases and installations staffed by American military personnel exist in approximately 130 countries around the world. We know that the United States accounts now for roughly two-fifths, 40 percent, of all military expenditures in the world. In strictly military terms, then, there never has been an empire as powerful as America under George W. Bush.

Another dimension of power is economic. In economic terms, too, the United States has awesome power. Its share of global economic output, if you take a measure like gross domestic product, using purchasing power parity figures, is something like 31 percent. Nearly a third of world output is accounted for by the United States. This is three times larger than the share of global output that Great Britain enjoyed at the very height of its power, in the very heyday of the Industrial Revolution.

And, of course, the United States also has one very important attribute of empire not contained in the dictionary definition. It has the ability to export its cultural values.  Indeed, it has the ability to make its cultural values not only attractive to other peoples, but to make those peoples adopt them voluntarily.

When one considers the above three pillars of power-the military, the economic, and the cultural-from a British vantage point, the only thing that is really quite remarkable about the American empire, aside from the fact that it dwarfs the British Empire, is the fact that Americans refuse to believe in its existence. As Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said in an interview in March, I think, to Al-Jazeera: "The United States is not in the business of empire; we don't do colonies."

The Consequences of Denial

I see three fundamental problems with a hyper-power that refuses to recognize its own imperial role in the world.

The first of these is that all American military interventions, certainly since the 1960s, have been conducted on a false premise, namely, that they can be wound up within a matter of months or, at most, a few years. It is a fundamental flaw-and it is visible already in Iraq and Afghanistan today-in an imperial power when it states that it will withdraw as soon as possible from the country that it has occupied. And yet this is what is constantly stated by American spokesmen.

This is a flaw because all empires are based not on coercion but on collaboration. They are based on the willingness of indigenous elites to collaborate in the creation of stable institutions in their home country.

Why would you collaborate with an occupying power that says it is about to leave? I cannot imagine anything more reckless than to participate in the authorities that are being created in Afghanistan and Iraq today under American rule when it is so clear that the Americans intend to wind these authorities up and go home within a matter of months.

The second problem about an empire in denial is that it doesn't adequately resource its imperial undertakings. It does not spend enough money on them. At present, America is an empire based on the Wal-Mart principle: the principle of low prices always.

Recently, the Pentagon revealed that the monthly cost of occupying Iraq is something like $3.9 billion. This figure is far too small. And the reason it is far too little is because it is entirely going to maintaining the military presence of 140,000 or so American troops.  Virtually no money is being spent on the all-important task of reconstructing the Iraqi economy and ensuring that law and order take root in that society.

I was shocked to discover that in Afghanistan, where the process of nation building-a euphemism for empire (empire with a human face, we could call it) has been going on now for one year and a half, the total amount of money that the American Government has spent in supporting the government that it created in Kabul is $5 million. An empire cannot be run on a shoestring, but there is right now no other way, because the imperial metropole is in denial. America is a colossus with feet of clay. Denial of reality is not in the national interest.

Washington would have to make relatively modest savings to be able to increase the amount of money that the United States spends not just on military but also the nonmilitary aspects of nation-building. If you look at the effective value of American aid, it is around about a third of the equivalent aid budgets of the European Union member-states. This is not a lot of money; in fact, it's small beer. It would be easy to lose it in the huge morass of the federal budget. So relatively modest savings on the bloated domestic programs would allow effective allocation of funds for nation-building.

The third great problem about the American empire today is that it is premised on a misunderstanding about the nature of imperial power, namely, that it should be exerted unilaterally. It was the great imperial statesman Lord Salisbury who coined the phrase "splendid isolation," but when he used it, it was sardonically to criticize his opponents in the House of Parliament.

Salisbury's argument was that Britain's power depended on the collaboration and cooperation of a network of alliances with the other great powers of Europe, and indeed with the United States, in order to be enduring. Empires exist, and have always existed, on the basis of consent.

Also, empire does not necessarily preclude the existence of representative institutions. The British learned their lesson with the disaster of the 1770s and granted responsible government to Canada, to Australia, to New Zealand, to South Africa, and intended to grant it ultimately to India and, in the far distant future, to African colonies when they were considered able to make representative government work.

The United States seems incapable of effective peacekeeping and policing efforts in the countries that it has so recently conquered. It badly needs not only military support but support in the form of aid budgets from the European Union member-states, which currently spend roughly three times more on aid and as much on peacekeeping as the United States.

America's Legacy, British Lessons

In 16 military interventions undertaken by the United States since 1898, only four have successfully led to democratic institutions' taking root: West Germany, Japan, Panama, Grenada. The rest of the names on the list really are names redolent with tragedy: Haiti, Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, Nicaragua. The prospects for Kosovo do not look promising, either, and Afghanistan and Iraq seem off to a stilted start.

America has been such an unsuccessful empire because it is an empire in denial, because it does not recognize the nature of its responsibilities, because it attempts to nation-build in a timeframe of two years, the electoral cycle, and without adequate cooperation and support from its allies. That is why the United States is one of the least successful as well as one of the most potentially powerful empires in all history.

That said, it is not in the national interest for the country's political leaders to make explicit use of the terminology of empire.  Indeed, I applaud their ability to disclaim imperial ambitions in all of their public pronouncements. That is precisely the right way to play it. The United States should constantly deny that it is an empire, should consistently promise that its troops will be withdrawn. This seems to me to be almost inherently part of the new American Empire.

The key thing is not to mean these things. What worries me is the terrible possibility that Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush genuinely believe- and Mr. Bremer, and many others genuinely believe- that the United States can withdraw from Iraq in the very near future, having held free and fair elections.

The self-delusion of belief is not new. It is rooted in the sincere belief in the altruism of one's intentions. To say that the expansion of American power was good for America and for the world, and that is why we're not an empire is fine, but to mean it? The British made that mistake. Consider only these familiar words: "We come not as conquerors, but as liberators", said General F.S. Maude in March 1917, following the British occupation of Baghdad.

Indeed, the whole characteristic of 19th century British imperialism was its self-proclaimed altruism. The British saw themselves as the bearers of Christianity, commerce and civilization in the words of David Livingston. They saw their manifest destiny as being to extend the benefits of British liberty, economic and legal liberty to the world.