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Is the United States an Empire? - 2003-04-24

Words such “czar” or “empire,” once applied to powerful leaders and their dominions, today can be used fairly loosely. In contemporary jargon we speak of “publishing empires” and drug or racetrack “czars” to convey a high degree of power or a leadership status. But when commentators call the United States an empire, they usually mean it as a country that uses power to establish its influence over the rest of the world, as ancient Rome did or as Britain did in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Niall Ferguson, author of a new book, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power says "invading and occupying Iraq and imposing your own government on it was one of the classic behavior patterns of the British Empire, and I don’t see how it can be anything else when the United States does it.”

Mr. Ferguson adds “in just the same way, the British always said that they were doing this in the best interest of Iraq and that they ultimately wanted the Iraqi people to govern themselves, but what they wanted to do was to get rid of the government that they didn’t approve of.” He says during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain was the most successful economy in the world, and it needed an open international market, just as the United States does today. The United States is economically and militarily much more powerful in respect to its rivals than Britain ever was and it uses its power to further its interests.

But most Americans are not comfortable with the idea of running an empire. Romans, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and other imperialist powers conquered peoples to benefit from their resources and to subjugate them. Americans see themselves as builders of freedom and democracy. Historically, they have given aid and shelter to the poor and the oppressed of the world.

Michael Glennon, Professor of International Law at Tufts University in Massachusetts, says no matter how you define empire, the United States is not it. “Empire to me applies to states that use force to occupy or control a group of other states or regions,” he says. “The conquered states are robbed of autonomy and political independence. The conquered states become colonies, provinces or territories of the imperial power. Taxes are levied. Laws are imposed. Soldiers are conscripted. Governors are installed and all that occurs without the consent of the subjugated state. Foreign policy, military alliances, trade agreements, diplomatic relations; all that is dictated by the imperial power.”

Professor Glennon says people should not confuse military power or global economic success with imperialism. “Particularly, when that success is the result of other countries clamoring to buy your goods and services, which is precisely why American corporations are successful,” he says. “Nobody is forcing anybody anywhere to eat Big Macs.”

…or to wear Tee shirts and jeans or subscribe to American pop music and movies. But people in many parts of the world accuse American culture of being invasive and resent it as much as its military force. They often see large corporations promoting and selling American products as imperialistic. And the concept of global free trade, which the United States promotes as a way to global prosperity, is often rejected as part of an American expansionist policy.

Some analysts even here in the United States say the nation needs continued expansion into new markets in order to maintain its wealth.

Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, is the author of the book, American Empire: The realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. “In order to maintain abundance, our policy makers have concluded, we have to look abroad for opportunities to continue to expand our economy,” he says. “We need to be able to trade. We need to be able to invest, they believe. And in order to create those opportunities for trade and investment, there is a continuing effort to open up the world to American free enterprise and to ensure that the rest of the world adheres to the world of free enterprise.”

Professor Bacevich says the Cold War led the United States inexorably to empire. “There is a coherent grand strategy that grows out of our Cold War strategy in that it is in effect a strategy for global empire,” he says. Andrew Bacevich says although the United States does not wish to colonize or rule other nations directly, it is prepared to use force to maintain the world order it seeks to establish. “American policy makers -- and this is true whether we are talking about Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals -- have a very well defined conception of how the world is supposed to be organized, and how it is supposed to run, and what values are supposed to prevail, that we aim to bring about that organization and to ensure that those norms that we believe in take root elsewhere in the world,” he says.

Andrew Bacevich clarifies that while he believes in freedom, democracy and free trade, he questions whether they should be imposed on the rest of the world.

Some historians do not have a problem with that. Many point out that the Roman law is still the basis of legal systems across the world. And parts of its roads and waterways are still in use today.

Niall Ferguson says Britain was a very positive force in its colonies during the latter part of the 19th century. It brought stability and respect for law in many turbulent parts of the world. Professor Ferguson says independence did not improve social and economic status in many former colonies. “Clearly, many of these countries were not ready to make the transition to democracy,” he says. “The British knew that. They believed that a longer time was needed to avoid massive ethnic conflict or communal violence in India in 1947. But they were essentially forced to terminate their governments in Asia, Africa and elsewhere by economic pressure and also political pressure, not least from the United States, which regarded the empire as something to be dismantled as swiftly as possible after the Second World War.”

Professor Ferguson adds that although the United States does not admit to being an empire, it could learn some lessons from the British experience. One is that removing an unwanted government, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, is not enough. In his opinion, an empire is ultimately successful if it delivers results, such as law and order, economic stability and relative prosperity for the conquered region, and that may take years.

British historian Henry Kamen, author of the book Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, says the United States should avoid the use of military force. In his opinion, the United States empire can endure by wielding its economic power and promoting globalization. “Globalization is exploitation, but it is the exploitation which is also in the interest of the exploited,” he says. “I think the American empire is a very healthy system because it is based on factors which are in the interest of its controlled territories to maintain.”

Whether the United States is a genuine empire or not, historians say it has much to learn from the empires of the past, both what to emulate and what to avoid.