Ronald Steel: An Empire ... No Matter Who's Elected in November

Roundup: Historians' Take

Ronald Steel, in the Nation (Sept. 2004):

It did not take long for a term that not long ago was slanderous to become a cliche. Suddenly everyone has discovered, and accepts as a commonplace, that the United States possesses an empire. For some our newly acknowledged imperial status is a source of celebration, for others of lamentation, but it is in any case something that cannot be denied. It is no longer even a choice, but rather a simple reality.

Of course the United States is an empire, and in most respects the most powerful that the world has ever seen. Given the current global balance of power--where the only serious rival has self-destructed, and aspirants to the title have a long way to go before being considered seriously--there is nothing else that it can be. Even an American government that tried to practice restraint, self-denial and mutuality would still be the dominant factor in any political equation. It sets the agenda even by its absence. Consider the cases of Bosnia, where the bloodshed did not end until the United States intervened, and Rwanda, and today Sudan, where it continued unabated because the United States chose to stand aside....

Our sense of aggrieved innocence usefully masks the violence of our own history and the motivations for many of our foreign wars. But this is not generally taught in our textbooks. Some argue, as does British economic historian Niall Ferguson in Colossus, his rhapsody to the imperial tradition, not merely "that the United States is an empire but that it has always been an empire." He rightly observes that the American nation was no sooner founded than its leaders embarked on an energetic program of expansion that--through diplomacy, conquest and theft from its original inhabitants--brought into the ever-expanding Union all the lands east of the Mississippi, then the vast territories of Louisiana, followed by Texas and a third of Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Caribbean and Pacific islands seized from Spain, and the once-independent kingdom of Hawaii. Not to mention the informal economic empire in Latin America, about which a US secretary of state declared in 1895, "today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and...its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."

Our empire did not become global until 1945, when the defeat and the ensuing political and economic collapse of the great imperial powers--Germany, Britain, France and Japan--shattered the existing global balance. The United States emerged from World War II with overwhelming power and an expansive self-confidence. It had grown enormously richer during the war, shedding the self-doubt and overcoming the economic depression of the 1930s. Backed by a triumphant military machine, it had the capacity and the self-awareness to advance its interests and its values around the globe.

The awareness of the new role that the United States could play was vividly expressed in early 1941 by Henry Luce, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the nation into a two-front war. Americans, wrote the publisher of Time and Life magazines in an essay he modestly titled "The American Century," must "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world, and in consequence exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Even George W. Bush would not have expressed the sentiment so baldly.

The project was not only political but also territorial, and it took shape, geographer Neil Smith powerfully argues in American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, as part of a comprehensive global vision dating back to the early decades of the twentieth century. "The American Century, understood as a specific historical period," Smith demonstrates, "was built with an equally specific but largely unseen geography." In this geography of history, he examines the construction of the imperial space through the influence of Isaiah Bowman, the influential geographer who mapped out for Woodrow Wilson the new boundaries of post-World War I Europe, and for Franklin Roosevelt the American presence in post-World War II Europe and its colonies. More than a biography, this is an intellectually invigorating challenge to the assumption that globalism is a process that can be divorced from specific territorial and political objectives.

If the emerging American empire was not based on the formal acquisition of territory, a territorial concept was inherent in the construction of economic and political control. This was the continuation and expansion of the prewar pattern. Following World War I the United States--unlike its French, British and Japanese allies--claimed no spoils from those it had defeated. Instead it focused on economic expansion (and continued suzerainty over Latin America). Its goal then, and now, was a global Open Door for American trade and investment....

George W. Bush may be more crude in his language and his methods than previous Presidents, but he is following the same road map. It will take more than exhortation to persuade him or his successors to do otherwise.

Indeed, it will be extremely difficult, if even possible, to behave dramatically differently. Style is one thing, substance another. Bush offends by his style. He enjoys confrontation and the humiliation of those opposed to his will. Consider his treatment of old allies like the French and Germans in the run-up to the Iraq war. Another President, like John F. Kennedy, would have put the mailed fist in a smooth glove. Yet this, with more nuance, will likely be the path pursued by John Kerry should he succeed Bush. Both his campaign speeches and his choice of advisers reaffirm an imperial role. The difference is a matter of style.

The United States today is what it is, and has been at least since 1945: a great imperial power with global interests to protect and advance. George W. Bush strikes a discordant key. Yet in most respects he sings the familiar tune, and it is unlikely to change in any major way, regardless of who occupies the White House, until the tectonic plates of the global power equation have moved into a new alignment. In the meantime, what we may have most to fear is not major war or crippling terrorist attacks but, as Brzezinski has warned, whether "global hegemony could endanger American democracy itself."

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