When the word empire is used in the United States it is generally used to describe things like the Roman Empire, or the 19th Century European empires, or the Galactic Empire in the movie Star Wars. The idea that the U.S. might be an empire is a foreign concept. Empire is a term that is derived from the Latin, Imperium. And that is why we hear political scientists using the term imperialist, or imperialism when speaking about empires. Imperialism is what empires do. The most basic examples of imperialism that are currently taught in U.S. history and political science classes is what has become known as the “Age of Imperialism” in which nineteenth century empires would dominate and exploit weaker states, generally in the underdeveloped world, and would set up colonies in them to maintain control of their resources.
One thing that is clear is that the old way of empires engaging in colonial imperialism is no longer in existence. But does that mean that imperialism simply ended after World War II? Some experts who have studied and written about imperialism argue that the amassing of colonies by the stronger state is the only way the term imperialism can be applied. Therefore, the U.S. cannot be considered as a genuine empire that engages in imperialism. Chalmers Johnson, professor emeritus at the University of California, argued persuasively that those who suggest imperialism is no longer in existence are using an “historically circumscribed view” and that “today imperialism manifests itself in several different and evolving forms and no particular institution – except for militarism – defines the larger phenomenon.” Professor Johnson defines imperialism when he wrote, “The simplest definition of imperialism is the domination and exploitation of weaker states by stronger ones” (Johnson 2)
So what exactly is the United States? What definition should we give to a country that has more than one thousand military bases (or lily pads), located in over one hundred fifty countries, spends more money per year on military expenditures than the top twenty-five other countries combined, and is actively dropping bombs in at least five different countries? Sheldon Wolin, professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, writes:
While all empires aim at exploitation of the peoples and territories they control, the United States is an Empire of a novel kind. Unlike other empires it rarely rules directly or occupies foreign territory for long, although it may retain bases or “lily pads.” Its power is “projected” at irregular intervals over other societies rather than institutionalized in them. Its rule tends to be indirect, to take the form of “influence,” bribes, or “pressure.” Its principal concerns are military and economic (i.e., access to bases, markets, and oil) (191).
Think about that. One of the most brilliant political theorists in this country, supported by one of the more prestigious universities in this world, is openly writing about the U.S. as being an “empire of a novel kind.” So why isn’t President Obama and Mitt Romney, or the Democrats and Republicans, or any of the mainstream media sources, talking about the American Empire? The word empire is rarely ever mentioned by politicians or media pundits even though they do speak about it. However, the language they use to describe the American Empire consists of euphemisms like, “the lone superpower,” or “indispensable nation,” or “reluctant sheriff.” And the euphemisms used to describe imperialism are “spreading democracy and freedom,” or “humanitarian intervention,” or “globalization.” Regardless of these euphemisms, the U.S. has become an empire that engages in imperialism, and the creation of terrorism, the erosion of our Constitutional rights, and the country’s bankruptcy issues are all consequences of empire.
Before September 11th the idea that the U.S. was an empire was only spoken about in far-left intellectual circles. The global garrison of military bases that was built up during the Cold War was justified as necessary to stop the spread of Russian communism. But after the fall of the Soviet Union the U.S. did not dismantle most of these bases and actually continued to increase military spending even though the communist threat was no longer in existence. After September 11th we begin to see even right-wing intellectuals come out and openly admit that the U.S. is imperialist. Charles Krauthammer of the Weekly Standard writes, “We are not just any hegemon. We run a uniquely benign imperialism…it is a fact manifest in the way that others welcome our power” (Wolin). This statement begs the question: Do others really welcome American power? Surely the oligarchic families that use authoritarian dictatorships to rule their countries, and are supported by American power, welcome it. But do the common people of third world countries love American power? Overwhelmingly, American power is being rejected by mass social movements throughout the globe. All throughout Latin America populist movements have sprouted up and toppled U.S. supported dictatorships in favor of forming democratic governments. In the Middle East we are seeing “Arab springs” looking to free themselves from dictatorships – the same dictators who received billions of dollars per year in military aid from the U.S. government. So clearly Krauthammer was only speaking of a certain sector of people who welcome U.S. power.
This last part about U.S. power leads to one of the first serious and unfortunate consequences of imperialism: when the fury of the dispossessed strike back against the empire, and the people living within the empire don’t understand why. The Central Intelligence Agency invented the term “blowback” to describe this phenomenon that “refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people” (Johnson 1). The most extreme case of blowback is the September 11th terrorist attacks. “Terrorism is both a response to empire and the provocation that allows for empire to cease to be ashamed of its identity” (Wolin). The people who supposedly perpetrated the attacks of September 11th were violently reacting to U.S. imperialism and military occupation of their nation. This attack then provoked U.S. leaders to retaliate, instead of honestly dealing with the consequences of empire, and by doing so they chose “to repress their involvement in the vast expanse of power of empire and globalization” and propelled our country into the realm of mythology. This mythology is wrapped up in a good verses evil theme that is predominantly religious in nature. It has made “terrorism appear [to be just] irrational violence, without apparent cause or reasonable justification” and “[at] the same time, the character of absolute evil assigned to terrorism… works toward the same end by allowing the state to cloak its power in innocence” (Wolin). Professor Wolin had this to say about U.S. leaders and mythology:
When myth begins to govern decision-makers in a world where ambiguity and stubborn facts abound, the result is a disconnect between the actors and reality. They convince themselves that the forces of darkness possess weapons of mass destruction and nuclear capabilities; that their own nation is privileged by a god who inspired the Founding Fathers and the writing of the nation’s constitution. (14)
This type of mythical thinking can clearly be seen in how the Bush administration tried to convince the public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was going to use them against us here in the U.S. However, there were U.N. weapons inspectors who intimately knew that this was not true. Scott Ritter was one such man when he publicly stated, “I bear personal witness through seven years as chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations to both the scope of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs and the effectiveness of U.N. weapons inspectors in ultimately eliminating them” (Ritter). Stubborn facts abound, indeed.
The mythical response to the September 11th attacks by the American Empire also works to increase terrorist threats, rather than eliminating them. There are conflicting reports as to how many innocent men, women and children living in the Middle East have been killed or seriously injured by U.S. attacks in their homeland. Here in the U.S., apologists for Empire simply write these deaths off as “collateral damage.” However, to Iraqis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis these “collateral damage” deaths are their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers and friends. And their deaths can only work to increase the hatred of those who are so horribly affected by these U.S. imperialist policies. It seems like this would be such an obvious concept, but U.S. leaders ignore such simple concepts. They also have ignored reports from the National Intelligence Agency that have reported that the Iraq war has made the U.S. less safe, and “has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Terrorism and the government’s mythical response to it have also allowed the U.S. government to “quickly expand its intrusive power abroad and here at home.” Some political scientists are now engaged in asking key questions about whether or not a constitution designed for a republic, and intended to limit power, can co-exist with a totalizing power that reaches across the entire globe. Professor Wolin writes, “Imperial power is not about restraint” (192). Therefore, the simplest answer to these questions is that empire and a constitutional democracy cannot co-exist. A simple example of the Constitution being violated was when George W. Bush unilaterally declared that the nation was “at war” more or less forever against terrorism. This declaration was a clear violation of Article 1, section 8 of the Constitution which explicitly says, “The Congress shall have the power to declare war.” The Constitution was set up to strictly prohibit the executive branch from unilaterally declaring war. James Madison, one of the main framers of the Constitution, wrote of the dangers of continual warfare and the executive branch:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and . . . degeneracy of manners and of morals. . . .No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare (Madison).
It’s ironic, if not just sad, that most U.S. leaders will praise the Founding Fathers in one breath, and then ignore the hard-learned lessons that they have left for us. Madison’s warning about continual warfare is hauntingly coming to fruition as U.S. leaders continue to pursue “their involvement in the vast expanse of power of empire and globalization.”
Another example of the American Empire violating our constitutional rights can be seen when the Obama administration recently declared it reserved the right to assassinate any person in the world, including U.S. citizens, without due process of law. This is by far one of the most extreme violations of the Constitution that any U.S. president has ever engaged in. Other such violations can be see with the passage of the Patriot Act, the FISA Act and the recent signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allows the government to detain and imprison anybody in the world, including U.S. citizens, without due process of law. A recent federal court case ruled in favor of seven plaintiffs who sued the U.S. government for violating their First and Fifth Amendment rights by signing the NDAA into law (Greenwald). All of these bills clearly show that the totalizing power of the American Empire cannot co-exist with a constitutional democracy that is designed to keep power in check.
The last consequence of the American Empire is the bankruptcy issue. Maintaining a military empire is an expensive business. Nearly a trillion dollars was needed in 2011 to feed the military-industrial-complex. This figure is scheduled to increase in 2012, and also excludes the costs of two unfunded wars and Homeland security operations. Nobel-prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, has estimated that Iraq alone will end up costing the American taxpayer three trillion dollars. So how will this affect the majority of U.S. citizens?
I say the majority of U.S. citizens because if you are somehow tied into the profit mechanisms of the American Empire then business is booming for you, but you are in the minority. Professor Johnson wrote, “Our militarized empire is a physical reality with a distinct way of life but it is also a network of economic and political interests tied in a thousand different ways to American corporations, universities, and communities” (Johnson 2). An example of how this “distinct way of life” and the “network of economic and political interests” tie together can be seen when Professor Wolin writes:
Halliburton’s power begins in Texas, extends to Washington, and then connects with projects (often without competitive bidding) in Afghanistan and Iraq; it returns to the “homeland” enriched and eager to invest its profits in politicians. Politicians, in turn, become responsive to the new sources of pressure, contributions, and lavish favors. The district or constituent back “home” shrinks in significance (193).
The thing to keep in mind here is that it was your tax money that enriched Halliburton. And now they are eager to invest your tax money into politicians who will give them more favors. Tax breaks for them, and not for you; more bid free taxpayer money for further projects. This one Halliburton example is amplified in hundreds of other ways. A quick look at the top one hundred recipients of federal contracts shows that the top twenty are all defense contractors. So what does this all mean? It means the people who are not tied into this “network of economic and political interests” are being impoverished because an overwhelming percentage of their federal tax money is being funneled into funding the American Empire and all of its imperialist operations across the globe. The majority is paying for the American Empire, while a few run away with the profits. Any person who is tied into any of the social welfare programs that are being threatened in this country with more cuts has a serious stake in this debt-ridden game. This includes teachers, social workers, police, fire-fighters, nurses, environmentalists, small-business owners, and students. Countless teachers and social workers are having to accept pay cuts, or are losing their jobs because federal funding is drying up to fund the empire instead of these social programs. Students are being driven further into debt from the rising costs of tuition at state universities because Federal subsidies and grants to states are drying up to fund imperial operations instead.
The chain of people negatively affected by empire could go on and on, but the point should be clear by now: The American Empire is bankrupting the people of this country. Since the politicians and the mainstream media never even mentions that the U.S. is an empire, let alone honestly discusses with the public about the consequences of empire, is it any wonder why these “networks of economic and political interests” only seem to suggest that this country is going broke because of social programs at home?
So the real question that “We the People” need to start asking is: a Democratic-Republic or the American Empire? Which one do you want? Because you can’t have both. And it would seem obvious that since Empire is creating more terrorism, eviscerating constitutional law, and bankrupting the people of this country that choosing the Republic and a return to the rule of law would be the intelligent thing to do.
Edemariam, Aida. “The True Cost of War.” The Guardian. 27 Feb. 2008
FedSpending. “Top 100 Recipients of Federal Contract Awards for FY 2011” fedspending.org
Greenwald, Glenn. “Federal court enjoins NDAA” Salon.com 16 May 2012
Harrison, Todd. “Analysis of the FY 2011 Defense Budget.” csbaonline.org
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Johnson, Chalmers. Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire.
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Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic New York. First Owl Books, 2005.
Madison, James. “The Most Dreaded Enemy of Liberty.” <www.fff.org/freedom/0893e.asp>
Mazetti, Mark. “Spying Agencies Say Iraw War Worsens Terrorism.” The New York Times. 24 Sept. 2006.
Ritter, Scott. “Is Iraq a True Threat to the U.S.” The Boston Globe. 20 July 2002
Vine, David. “The Lily-Pad Strategy: How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War.” Tomdispatch.com. 15 July 2012.
Wolin, Sheldon. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press, 2008