Whether dubbed the American Empire, the American Imperial State, American Imperialism, the informal empire, or whether one refuses to call it any of these, the United States today holds a vast amount of power and sway in economic and militaristic terms. As of 2004, the US mans 735 military bases in 130 countries while possessing half of the world’s armaments. Or, if you prefer, in the words of Paul Kennedy:
Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defence spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap. . . . Charlemange’s empire was merely western European in its reach. The Roman empire stretched farther afield, but there was another great empire in Persia, and a larger one in China. There is, therefore, no comparison.
Add to this the increasing reach inside and out of the US of the insidiously named predator drones and the contrast is made even starker. How then does one discuss, label, and track this contradiction, the American empire? And how does it fit into a larger history and memory of the US?
In the next couple posts I plan to explore the topic of American empire. For my purposes, “American empire,” “American imperialism,” “the American imperial state” all refer to the same thing though some differences of opinion will undoubtedly surface.
Over the course of recent debates in the last 60 years give or take, the theme of American empire has moved from the sole domain of diplomatic historians to encompass a wide breadth of area studies and non-US scholars. There have been internecine wars within the US camp that continue today under slightly different terms and different contexts. Before I go on to speculate on some connections between the similar influences of the Cold War and the War on Terrorism, the politics of the linguistic or cultural turn, the paradox of American “democracy” and imperial effects, and the (unclear) impact of (post)colonial studies in later posts, I think it’s important to get some genealogy down. Who said what when and how have they influenced how we think and debate American empire?
Firstly, it seems to me that early and modern scholars are split about the meaning, beginnings, and definition of empire. Despite the fact that some popular early American histories (1700s) have come out recently seemingly placing “empire” right at the heart of their narrative (Patrick Griffin’s readable American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier), modern historians start by discussing the war of 1898. It is only when the US seizes Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and other Pacific territories (like Guam) that real discussions of the American imperial state begin. Hypothesizing as to why this is will have to wait for another day.
In the discourse surrounding the subject, there has always been a tension between the politics of imperialism—how one interprets the American project. In some ways, there hasn’t been much change since the old binary of the anti-imperialists (e.g. Anti-Imperialist League members Jane Addams, Mark Twain, and John Dewey—a few of my favorites) and the hawkish followers of Manifest Destiny (e.g. William McKinley, an interesting president who claimed that after sleepless nights filled with prayer it was the duty of the US “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them”).
Another factor to consider is the unique context and shape of American empire. Unlike the various European models that have defined the idea of empire in the minds of most Americans (and many scholars—more on that later, too), the US empire stretched/es over a relatively small number of territories. It also spurned the heavy bureaucracy of England or France and instead adopted an alliance between private business and the state. This was all the more suited to the central goal of the newly industrialized urban US economy: they had to find new markets to offload their stuff. This would be accomplished by a “nimble nexus” of pressures: military, political, and cultural in character. This modernist theory of empire, it seems to me, rests upon taking the continental 48-state US for granted. The conquest of American Indians and half of Mexico is past and usually not included in the discussion.
John Lewis Gaddis and Charles S. Maier were some of the first to point out that the practice of empire could have important effects for the home country and not just for the colonized. While Gaddis mostly turned his attention to the USSR, Maier pointed out (in the 80s and 90s) that imperialism could stabilize the home-front politically while reifying inequality abroad geographically. But, it was the likes of William Appleman Williams (a great name) and Walter LaFeber who first started to challenge the prevailing conservative consensus school in the 1950s and 1960s. . . .