An empire is group of nations or states under the control of a single ruler or
ruling power, especially an emperor that exercises control of vital political
decisions of weaker units through a combination of factors including economic
might, technological advances, ideology, religion, military might or political
controls. An empire need not have a direct or formal rule over its territories,
as most empires in history have exercised informal, indirect rule over their
subjects. Going by this definition, the U.S. is not an empire because it does
not have a king or emperor that traces its power through hereditary rule. On the
other hand the U.S. does satisfy the definition of an empire because it
possesses and has possessed sovereign territories which it has not annexed as
states, such as Puerto Rico, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and in the past the
Occupied Japan, Occupied Germany, Okinawa and the Philippines.
Perhaps empire is too harsh of a word to describe American power in the 21st century; perhaps it is more of hegemony as proposed by American political theorist Michael Walzer. Hegemony is the control or dominating influence by one person or group, especially by one political group over society, or one nation over others, but it is unlike an empire in that the hegemon is seen more as the first among equals rather than superior authority. While the United States from my point of view does not fit completely into either the role of a hegemon or an empire. We are perhaps unable to fit the United State into either of the two categories because its description fits in more closely with that of imperial power or an empire. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in their book Empire, the empire today is defined in completely new terms. As they state, the empire of today “occupies no lands; it has no center; it doesn't depend on tightly controlled satellite governments; it is a postmodern entity.” These characteristics certainly describe the modern day American empire.
If United States is really an empire, then when did it become one? The question of when the US became an empire is a difficult one to assess as there are many disputed claims to its origin. It is pointed out by many historians that the start of US imperialism and empire was with the 1898 Spanish-American War. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s America due to advances in the industrial sector had large surpluses in the textiles, steel and manufactured goods market and saw the need to expand its markets outside of the North American continent. The US looked to Spain as a weakened and vulnerable empire with rich colonies in the Americas that could be potential new market to channel the surplus being generated. President William McKinley, with a properly planned propaganda campaign and assistance of the mass media, convinced Americans that Spain was a direct threat to homeland security and it was US’ responsibility to free the Cubans from Spanish tyranny, and declared war on Spain. This declaration began US international interventions and imperialistic rule, legitimized on the basis that it was America’s duty to spread freedom and protect democracy throughout the world. Yet, US’ actions and intervention worldwide following the Spanish-American War have almost always been propelled by economic and political motive of American imperial dominance, cloaked under the guise of morality and security.
Still others argue that American Imperialism has its roots even before the Spanish-American, that America’s beginnings lie in Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, or even earlier to the displacement of Native Americans prior to the American Revolution. Regardless, it is certain that the Spanish-American War was America’s first overseas campaign of conquest and occupation, and the start of the United States and imperialistic entity was fist witnessed in the Western Hemisphere and Latin America. In the many decades after the Spanish-American war, the world has seen many such propaganda campaigns that have inevitably led to overseas interference, conquest or occupation as the United States acquired Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a string of bases throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean.
Later during the long Cold War that lasted from 1947–1989, the United States did not per se acquire colonies, but made it a point to repeatedly intervene in the affairs of other nations through quasi-governing roles in their internal politics and through the establishment of friendly governments and regimes in many nations. The United States argues that it was not imperialism in practice because it did not acquire permanent colonies or bases, but rather temporary interventions to maintain stability and contain communism. But numerous U.S. foreign interventions, ranging from early actions under the Monroe Doctrine, that limited European powers from colonizing or interfering with the affairs of the nations of the Americas and Truman Doctrine that stated that the US would support any free people who had their liberty and democracy threatened by ‘armed minorities or outside pressure,’ to 21st-century interventions in the Middle East are seen as deeply imperialistic and further confirm the United States status as that of an empire on the world stage. Even the recent War in Iraq is seen as routine move of imperialism by the US to install a friendly and loyal regime in the region and extract key resources, hidden under the banner of false American propaganda. US presence on the world stage as an empire has been so strong that many historians such Andrew Bacevich and Sidney Len contend that US foreign policy has always been based on empire and therefore it has long been driven to action or intervention by the desire to expand access to foreign markets in order to benefit the domestic economy.
Factors that have led to the emergence of the US empire on the global stage will contribute to its continued dominance has been it widespread cultural influence, military might and economic viability. In these three fields, US today holds a position that is simply unchallenged:
In terms of size, the United States armed forces is ranked second largest in the world at almost 1.5 million active troops, behind China, but in terms of strength it is undisputed in its status as the world strongest military force. The US defense budget comes in at more than $400 billion after a recent rise of 14 per cent and consists of almost 4% of national GDP. This massive budget allocates on average $28,000 on research and development for each member of the armed forces, a massive number relative to the next largest spender on R&D, Europe at $7,000 per member. A budget this large equals to about 40 per cent of the world's military spending and is larger than the combined total of the next nine biggest defense spenders in the world. In addition the massive budget allows the US to operate a fleet of more than 15,000 aircrafts and more than 1,000 armed ocean vessels. The United States has over 247,000 troops and civilians posted overseas and as of 2006 the US maintains over 702 military bases in 36 foreign countries, and has active-duty military personnel in 135 of the 195 nations of the world. This large number of bases abroad further strengthens the argument that the US is an imperial power. It does not help that the Unified Combatant Command, a military group has divided the world into five areas of military responsibility. A combination of these factors make the US armed forces a goliath of sorts on the world stage with the ability to areas of political or military unrest at a moment’s notice. This military might contributed substantially to America’s status as the world’s sole superpower and imperial power. Military imperialism has over the years seen the US deploy the armed forces on numerous occasions to many different countries throughout its history. Current affairs writer Arundhati Roy has compiled a list of US military interventions and found that 73% of the years from post WWII to the end of the Cold War, US was intervening in one location or the other among a list of more than 15 countries. 21st century will perhaps see a stronger version of American military imperialism than ever before as it leads unilateral forces into combat.
Another aspect that contributes to America’s status as an empire is its cultural imperialism over the rest of the world. George Lucas wasn’t joking when he said that the United States is a provincial country with a culture that has invaded the world via Hollywood and television. Cultural imperialism is defined as a singular nation trying to force its culture, ideology, goods, and way of life on another country. The presence of American culture is on display throughout the modern day world with the popular American movies, singers, television shows such as Friends and Sex and the City, and iconic American products and brands such as the I-pod, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola amongst thousands of others. The ever-present golden arches of McDonald’s are perhaps the single greatest representative of American cultural imperialism. Many historians argue that U.S. policymakers have always made a conscious effort to export American culture abroad in order to gain access to raw materials, cheap labor, and new markets for U.S. consumer products. The reasons for exporting American culture similarly mirror the basis of British imperialism, further strengthening its status as an empire. The direct result of this cultural imperialism has been the dissociation of people from their cultural roots and traditions, and the alienation of people from class and community bonds. This again is similar to the effects that long rule of the British empire had on the territories that it had previously controlled.
Perhaps the most important strength of the United States that qualifies it as an empire, has sustained its imperialist status, and will sustain it for decades to come has been it massive economy. The United States is the world's greatest economic power in terms of GDP. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States produces more than one-fifth of the world's economic output and is by far the largest domestic market in the world in terms of consumption. US exports alone represent one-tenth of global trade and make it the single most important player when it comes to fluctuations in the overall world economy. United States has used it ability to influence the world’s markets and economies and created an economic imperialism of sorts, governed through its vast investments in foreign countries. Just as the British empire had played a vital role in its territories, including in the US, through direct investment in the 19th century, United States’ direct investment is a major factor in 21st century economic prosperity of numerous countries throughout the world, such as Canada, Mexico, China and countless others. There are many examples of American economic imperialism in history including The Marshall Plan of the immediate post-war years that placed the weakened nations of Europe under the influence of the US. Furthermore the US has employed and continues to employ economic and trade sanction effectively against countries it sees as threats to its dominance throughout its history.
US domination in these three categories is such that past successful empires of Rome and Britain didn’t even come close to matching its achievements in relative terms. Furthermore, if dominating three key categories that are essential to being an empire, United States relative monopoly over these three characteristics open more doors for it. Because of its status, the US controls organizations such as World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, giving it key say over key world affairs.
While I firmly believe that the world is in the midst of an American empire, in many ways, the American empire, unlike the Roman or British empires, serves the additional role of protector and guarantor of international law and order. Unlike its predecessors, the United States serves as the global policeman through its humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts throughout the world. It is because of the American imperialistic presence that international treaties such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other are strictly adhered to. This role as the world’s policeman has led many, including Niall Ferguson, a professor at Harvard University, to call America “the benevolent empire.” This concept of benevolent empire maintains that, like the Roman and British empires that came before, the current American empire too has its flaws but its positives outweigh its negatives on the world stage. But if the three empires were to be contrasted with each other, historians including Niall Ferguson would agree that Victorian Imperialism offers the most parallels to current American Imperialism, as both were concerned with the expansion of global free markets and representative government. Also, it must be acknowledged when comparing the three empires that United States, although it has more power and resources than either of its predecessors, it lacks control over the internal affairs of the countries that it deals with when compared with the British and the Romans. For example, British officials controlled India's schools, taxes, laws and elections and foreign affairs, but America has no such control today. In 2003, the United States cannot even get certain tiny members of the world community to side with it on key UN resolutions.
While it has been established that America is an economic, cultural and military empire on the world stage, it itself still in denial of its role as an empire as is mentioned by historian Niall Ferguson. The US government and public accordingly think of itself never in terms of an empire because the very birth of the United States was due to its fight against the atrocities of an empire, the British empire. The US must learn to adapt to its title as the American empire, a title that is well justified through a very thorough analysis of its foreign policy and history. Some might argue why adopt a new title now when America is under decline? America is not under a decline. Being a cultural, economic and military powerhouse, the United States’ powers may remain unchallenged for generations to come as there is still to be a nation that can even come close to matching it step to step on the world stage. As Laurence M. Vance put it, “The American Empire [is] an Empire that Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Genghis Khan, Suleim the Magnificent, Justinian and King George V would be proud of.”