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The American Empire?

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Before I even touch this subject that I’ve been discussing with the folks at 4&20 blackbirds, I feel the need to give a disclaimer: This is my opinion. I’m almost certain Pogie’s opinion is more liberal than mine, and I’m curious to hear exactly what it is.

The question I propose is this – ought the United States be an empire? I propose that although we have made truly enormous mistakes as an imperial power, the alternative of further isolationism is worse.

As evidence, I offer the last period of American isolationism – the period between the world wars. The United States did not enter the war against Germany until Dec 11, which is two days from today. By that point –

A quarter million Chinese were massacred in Nanjing; a substantial portion of the 20 million Chinese who perished at Japanese hands between 1937 and 1945 were already dead.

A half million Ethiopian civilians were killed in the Italian invasion of the country, which the impotent and US-less League of Nations ineffectively opposed.

200,000 Polish Catholic civilians had died in the German invasion of Poland. Polish Jews were already in ghettos and camps, and the first gas chambers were being tested.

Much of the Soviet Union was already occupied; tens of thousands of Jews and other Soviet civilians had already been executed.

There were dozens more democides throughout those few decades. Many of them could have been avoided simply by the US participating actively in the League of Nations. The rest could have been solved with aggressive US intervention from the beginning, rather than waiting to get hurt under the mistaken impression that we would be safe as long as we didn’t deal with the rest of the world. I know what you’re thinking: “But PW, that was an unusually violent decade.” First of all – You’ll find the decades before were also atrocious, and the US was also fairly isolated post-Roosevelt and pre-1918. But more importantly, that’s the point. After WWI, the British were timid and unable to assert their authority, and the US, which should have been the natural inheritors of the British imperial torch, instead chose to close its eyes to the chaos around it, chose for many years not to ‘hold up half the earth’. The result was that many of the worst atrocities of the century either occurred before we were willing to do anything or were already unpreventable by the time we joined the war.

Conclusion? Yes, the ‘American Empire’ has done terrible things, and our jingoistic adventurism will inevitably weaken us if we continue making bad choices. However, broader arguments that the basic position of the US as a globally involved power should be more limited will improve neither American security nor global living conditions.

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The Polish Wolf

35 Comments

  • The question isn't whether we're better than someone else, or even than anyone else. The question is whether we're living up to our promise, to our own standards. The answer is no.

    If a man is arrested for severely beating his child, it's no defense that his neighbor is worse, that his grandfather was beaten worse, or that he provides the kid with three meals a day. Moreover, when a defendant reaches for any one of these things, it tells us something about him, something ugly. And when he insists on shouting them, over and over, to drown any criticism of his own behavior — illegal and immoral under any standard — he drowns in his own ugliness.

    • No argument there, Charley. America is certainly not living up to our promise, and perhaps an enormous change in American foreign policy is in order. But that policy will have to be towards becoming more involved. After all, the defendant in your vignette would be judged harshly, but neglect is also a crime, and America has killed more people through neglect than through active abuse.

  • I appreciate your insights. I would argue "yes, America should be an empire, if and only if it makes choices that improve human rights." I am aware only of the history of the Cold War period. I think that it is fair to say this history is characterized by foreign policy which routinely attacked human rights when they were contrary to corporate or military interests and supported human rights only when they were incidental to furthering corporate or military interests. If the logic of that history is applicable to the current period, then I believe as a practical matter the answer is "no, not until America shapes up."

  • and what have we done as a nation since inheriting the imperial torch? perpetual conflict, both overt and covert. yep, we have aggressively used our influence to play the "Great Game" to the detriment of the world's population, and the blowback from the post-WWII decisions this country's ruling have made are still with us.

    the Korean conflict, supporting the coup against Mossedegh in Iran in 1953, supporting Suharto in Indonesia and dictators across Latin America like Pinochet, training death squads, training terrorists, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, CIA complicity in the drug trade (read Gary Webb's Dark Alliance) and now, thanks to Bush, kidnapping (rendition), torture, domestic spying, undermining posse comitatus, throwing out habeas corpus, watch lists, and the unholy union between corporate interests and the state that Mussolini would define as being fascist.

    but we haven't gassed 6 million jews, so I guess we're doing ok.

    • Yeah, hope. And you also probably hoped Obama would be different from his predecessor. Unfortunately the reality is we are NOT a benevolent empire, and Obama is just another tool of the ruling class perpetuating the undemocratic, imperial policies of Bush.

      • What's your suggestion, Lizard? No one is arguing in favor of the Shah, Suharto, Pablo Escobar, Augusto Pinochet, or anyone else. I will argue for the Korean War as a justifiable conflict – we had an ally, we defended them. The prosecution of the war, on the other hand, was atrocious and gratuitous – we failed to understand that it was not World War II, that unconditional surrender was not necessary, etc.

        As I've said before, empires make mistakes, and ours perhaps more than its share.

        But the part of what you say that bothers me as someone who takes political debate seriously is this:

        "to the detriment of the world’s population"

        I have already shown you that since WWII, human development and political freedom have grown by leaps and bounds. In many cases, they have done so faster and more consistently in areas more directly under US influence than in areas under the influence of other powers or those countries defiant towards the US. Our actions were to the detriment of various groups of people directly affected by our interventions. Some of this suffering was unfortunately inevitable, either because it would have happened with or without us or because it was a necessary to prevent greater suffering. The rest was the result of bad imperial policies. Solving bad imperial policies with isolationism and the abandonment of empire is like curing cancer with a bullet.

        Our great error, in my estimation, was,through overthrowing Mossadegh (which was technically a British plan) and Allende, the destruction of Democratic Socialism outside of Europe. We continue to live with the consequences of that decision. But simply because an empire makes bad decisions doesn't mean that isolationism or a multi-polar world are superior. It means that rather than pine for the good old days when the US could afford to be relenting because it couldn't be bothered with the rest of the world, we need to accept that we are empire and lay out what we have to do to make that empire benevolent while still remaining strong.

        And my final question, lizard: in what way is Obama perpetuating 'undemocratic' policies? Extraordinary rendition, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, torture, even the war in Iraq have all been decreasing since Obama took office. We may be retaining some negative policies of that era, but to say we are perpetuating Bush's policies is inaccurate; it is the statement of a person dedicated to revolutionary change for the sake of revolution and regardless of the facts.

        • my suggestion is for you to understand one key component that you seem to be missing.

          the engine driving American Empire–the military-industrial complex–doesn't give a fuck about you. the corporate entities that have been bestowed with personhood are sociopaths, and their only concern is profit.

          their is absolutely no concept of American Empire that can be disentangled from this nefarious force.

          then there's the statement i made that "bothers" you, that our imperial actions have had a detrimental impact on the world's population.

          to understand how destructive this country is, you have to understand the position of the dollar as reserve currency, and the complex financial instruments innovated and exported by our financial sector. the last two years we've seen an escalation in the economic warfare that operates when hot wars aren't feasible. but economic warfare can be just as destructive.

          and finally, your concluding question of me:

          And my final question, lizard: in what way is Obama perpetuating ‘undemocratic’ policies? Extraordinary rendition, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, torture, even the war in Iraq have all been decreasing since Obama took office.

          here are some facts: Obama is trying to assassinate an American citizen in Yemen. he has escalated the Af-Pak theatre, and the amount of drone strikes have skyrocketed under his brief reign. covert operations are expanding.

          and if you paid any attention to the wikileaks saga, the Obama administration has been outed for manipulation, coercion, and bribery to undermine the Copenhagen climate change summit. possibly the defining issue of our time, and Obama is doing the bidding of his corporate task masters.

          so quit providing cover for forces that don't give two shits about your life or your family's. they don't care about anything outside enriching themselves and their shareholders. and they certainly don't care about body counts.

          • I understand our economic power, and the fact that we control a great deal of the world economy. Sure, corporations are 'sociopaths' – if we consider them as persons, they certainly do not behave in acceptable ways for persons to behave.

            What 'bothers' me is not the claims you make but their

            counter-factuality. Corporations may operate for themselves, but the free market system of the past ten years has nonetheless reaped economic benefits for most. Even HPICs, the states on the losing end of the American imperial system, have seen increases in life expectancy, education, and health care. Do you really believe that if America withdrew again from world affairs that the multi-polar world that succeeded it would not be more violent and standards of living would fall.

            As to Obama – he is pursuing the Af-Pak theater with an intention to finish the job and leave. If he were withdrawing from the Af-Pak theater, he would be acting in the tradition of the American empire – prove your power, make some local allies, and then leave them there to die. Given that the vast majority of civilian deaths in the Afghan war, not to mention infrastructure destruction, are caused by the Taliban, keeping up pressure on the Taliban may well be saving Afghan lives (I doubt they would stop fighting the elected government just because they had a chance of winning).

            As to assassinating an American citizen in Yemen – the man is actively engaged in treason and refuses to give himself up. He cannot be arrested. In taking up arms for a foreign power, he has lost his American citizenship, according to the inside cover of my passport. Are you suggesting that during every battle of the civil war the Union ought to have given a chance for confederate soldiers to surrender before firing on them? Killing a treasonous American citizen in an airstrike is no different.

          • no, you don't understand. the free market doesn't exist, and your apologies for atrocities committed by this country are pathetic. you are getting fucked by forces you don't understand and asking for more. it's sad, because you are not unique.

            i would like to see how tempered your arguments would be if your family got blown up by a drone strike. you are providing justifications for sociopaths and criminals. i hope someday you get a real taste of the tyranny this country is fast becoming.

            this is my last comment in this pathetic thread.

    • an empire in decline is dangerous to itself and to the entire world. fear and suspicion guide our policies rather than reason, strength and cooperation. it is evident that our leaders are poorly equipped to provide this country with sensible winning foreign relations that strengthens our position around the globe.

      the question is; are our leaders simply a passing anomoly of morons or are our leaders a reflection of a weak and sickened constituency in a country which is incapable of electing anyone intelligent anymore.if so, this country is truly in decline from the inside. and that is a bad thing which no amount of diplomacy or militarism will cure.

      • Well said, problembear. Unfortunately, if we are unable to maintain our empire we are unable to step our of it gracefully. I agree, but I don't think the problem is lack of intelligence, but greediness. We have the most productive economy on earth, but even that is not enough to satisfy our oversized desires. When the parties 'compromise', we decide to spend more money and tax people less. We are shortsighted and lacking in any national pride. We claim to be patriots while dodging taxes in the caymans and outsourcing jobs to China. If the US fails, it will provide frighteningly powerful evidence for one 'fact' that Fascism and Communism already claim to be true – a free and democratic people can never have the self-discipline to remain free and democratic for long. We really ought to turn it around.

        • i went to cha-cha.com and asked what nation has the most productive economy. the answer they gave me was China.

          keep up the delusions, wolf.

          • A reliable source like cha-cha.com should be consistent. But what if you change the question to 'who has the most productive economy in the world', as opposed to 'which economy is most productive', you get the answer

            Although the world's top economies, the United States and Japan, are in recession, China comes in 3rd place. Thanks from ChaCha

            So I'm going to go ahead and trust official GDP numbers. The US still outpaces China even with a quarter the population. But that's not my point – the point is, for all stuff we produce, we demand to consume even more. That's our downfall.

  • The reading of the Declaration of Independence by members of the reporting staff at NPR gets me every time. Past on-air personalities, some now correspondents at the pearly gates, also read for this decades-old feature. The tears stream down my face right up to the line that begins, ” He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare…”

    That’s when it hits me right between the eyes.

    When those words were being written, thousands of cultures inhabited a continent that seemed to keep growing huge ripe plums just waiting for Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest to pick and pick and pick and pick. Already, the Chesapeake Bay estuary had been mostly denuded of native vegetation, not to mention of its former human inhabitants. Slaves tilled the fields and built the infrastructure, the ancestors of the Lakota and other Siouan groups that had been forced westward out of North Carolina generations earlier, traded with the Spanish and French while forging their own alliances (and marriages) with other indigenous peoples.

    So, we’ve come a long way, init?

    Maybe it’s time to consider a radical alternative to reservations land-locked within South Dakota, Montana, and other States. Political manifestations on tribal lands are becoming more organized as frustrations mount with legislative bodies paralyzed by entrenched racism and dwindling federal appropriations to State and local governments.

    Broken treaties reek of American exceptionalism.

    While the Palestinian homeland looks like holes in the slice of Swiss cheese analogous to the illegal Israeli state, progress toward resolutions of Native trust disputes would have far more political traction after tribes secede from the States in which they reside and then be ratified to form one State sans contiguous borders with two Senators and a House member.

    The United States Constitution is the finest instrument ever created by the human hand. The Preamble is the body, the Bill of Rights is the neck, the Amendments are the strings. It is a fluid universal execution of human and civil rights.

    It's time for all Americans to enjoy the protection of law by being part of one nation: erase the artificial borders and grant Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness to all the people of North America…Mexico, Central America, Canada, even the Caribbean if they'll have us.

    ip is not a New World Order guy, does not support the North American Union (god bless you. please, mr. roddenberry) and believes that the US Constitution is a big enough canvas in order to paint a more perfect masterpiece, a big enough score for all to sing. No violence. No more drug wars.

    Read Alaska’s constitution some time. The last states ratified are the most egalitarian. Let's debate it and draft a dream referendum to be delivered by and for the people of Mexico to dissolve their constitution and petition for Statehood.

  • I don't know who you are, why your comment is periodically incoherent or why your syntax is occasionally puzzling. All signs point to automation but at the risk of engaging Skynet, I do think this post (judged apart from its origin) is an interesting one. The idea of making the reservations into a state is interesting, but it would be a huge violation of all our treaties with the tribes. Nonetheless if we're discussing the American Empire, we could do worse than to start with those imperial possessions we rule directly. Stay tuned!

      • i wouldn't have any confidence in this congress and administration ruling candy-land competently, much less inviting other countries to share in our carnival of dysfunction.

        i am quite sure canada would decline the offer polititely.

    • I suppose it depends how you define 'Empire'. If you define an empire by its internal system of government, then you're right. I was thinking of us as an Empire due to our foreign policy. I mean, look at Rome – while it was still a Republic in its internal governance, it had already expanded and was ruling its provinces like an empire. It's certainly possible for a Republic to engage in foreign policy with the same strength and the same goals as an empire.

  • "i hope someday you get a real taste of the tyranny this country is fast becoming." You would wish that on me over an online discussion?

    In truth, your arguments have great emotional appeal, but you fail to provide any more facts. When you and your compatriots at 4&20 do provide information, it is generally eye opening. But unfortunately you seldom address any facts you don't like, instead just calling true statements propaganda and asking me to imagine I am one of the diminishing minority of Afghan casualties caused by American forces, rather having me imagine the more likely possibility of me being an Afghan civilian casualty caused by the Taliban. Fact: the Taliban is many times more dangerous to the Afghan people than American air strikes. Fact: Leaving Afghanistan while the Taliban still has the initiative would result in a similar situation to our leaving Vietnam. Fact: More people died in Vietnam after we left during the Communist consolidation of power than died from our actions. Fact: The US government has the legal right to kill in battle a treasonous American citizen.

    On to economics. Fact: Although the current domestic economic system is inequitable and bears improving, it delivers higher standards of living than any other system has ever delivered to a country the size of the United States. Fact: Although the current global economic system is inequitable and bears improving, it has delivered unprecedented economic growth and growth in HDIs throughout the world. Unlike previous economic expansions, it has spread out, not concentrated, wealth on a global level.

    You may hate them, but these are all facts. I am sure there are other factual statements you could make that would support your case, but you do not. You can only accuse me of being a propagandist, swear at me, and finally promise never to come back to a thread where you might be exposed to more true statements that challenge your worldview.

    From my experience, though, your wishing the terrors of government tyranny on me won't have the desired effect. The people in my experience who are most pro-American are those who have lived through real tyranny.

    • i lied, this will be my last comment.

      wolf, we obviously have worldviews that are diametrically opposed to each other. you say you are providing this factual basis for how great American Empire has been, but you merely speak in broad generalities without substantial citation or sourcing. i have no idea how you can justify that any increases in other countries standards of living is a direct result of our attempt to dominate global resources.

      and i'm doing the same thing. i have my own set of examples that i would say are factual, but you gloss over them. and i'm glossing over your examples.

      where does that leave us? it leaves us absolutely no where. just two competing world views in some worthless backwater of the blogosphere.

      obviously you can tell this subject gets my blood going. you are obviously not stupid, which makes me all the more upset. it is absolutely incumbent for thinking people to look critically at how we've gotten to this crucial point in our young nation's history.

      a failure to do so, i fervently believe, means we will MOST DEFINITELY become the authoritarian fascist-type regime we once fought against half a century ago.

      you can quibble all you want over definitions of fascism. in the end, it won't matter one goddamn bit. i hope i'm wrong. i fear i'm not.

  • I have to go along with your statement relating to this issue and not just for the reason that that is my business. I have dealt with lots of people who spent a long time trying to find a way out and about through proper knowledge of this topic. These people were always always annoyed. Always play to your strengths and knowledge, and if at all possible, search for the advice of an expert to handle the parts you may never handle yourself. In the end, you will have great results. Thanks for the tips I stumbled upon on your site.

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