November 27, 2007

The American Non-Empire

The charge of empire-building gets made repeatedly by critics of the United States, to the point where counterargument rarely occurs. This passivity comes in part from the unquestionable international military reach of the US and its commercial, cultural, and political influence around the world. However, the term "empire" means much more than influence and reach, as Jonah Goldberg notes in today's Los Angeles Times:

Critics of American foreign policy point to the fact that the U.S. does many things that empires once did -- police the seas, deploy militaries abroad, provide a lingua franca and a global currency -- and then rest their case. But noting that X does many of the same things as Y does not mean that X and Y are the same thing. The police provide protection, and so does the Mafia. Orphanages raise children, but they aren't parents. If your wife cleans your home, tell her she's the maid because maids also clean homes. See how well that logic works.

When they speak of the American empire, critics fall back on cartoonish notions, invoking Hollywoodized versions of ancient Rome or mothballed Marxist caricatures of the British Raj. But unlike the Romans or even the British, our garrisons can be ejected without firing a shot. We left the Philippines when asked. We may split from South Korea in the next few years under similar circumstances. Poland wants our military bases; Germany is grumpy about losing them. When Turkey, a U.S. ally and member of NATO, refused to let American troops invade Iraq from its territory, the U.S. government said "fine." We didn't invade Iraq for oil (all we needed to do to buy it was lift the embargo), and we've made it clear that we'll leave Iraq if the Iraqis ask. ...

America has picked up where the British left off. Whatever sway the U.S. holds over far-flung reaches of the globe is derived from the fact that we have been, and hopefully shall continue to be, the leader of the free world, offering help and guidance, peace and prosperity, where and when we can, as best we can, and asking little in return. If that makes us an empire, so be it. But I think "leader of the free world" is the only label we'll ever need or -- one hopes -- ever want.

The age of empire has long since passed. Real empires -- not the pseudoempire that critics accuse America of building -- invaded and colonized territory, putting them and their peoples under a single head of state, usually a monarchy. The British didn't just have military bases in India for centuries; they occupied it and considered India their property. The Ottoman Empire expanded throughout Southwest Asia through military conquest and ruthless control by the Caliphate.

Our so-called empire has garnered no territory in this manner. As Jonah points out, we have military bases around the world, but they exist at the pleasure of the sovereign governments that control that territory. Even our Guantanamo Bay base exists as a result of an international agreement between Cuba (its previous government) and the US giving us a long-term lease on the property. We do not consider Germany an American colony, and neither does anyone else.

In fact, rather than enriching ourselves, our military bases have made it possible for our allies to prosper through smaller investment in their own militaries. This has led to some economic poor choices and a militarily weak Europe, which was our intent 60 years ago but somewhat of a complication in today's world. Instead of investing in a robust military, these nations have spent their monies on social programs and welfare systems, as well as their own economies.

Cultural and commercial hegemony makes even less sense as empire. No one forces people to buy American -- not even in America. The adoption of our entertainment and tastes, to the extent that it happens, is completely voluntary. American military might makes free trade in these areas possible, but it doesn't impose "Seinfeld" on foreigners any more than China imposes T-shirts on Americans.

We have fought and bled and died all over the world, but not for conquest; we have liberated lands from empire, not built our own. As Colin Powell and others have noted, the only land we required was enough to bury our dead. That hardly fits with the notion of imperialism in any real sense, and the accusation of empire insults the memory of those who lie in those graves. It's time we started to make that counterargument.


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