America and Empire
Sep 28, 2010

America and Empire

It is a somewhat contentious issue to juxtapose the words 'America' and 'Empire' together. As 'empire' is a loaded term full of connotation, asserting or rejecting that these two words belong together is usually a matter of asserting ones bias in the larger issue of America's role in today's world. I believe a discussion on the matter, while admittedly superficially merely a semantic point, casts an important light on the state of America's role.

The main thing that defines an empire is its ability to control - typically militaristically - a large and disparate geographic region. Where the issue becomes contentious is on two points. Firstly, there is disagreement at the semantic level of what kind of influence is needed to result in using the term empire and secondly, but more importantly, whether what the US has makes the cut. As I will elaborate, the US's influence is divided in two loose categories: hard and soft power. Hard power is direct, centralized power and consists of  things like military hegemony over places like Iraq and Afghanistan or from state to state direct influence via supporting via military, economic or political aid states such as Pakistan. Alternatively, soft power consists of the non direct and decentralized influences like cultural, political and economic propagation such as its influence on Canada. This distinction is loose and there is much in between the two sides. Regardless of what one calls it, Americas has enormous influence in the world militaristically, economically, diplomatically, politically and culturally. Ultimately I care not if one does or does not use the term empire; however, I think acknowledging the extent of US influence in the world is important and probably justifies the use of empire at least in a loose and colloquial sense.

Hard Influence:

I will begin with the militaristic aspect, for we truly live in a unipolar world militarily. The US spends more on military than the next ten countries combined with some 2.5 million troops and over seven hundred bases in over sixty foreign countries around the world. There is no force on the planet able to withstand what would be historically the most complete annihilation should the US choose to engage it (although several of those nuclear armed countries may well be a pyrrhic victory). Furthermore, in the countries the US fights the asymmetry in military power is astounding. Consider Afghanistan where the US uses unmanned, satellite controlled aerial drones to target threats while the afghans lack any air force or ability to prevent or destroy these drones in any way. Should the US want to, it could flatten every village in Afghanistan in a matter of days. Finally, the US military influence is truly global having bases and engagements on very continent and the majority of regions.  So clearly from the perspective of raw military power, compared to empires of old the US is the most objectively powerful, the most global, and the most asymmetrically powerful that the world has ever seen.

However, simply having military capacity does not imply empire by itself, we also have to see how one use it. I think we can use the end of WW2 as a time when the American empire can be said to be definitively in place. Since then, the majority of the major wars in the world have had the US as either an active belligerent (as in Korea or Vietnam) or fighting through supported proxies (Afghanistan, Africa and Israel). Its military is truly spread globally, with over 350k troops staged internationally. Some of the troop deployments are to be expected, but the 60k troops in Germany and the 30k troops in South Korea and Japan each may be a surprise. Much of the largest conflicts since WW2 were in the cold war when the world was bipolar militarily and the conflict presented an existential threat to both parties that was fought with hard and soft power in theaters around the world. After the soviet union collapsed the world has been, militarily, a unipolar one. Neither of the current wars in the middle east would be possible without the US. One issue is that while it sometimes fights wars alone, the US often has allies in its wars such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Yugoslavia. This is, however, precisely the nature of empire whereby large regions of Europe, say, that are - while separate and distinct - within the US spheres of influence and militarily are enormously aligned with the US often going along with them in military engagements. This relationship is codified in pacts like NATO, but in practice extends far beyond these agreements.

After direct military engagement, the next most direct and "hard" form of power is the backing of governments and proxy military engagements the US believes are strategic. In terms of the frequency and extent, this form of direct influence actually far exceeds that of direct military engagements. If one focuses just on the middle east, while the US fights direct wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it heavily supports many countries in the region. Israel, Pakistan and Egypt receive the most direct military aid, countries like Saudi Arabia have their governments propped up by US support and countries like Jordan receive large amounts of economic aid. US military bases exist throughout the region extending up into the Central Asian states like Kyrgyzstan and down into the Arabian peninsula like Oman. Without this US support, it is doubtful that the political landscape of the middle east would look anything remotely the way it does today. This method of backing governments with military, economic and diplomatic support has extended for over fifty years where we can look back at the history of the Iran-Iraq war, the wars between Israel and the Arabs, the war in Afghanistan against the soviets and realize that this level of unilateral support for regimes that go along with American wishes has been ubiquitous in the region. The same is true around the world in Africa, South America and southern Asia. For instance, one can look at the history of US intervention in Haiti to see a story of alternating direct military engagements and no less direct backing and support of various regimes. The same rings true for many South American countries. In Africa, the use of proxy countries to fight strategic battles is key. For example, In Somalia, after the US's direct (and failed) intervention in the 90's it has since supported Ethiopian and Ugandan occupying forces in the country and the current government exists solely because of US support. This use of proxies where the US supports a local military group to its own interests (sometimes the regime, sometimes opponents of the regime) is endemic. It is important to note that the regimes that the US supports run the gamut of types of regimes from open western democracies, to kingships, to oppressive military dictatorships and everything in between. The unifying factor is not a political system, or a geographic, ethnic or racial similarity but instead a willingness to go along with American wishes and influences.

The case of Israel deserves its own paragraph simply because if any country satisfies the client/patron definition key in empires, it is Israel. I don't think this term client/patron is a completely accurate description, but there is a lot of truth of it. Israel leads the world in the amount of military aid it has received over its lifetime from the US. One need only look at the UN veto record to see the extent of which the US supports Israel diplomatically on the world stage. Regardless of the term used, the US is Israel's biggest ally and vice verse for the US in the region. The current Israeli military dominance over its neighbors exists entirely because of US support. As we have seen in the last 50 years, Israel has been at the center of many conflicts that exist to this day. Now it should be pointed out that there is some bilateralism (a jewish lobby is moderately powerful in the US, for instance) and occasionally points of disagreement (take the settlement issue) but these are often irrelevancies in the larger scheme of things. It would not be difficult for the US to prevent the points of disagreement, one would merely need to tie some of the enormous military funds to conditional action on these points or stop subverting international diplomatic pressures on, say, the gaza flotilla attack. As such, the dominating theme remains one of US hegemony.

Diplomatic influence remains a key method of exerting control, as mentioned above in the Israel case. Within the UN, the US is one of five with veto power however because of the similarities and soft influence of Europe within the American sphere, France and Britain more or less go along with the US in the majority of cases. It remains a truism that nothing substantial happens on the world stage without US support. Climate change legislation is an example of this where Kyoto (which the US never signed) was hopelessly ineffective at accomplishing its goals and with the failure in Copenhagen a new climate change legislation which is only superficially supported by the US seems unlikely to proceed in a meaningful way. Contrast this to the diplomatic aspects of American financial influence (to be discussed later) via the IMF and the World Bank which receive both enormous funding and direction from the US.

Soft Influence in Canada:

We have discussed above several of the harder and more direct influences the US has, but what about its indirect influences?  I look in depth at Canada first before emphasizing the more general points. For Canada, the US state does not direct the Canadian state and has no formal means to bend the Canadian state to its will. Its governance, military, people, rule of law etc are all entirely separate from direct top down centralized American control, various diplomatic pressures perhaps but rarely is there a substantial disagreement at the direct level.  Yet, the influence at a more indirect and cultural level is enormous. Culturally the two countries are very similar with few significant differences. Our military's work closely together both domestically and in foreign spheres. Our businesses and companies are inexorably intertwined and our governments on most major issues take a very similar stance. We have seen this particularly with the Harper administration which on several issues like financial reform and environmentalism has explicitly maintained a "wait and see what the Americans do" strategy.  Ultimately, from a relativist perspective looking at civilizations over a larger time scale, Canadian and American society is close enough to be synonymous. I don't mean to minimize the legitimate differences - such as Canada being ahead in social issues like gay rights, universal health care and woman's rights or, say, québécois culture - but from this larger perspective they are small enough. The social and cultural differences within either country are far larger than the difference between the aggregate societies.

The closeness that Canada experiences to the US is a result of the enormous cultural influence of the US which comes about in many ways. For instance, much of our entertainment on all mediums comes from the US or is also shown in the US. It is easy for citizens of both countries to travel, work or even live between the two countries resulting in a lot of bilateral human movement and an extensive bilateral diaspora. The companies of both countries enjoy similar freedoms and ability to operate to the point where the majority of company brands we experience are American and big Canadian brands like RIM likewise operate in the US. The majority of the big Canadian exclusive companies are in heavily protected industries like telecommunications or finance that block a lot of US action for protectionist reasons. These are just some of the mechanisms, but the result is that the US indirectly through cultural and economic propagation influences Canada to the point that the countries are far more similar than they are different. We should not be surprised when two peoples who share so much heritage, so much transfer of people and business, shown similar media and all the rest end up having similar values an indeed similar politics and closely aligned governments.

 I should point out that of course this is bilateral and Canada influences the US through all the above mechanisms as well. However this bilateralism doesn't negate the implication of empire for it is truly the larger entity of which both the US and Canada are part of that would qualify for the term empire we choose the geographic US as its focus merely because it is by far the largest and most dominant force in the empire. A similar phenomenon is true of the Roman empire which consisted of many regions influencing each other in a multilateral way however one still refers to it as the Roman empire. The result of this is that the soft and indirect influence of US culture and society on Canada is undoubtedly very strong and plays a key role in asserting an influence based definition of empire as applying to the US.

Soft Influence Globally:

While Canada is the closest tied country to the US and presents the clearest perspective of its "soft" influence, American cultural influence extends to some degree around the world. The spread of democracy is enormous. The spread of increasingly free markets extends to even the most socialist and communist of countries. American brands and companies like Coca Cola are among the most recognizable worldwide brands and the reach of American companies is global at a scale matched by none. The American university network trains people from around the world who go back and spread the American way of life. Accordingly, English has become the language of business, science and diplomacy. Again, influences are of course multilateral but there is no even close competitor for the shear magnitude of cultural influence that the US exports and the worlds integration into this culture.

With regards to democracy and liberalization, in many cases, the mere fact of America being a role model is sufficient to trigger these things, in other cases there is significant direct pressure to democratize and liberalize. Of course, liberal democracy as a political system didn't originate in the US and extends around the world so to imply it is an aspect of American empire goes to far. What I would submit is that liberal democracy is a key component of the major world order of our day and I associate that with "American Empire" in the sense only that America is the most dominant force in that larger world order which is truly what the empire is. As such, I see democracy and free speech, media, religion and markets as emblematic of the larger unilateral world order which is led by the US.

The economic influence of the US is perhaps the key aspect of its entire empire in that it finances and justifies much of its military and political power. The US dollar is used extensively around the world and while other currencies exist, the US is the reserve currency of the world. The last 50 years has seen globalization as the dominant force changing the landscape. The word globalization has come to mean many things, but perhaps its core virtue is in opening up the world to economic neoliberalization and the movement to a global world order where international companies can freely trade and interact in the most remote regions of earth. Of course there is resistance to this and it is nowhere near complete, but the progress that has been made is enormous. Even communist countries like China have come around and opened up large aspects of their economies to markets and global multilateral influence. The role of international institutions like the IMF and the World bank serve to facilitate this transition and as mentioned above are both dependent and influenced on the US. There is a large asymmetry between the developed world which is largely in line with the US order (Russia, China as the dominant exceptions) and the developing world which while it receives enormous influence from the US in all the ways mentioned above still cannot be said to be firmly inline with the US. The asymmetry manifests itself in that the neoliberalization of developing countries enormously benefits the developed world in terms of providing resources, labour and to a lesser extent markets whereas the benefit for developing countries is to further their progression to develop.

Concluding Remarks:

One important final point is that the rhetoric of the US administration has been distinctly careful to stray away from using imperialistic terms. Indeed, when embarking on many of its wars the US insists it has no imperial agenda and is merely protecting itself or acting for humanitarian reasons. Even if one accepts these claims at face value, a lack of claimed desire for empire does not preclude the existence of an empire. Especially since many of the aspects of US influence are not actually top down, direct, centralized influences and consist of cultural propagation and whatnot there is no controlling the nature of empire.

I wish to emphasize that I have tried to refrain from passing judgment on whether such an empire is good or bad, or even what such accolades might mean. What I wished to accomplish was merely establishing the extent of US influence in the world, and a specific judgment on this influence must wait until later articles. In general however, I think it is safe to say that as a net effect it is overwhelmingly positive. As a member of this culture I believe in democracy, in liberalization, in market economies (to some degree) and support many of the cultural values of the US. That said, there is also a lot of harm that is done as a result of American influence, and it is important to acknowledge the harm and attempt to minimize the harm.


The result of this analysis is the conclusion that indeed US influence around the world is very large, without equal and indeed unprecedented. However, this influence contains direct centralized state to state influence such as military intervention as only one component and contains a lot of other forms of both hard and soft influence. Indeed, its influence is militaristic, economic, political, diplomatic and perhaps most importantly, cultural. While the lack of direct domination ala the great empires of the past may preclude a formal definition of the word empire I think the level of influence justifies at the very least a loose and casual interpretation of "American Empire".

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