A Short History of American Empire

A Short History of American Empire

“What’s the point of having this superb military … if we can’t use it?” —Madeleine Albright (U.S. State Department / Flickr)

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire
by Stephen Kinzer
Henry Holt and Co., 2017, 304 pp.

Toward the end of his history of the domestic conflict over U.S. overseas expansion at the close of the nineteenth century, Stephen Kinzer notes that the winners permanently changed our political lexicon. “Imperialists” became openhearted, visionary “globalists” and “internationalists.” Anti-imperialists became crabby, reactionary “isolationists.” As applied to the United States, the words “empire” and “imperialism” virtually disappeared.

This muddling of the language has made it easier for Americans to misunderstand just what it is that we are doing out there in the world. Thus, in late 2013, at a time when Barack Obama’s foreign policy was widely criticized in the United States as too “soft,” a Gallup poll of around 65,000 people in sixty-five countries showed that the United States was considered the greatest threat to world peace (Pakistan was a distant second).

The story we tell ourselves, of course, is that we are the guardians of the peace, besieged by forces of evil that hate us because of our unique national virtues of freedom, tolerance, and democracy. The possibility that we are being attacked here—in San Bernardino, Orlando, or Boston—because we are bombing there—in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen—lies beyond the current intellectual capacity of our public discourse.

Yet, what word better than “empire” describes America’s role among nations? We have at least 800 acknowledged military installations around the world, the most extensive imperium in history. In 2016, U.S. Special Operations forces—commandos, Navy Seals, Green Berets—were deployed in 138 countries. In many foreign capitals, the most important figure is the U.S. ambassador. We are the globe’s biggest military spenders by far, and sell as many weapons of war as the rest of the world’s arms traffickers combined.

True, we haven’t won a war against a substantial military foe since 1945. But we haven’t had to. Once established, empires do not have to definitively win the wars on their periphery. Rather, the central task is to demonstrate their willingness and capacity to inflict murderous punishment on those who rebel. Since 2001, we have attacked fourteen different countries. Imperialism’s default foreign policy is limited, but endless, war.

Here at home, the authoritarian politics needed to accommodate empire are firmly in place among both the leaders and the led. Congress has long surrendered to the executive branch its constitutional duty to decide whether or not to go to war. At a time when the U.S. electorate holds virtually all other institutions in contempt...

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