Military Expansion Serving Economic Objectives

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, September 25, 2005

Resources and Trade — Primary Reasons for War and Military Expansion

The wealth of the ancient city-states of Venice and Genoa was based on their powerful navies, and treaties with other great powers to control trade. This evolved into nations designing their trade policies to intercept the wealth of others (mercantilism). Occasionally one powerful country would overwhelm another through interception of its wealth though a trade war, covert war, or hot war; but the weaker, less developed countries usually lose in these exchanges. It is the military power of the more developed countries that permits them to dictate the terms of trade and maintain unequal relationships.

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), p. 90.

As globalization continues to take effect, large powers will often use the military to back up their globalization goals to maximize the benefits that can be obtained from it.

It is not a controversial statement to make, as even top officials admit this:

Defense Secretary William Cohen, in remarks to reporters prior to his speech at Microsoft Corporation in Seattle, put it this way, “[T]he prosperity that companies like Microsoft now enjoy could not occur without having the strong military that we have.”

“The defense secretary is making the case that conflicts in faraway lands such as Bosnia, Korea and Iraq have a direct effect on the US economy. The billions it costs to keep 100,000 American troops in South Korea and Japan, for example, makes Asia more stable—and thus better markets for US goods. The military’s success in holding Iraq in check ensures a continued flow of oil from the Persian Gulf,” concluded the Associated Press dispatch reporting on Cohen’s Seattle appearance [February 18, 1999].

Karen Talbot, Backing up Globalization with Military Might, Covert Action Quarterly, Issue 68, Fall 1999

As J.W. Smith adds:

Except for religious conflicts and the petty wars of feudal lords, wars are primarily fought over resources and trade. President Woodrow Wilson recognized that this was the cause of World War I: “Is there any man, is there any woman, let me say any child here that does not know that the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry?”

J.W. Smith, Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle for the Twenty-First Century, (M.E. Sharpe, 2000), p.58

This is nothing new, however. Many empires throughout history have used their military strength to enforce, and subsequently maintain, their interests so that trading and access to resources are in their favor. From the ancient empires of Rome and Greece, to more modern empires, such as the various colonial and imperial powers of the past few centuries, which ended with the two world wars (when the imperial powers fought each other over who would control much of the world — and in the process weakened themselves such that their colonies were finally able to break free), to the superpowers of the former Soviet Union and the USA that emerged from those violent “great games”, to the modern day remaining imperial super power of the United States. (For more information, see the Institute for Economic Democracy web site).

Former US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is quite frank about it, showing that these concerns have not gone away in our modern era:

For the United States, Eurasian geostrategy involves the purposeful management of geostrategically dynamic states and the careful handling of geopolitically catalytic states, in keeping with the twin interests of America in the short-term preservation of its unique global power and in the long-run transformation of it into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation. To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, (Basic Books, 1997), p.40

In the modern era, transnational corporations (TNCs) have reached out further, but required political support, sometimes military, just as had happened throughout the colonial and imperial times.

In order to develop their investment strategies, TNCs, the main actors of globalization, need the assurance of political stability and security. It is an old story that military force, either from abroad or within the country, is one of the instruments for TNCs. National armies and military alliances have to assure that the interest of TNCs, the recolonialization of the world, are met first.

Barbara Lochbihler, Militarism a Facilitator for Globalization, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

Although globalization today is promoted in terms of free, open trade, cross cultural divides being reduced and generally being a positive thing, the politics behind it often suggest it is far from free trade that is promoted, but really a form of mercantilism that during the imperial and colonial days was openly advocated. This is discussed further on this site’s free trade section.

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“Soft” Imperialism Driving “Hard Imperialism”

In recent years, during the Bush Administration, some top US officials have been entertaining the thought of being more open about the US being imperialist. John Bellamy Foster, author, professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and editor of Monthly Review, highlights this in an article, also pointing out that historically, the “formal” type of imperialism (political and military) usually has an “informal” aspect behind it, driving it (economic), which is similar in idea to what J.W. Smith mentioned above also details. Foster is quoted at length:

On November 11, 2000, Richard Haass — a member of the National Security Council and special assistant to the president under the elder Bush, soon to be appointed director of policy planning in the state department of newly elected President George W. Bush — delivered a paper in Atlanta entitled “Imperial America.” For the United States to succeed at its objective of global preeminence, he declared, it would be necessary for Americans to “re-conceive their role from a traditional nation-state to an imperial power.” Haass eschewed the term “imperialist” in describing America’s role, preferring “imperial,” since the former connoted “exploitation, normally for commercial ends,” and “territorial control.” Nevertheless, the intent was perfectly clear:

To advocate an imperial foreign policy is to call for a foreign policy that attempts to organize the world along certain principles affecting relations between states and conditions within them. The US role would resemble 19th century Great Britain … Coercion and the use of force would normally be a last resort; what was written by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson about Britain a century and a half ago, that “The British policy followed the principle of extending control informally if possible and formally if necessary,” could be applied to the American role at the start of the new century.

The existence of an American empire is no secret. It is widely, even universally, recognized in most parts of the world, though traditionally denied by the powers that be in the United States. What Haass was calling for, however, was a much more open acknowledgement of this imperial role by Washington, in full view of the American population and the world, in order to further Washington’s imperial ambitions. “The fundamental question that continues to confront American foreign policy,” he explained, “is what to do with a surplus of power and the many and considerable advantages this surplus confers on the United States.” This surplus of power could only be put to use by recognizing that the United States had imperial interests on the scale of Britain in the nineteenth century. The world should therefore be given notice that Washington is prepared to “extend its control,” informally if possible and formally if not, to secure what it considers to be its legitimate interests across the face of the globe. The final section of Haass’ paper carried the heading “Imperialism Begins at Home.” It concluded: “the greater risk facing the United States at this juncture…is that it will squander the opportunity to bring about a world supportive of its core interests by doing too little. Imperial understretch, not overstretch, appears the greater danger of the two.”

… Many of the features of contemporary imperialism, such as the development of the world market, the division between core and periphery, the competitive hunt for colonies or semi-colonies, the extraction of surplus, the securing of raw materials to bring back to the mother country, etc. are part of capitalism as a global system from the late fifteenth century on. Imperialism, in the widest sense, had its sources in the accumulation dynamic of the system (as basic as the pursuit of profits itself), which encouraged the countries at the center of the capitalist world economy, and particularly the wealthy interests within these countries, to feather their own nests by appropriating surplus and vital resources from the periphery — what Pierre Jalée called The Pillage of the Third World. By a variety of coercive means, the poorer satellite economies were so structured — beginning in the age of conquest in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — that their systems of production and distribution served not so much their own needs as those of the dominant metropoles. Nevertheless, the recognition of such commonalities in imperialism in the various phases of capitalist development was entirely consistent with the observation that there had been a qualitative change in the nature and significance of imperialism that commenced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

… In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the principal global reality was the decline in British hegemony and the increased rivalry among the advanced capitalist states that followed, leading to the First and Second World Wars. The rise of the Soviet Union in the context of the First World War posed an external challenge to the system eventually leading to a Cold War struggle between the United States, the new hegemonic power of the capitalist world economy following the Second World War, and the Soviet Union. The fall of the latter in 1991 left the United States as the sole superpower. By the end of the 1990s the United States had gained on its main economic rivals as well. The result of all of this by the beginning of the new century, as Henry Kissinger declared in 2001 in Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, was that the United States had achieved “a pre-eminence not enjoyed by even the greatest empires of the past.”

This naturally led to the question: What was the United States to do with its enormous “surplus of power”? Washington’s answer, particularly after 9/11, has been to pursue its imperial ambitions through renewed interventions in the global periphery — on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. In the waging of its imperial War on Terrorism the US state is at one with the expansionary goals of US business.

Richard Haass (whose responsibilities in the present administration were extended to include those of US coordinator of policy for the future of Afghanistan) pointed out in his book “Intervention,” that regime change often can only be accomplished through a full-scale military invasion leaving the conquered nation in ruins and necessitating subsequent “nation-building.”

… Such a “nation-building” occupation, Haass stressed, involves “defeating and disarming any local opposition and establishing a political authority that enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly of control over the legitimate use of force.” (This is Max Weber’s well-known definition of a state — though imposed in this case by an invading force.) It therefore requires, as Haass observed quoting one foreign policy analyst, an occupation of “imperial proportions and possibly of endless duration.”

It is precisely this kind of invasion of “imperial proportions” and uncertain duration that now seems to be the main agenda of Washington’s War on Terrorism. In the occupation and “nation-building” processes following invasions (as in the case of Afghanistan), explicit colonialism, in the most brazen nineteenth century sense, will be avoided. No formal annexation will take place, and at least a pretense of local rule will be established from the beginning, even during direct military occupation. Nevertheless, a central goal will be to achieve some of what colonialism in its classic form previously accomplished. As [a co-editor of Monthly Review, Harry] Magdoff pointed out,

Colonialism, considered as the direct application of military and political force, was essential to reshape the social and economic institutions of many of the dependent countries to the needs of the metropolitan centers. Once this reshaping had been accomplished economic forces — the international price, marketing and financial systems — were by themselves sufficient to perpetuate and indeed intensify the relationship of dominance and exploitation between mother country and colony. In these circumstances, the colony could be granted formal political independence without changing anything essential, and without interfering too seriously with the interests which had originally led to the conquest of the colony.

Something of this sort is occurring in Afghanistan and is now being envisioned for Iraq. Once a country has been completely disarmed and reshaped to fit the needs of the countries at the center of the capitalist world, “nation-building” will be complete and the occupation will presumably come to an end. But in areas that contain vital resources like oil (or that are deemed to be of strategic significance in gaining access to such resources), a shift back from formal to informal imperialism after an invasion may be slow to take place — or will occur only in very limited ways. “Informal control” or the mechanism of global accumulation that systematically favors the core nations, constitutes the normal means through which imperialist exploitation of the periphery operates. But this requires, on occasion, extraordinary means in order to bring recalcitrant state back into conformity with the market and with the international hierarchy of power with the United States at its apex.

At present, US imperialism appears particularly blatant because it is linked directly with war in this way, and points to an endless series of wars in the future to achieve essentially the same ends. However, if we wish to understand the underlying forces at work, we should not let this heightened militarism and aggression distract us from the inner logic of imperialism, most evident in the rising gap in income and wealth between rich and poor countries, and in the net transfers of economic surplus from periphery to center that make this possible. The growing polarization of wealth and poverty between nations (a polarization that exists within nations as well) is the system’s crowning achievement on the world stage. It is also what is ultimately at issue in the struggle against modern imperialism.

John Bellamy Foster, Imperial America and War, Monthly Review, May 28, 2003 (Emphasis is original)

What is the effect of this? Well, that is what thousands of organizations and individuals around the world are documenting and unraveling! In short though, millions of lives are affected by decisions to use the military. Millions of lives are affected by decisions to enforce economic liberalization on other nations too quickly. Billions are kept in a state of poverty and dependency so that the more prosperous may continue to amass their wealth and continue their “growth.”

The above by Foster is also highlighted by an opinion piece in the Indian daily, The Hindu. A vivid comment of contradiction and charges of American imperialism were made, not unlike those being made for many years around the world by various people:

Using Napolean as a mouthpiece, George Bernard Shaw makes a telling comment on British Imperialism, which is no less — if not more — apposite to the American imperialism of our time. He says: There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find an Englishman doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle.

  • He fights you on patriotic principles;
  • he robs you on business principles;
  • he enslaves you on imperial principles;
  • he bullies you on manly principles;
  • he supports his king on loyal principles and cut off his king’s head on republican principles.

America is no different.

  • It claims to act in terms of international law; but feels free to subvert international norms whenever it wants.
  • It supports the authority of the United Nations but turns its back on the U.N. to suit its convenience.
  • It globalises trade in the name of fairness; and most unfairly usurps the major trade benefits to its own advantage.
  • It launches a war to secure the largest oil reserves in the world but pretends it fights for peace.
  • It claims to act in the name of democracy, but leaves behind battered states wherever it has gone.
  • It fights a war for peace, but makes huge profits by the sale of arms that follows.
  • Its peacekeeping results in war.
  • Its war brings no peace.
  • No sooner are its interests maintained, it leaves behind a debris of enfeebled states.
  • It is never at a loss for an effective moral attitude.

Rajeev Dhavan, After the deluge, The Hindu, April 18, 2003 (Text is original, bullet list formatting is mine)

However, the US mainstream media fails to recognize this, perhaps through denial that their own nation can in fact be doing the very same things that it has helped identify, criticize and even fight others of doing, when it comes to the abuse of power. In fact, the US broke away from British colonial rule recognizing the unfairness and harshness in Imperial Britain’s policies.

Shortly after the War of 1812 was fought to defeat British mercantilist trade practices, US statesman Henry Clay pointed to the necessity of the United States developing a defensive capability by quoting a British leader,

[N]ations knew, as well as [ourselves], what we meant by “free trade” was nothing more nor less than, by means of the great advantage we enjoyed, to get a monopoly of all their markets for our manufactures, and to prevent them, one and all, from ever becoming manufacturing nations.

This is one of the most important aspects of history, and is conveniently ignored.

J.W. Smith, The World’s Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), p. 123.

The US, in rising to the dominant position it finds itself in now, has done similar things that the British and other European powers once did to others. This might seem ironic, but as discussed further below, comparing the Roman and American Empires, it seems that the legacy of one empire is that their successors seem to fight them because they are the empire, but once in power, emulate the same practices. See also Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, (Verso Press, 1994), and Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System (University of Minesota Press, 1999) where he details the repeating but shrinking cycles of dominant powers.)

S. Brian Willson, a US Vietnam War veteran, now a peace activist also shows how this has been a practise for decades, not a new policy as such:

The most highly decorated Marine Corps General in US history, Smedley D. Butler understood all too well the real nature of the US Marine Corps and US foreign policy in general when he concluded after his retirement in 1931 that during his 33 years as a Marine officer operating on three continents, he served “as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers…a gangster for capitalism” [Smedley D. Butler, “America’s Armed Forces,” Part 2, Common Sense, Vol. 4, No. 11 (Nov. 1935)]. But it seems that that understanding is easily forgotten. General A.M. Gray, former commandant of the US Marine Corps, in 1990 identified threats to the United States as originating from the “underdeveloped world’s growing dissatisfaction over the gap between rich and poor nations,” creating “a fertile breeding ground for insurgencies which have the potential to jeopardize regional stability and our access to vital economic and military resources” (Marine Corps Gazette, May 1990). Gray understands the structural social and economic problems, but it apparently does not occur to him that the solution might be to directly address the injustices rather than perpetuate them with the use of military force.

S. Brian Willson, Who are the REAL terrorists?, Institute for Policy Research & Development, 1999

And bluntly put:

The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killings.

Major Ralph Peters, Constant Conflict, Parameters, Summer 1997, pp. 4-14, quoted by Susan George, The Lugano Report, (Pluto Press, 1999), p.104

But note, this is not picking out America as though no others would do things they have, given the position and circumstances. The New York Times points out that while Europe might be critical of US actions in many cases today, they themselves did such things in their heyday:

To many foreign policy experts, that worldview is a natural outgrowth of America’s preeminent position in the post-Soviet world, which it dominates militarily, economically and culturally. And while many of these scholars fault the Bush administration for a brusque, even arrogant brinkmanship at the United Nations, far fewer blame it for trying to control the international rules of the road. That, they say, is what all great powers have done through the ages.

“You hear Europeans say Bush is a cowboy from Texas,” said William C. Wohlforth, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth. “But when the Europeans were at the top of the international heap, they were hard-bitten realists about using power, and it was the United States that was trying to outlaw war.”

James Dao, One Nation Plays the Great Game Alone, New York Times, 6 July 2002

Dao suggests that far fewer scholars blame the US for taking the position it does because it happens throughout history. Yet, just as the US was right to fight off the British Empire others may have a point critiquing US (and Russian, Chinese or any other) imperial ambitions.

The US even contributed to the idea of an international order centered on peace (for example, through the idea of the League of Nations and helping set up the United Nations — though some may point out that even here major powerful nations have attempted to define peace in ways advantageous to their own interests, first).

Some of this was even while Imperial Europe was still warlike. Because others did it in the past, does not make it okay to apologize for US pursuing similar actions today, as Dao seems to suggest. This is because the end result — which also should be remembered when this history of abusive power is recounted — is that ordinary people both within the bounds of empire, and outside, and now around the world, still suffer.

The 2000 Group of Eight (G8, the eight most powerful countries in the world) summit in Okinawa also served as an example of the link between economic globalization and military globalization, as Foreign Policy In Focus discussed, for example.

Chalmers Johnson also provides detailed insight into Okinawa, its enormous US military bases its relation to global and regional issues. Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and professor emeritus at the University of California, has written many books on Japan and Asia, and about US hegemonic power. In 2000, his book, Blowback; The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was published (Henry Holt/Owl Books). In it, Johnson notes that a lot of questionable reasons are put forth as to why huge military presence is needed in some regions of the world:

Ongoing American policies undoubtedly serve to maintain American hegemony in the Pacific but bear no relation to a supposed “watchdog” role.

As former Okinawan governor Ota commented, “What’s actually happening in Japan is that, with practically no public debate, hypothetical enemies are produced one after another, and potential threats are loudly proclaimed… ” The Pentagon understands that it cannot come up with a credible threat to Japan or any other nation in East Asia that would demand the forward deployment of American troops…. [The US] has therefore decided to rely on somethign comparable to the old domino theory used to justify the war in Vietnam…. With communism long gone as an enemy, the new, abstract danger is “instability.” [In arguing against withdrawal of US troops] this new, exceedingly vague doctrine indirectly acknowledges that the purpose of American forces in Japan is neither to defend nor to contain Japan but simply by their presence to prevent the assumed dangers of their absence.

… In the Washington Post, [former assistance secretary of Defense Joseph Nye] put it this way: “Our forward presence provides for the stability — the oxygen — that has helped provide for East Asian economic growth.” And in a Department of Defense publication, he offered, “Having United States forces in Asia also promotes democratic development in Asia, by providing a clear, readily observable example of the American military’s apolitical role.”

… The most obvious problem with these [types of] propositions is that they have simply not proved true. When “instability” finally hit the region, the American forward bases offered no solace…. The presence of American military forces in the [East Asia] region did not prevent the instability — in some cases, chaos — that ensued in the wake of the [economic crisis that began in 1997]. In fact, the Pentagon only made matters worse by continuing to try to hawk massively expensive weapons systems to countries no longer able to afford them. As for the military’s contributing to economic growth, former Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa has this sharp observation: “It was after US forces withdrew from Indochina and Thailand in the 1970s that economic growth in Southeast Asia gained momentum and economic relations with the United States began to expand. The economy of the Philippines took off after the US forces left there in the 1990s. These experiences show that there is little or no relation between foreign military presence and economic growth.”

… Pentagon theorists, Coloner [Harry] Summers [a military strategist] suggests are like the New Yorker who spreads elephant bane [an elephant repellent used by gardeners and farmers in parts of Africa] around his apartment and then extols its benefits because he encounters no elephants. The strategy “works” because the threat is illusory. The real, long-term threat to stability in East Asia is the economic crisis caused by an American determination to perpetuate its system of satellites and its own regional hegemony long after it has lost whatever Cold War economic or political rationale it had.

Chalmers Johnson, Blowback; The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, (Henry Holt/Owl Books, 2000/2001), pp.62-63

Johnson, also details how the US military bases in Okinawa were set up and operated, and how it has humiliated the local people of Okinawa for years. The almost symbiotic relationship between Japan and the US allowed this to happen he also documents. But, in conclusion, Johnson notes that,

Okinawa is still essentially a military colony of the Pentagon’s, a huge safe house where Green Berets and the Defense Intelligence Agency, no to mention the air force and Marine Corps, can do things they would not dare do in the United States. It is used to project American power throughout Asia in the service of a de facto US grand strategy to perpetuate or increase American hegemonic power in this crucial region. The US military is the author and prime beneficiary of this strategy.

Chalmers Johnson, Blowback; The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, (Henry Holt/Owl Books, 2000/2001), p.64

In other words, it is not for the stability of other countries that the US has a huge military presence in other parts of the world, but for its own continued dominance.

For more about how trade and miliatary objectives are related see this web site’s primer on neoliberalism, which provides a brief history of neoliberalism and mercantilist trade, hinting towards the need for military interventions to accomplish trade objectives, and the impact this has on people around the world.

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Projecting Power

Military “exercises” which also act as threats to the neighboring nations where they may occur, may be very secretive of their real purposes, often to do with such expansionism. This could lead to aspects of foreign policy that is unaccountable.

Militarism and expansionism also require a projection of power:

The fact that some elements [of the US government] may appear to be potentially “out of control” can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts within the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. … That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries. … It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed…

US Strategic Command “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrance,” 1995 (US Strategic Command, or STRATCOM, is the military entity responsible for formulating US nuclear policy.) — quoted from Derailing Democracy, by David McGowan (Common Courage Press, 2000), p.162.

But this has been recognized by successive US governments since the end of the Second World War. Consider for example, George Kennan, head of the US State Department planning staff until 1950, and his comments on US relations with Far East:

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population….In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity….To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives….We should cease to talk about vague and…unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

… We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic. We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on.

George Kennan, US State Department Policy Planning, Study #23, February 24, 1948. (See also Foreign Relations of the United States 1948, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1976 for the full text where this was first published; The text to the part on realisim of US relations in the Far East; David McGowan, Derailing Democracy, (Common Courage Press, 2000), p.169; Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, (Odian Press, 1993), Chapter 2.

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Comparing the Roman Empire with America

It is interesting to note that many of these aspects discussed above were also recognized by the Roman Empire. In November 2003, a documentary on the Adventure One channel in UK, titled “USA: The New Empire?” attempted to compare and contrast the Roman Empire and the US to show how power was held on to. Military power was thus one aspect of empire:

While maintaining military power and superiority was crucial, so was the need to show it in order to strike fear into the hearts and minds of others.

The spread of a common communications means was crucial for imperial success (hence the Roman Roads, or the rise of the railways during European imperialism and colonialism, and even the internet today). Much of these things required technology dominance and these technological advances started off having military uses, eventually making their ways into business and commercial avenues.

Examples of more recent times range from the Internet, railways, even medical research

  • The Internet was developed by the US military, while computer technology on the whole developed from uses seen in World War II, for example.
  • The British and other European empire’s construction of railways in the colonies facilitated movement of their military as well as commerce and trade.
  • Even some medical research in the colonial world was to help European troops in foreign lands.
  • The spread of a common language facilitated easier administration and trade. Latin was the language for the Roman Empire, while English has been the dominant language since the British and now the American Empire.
  • A common currency throughout the Roman Empire was also needed. Today, the dollar is the dominant currency (though may still find a rival in the Euro).
  • In addition, as J.M. Blaut argues in his works, The Colonizer’s Model of the World, it was Europe’s ability to plunder South America in the 15th and 16th centuries for its silver and gold that contributed to its eventual Industrial Revolution, world dominance, and plunder and poverty of the rest of the world.

The “hard imperialism” of armies, conquest and war had to be complimented with “soft imperialism”, or psychological, political and cultural attempts not necessarily to win territory and gain power, but to keep it. Cultural and lifestyle export was also considered part of this softer imperialism. (This could be considered similar to the formal and informal imperialism that Foster suggests further above.)

The hearts and minds of people throughout the empire also needs to be won over.

  • To that end, this requires not just brute strength, or hard imperialism, but also the soft imperialism mentioned above. For example
    • The Roman Empire allowed local rulers and elites to continue while they were on the whole subdued to Roman dominance and culture.
    • People throughout the Roman Empire wanted to emulate all things Roman. Cities emulated Rome, while people tried to dress like Roman citizens. As today, many wish to be American citizens, or wear the latest styles, even in the slums of third world countries.
  • Cornelius Tacitus, (c.AD 55-c.AD 117), a Roman historian critical of the corruption of Romans, once wrote about Roman Britain, that Britain was very good at being Roman, taking on a fora, baths and other Roman things and they think have a civilizing influence, when these things are really a factor of their enslavement.
  • Many military conquests had trade and economics at their core.

As the Roman Empire spread it attracted many diverse groups of people to Rome and other centers, and so ethnic diversity was incredible.

  • This allowed foreigners to take part in Empire, as long as they of course followed the Roman Empire’s goals and rules.
  • Yet, unlike the US Constitution which provides a glue for such diversity and allows all people to be free, the Roman Empire didn’t have such a glue.

However, differences and animosity towards and between different ethnic groups and the Romans would no doubt result. Through tensions, conflicts and even civil war, ruthless or extreme imperialist emperors would emerge, such as Augustus.

  • Massive monuments and statues of self-glory were constructed, as an early form of image-making or propaganda.
  • Ideals of a virtuous Roman citizen was created, a return to traditional values and basics in morality. (Today people might recognize this as either Islamic extremists, Christian Fundamentalists and so on. In its most extreme, it could be seen as being similar to what Hitler often talked about.)
  • Empire would appear to be less brutal and aggressive as a result while being more virtuous and things like peace-loving or divine.

The American empire today in its foreign policy often uses the idea of peace and freedom as a reason to push even military actions.

  • American culture has many aspects of this self-glorification too, from Monument Valley to the cultural praises of what it is to be American, and the American Dream, ideals that attract people from all over the world.
  • Yet, as the documentary noted, Americans often find it uncomfortable to accept their country as being imperialist or an empire, because they are seen as having fought empire (i.e. the British) and standing up for freedom.

    Side Note

    • It is true that America did fight a former empire, and rightly so. The Founding Fathers built a Constitution that can still be said to be the envy of many other nations.
    • Yet, over the decades, America’s power is unquestionable, while its use around the world has been very questionable, and many around the world see America as an empire.
    • For more about these aspects, visit the Institute for Economic Democracy web site

Romans in comparison, reveled in being an Empire. Statues and praise of the emperor were common.

  • This could perhaps be seen as being similar to those seen say in the Soviet Union, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or Hitler’s Germany. America’s self-glorification, while having Founding Fathers could be considered less personality-based as some of these other examples, perhaps like the British Empire before.
  • “‘You’re with us or against us’ that’s how empires tend to do it. It was certainly the Roman way,” the documentary noted, while also quoting George Bush’s warning just after September 11th, perhaps hinting towards the signs of empire that can be seen in America today.
  • Loans and gifts were common in Roman dealings to coopt local rulers in parts of their empires, or to secure new territory. Coopting would allow rule by “remote control” from Rome.
  • The corrupt arms trade, distorted and unequal trade, even foreign aid are modern examples where loans and gifts are common for coopting support, as well as other means.

But not all peoples would want to be subjugated by Rome willingly.

  • Rome’s formula for imperial rule had to handle those outside empire who refused to accept its authority. To that end, the Roman Empire would do whatever they could to. For example:
    • To justify expansion, they would need the existence of enemies bent on destroying Rome.
    • Some enemies would be real, some would be manufactured, or illusory.
    • They convinced themselves there was a threat from the East, or the Orient (a common theme that continues to this day).
    • Through the self-glorification, writing of history was often propaganda in nature.
    • Side Note

      See the following for some details on these tactics in the post World War II era. Their research shows that some intervention by the West in various places such as throughout Latin America was often justified as a need to fight the Soviets, even if they weren’t really there. See also this site’s section on propaganda which has some other examples.
  • For example, a terrible incident in a part of Greece resulted in the slaughter of 80,000 Roman Empire citizens.
    • The documentary noted how the September 11 incident and the reaction to it was similar to how Rome tried to comprehend this slaughter: they couldn’t understand why they were so resented.
    • For more details on this aspect, see this site’s sections on the rise in terrorism and the war on terror.

For Rome, such incidents were the signs of the beginnings of the end of the Roman Empire. Military overstretch, the degree of interventionism, the degree of control directly and indirectly became major concerns. (Some of these concerns are making their way into discouse amongst the US military, as detailed further on other pages in this section of this web site.)

An interesting final note in the documentary was that:

Soft imperialism, the export of culture and lifestyle, lasts long after the empire’s armies have gone.

[Dr Christopher Kelly, Lecturer in Classics, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge:] “What’s always important to remember about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, is that the engines of that decline, the Barbarians, wanted above all, to become Roman. Long after Europe had forgotten about Roman military might the idea of Romanness and Roman culture lived on.”

Rome’s most enduring gift was the formula for empire itself … its being used again now, by the new Masters of the Universe. But Rome’s story offers a warning too: No empire should ever believe in its own immortality. At the time it seems impossible to imagine a world without it. But one day, even the mightiest temples and grandest monuments lie in ruins. No empire lasts forever.

USA: The New Empire? Adventure One/National Geographic Documentary, November 16, 2003

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More Information

The above hardly touches upon the details. For more details on this historic use of power etc, see for example the following:

  • Control of Resources; Supporting Dictators, Rise of Terrorism from a page on this web site’s section on the Middle East, which includes a brief background to the way the Cold War played out and the context it was done in.
  • Institute for Economic Democracy provides in-depth analysis, including on-line books, in full, of this deeper history, including colonial and imperial history of plunder, showing that today’s world system is configured along much the same lines, but with different actors with the power and dominance.
  • Noam Chomsky Archive has an extensive collection of articles and online books by the popular political writer Noam Chomsky, who is very critical of US foreign policy.
  • The “more information” section at the end of this part of the global issues web site provides more links, as well.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Sunday, September 25, 2005

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Document Revision History

DateReason
September 25, 2005Added notes about US military presence in other parts of the world; its stated rationale and its real objectives.

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.