It is not a controversial statement to make, as even top officials admit this:
As J.W. Smith adds:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
And bluntly put:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
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.