American Empire Redux

A respondent to my previous post on American Empire said “For non-Americans, the concern is not necessarily “does America behave like an empire?”, but “can we trust it not to act like one when the chips are down?” (e.g. if oil supplies dwindle to the point where the US economy is at real risk).

The answer is “of course not!”. You can never trust any nation-state not to go imperialist in a crisis of that kind, if it has the power to do so. But the United States is demonstrably exceptional in one important respect; it doesn’t hold on to its gains when the survival crisis is over.

Ask the Japanese or Germans, defeated in World War II and ruled by American proconsuls for years afterwards. Both became independent and prosperous nations. Or ask the Iraqis — defeated twice by the U.S., but now drafting their own constitution.

Contrast this with the great 19th-century and early 20th-century imperia. The British pattern was to shellack the hell out of the natives when they got uppity, then rule them lightly and (with only sporadic exceptions) quite benevolently. This was a small improvement on the French and German empires (almost as civilized, rather more nakedly exploitative) and a large one on the extremely brutal Belgian, Japanese, and Russian empires. But the Americans go the Brits one better; they civilize the natives and then get the hell out.

And why is this? I was travelling in Europe a few years back, and some Euroleftie began blathering in my presence about America’s desire to rule the world. “Nonsense,” I told him. “You’ve misunderstood the American character. We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world — we want to be able to ignore it.”

The play of expressions on his face as he rethought his history was hilarious to watch. The other Europeans laughed at him, as well they might. Because it’s true. Whatever Americans may get up to abroad when some Hitler or Hussein needs squashing, at the end of the day they invariably do the one thing no previous global hegemon’s soldiers ever have. They go home.

35 thoughts on “American Empire Redux

  1. Certainly, according to world history, a blind trust in nation-states is a terrifyingly naive position to take…but I think Harris’ contention (and ultimately yours) is that America has earned, or shown itself to be worthy of, trust, due to the kinds of patterns of behaviour you describe.

    Within a particular narrow timeframe, sure, America may well *appear* to be behaving in an imperialistic manner, in that it may have troops blasting the sh!t out of some dusty natives, but to ascribe “empire” to the USA would be a gross animistic fallacy. As ESR says…They go home The larger context of America’s involvement is typically a noble one, that ultimately hopes to leave the world a better place “to ignore”.

    Arguably it could well be generally wiser to never trust any nation-state, but provided the fundamental ethos of the USA remains uncorrupted, extending such trust to America is justifiable.

    You think you’ve had it tough traveling in Europe ESR?!?!? Try wearing my boots for a few hours buddy ;-) As an ex-limey from the lefty university town of Cambridge, I have had to engage in asbestos-clad verbal combat on many an occasion!

  2. What are we doing on the goal of being able to ignore petro-rich medieval feudal tribes?

  3. What are we doing on the goal of being able to ignore petro-rich medieval feudal tribes?

    Not nearly enough, in my opinion. We ought to be building fission plants as fast as we can
    pour concrete and putting powersats in orbit as fast as we can lift them.

  4. [i]Not nearly enough, in my opinion. We ought to be building fission plants as fast as we can
    pour concrete and putting powersats in orbit as fast as we can lift them.[/i]

    Damn straight.

  5. To say that the US has earned any trust seems like a weird statement to me. A country is only as trustworthy as the individuals that constitute it, and that is constantly changing. The US may be evil today, good tomorrow, or vice versa. I don’t see anything inherent in the patch of Earth we happen to have landed on that makes us predisposed to either.

  6. I suspect only America has ever been able to rule the world. At the end of WWII, it had the armies and the bomb. But it didn’t.

    > We ought to be building fission plants as fast as we can

    To stop the eco insanity, perhaps we could build a huge cluster of them in the National Mojave preserve.

  7. I haven’t seen any references for an orbital powersat technology that was ready to fly, though I remember Jerry Pournelle going on about how joyous they were nearly thirty years ago.

    Also, everything I’ve been reading about the US bases in Iraq indicates that they have a kind of permanent look about them, especially now the US have withdrawn from Saudi despite doing so being high on ObL’s (original) wish list.

  8. Eric,

    Building fission plants transfers reliance from oil to uranium, but the US produces only 5% of the worlds uranium supply.

    On the plus side, invading Canada would be a lot more convenient than Iraq (and many of them speak French) ;-)

    Unfortunately, cost-wise nuclear power isn’t economic, even at current oil prices, and then there’s the disposal issue. I once read an imaginative New Scientist article about the theoretical possibility of creating man-made volcanos, and dropping the waste into magma downdrafts which wouldn’t reappear for tens of thousands of years, but eruptions are a bit of a risk to manage.

    >> We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world — we want to be able to ignore it < <

    This attitude presumably comes from the fact that (a) America was founded and populated by a bunch of losers (no offence intended) who sought to create a new country of opportunity and equality denied them in their country of origin (b) America is ethnically and geographically a microcosm of the world, but culturally and economically homogenous enough to feel like it ought to be self-sufficient.

    Unfortunately, American wealth (again, no different from other large western economies) is now supported by cheap goods and labour abroad. So disconnection is no longer an option.

    John

  9. provided the fundamental ethos of the USA remains uncorrupted

    There’s your problem right there.

  10. We ought to be building fission plants as fast as we can pour concrete and putting powersats in orbit

    AFAIK, powersats are so far only efficient as theoretical concept, so it might be prudent to count on them as surefire remedy only after large-scale testing… As for fission, the waste problem of conventional plants so far hasn’t found a proper solution, even theoretically; as implicitly terrorism and nuclear proliferation is an issue in this thread, the proposed solution should be given more thought. Nevertheless there are new technologies available (eg. Pebble Bed Reactors) that admittedly could make fission a viable solution; anyway, large-scale testing is still missing too.

    Wouldn’t it be more realistic to begin by improving conventional power plants, with about 60% of them in the US being older than 30 years? Reducing fuel consumption by using better housing insulation, more efficient car engines and proper heating in winter instead of air condition could help too without reducing comfort. Decentralized “combined heat and power plants” would boost efficiency too and make terrorist attacks more difficult. Of course you wouldn’t get that for free, but that applies for the development/deployment of (new generation) fission plants and powersats too, besides I don’t say that this kind of research/effort shouldn’t be done as well.

    I’d even be so bold as to advocate the supplemental(!) use of solar and wind power, for which large countries like the US are better suited than eg. densely populated Europe …though I fear this unmasks me a Eurocommie, please don’t send a SWAT team, anyway.

    It seems that the perpetuum-mobile like energy bonanza that fission and powersats promise is more sexy and heroic than going for a more decentralized, unmanly nitty gritty approach.

  11. Building fission plants transfers reliance from oil to uranium, but the US produces only 5% of the worlds uranium supply.

    Sure, but remember a fission plant’s uranium consumption is measured in pounds per year…5% can go a long way.

  12. Ask the Japanese or Germans, defeated in World War II and ruled by American proconsuls for years afterwards. Both became independent and prosperous nations. Or ask the Iraqis — defeated twice by the U.S., but now drafting their own constitution.”>

    We still have military forces, albeit much fewer than previously deployed, in Both Japan and Germany. And if we’ve defeated the Iraqis, then why haven’t our troops come home?

    Again, why are our troops still deployed in Japan, Germany, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo – if, as you present, “they go home”?

  13. Ken, you’re being too literal. The U.S. bases in Germany and Japan aren’t there to prop up a local satrap. The Americans “went home” in that they no longer exercise political power in those countries.

  14. I think it’s quite mistaken to see The German imperialists as “almost as civilized” as the British. I don’t say that because I’m English not German, but because I’m thinking of the specifics – for example, the genocide in German Southwest Africa.

    Try this in Google: “german southwest africa” hereros

    Peter Hopkirk is illuminating on the psychology of pre-WWI German Empire builders in On Secret Service East of Constantinople. Some of the quotations he gives are particularly illuminating and a reminder that Hitler did not arise in a vacuum but that he was able to draw on attitudes that go back a long way.

    Incidentally, Hopkirk’s book tells the true story behind John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle. Greenmantle was being serialized on BBC radio, but has been cut off short, presumably to appease Muslim opinion. This, says one commentator, is ““A warning from the past that the BBC does not want us to hear”.

    As for the US umbrella over Western Europe being a proof of “empire”, I say “phooey”. It was great genorosity on the part of the US to provide that security for Western Europe. The nations in question should rather feel grateful to the American taxpayer than seek to spit at him. Let’s see how some of these nations like paying for their own defence now.

  15. >>> To say that the US has earned any trust seems like a weird statement to me.
    I accept that you consider it “wierd”…but on what grounds? Am I suggesting America is some golden paragon of virtue? Not a chance…America has some very dark patches in it’s history…which is hardly unique. Which are the nations *you* would consider trustworthy? Contrast America with N.Korea…Iran…any number of African states…UK, France, Germany, Italy…don’t you see a clear ‘gradient’ of trustworthiness emerging? To be unable to appreciate what I’m getting at here, is certainly what *I* consider “weird” ;-)

    >>> A country is only as trustworthy as the individuals that constitute it, and that is constantly changing.
    >>> The US may be evil today, good tomorrow, or vice versa.
    That rather depends on exactly *how* the particular country is constituted, don’t you think? In 2008, is it possible for an “evil” presidential candidate to be elected and arbitrarily veto the 1st Amendment? Other countries have indeed exhibited a tendency to swing drastically overnight, as one violent maniac usurps another…not really something for which the USA is renowned, is it? Part of the “trust” that can be placed in America surely comes from our remarkable stability…due, in large part, to the advance knowledge of our Constitutionally defined framework…something no ‘leader’ can overthrow. The mere thought of such an attempt makes me metaphorically drop to my knees and give thanks for the 2nd Amendment ;-)

    >>> I don’t see anything inherent in the patch of Earth we happen to have landed on that makes us
    >>> predisposed to either.
    And here, at last, we agree :-)

  16. Your remark…

    “You’ve misunderstood the American character. We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world — we want to be able to ignore it.”

    …parallels a belief I’ve had for some time, about the American view of war. Particularly the Jacksonian view. At bottom, we are rock-hard pacifists. We absolutely abhor fighting, not just because it needlessly wastes effort, but because we instinctively and viscerally shun it. We are in fact so pacifist that we have made ourselves look big, and are quick to stare down would-be warmongers, so as to encourage them to other endeavors. And if we are at long last pressed into a war, we prefer to fight them in such a way that we never, ever have to fight them again.

    Readers who fear American empire should note this well; it is a powerful part of the American mindset. We became excellent at waging war, precisely so that we could devote the majority of our efforts to non-war matters.

  17. Your remark –

    “You’ve misunderstood the American character. We’re instinctive isolationists at bottom. We don’t want to rule the world – we want to be able to ignore it.”

    – parallels a belief I’ve had for decades, about the American view on war. Particularly, the Jacksonian view. At heart, we are rock-hard pacifists. We think war is not only a needless waste of resources; we instinctively, viscerally abhor it. We are so pacifist, in fact, that we build an enormous military that is quick to stare down any would-be warmonger into pursuing other endeavors. And furthermore, if we are ever forced into a war, we prefer to fight it in such a way that we never, ever have to fight it again.

    People who fear American empire should note this attitude well. It is a powerful part of the American mindset. We became so good at war specifically so that we could dispense with them quickly when they arise, and then return to non-war matters.

    Moreover, I’ve noticed this philosophy may have fractured as our population grew, and parts of it become more estranged from each other. One part embraces the excellence in violence, and forgets that its purpose is to reduce the time spent being violent. Another part embraces the extreme pacifism, and forgets that it necessitates utter skill at war.

    Sometimes I wonder whether our American culture should encourage more travel of its citizens within its borders, to lessen the fracturing. Isolationism of American communities has bred a plethora of strange philosophies reminiscent of so many butterfly species in an Amazonian rainforest.

  18. So you think US military bases in Germany and the lack of a Japan army means that US have “gone home”?

    P.S. Even though I don’t agree with your analysis on many occasions I like reading them. Keep up the good work!

  19. I disagree. The US does not want to go home, it builds military bases (the ones in Europe have been there for 50 years), build markets for its products and captures supplies of raw material.

  20. Joseph wrote: “To say that the US has earned any trust seems like a weird statement to me. A country is only as trustworthy as the individuals that constitute it, and that is constantly changing. The US may be evil today, good tomorrow, or vice versa. I don’t see anything inherent in the patch of Earth we happen to have landed on that makes us predisposed to either.”

    To answer this, and to expand on what Dan Kane said, America is not a “patch of Earth”, that is the typical misunderstanding here. America is an idea, a way of thinking. Not the America of our modern authoritarian-conservatives like Bush and Cheney, nor the the America of our modern economic-paternalists like Kerry and Dean. No, the idea that the 300 million people hold in themselves (and indeed billions around the world hold) of the state subordinated to the people, of the inherent rights of life, liberty and property, of freedom and free trade and individualism. In other words, the great liberal movement of Locke, Madison, Jefferson, Paine, Adam Smith, Voltaire and many others. Politicians may forget about such things, but the citizens don’t. America is the idea that Liberal (and no, I don’t mean the Left) philosophies are the best way to organize societies. The United States of America is a patch of Earth, America is an overarching idea, manifest in the here and now by the Constitution and the people who are America.

  21. Well, look what happened when the Philippines government told the Imperial American Troops to leave. They did. Do you really think if the German and Japanese governments did the same the Americans wouldn’t leave? Or are the German and Japanese governments just puppets of the US, unlike the Philippines government?

  22. Hey Button, don’t forget the Grand Imperial Guard of His Majesty, the President, peacefully left France when deGualle’s government ordered them out. Hmmmmmm.

  23. Quite right ESR…hear hear!

    Many might say “Of course Dan would say that, he’s a limey immigrant! “, but I have long held an understanding that being an ‘American’ has pretty much bugger-all to do with anything geographic ;-) There was some waffle about this on a wiki -> http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?IfYouCallYourselfAmerican

    Accordingly, I actually find it rather disconcerting that I consider my morning nugget to be more profoundly ‘American’ than at least 25% of the folks around me…lol

    (Apologies for the tangent)

  24. >>> Is this…[snip weblink]…wanting to rule the world or ignore it?

    It is neither. However, judging you by your use of such a fallacious dichotomy, you are probably unwilling to gain an understanding of what it truly *is*.

  25. A lot of USA’s wars have been aggressive defense wars. So to speak that it is better to be fighting the wars as early as possible and in other countries before they become major threats to USA homeland. This have worked since USA have not fought any foreign countries attacking inside USA, except 9/11 (that freaked out the Americans).

  26. Jeff, the new American century folks are a small portion of America. Right now, because the Democrats and the Paleo-Con Republicans can’t offer a reasonable and valid alternative foreign policy (one offers a pacifist isolation based on how horrible our culture is and the other offers an armed isolation that celebrates how wonderful our culture is) the Neo-Cons are running things. IF a reasonable alternative, one that recognizes that we have to tackle Islamic extremism and safeguard natural resources crucial to industrial economies, were presented by the Dems or the Paleo’s, the Neo-Cons wouldn’t be staffers in the White House. That’s neither here, nor there, though. The fact is the “new american century” stuff is a temporary situation that does not represent what Americans want and will fade away just as the Manifest Destiny crowd ultimately faded away and America gave up its 19th century empire mostly peacefully (unlike the Brits, French, Belgians, Russians, Japanese, Germans, Italians, etc.). America is not comfortable with, and does not want, empire. We want to be left alone to trade, work and play in peace. When we feel threatened, when we think we can’t do those things, we beat the hell out of those we feel are threatening us, then we try to go home and ignore the world again. And politicians and political movements who don’t get this lose power, sooner or later.

  27. IF a reasonable alternative, one that recognizes that we have to tackle Islamic extremism and safeguard natural resources crucial to industrial economies, were presented by the Dems or the Paleo’s, the Neo-Cons wouldn’t be staffers in the White House.
    Trouble is, some of these Middle Easterners seem to think these “natural resources crucial to industrial economies” are actually theirs. Some of them even object to having them proactively “safeguarded”. The ingratitude is almost palpable.
    America gave up its 19th century empire mostly peacefully (unlike the Brits, French, Belgians, Russians, Japanese, Germans, Italians, etc.)
    I appreciate the natural desire to paint yourselves as in all ways superior to that ol’ sanctimonious Eurotrash, but America’s true imperial period was the 19th-century land grab, and I doubt you’ll be giving that portion up in a hurry. I’ve heard it said that this “wasn’t really imperial”, as Jackson didn’t wear a crown or something, but the colonial principle of the dispossession of dark-skinned people with undeveloped military technology who had no conception of market forces by white folks who did was faithfully followed, and if you want to claim some sort of massive qualitative discontinuity with stuff like what the Germans did in Namibia you can, but it’s going to lack intellectual substance for a lot of people who haven’t primed themselves to believe it anyway.

  28. The American Government learned long ago in the 1800’s early 1900’s that US population does not like its government to be engaged in out and out imperialism. I cite Howard Zinn:

    “The Filipinos did not get the same message from God. In February 1899, they rose in revolt against American rule, as they had rebelled several times against the Spanish. Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipinos leader, who had earlier been brought back from China by US warships to lead soldiers against Spain, now became leader of the insurrectos fighting the US. He proposed Filipiono independence within a US protectorate but this was rejected.
    I took the US three years to crush the rebellion using seventy thousand troops–four times as many as were landed in Cuba[during the Spanish-American war]–and thousands of battle casualties, many times more than in Cuba. it was a harsh war. For the Filipinos the death rate was enormous from battle casualties and from disease.
    The taste of empire was on the lips of politicians and business interests throughout the country now. Racism, paternalism, and talk of money mingled with talk of destiny and civilization.” (Howard Zinn; Peoples History of the United States; 313)

    This particular quote provides proof the America was indeed acting imperialistically during this time period. Confirm it if you are in doubt, by looking at the senate records if you have a particular taste for boredom. But I digress. I said earlier that this war made the American people sick of imperialism. And so it did.

    “[William] James was part of a movement of prominent American businessmen politicians, and intellectuals who formed the Anti-Imperialist League in 1989 and carried on a long campaign to educate the American public about the horrors of the Philippine war and the evils of imperialism. It was an odd group (Andrew Carnegie belonged, including antilabor aristocrats and scholars, united in a common MORAL outrage at what was being done in the name of freedom. Whatever their differences on other matters they would all agree with William James’s angry statement: “God damn the US for its vile conduct in the Philippine Isles.”” (Howard Zinn; Peoples History of the United States; 315)

    This anti-imperialism league demonstrates the genuine horror that many citizens felt when exposed too the facts about the millitary venture in the Philippine Isles and the greed of their politicians. This is true even when one takes into account the overt racism that was prevalent in the country at this time. Therefore it makes perfect sense that the government did not try it again 50 years later after the aftermath of WWII.

  29. Quote: What are we doing on the goal of being able to ignore petro-rich medieval feudal tribes? Not nearly enough, in my opinion. We ought to be building fission plants as fast as we can pour concrete and putting powersats in orbit as fast as we can lift them.

    If Bush REALLY wanted to get us off the foriegn oil for energy boat he’d take that $100 million he wants to send to Africa and invest it in Fuel Cell technology for homes and businesses. Maybe subsidize(?) each homeowner retro fitting fuel cells and geothermal heating for each house in America. (Yes, I feel sorry for the folks in Africa but would rather take care of America/Americans first.)

  30. When you think about it the word need has been raped in this message board. ME I NEED water, food, shelter, and heat in the winter oh and some sex and boose. Oil, Gas and Uranium do to some extent solve this problem but, if it were crisis time i would buy lumbar, a whole cow and shit loads of rice. The idea of clean power also sounds economically sound. If it were up to me i’d stick a rod of uranium up SOME GUYS ass and give him a vulcanehole. Peace out yanks

  31. “America gave up its 19th century empire mostly peacefully…”

    America gave up the Philippines after a six-figure genocide, but if it has given up California, New Mexico, and the other territories it won in its 19th century imperial wars, I haven’t heard the news.

    “…just as the Manifest Destiny crowd ultimately faded away and America gave up its 19th century empire mostly peacefully (unlike the Brits, French, Belgians, Russians, Japanese, Germans, Italians, etc.). America is not comfortable with…”

    Hmm. That’s the USA Eric is talking about. A country that, despite having no threatening neighbours, has managed to involve itself in at least one war in every decade of its history since independence. Every decade. No exceptions. And it was the aggressor in most of them. No other country in history has sent its troops to so many different conflicts outside its borders. The USA is the most belligerent country in the world, Britain and France are closest behind (but not very close). Germany, despite being infamous for starting WWII, has started few wars, and not entered many more. Many countries in Europe have not entered a war since WWI or earlier, and most have not entered a war since WWII (not counting UN peacekeeping missions). Even many of the participants in WWII only acted to defend their own territory. What war did Belgium start, by the way?

  32. Hey! I like your post “American Empire Redux” so well that I like to ask you whether I should translate into German and linking back. Answer welcome. Greetings Schlauchboot

  33. ” … we want to be able to ignore it.” Now if only the elected and appointed inhabitants of Washington, D.C. understood that the majority of us feel much the same about them. Perhaps then we will not have to solve the problem in such a way that “we never ever have to” again.

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