Sunday, January 02, 2011

Not The List

Yeah, that's right. No List today. With the last of the December comics coming out only 3 days before the first Sunday in January, I'm pushing The List back a week. Instead, you get my perambulations of a different sort of Imaginary Tale. If you've read any of my past diversions from the comics, TV or book worlds, you know this is going to be ugly. Or is that irrelevant?

Anyway, today's foray is an exploration of the canard that is "the decline of the American empire". It seems to be a thought process that's quite fashionable in these difficult economic times. Mostly I see it from the lefter leaning writers, but sometimes from the right, too. Hell, Jim tends to fall into this to a certain degree, though he leaves out the empire bit.

That's really the first falacious part of this outlook. Hard to have an American empire in decline when there never was an empire. Here are the numerous definitions of empire, courtesy of
1. a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, french Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire.
2. a government under an emperor or empress.
3. ( often initial capital letter ) the historical period during which a nation is under such a government: a history of the second French empire.
4. supreme power in governing; imperial power; sovereignty: Austria's failure of empire in central Europe.
5. supreme control; absolute sway: passion's empire over the mind.
6. a powerful and important enterprise or holding of large scope that is controlled by a single person, family, or group of associates: The family's shipping empire was founded 50 years ago.
7. ( initial capital letter ) a variety of apple somewhat resembling the McIntosh.
8. ( initial capital letter ) characteristic of or developed during the first French Empire, 1804–15. 9. ( usually initial capital letter ) (of women's attire and coiffures) of the style that prevailed during the first French Empire, in clothing being characterized esp. by d├ęcolletage and a high waistline, coming just below the bust, from which the skirt hangs straight and loose.
10. ( often initial capital letter ) noting or pertaining to the style of architecture, furnishings, and decoration prevailing in France and imitated to a greater or lesser extent in various other countries, c1800–30: characterized by the use of delicate but elaborate ornamentation imitated from Greek and Roman examples or containing classical allusions, as animal forms for the legs of furniture, bas-reliefs of classical figures, motifs of wreaths, torches, caryatids, lyres, and urns and by the occasional use of military and Egyptian motifs and, under the Napoleonic Empire itself, of symbols alluding to Napoleon I, as bees or the letter N.

Obviously, the first definition is the one these thinkers are saying applies to the US. Problem is, the US has never been an empire. There's always the technicality of not having an emperor or king, but even going with the fall back of "other powerful sovereign or government", the simple fact is that the US doesn't have nations or peoples it rules over that aren't a part of the US. Territories of the US have always participated in the government to some extent, and the vast majority of the territory in the US consists of the 50 states, which are fully participatory in the government. Those territories that aren't states have their own elected government and participate in the Federal government, albeit on a more limited basis than states.

Only the Spanish American War in 1898 and the aquisition of Hawaii represented a rather half hearted attempt at empire. The former resulted in the acquisition of the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Hawaii had previously been added as a territory. Of these, one became a state, another remains a territory that has considered becoming a state on several occasions, and the other two are independent countries, neither of which forcibly removed US governance (though some would argue Cuba's government was something of a puppet prior to Castro).

The US started as a part of the British Empire, but after the Revolution there was no empire. The US continually expanded, but those areas into which it expanded became a part of the US, not subjects of the US. That's a key difference between empire and the US. One can argue about the methods of the US in obtaining the new states and territories, but it was entirely different from the 19th century empires of England, France, Belgium and the like that carved up Africa and Asia. There was never any intention of making those lands a part of the empire in a participatory sense, even though many of the European powers were representative governments at various points during that age of empire.

In fact, the US is very different from the most recent empire to collapse, the Soviet Union. That conglomeration was much more like the older empires, being ruled almost entirely by Russians though its constituent parts were of many other nationalities. Furthermore, there was little to no local control over decision making and there were ostensibly separate countries, such as Poland and Hungary, that were entirely under the control of the USSR. Contrast that with the US allies during the Cold War who were entirely self governing, and often operating at cross purposes to the US but who remained allied on the broader interests of representative government and trade.

My impression is that these writers use the term "American empire" as a pejorative to take the nation to task for its exercise of power, particularly in the post WWII world. However, the place the US held, and holds, as a leader in the world is due to both its economic strength and its ideals. In fact, the ideals of the US, as expressed in the Constitution, are the most important part of what makes the US the country that it is.
Economics ebb and flow. The US was a very small player for most of its history, at least on the world stage, but throughout its history it has held these principles to be fundamental to its nature. The death knell has been rung for the US many times before this current economic crisis, including The Civil War, The Great Depression and innumerable corruptions of various politicians throughout history. Yet the US has recovered each time. It's done so by continuing to operate within the Constitution, occasionally amending that Consitution to account for changing circumstances (the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments being some prime examples).

Let's put to rest, then, this trite idea of the "decline of the American empire." It never has been an empire. It's in a down moment economically, but that's only a small part of what makes the US special. The US could be the 50th economy in the world. It would still be an important nation, worthy of emulation, so long as it continues to adhere to principles of individual rights and as much freedom of action for its citizens as is possible (which isn't the Libertarian ideal but a recognition that some curtailing of individual decisions is necessary if we're all going to survive together).

Happy New Year, USA.


  1. Great post Thomm!

    Now, if we can only get out of debt.

  2. Here! Here! I couldn't agree more.

    America is not without it's flaws but it's still remains one of the strongest, and best countries, in the world.

    I'm all for self deprication but it's getting to the point where people no longer see the good in themselves or their country.

    People tend to panic at the littlest thing these days and suddenly the sky is falling. Sometimes you just need to realize the sky isn't falling, it's just a rainy day that will pass...

  3. People have little sense of perspective these days. Not that they had a great sense of perspective in the past, either. It's just that with all the information available now, I keep thinking people will develope some perspective. Unfortunately, a surplussage of information doesn't equate with an ability to translate that information into something useful.

  4. Well,I've been thinking about this one for a while, and I think there are some flaws in your argument. The first lies in your simplistic use of dictionary definitions of 'empire' when one of the major points of those who argue for an "American Empire" is that their's is a new definition because there has not been an Empire in the past that is exactly like the US is now(just as the British Empire was not exactly like the Spanish Empire,which was not exactly like the Charlemagne's Empire etc etc). You are denying the fact that words and definitions can change, and that the 21st Century definition of Empire may well fit the USA.

    Secondly, the term 'informal' empire (as opposed to 'formal' empire such as the example you give of the Russian Empire)is commonly used to describe the USA. Just because the USA doesn't directly rule an area doesn't mean that it can pretty much get what ever wants from that area...for example NAFTA is widely agreed to shafted the Canadians but good, and the Canadians have little choice but to sell the US all the tar sand oil, wood and hydro power it wants...that seems like the US has Imperial power to me.

    Thirdly, the many Native American nations would likely beg to differ with you on your assertion that "The US continually expanded, but those areas into which it expanded became a part of the US, not subjects of the US". How is forcing previously independent nations into your territory not making them subjects? it is not like they had any choice afterall.

    Fourthly, you argue that "as a leader in the world is due to both its economic strength and its ideals": undoubtably, but you really need to examine where that economic strength came from...for example by conquering the Native American nations, by annexing Texas and invading Mexico, by very bloodily putting down the Phillippine independence movement in 1899 and occupying the country for 59 years, by occupying and colonising Japan for 7 years from 1945 to 1952,by invading various Latin Amercian countries and forcing puppet governments upoon their peoples (which doesn't differ very much from the Soviets behaviour in Eastern Europe)etc etc. As your point about US' ideals,I'd argue that certainly in terms of the US' actions abroad they have more been honoured in the breech than otherwise(see my examples above). Certainly I'd say now that the US government under Bush II and a good part of the population who thought he could no wrong have done a very good job of slowly but surely making the constitution irrelevant anymore anyway. The US in 2011 is basically a police state in an economic recession and is stuck in two losing wars...hardly an example the rest of the world wishes to emulate.

  5. Fifthly you say "The US could be the 50th economy in the world. It would still be an important nation, worthy of emulation, so long as it continues to adhere to principles of individual rights and as much freedom of action for its citizens as is possible". I agree with you here, unfortunately as I pointed out above, in 2011 US is not now honouring its self-proclaimed principles even in its own territory and as far its behaviour abroad, it has always - whether under a democrat or a republican president - felt free to do as it wished (you may want to read up about the Monroe Doctrine for example).

    Six, the USA has more than 1000 military bases around the world, and is in effect the dominant power in many countries. If the US truly seeks to only rule/govern its own 50 states, then why are these bases necessary? Why does the US feel the need to exert power over nations? Doesn't that fit the definition of "Imperial"?

    Seven,let's discuss Lee's assertion above about the US being "the best" (which he cites no evidence for),given this:

    In conclusion, the US is (or was) a republic, and as such its elite have never felt much need to hide their actions, all the information I gave you above is openly available, and is well-known to most moderately educated and informed people around the world. The sooner the US people face up to how their country is really ruled and what their government and military really do abroad in their name,then the sooner the US people can make the collective decision to actually live up to the constitutional principles and human rights they've let slip away.

    Reading Chalmers Johnson's "Nemesis" would be a good start if you truly wish to argue this topic. At least then you would have the advantage of a clear understanding of what you are arguing against. Putting up strawman arguments against defintions in a dictionary won't get you very far.

  6. John good comment and valid points, although while I agree in general I think police state is a little over the line. While it is certainly more oriented that way, the US is not a police state.

  7. Fifthly, The US has over 1000 military bases on over 63 countries around the world. If the US truly wishes to rule/govern only the peoples of its 50 states and various fromal teritories; then why does it feel the need for military forces in other countries,if not to coerce or influence them? That seems like the actions of an Imperial power to me.

    Sixth, let's discuss Lee's assertion above that the US is "the best" (which he cites no evidence for by the way) in light of this paper:

    In conclusion, the sooner the US people face up to the way their country is really ruled,and by whom, and the sooner they take responsibility for the actions their government does abroad (and nominally in their name) then the sooner the US people can make the decisions and take the actions necessary to truly live up to and follow the consitutional principles and human rights that they've let slip away.

    I'd suggest for a beginning that you actually read Chalmers Johnson's 'Nemesis'and 'Blowback' to get a good understanding of what you are trying to argue against here. Putting up strawman arguments against defintions in a dictionary doesn't really cut it.

  8. John - I skim read Hales article and need to read more carefully, but some interesting material. Also I started reading the preview for Dismantling the Empire by Johnson and looks like I will have to buy that book and read it. I have always read that many of the troubles with the Middle East go back to the British not listening to Laurence of Arabia's advice on how to set up the region when they withdraw. The US in general needs to take its collective head out of the sand and see what we have wrought with our actions.

  9. Yeah, I pretty much agree with the gist of Hales' article. The US has squandered a lot of good will and potential over the years, but at the moment, I'd still prefer the US to be dominant rather than say, China or Russia. At least the US can still be called upon to meet its ideals and show some scruples, and it occasionally comes through - but the Russian or Chinese governments have no scruples, and they don't encourage their people or their servants to have any either.
    As Chalmers Johnson points out, there is a lot that simply isn't being debated in the US - things that often very obvious to the rest of the world.
    The point about Lawrence of Arabia is one I've heard too. The British journalist Robert Fisk mentions that frequently. His book on Middle East history, "The Great War for Civilisation" is an enlightening, if terribly depressing, read.

    Here's hoping the US people can save themselves and become again a true and tangible symbol of freedom and democracy. If the US becomes less democratic,so will the rest of the world for sure.

    In seems to me in many respects that due to the power of the US, its ideals and the rhetoric, promotion and (let's face it) outright propaganda, have taken on a life of their own, almost to the point where the actual fact of the USA doesn't matter anymore. Those ideals and rhetoric have been very powerful, (for example Ho Chi Minh asked the US to hlp him free Vietnam from the French Empire) but now the disconnect between US ideals and the reality (especially since the 2000 election and the "War on Terror" and now the banking crisis) have become too obvious to ignore.

  10. I'm going to be brief here, mostly because I have too much work to do to keep going back on this. Nonetheless, I'll tackle each point John makes, but I ain't comin' back to it again.

    First, yes, words in English change meanings all the time. However, just because I start calling a fruit that's oblong and has a yellow peel an orange doesn't mean it's no longer a banana. Someone decided to change the meaning of empire in order to shoehorn the US into it? Well, that sort of validates my original point that the US isn't an empire. Why don't we change the meaning of police state while we're at it, that way you can be right on a later point, too?

    Second, I don't care if you call it an informal empire. That's not what I was talking about. And the whole Canadian thing is bizarrely irrelevant. Did the US force Canada into NAFTA? If free trade agreements like NAFTA are so bad for those who enter into them (and I mean everyone who enters them with the US), then why are Korea and half of South America looking to enter into similar agreements? This segment of the argument essentially boils down to anyone who doesn't like an agreement their government entered arguing that it's due to US imperialism. Why don't we turn it around? Lots of people think NAFTA has been a bad deal for the US, vis a vis Mexico. Does that mean the US is under the imperial influence of Mexico? I don't think so.

    Third, yes, the US is entirely conquered territory. Name me a country that isn't. There isn't a single nation in the history of the world that didn't conquer it from someone else, including the Native Americans. It's also entirely irrelevant to whether the US is an empire. If it was, then every country would be an empire. On top of that, Native Americans are full citizens of the US, plus citizens of their own "nations". They not only have the benefits of the US Constitution's protections, they can operate their own territory in whatever fashion they like. That's hardly the behavior of an empire subjugating the conquered. Not that it was always that way.

    Let's keep in mind during all these points that I'm talking about the US now, not as it may have behaved at some point in the past.

    Fourth, well, that one's hard to argue because it's so scattered. I'll start with the basic, I guess. So, the economic success of the US is due solely to conquest of other people/nations? If that were so the Soviet Union would have been a rousing success. This isn't the Roman Empire, which needed conquest to keep itself going (or the Japanese Empire, for that matter). The greatest economic success of the US has occurred in the post WWII era. There has been exactly 0 new territory added to the US during that time. Obviously, the success of the US, economically, has to be due to something else. I'd argue it's due to its embrace of capitalism, free flow of ideas and technology, and an educated work force, but that's a whole other realm that I'm not delving into here.

    I will specifically address the bizarro idea that the US colonized Japan for 7 years. Who has a colony for only 7 years? Where are all the Americans who moved to Japan to take over the government? You know, like when European powers sent their citizens to what's now the US to colonize that land. The US occupied Japan for 7 years following WWII for the simple reason that it won the war. There had to be some transition to a representative government for the Japanese, and there was. Hell, the Japanese have thoroughly embraced the constitution the US crafted for him, particularly the part that forbids them from sending troops to other countries.

  11. Fifth, why does the US have bases all over the world? Um, because we're providing defense and stability in otherwise unstable regions? Ok, a lot of the Cold War bases in Europe are more or less leftovers from that, where they provided a bulwark against the Soviets, but say, the troops in Korea, that's a current use of the troops for stability. Do you really think the troops we have stationed at any of the bases actually influence those governments? Hell, in Okinawa the base is being shrunk because the locals don't want it. We left our bases in the Phillipines because they decided we weren't necessary after the Cold War. By your reasoning we're running the UK and Germnany, which would probably be news to them. What kind of empire lets the denizens of its empire throw it out with nary a shot fired?

    Sixth, I have to leave alone. For one, it's arguing against something Lee said, not me. For another, it's Lee's opinion that the US is the best. As an American he's entitled to whatever opinion he wants to hold. I happen to agree with him that the US does have the best government. (Ok, I'm not really leaving it alone.)

    Here's why. The US, from its beginning, was a diverse nation with conflicting interests. Now, with the original 13 it was only landed white males who could vote, so you'd think that wasn't too diverse, but that's only if you maintain a narrow view of diversity. Those guys had very different economic interests based on the occupations they pursued and the region in which they resided. As a result they set up a government with diffuse powers. There are now 50 states and several territories, all of which have their own governments. Within those there are local governments, at county, city and township levels. Above that, in the heirarchy of things, is the federal government, which is itself divided into judicial, executive and legislative, the latter two of which are voted on by all of the citizens of the entire country (that is, all citizens have a Senator and a Congressperson, if they're in a state and all citizens, state or no, vote for president).

    That system allows for two things. One is that many people from many different groupings have a voice in their representatives. Religious groups, ethnicities, sexual orientation, it's all in there somewhere. Doesn't mean a given group is going to be a majority, but there's a voice, and quite possibly the voice that's needed to pass a particular piece of legislation.

    More importantly, the structure tends to prevent a majority from running roughshod over the minorities. As a consequence, the US is less flexible or nimble than a parliamentary system. That alone, I think, makes the US a far better system than any others. It makes the US less reactive, talking heads of the aiwaves and internet notwithstanding.

    You may not like how the US is operating, and I don't agree with all of it, but the government we have is the government we elect. If you don't like it, get out there and convince more of your fellows of your opinion being the right one so you can vote in people who reflect your views. If we have a dumbass government it's because we have a lot of dumbass citizens. But it sure is representative and isn't an empire. Works for me.

  12. Thank goodness you were brief Thomm! I was worried all the comments would get too long winded.