Selling the idea of empire to Americans

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Photo by Jordhan Madec on Unsplash

“America first!” has again become a rallying cry in U.S. politics. Frankly, many of us thought that slogan had been relegated to the ash-heap of history given its record as a slogan for Nazi sympathizers pre-World War II who opposed President Roosevelt’s efforts to help the Allies.

The concept has some appeal. After all, why shouldn’t we take care of ourselves first rather than worrying about other countries?

Indeed, as George Carlin pointed out, American intervention in the World Wars was quite a departure from our prior approach. Carlin said our typical military intervention involved bombing “brown people.” Germany was worth fighting, however, because they were “cutting in on our action.”

As always, Carlin’s comedy was deeply insightful. We Americans always like to think of ourselves as the good guys. We don’t behave the way those old-world European empires did in subjugating other people for their own purposes, so we think. Instead, we “help” them with our interventions. While this belief might be self-satisfying, it also lends itself to resentments as we wonder why we are taking care of others rather than ourselves.

But think about who our allies are. The last great empire, of course, was Britain’s. But in the period running from the beginning of World War I until the end of World War II Britain saw its empire disintegrate and found itself relying upon the support of its one-time colony, the United States. The British fought valiantly in World War II, but there can be little doubt that it would have been occupied by the Germans had it not been for American intervention.

The British realized they needed the Americans in both wars. Indeed, perhaps the British government’s top priority was bringing the U.S. into the war. Thus Churchill’s statement that “the Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

Roosevelt, for his part, was preparing for the defeat of the British and had made it clear that if this came to pass, the U.S. would take over Canada, then a dominion of the British empire.

Now, if you look at our closest allies, they include Britain and Canada, of course, but also Australia and New Zealand, and our relationship with India has always been strong. All of these were once components of the British empire. Now they’re part of the American system of alliances and trading partners.

Similarly, our dominance of this hemisphere dates back to the Monroe doctrine of 1823, when we made it clear that the United States would not tolerate European involvement in the Americas any longer, and enforcing that pledge in the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. That conflict, by the way, brought into our hemisphere the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, all of which remain in our sphere of influence to this day. Cuba, also won in that war, might as well have been a U.S. territory right up until its revolution in 1959.

Of course we conquered Japan, Germany, Italy, France, much of Western Europe, and much of Southeast Asia in World War II. We conquered South Korea in the Korean War, and strengthened our influence in Thailand during the Vietnam era. For a nation opposed to empire, we built ours up the old-fashioned way. It’s hard to imagine a major ally of ours that we did not inherit from the British Empire, or that we did not conquer on our own.

When others have challenged our hegemony, we have responded as an empire would. Consider our invasion of Grenada or our many actions to maintain control over Latin America. Many of these countries where we have intimately involved ourselves in their politics, from Chile to Colombia to Panama, among others, must find complaints about Russian interference in our election ironic.

Certainly, we do not rule our alliance partners with an iron hand as do other empires, right? But both the British and Romans, empires for sure, allowed their possessions great latitude as long as they delivered the economic goods for the home country. It was only when this economic relationship was threatened that military intervention was called for.

Similarly, we have established an intense trade network between us and our allies. It is not for military purposes, for example, that many Eastern European nations wanted to join NATO. It was to join the American economic system, a system governed by rules that certainly benefited them, but also benefited us most of all.

Our hegemony has allowed the United States to become the undisputed military and economic powerhouse of the world. We worry about China, but our economy is still more than double its size despite the fact that we have less than a third of its population, and our military budget similarly dwarfs it. Russia, for all the noise it makes, has a smaller economy than many states.

Rather than looking negatively at our trade deficit with some of our allies, we should look at the overall economic boom that the entire American-influenced world has enjoyed. Now, countries want to join our system because they see that in addition to making America rich and powerful, it makes their own country richer as well. That’ss why countries such as Vietnam and South Africa are bending over backward to adopt rules that will allow them to join our system.

This is what China and Russia find so threatening. China really wants to join our system and get rich too, but they realize that the rules we demand of our trading partners benefit us. They want to enjoy the economic fruits, but don’t want to become a part of the American empire. So they adopt as little as they can of our system to allow them to take part without undermining the power of their ruling class. They trade with us but refuse to play by our rules, which is why we consider them “bad actors” and a threat.

When the America Firsters complain about the defense spending we incur to defend our allies and the access we grant them to our economy, they ignore the fact that these steps have made us richer and more powerful than any other country in history. We have been favorably compared to Rome at its height. Our empire exists for the same reason the Roman empire or the British empire did — to support economic growth in the home country. It has worked for us, and now the ignorance of those who don’t truly understand what’s at stake threaten its existence.

Perhaps rather than framing our alliances and trading systems as beneficial to the other countries, we need to emphasize to some of our domestic audiences the way these institutions have contributed to American hegemony and wealth. The truth is that undermining these institutions is tantamount to the British giving away their empire for no good reason.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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