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The American Empire, or American imperialism more generally, is a disputed concept that refers to the political, economic, military, and cultural influence of the United States around the world. The idea of American imperialism gained in popularity when the United States took possession of Spanish colonies following the Spanish- American War of 1898. More recently the term is invoked to critique U.S. foreign policy.
The issue of imperialism in the United States of America—that it to say, the idea of an American Empire—is a keenly debated, hotly contested topic. Some say the United States is an empire, and that it’s a good thing. Some say the United States is an empire, and that it’s a bad thing. There are those who say it is not an empire, but it should be. Others say the United States is not an empire, and that’s the way it should be. These debates occur both within the United States and beyond its borders. One reason for the lack of consensus on the topic of American Empire is the contention that the United States’ global reach differs somewhat from that of traditional (especially European) empires. Americans in particular tend to believe that the United States has not been an imperial power.
The American Empire, however, is real, with historical roots in the founding of the republic during the eighteenth century, its evolution during the nineteenth century, and its maturation during the early twentieth century. By the latter years of the twentieth century, especially resulting from the impact of two world wars, the United States possessed more power and had more global political and economic interests than any empire in the modern era. And by early in the twenty-first century, some argued that U.S. foreign policy was expansionist to the point of being imperialistic.
U.S. imperialism developed in a generally different way than that of traditional European empires. Rather than invade countries with large armies, send in agents of occupation, maintain political and economic control through institutions it created and staffed with officials from the mother country and local collaborative elites, and restrict colonial sovereignty, U.S. officials and businesspeople created an empire that was principally commercial, based on free trade and massive overseas investment. After that empire was established, the United States had overwhelming influence and wealth and was able to control affairs in associated countries with great efficiency for the most part. So, without the formal trappings—and much of the political baggage—of imperialism, the United States enjoyed the greatest benefits of empire—and with many of the same downsides for the exploited—throughout much of the twentieth century.
Blueprint for the Empire
One can observe the foundations of empire from the outset of the U.S. republic. When seeking autonomy from the British Empire during the late 1700s, U.S. leaders devised a program for global influence, with John Adams even writing a “model treaty” for prospective alliances with the established powers of Europe that would have given the new country equal commercial footing with them based on the concepts of free trade and “most favored nation” trading rights.
After U.S. independence, U.S. leaders such as Alexander Hamilton recognized that economic power, especially via industrial development, could lead to world power. Consequently, during much of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government pursued a program of industrialization, with protective tariffs, government grants, tax incentives, and subsidies to promote industrial and international growth. Undeniably, the use of slave labor in certain industries, such as cotton and sugar, also advanced the cause of economic development and expansion.
The global interests of the United States at the time were still limited, subordinate to the need to develop the economy at home. However, by midcentury one could see the United States stepping out into the world, taking land by force or purchase in Oregon, Texas, California, Alaska, and elsewhere and envisioning a Caribbean Empire in Cuba, Santo Domingo, Nicaragua, and other places; deploying gunships to Japan to demand open markets; creating bonds with British financiers to pay for the Civil War; and sending missionaries and businesspeople to foreign lands to expand U.S. interests all over the world. Clearly, the American Empire did share some affinities with the empires of old.
By the late 1800s the United States was about to become an imperial power, through both design and necessity. U.S. theorists of empire, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, Minister Josiah Strong, and Brooks Adams, cited the need to expand republican institutions and Christian doctrine, fulfill manifest destiny (a future event accepted as inevitable) and social Darwinism, and expand “civilization” to avoid decay. They pressed for an imperial agenda and reached responsive and influential targets such as presidents William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, as well as most diplomatic officials, business leaders, and media representatives. The United States was embracing the ideology of imperialism and, during the 1890s, stepping out into the world aggressively with purpose and success. Secretary of State Richard Olney boasted, for instance, that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.”
The principal factor in U.S. emergence as a global power, however, was the need for foreign commercial relationships to avert economic crises at home. During the latter part of the nineteenth century the United States was wracked with labor and agricultural unrest, currency controversies, and deflation and depression. As the U.S. oil magnate John D. Rockefeller explained: “dependent solely upon local business, we should have failed years ago. We were forced to extend our markets and to seek for foreign trade.”
Accordingly, the United States, using the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule as its pretext, went to war in 1898 and ultimately took control of not only Cuba, but also Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii—the only places where the United States would establish the formal trappings of empire. Its global reach and imperial-like power, however, would only grow.
Buttressed initially by what President William Howard Taft called “dollar diplomacy,” and similar to other empires, the United States would soon rely on military might. The United States embarked on a path that would create one of the greatest empires in modern times, one based on finance capital, private markets, the exploitation of raw materials elsewhere, the search for cheap labor, and global consumption. In the process, U.S. officials extended national power into all areas, using force when necessary to create commercial opportunities. As the soon-to-be president Woodrow Wilson observed in 1907, “since . . . the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process” (Parenti 1995, 40).
By 1914, the eve of World War I, the United States was extensively involved in the economic and political lives of societies on virtually every continent, with growing interests in China, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The United States began to extend its power more aggressively, intervening in the Boxer Rebellion in China, the Russian Civil War, the Mexican Revolution, and the affairs of a host of Latin American countries per the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the right of the United States to act as a global policeman in the hemisphere. With the outbreak of war in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson’s “liberal capitalist internationalism” led the United States into the first rank of world powers.
World Wars and World Power
Woodrow Wilson, like Roosevelt and Taft before him, believed that capitalism, not traditional imperialism, leads to the greatest wealth and power and would promote peaceful relations between nations. Countries that traded, these presidents reasoned, would be less likely to fight. In 1914, as the European powers went to war, the United States was the greatest industrial power in the world but had limited military capabilities. Wilson would thus use the power of capital to extend U.S. influence, conducting vitally needed trade with Britain and France, brokering loans to the allies to keep them afloat and fighting, and finally intervening in 1917 to preserve the British gold standard. Wilson’s involvement paid off. By 1919 the United States, which had entered the war as a debtor nation, had $11.7 billion in credits, and the seat of global economic power had moved from London to Wall Street.
During the ensuing decades, even with the vagaries of the Great Depression and so-called isolationism, the American Empire proceeded apace. Viewing the maintenance of the Open Door (a policy giving opportunity for commercial relations with a country to all nations on equal terms) as “the road away from Revolution,” President Herbert Hoover during the 1920s and 1930s continued the aggressive search for markets, with U.S. military intervention and repressive client states backing up that approach, particularly in Latin America. Even with the advent of the “Good Neighbor Policy” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. economic stake and political influence in Latin America grew, setting the stage for future anti-American movements in Latin America.
By the 1940s, the United States had maintained as much politico-economic power as possible given the global crises of depression and militarism in Europe and Asia and was about to emerge as the dominant global power with the coming of World War II. Germany and Japan posed threats to the global community not just because they invaded sovereign lands, but also because their versions of economic nationalism, or autarky, threatened to close off large and economically crucial regions to open commerce. Hence, the United States had to take action against such aggression, and, after Germany’s aggression in France, Britain, and the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt mobilized the economy for war, sending huge amounts of military materiel to the anti-Axis nations, ultimately committing U.S. troops to Europe and the Pacific. The Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan. At war’s end in 1945 most of Europe and Asia was devastated, with massive reconstruction needs looming. But the United States came out of the war stronger than ever, with the new Bretton Woods system—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank along with the dollar set as the world’s currency, fully convertible to gold—in place as a means of economic influence.
Positions of Disparity
Using the IMF, World Bank, reconstruction loans, and the Marshall Plan (a plan for economic recovery in European countries after World War II), as well as wielding preponderant military power and holding nuclear weapons, Washington was able to exercise vast economic, and hence political, influence during the Cold War. Indeed, after World War II the United States exercised arguably the greatest power in the modern era. Writing in 1948, the U.S. diplomat George Frost Kennan candidly observed that “we have 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will allow us to maintain this position of disparity.” In subsequent decades the American Empire continued to expand, by both commercial and military means.
In 1950 the U.S. National Security Council produced NSC-68, perhaps the most important postwar document concerning the growth of U.S. power. In it the NSC urged vast increases in military spending to contain not only the Soviet Union but also any country that threatened U.S. interests. This gave great impetus to the so-called military-industrial complex. Defense spending and the arms race soared as the United States became involved in commercial and political affairs seemingly everywhere. Not only did Washington promote free trade and investment abroad, but also it intervened militarily in disparate places such as Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, and Lebanon when it perceived that its interests were at risk. At the same time, taking advantage of the power of the dollar and the Bretton Woods institutions, the United States forced former empires to open their markets to U.S. traders and investors, thereby giving U.S. businesses global access. At home, this period of economic expansion created prosperity for working people, while the political force of McCarthyism and the Red Scare kept critics of the empire silent or ineffective. McCarthyism, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, was a mechanism by which the establishment targeted and attacked any sector of society or individual deemed subversive.
By the mid-1960s the United States could wield the power of the dollar and the armed forces to promote its interests virtually everywhere. However, limits to U.S. power began to appear; despite attempts by a series of administrations, the Communist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba could not be ousted. Moreover, the U.S. became increasingly bogged down in a growing war in Vietnam, which would ultimately expose the shortcomings of U.S. power both militarily and economically. Despite staggering amounts of firepower, the United States could not subdue the Vietnamese Communist/nationalist liberation movement. Meanwhile, the soaring costs of the war caused massive deficits in the U.S. balance-of-payments ledger and a run on gold, per the Bretton Woods system. By 1971 President Richard Nixon had to concede the limits of empire by abandoning the Bretton Woods system and taking the country off the gold standard. Politically, challenges to U.S. interests emerged globally. By the late 1970s such developments, worsened by “oil shocks” in 1973 and 1979 and the emergence of Japan and the Federal Republic of Germany as economic competitors, made the American Empire appear to be on the wane.
Barely a decade later, however, the empire struck back. Massive military spending during the administration of President Ronald Reagan and the collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Europe left the United States without a serious global rival for power. Thus, despite massive deficits at home, the United States stood alone as a global hegemon. Supranational economic arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and wars against national liberation movements in Central America signaled to the world that Washington would not yield its power quietly, that it would, in fact, continue to craft the trading empire that it had begun a century earlier.
By the mid-1990s, with a convincing show of military power in the Middle East and a commitment to globalization in effect, the United States seemed to have the unlimited ability to wage war and gain access to markets. However, this newly expanded hegemony brought a new level of criticism with it. Not only human rights groups and activists, but also less developed countries, some key allies, and even sectors of the ruling class began to question the power of transnational corporations and supranational institutions. The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 and the response it generated in some parts of the world were another signal that U.S. power had its limits and that the U.S. imperial mission had its enemies.
More telling, the U.S. response to those attacks, especially its invasion of Iraq, led to the most serious attack on the imperial position of the United States in a half-century. The George W. Bush administration’s war against Iraq, conducted largely unilaterally, undermined U.S. prestige, worsened strains in the U.S. relationship with critical European allies, fueled anti-Americanism abroad to new heights, and led to a bloody occupation in Iraq. Despite some early successes, the deteriorating state of the war in Afghanistan has further strained relations with allies and enemies alike. The Bush administration seemed to be resorting to older forms of unilateral imperium (supreme power), not dissimilar to the nineteenth-century European way. Coupled with the backlash against globalization, the inability to broker peace in the Middle East, and the global economic and financial crises of 2007–2009, the U.S. position in the world could potentially recede to position not seen since the earlier stages of the twentieth century. The response of the administration of President Barack Obama to these testing matters could well prove decisive.
In just a little more than a century the United States emerged as a global power, reached commanding heights of power and wealth, achieved an unmatched capacity to influence the world, and has seen its positions criticized and attacked—which is the lot of empires. In the twenty-first century new challenges, such as the rise of China and India, along with a resurgent Russia—and new limits—face the American empire. As for all empires and self-appointed “global police,” new strategies will be required to deal with these emerging challenges confronting the world.
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