07 October 2008

An American empire? Part 1

As promised earlier, I am posting the first of a two-part series on the American empire. This appeared as a column in the 11 August issue of Christian Courier. The second part will appear next month.

Is America an empire? The short answer to this is yes. The long answer to this is yes, but . . . .

Four decades ago, George Parkin Grant saw Canada’s local traditions being swallowed up in the homogenizing forces of technology emanating from the “American empire.” More recently, especially in response to George W. Bush’s foreign and defence policies, a number of observers have been employing the same expression. How accurate is it?

Definitions of empire vary, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “supreme and wide political dominion” is not terribly illuminating. Imperialism usually has connotations of expansion of territory at the expense of one’s neighbours. Economic or cultural imperialism has been used in some circles to signify the overarching influence of a single country or group of countries on especially the world’s poorer regions.

Uncle Sam
In the 19th century the United States expanded its territory westwards as its people settled beyond the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. In 1867 it acquired Alaska from Russia and, at the end of the century, annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Nevertheless, American self-perceptions contain a pronounced anti-imperial component, as indicated by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s implausible statement that “We're not imperialistic. We never have been.”

Of course, it has been many decades since the United States was in the business of annexing territories outright. Yet no one can deny that its influence in a variety of areas is global in reach. American popular music is heard round the world. American military forces are stationed in many countries, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. The subprime mortgage crisis in the US is inexorably having its impact elsewhere, including Canada. And English is the world’s lingua franca — the language of commerce, international relations and the academy, propelled in large measure by the phenomenal power of the US.

The negatives of empire are easy to spot. Territorial empires tend to exploit the periphery to benefit the centre. The residents of the non-metropolitan territories lack the full rights of citizens in the mother country. For example, though my father was born a British subject in colonial Cyprus, he could not vote in British elections unless he were to have moved to the United Kingdom proper. Worst of all, the western colonial empires were based on a general belief in the superiority of the colonizing races over their subject peoples.

The American empire has been subject to many of these same defects, including a naïve belief in the universal validity of American political institutions. Canadians are only too well aware that US policies are inevitably made in their own interest, often to the detriment of other countries. When harnessed to the overwhelming might of the world’s only superpower, both political realism, with its focus on power for its own sake, and idealism, with its ambition to do good, can run roughshod over the legitimate interests of less powerful nations. The principal victim is justice itself.

At the end of the Second World War, the European colonial powers, having just defeated an especially vicious form of imperialism at home, began to divest themselves of their colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Britain gave up the jewel in its crown, India. France eventually let Algeria go, but only with great reluctance. The Netherlands vacated Indonesia. And the US even gave up the Philippines.

Yet empire is by no means dead. There is much to be said for the view that America is an empire, which in most contexts is not meant in a flattering way. Nevertheless, there is another, less negative side to this, which I will take up in part two.

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