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Totem and Taboo | The Nation

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Totem and Taboo

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It did not take long for a term that not long ago was slanderous to become a cliché. Suddenly everyone has discovered, and accepts as a commonplace, that the United States possesses an empire. For some our newly acknowledged imperial status is a source of celebration, for others of lamentation, but it is in any case something that cannot be denied. It is no longer even a choice, but rather a simple reality.

About the Author

Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books on US politics and diplomacy, teaches...

Of course the United States is an empire, and in most respects the most powerful that the world has ever seen. Given the current global balance of power--where the only serious rival has self-destructed, and aspirants to the title have a long way to go before being considered seriously--there is nothing else that it can be. Even an American government that tried to practice restraint, self-denial and mutuality would still be the dominant factor in any political equation. It sets the agenda even by its absence. Consider the cases of Bosnia, where the bloodshed did not end until the United States intervened, and Rwanda, and today Sudan, where it continued unabated because the United States chose to stand aside. Not to mention, of course, Iraq, where the American government launched a war that it calls "preventive" but the rest of the world views as simple aggression. A nation possessing this kind of power--the world's dominant economy, the currency with which the world reckons and pays its bills, the most powerful armed force with bases around the globe and a budget that nearly exceeds that of all other nations combined, and with a messianic desire to spread its ideology and to mold the lives and minds of the rest of the world in its image--is by any honest reckoning an imperial state.

The empire is what it is, and the power realities will not be greatly different even if the name is euphemized and the personalities who direct it are changed. How long it will last rests in good measure on how well it is managed. At the moment the prognosis does not seem promising. We are in the early stages of imperial self-recognition. Americans are only just beginning to understand the role their nation plays in the world, and the price incurred by that role. That acknowledgment is late in coming because we have been brought up on an image of ourselves as rebellious colonists winning liberation from the clutches of imperial Europe.

Our sense of aggrieved innocence usefully masks the violence of our own history and the motivations for many of our foreign wars. But this is not generally taught in our textbooks. Some argue, as does British economic historian Niall Ferguson in Colossus, his rhapsody to the imperial tradition, not merely "that the United States is an empire but that it has always been an empire." He rightly observes that the American nation was no sooner founded than its leaders embarked on an energetic program of expansion that--through diplomacy, conquest and theft from its original inhabitants--brought into the ever-expanding Union all the lands east of the Mississippi, then the vast territories of Louisiana, followed by Texas and a third of Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Caribbean and Pacific islands seized from Spain, and the once-independent kingdom of Hawaii. Not to mention the informal economic empire in Latin America, about which a US secretary of state declared in 1895, "today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and...its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."

Our empire did not become global until 1945, when the defeat and the ensuing political and economic collapse of the great imperial powers--Germany, Britain, France and Japan--shattered the existing global balance. The United States emerged from World War II with overwhelming power and an expansive self-confidence. It had grown enormously richer during the war, shedding the self-doubt and overcoming the economic depression of the 1930s. Backed by a triumphant military machine, it had the capacity and the self-awareness to advance its interests and its values around the globe.

The awareness of the new role that the United States could play was vividly expressed in early 1941 by Henry Luce, months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the nation into a two-front war. Americans, wrote the publisher of Time and Life magazines in an essay he modestly titled "The American Century," must "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world, and in consequence exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." Even George W. Bush would not have expressed the sentiment so baldly.

The project was not only political but also territorial, and it took shape, geographer Neil Smith powerfully argues in American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization, as part of a comprehensive global vision dating back to the early decades of the twentieth century. "The American Century, understood as a specific historical period," Smith demonstrates, "was built with an equally specific but largely unseen geography." In this geography of history, he examines the construction of the imperial space through the influence of Isaiah Bowman, the influential geographer who mapped out for Woodrow Wilson the new boundaries of post-World War I Europe, and for Franklin Roosevelt the American presence in post-World War II Europe and its colonies. More than a biography, this is an intellectually invigorating challenge to the assumption that globalism is a process that can be divorced from specific territorial and political objectives.

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