American empire

Jonah Goldberg doesn’t like America being called an empire. This seems to be the crux of his argument:

Your typical empire invades countries to seize their resources, impose political control, and levy taxes. That was true of every empire from the ancient Romans to the Brits and the Soviets.

One could have an interesting discussion of whether or not America actually does impose political control. Mr Goldberg himself implies that we should not leave Iraq because its "democracy is fragile." Is not imposing democracy imposing political control?

But it’s more interesting to agree with his premises and follow his argument.

His premises are: 1) historically, most empires invade countries to advance their own interests; and 2) the US does not invade countries to advance its own interests (though it seemingly endlessly invades other countries).

This would seem to (obviously) raise the question of why the US invades so many countries.

Unfortunately, he has no answer, though he does reiterate that, "To say we did these things simply for plunder and power is an insult to all Americans, particularly those who gave their lives in the process."

But to say we did them for no apparent reason or interest is more insulting, no?

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42 Responses to American empire

  1. anonymous says:

    The new USG model is- invade, destroy existing political control, hand over resources to favored locals no matter how incompetent, levy taxes on it’s own citizens to pay interest on a loan it took out to rebuild the invaded nation complete with universal health care.

  2. aretae says:

    amazing how often, given such strong differences, that our analyses coincide.

  3. Matthew Walker says:

    Well, usually when people call us an empire, they mean we’re evil and they hate us. Goldberg doesn’t think we’re evil and he doesn’t hate us, so he figures there’s obviously some good reason why calling us an empire is obviously nonsensical.

    Maybe some day he’ll find it.

    I do sympathize with him. “We’re evil and I hate us” sticks in my craw too, a bit. Goldberg’s problem is that he is accustomed to arguing with people who think that if we’re bad, then Shining Path, Hizbollah and the like must all be saints — and also that if you’re an empire, you’re evil, and if you’re evil, everybody has a moral obligation to drop bombs on you. Or fly planes into your financial district. Since he does kind of believe that we have a moral obligation to bomb other countries for being evil, you can see where the discomfort might creep in.

    He assumes that belief in us being an empire is inseparable from a set of beliefs that range from annoying to truly deranged. What really pisses him off isn’t in the word “empire” at all. He just doesn’t realize that.

  4. The WTO/G8/IP Law treaties etc, are the modern day equivalent of demanding trade concessions from member states of the empire.

    The Bretton Woods system and the policy of making the U.S. dollar the global reserve currency is a form of suzerainty.

    Promoting “liberal democracy” is the modern day equivalent of demanding religious conversion.

    On a scale of imperial oppressiveness, where 10 is you enslave the entire subject population and confiscate all their land, and 1 is leaving completely autonomy, the American empire is probably around a 6. It’s better than the Soviets and the Mongols. It’s more controlling than the ancient Persian empire and British empire,

    History will not be kind to Mr. Goldberg’s point of view.

  5. America also has a policy where it demands that foreign “allies” buy goods – such as military equipment – from it. Saudi Arabia buys useless airplanes, in return the U.S. gets money to buy Saudi oil.

    It would be much better if the U.S. just demanded tribute, because then there would be less high powered weaponry kicking around the third world.

    • Eugenicist says:

      Hmmm, I don’t have the numbers, but it seems that Iraq has received more in subsidies than any money it could every pay.

      Secondly, I doubt that dishing out the tribute to those who currently benefit from the manufacture of that “useless” military equipment (employees, shareholders, etc) would be as acceptable as the current system, and, the government gets to play with more money than if it simply accepted tribute, and the tribute that the US pays to Israel seems less objectionable as well.

      Finally, in response to your claim earlier about “liberal democracy” and modern-day religions, I have not noticed Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc, becoming liberal democracies. Perhaps you are in accord with the Cheshire Cat in that regard.

      • Mark says:

        Many empires, probably most, cost more than they return, a discovery that accounts for the well-being of small nations like Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and the
        Netherlands, which gained by abandoning destiny and empire.

        But we would miss the point to bury particulars in aggregates. By disaggregating benefits and costs we gain the key to understanding. The whole nation loses, but certain parties gain, and it is they who promote and sustain aggressive behavior and empire.

      • sconzey says:

        I have not noticed Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc, becoming liberal democracies.

        He didn’t say that the conversion was successful, only that it was demanded ;)

      • Eugenicist says:

        Actually, I do have some numbers. Just recently we were told that the Fed printed something like 40Bn and shipped it to Iraq.

        Then there is the 500Bn or so the whole military effort cost. (I pulled that number out of my ass, but it is not likely to be over by more than a factor of two or under by more than a factor of 10.)

        I can’t see Iraq ever giving the US tribute of even that much and even US Oil companies did not seem to get any of the action, so it looks increasingly like an effort to reward certain groups in the US with public money (so they wouldn’t agitate for a change of regime perhaps.)

  6. prcaldude@gmail.com says:

    Mr Goldberg himself implies that we should not leave Iraq because its “democracy is fragile.”

    He’s more than welcome to join the Army and go over there. He can also volunteer his sons.

    Oh, that’s right, chickenhawk.

  7. sconzey says:

    I’m becoming increasingly dubious that the process throughout the 20th century by which less economically developed countries swapped direct political oversight by Western governments for indirect political oversight by Western aid agencies can be called “decolonisation,” nor that the aforementioned countries are in any meaningful sense “independent.”

    Me channeling Moldbug.

  8. ThomasT says:

    I’m inclined to applaud your clever rhetoric since I share your sentiment. Still, we both know that the simple answer is: America heroically sheds her own blood so that other peoples can enjoy the Natural Human Rights that America was build upon. “Imposing democracy” is a contradiction in terms since Democracy is the precondition for Politial Freedom and hence the very opposite of authoritarian “imposition”.

  9. Timmy says:

    Calling Democracy the precondition for Politial Freedom is the opposite of “smart”.

  10. ThomasT says:

    Great to have your input Timmy. I suppose people posting here mostly agree that the official line is retarded (although honestly the Democracy -> Political Freedom part I don’t even disagree with, it’s just that Political Freedom is a euphemism for Lawlessness and not desirable in the first place). My point is that while Foseti’s “question” to Goldberg and his ilk is funny for people already in agreement with him, to answer it would be trivial to the point of being irritating to anyone else.

  11. RS says:

    Democracy is the harbinger of decadence and vulgarity. In any case one can’t plant it in Iraq – or in what is twice as barbarous, though noble in certain ways, Afghanistan.

  12. Matt Weber says:

    “After all, what kind of empire does this sort of thing [leave Iraq]?”

    A bad one. America is not very good at the empire game, and Obama is pretty much a nonentity even among Americans.

    America is a funny place, in that we want our empire but we don’t want to do what it takes to have one. Even the sissy Brits had some episodes of pretty brutal repression towards their colonial subjects. One lesson of the 20th century, contra enlightened liberalism, is that brutal repression works. Killing people opposed to you is a great way to strengthen your power.

    • Matt Weber says:

      “To say we did these things simply for plunder and power is an insult to all Americans, particularly those who gave their lives in the process.”

      Actually it’s an insult to our leaders. Joe Schmoe serviceman has no control over anything. I’m inclined to say our leaders should be insulted in this manner.

  13. Tschafer says:

    America seems to have stumbled on a sort of weird quasi-imperium, which features all of the disadvantages of empire for the imperial state (high taxes, casualties, overweening government,etc) while accruing none of the advantages, not even the ego boost the average Brit got in the 19th Century from seeing the map “painted red”. Just as Communism was essentially Modernity with all of the good parts removed, leftist imperium is empire minus any profit, prosperity, of spread of civilization. A typical leftist monstrosity.

  14. Tschafer says:

    And no, we didn’t do it for power or plunder. Assuming imperium for these reasons may be wrong, but it is at least sane. When the far left claims that our leaders are only interested in power and profit, they are actually giving them more credit than they deserve. Most American interventions, and ALL of the interventions of which the left approves (Libya, Kosovo, Bosnia, our upcoming jaunt into Uganda, etc), are more akin to religious Jihad than cold-eyed attempts to maximize profit. Diversity Akbar!

  15. dearieme says:

    ” the US does not invade countries to advance its own interests”: countries invade other countries to advance the interests of those who made the decision. America is no exception.

    America is an Empire in pretty much exactly the sense that we used to refer to the Chinese Empire or the Russian Empire.

    This guy must be very stupid.

  16. Mark says:

    John Bolton on Fox News recently describing the Mideast:

    “The critical oil and natural gas producing region that we fought so many wars to try and protect our economy from the adverse impact of losing that supply or having it available at very high prices”

    Lindsey Graham on Fox News following Gaddafi’s death:

    “There’s a lot of money to be made in the future in Libya, there’s a lot of oil to be produced”

  17. Mark says:

    Army Lt. Colonel Anthony Shaffer says Libyan intervention was about oil:

  18. [...] blogger known as “Foseti” (he’s on my blogroll but you should also check out the original post for some good [...]

  19. Fake Herzog says:

    I disagree with Foseti’s analysis — come check me out over at my blog.

  20. [...] Fake Herzog doesn’t like my analysis of American Empire from yesterday. I should point out that my actual thoughts on the subject of American empire are basically the same as Devin’s. [...]

  21. Eugenicist says:

    Mark says on October 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm in response to my response to Devin or whatever his/her name is:

    Many empires, probably most, cost more than they return, a discovery that accounts for the well-being of small nations like Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and the
    Netherlands, which gained by abandoning destiny and empire.

    But we would miss the point to bury particulars in aggregates. By disaggregating benefits and costs we gain the key to understanding. The whole nation loses, but certain parties gain, and it is they who promote and sustain aggressive behavior and empire.

    Now we are getting somewhere.

    • spandrell9 says:

      Yes, that’s the point. Nations don’t exist as a political entity. It’s certain elite groups inside nations that are real and move things, and they benefited from empire. Handsomely.
      See all those english nobles smoking opium and swapping wives in the early days of the Kenyan colony.

  22. Eugenicist says:

    sconzey says on October 28, 2011 at 2:46 am

    I have not noticed Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc, becoming liberal democracies.

    He didn’t say that the conversion was successful, only that it was demanded ;)

    Empty threats do not an empire make.

    • sconzey says:

      This is true, but that’s not the point you were originally disputing and I supporting.

      Although with that said, I strongly doubt that Libya was the only Arab Spring country in which USG intervened. In Egypt for instance, the Egyptian army received nearly half of their funding from the US, and the State department had a program of sneaking internal dissidents out of the country to attend conventions in the US on democratic activism.

  23. [...] It’s a quick gem of smart writing and I’m loathe to excerpt any of it because it’s all of a piece, but I’ll give you the opening and end if you promise to read the rest. [...]

  24. Eugenicist says:

    Of course, the countries that have paid healthy amounts of tribute to the US, in different forms include:

    The UK (purchasing US T bills, ie, lending the US money) and accepting a healthy dose of American diversity attitudes.

    Japan (was conquered by the US, accepted lots of US ideas, but not the diversity shit, purchases lots of US T bills, purchase lots of US arms).

    China (purchases lots of US T bills :-)

    South Korea

    Germany

    France (see Mangan for the latest enforcement of US values in France, and the US did conquer them, well, after the Germans did. The US called it liberating France, however.)

    Italy

    Turkey …

  25. gedaliya says:

    Most of the countries you list have vast trade surpluses with the United States. Calling that “paying tribute” renders the phrase all but meaningless.

    • The Other Eugenicist says:

      So, they get to send the US stuff and lend the US the money to pay for them. There is no guarantee that the US will ever pay it back, and the US can inflate the value of those loans away.

      Sure looks like tribute to me.

      • gedaliya says:

        You say that the US might “never pay them back,” or that we may “inflate the value of the loans away.” Well, those are two pretty unlikely eventualities. Until then, you can’t possibly make a rational case our trading partners with trade surpluses are paying “tribute.”

        But, no matter. Let’s concede that the US is an “empire.”

        So what? Why does this concern you?

    • KellyC says:

      As long as the trade is conducted in dollars, it’s a valid argument although I agree ‘tribute’ is not the best term to describe it.

  26. horace says:

    “The US is in a unique position where when it spends money abroad on the military, other countries pay for this expense because other countries hold their international reserves in the form of Treasury bonds to finance the American budget deficit that is mainly a military deficit.

    So America’s balance of payments spending in Afghanistan, Iraq and its 80 military bases in Eurasia that pump dollars into the global central banks that recycle them to fund the deficit.

    The more we go to war the more dollars we spend abroad on the war, the more dollars central banks have to buy our federal debt. So we fund our federal debt by having foreign countries essentially finance our war spending.

    That’s what the international monetary system is.

    It’s the dollar system based on America’s war spending.

    I wrote about this in my book “Super Imperialism” (free pdf http://michael-hudson.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/superimperialism.pdf) is all about this. I wrote it in 1972 right after America went off gold and the plan then was to make foreign central banks finance America’s military war spending. The largest purchasers of the books were the State Dept. the Pentagon and the CIA and the Pentagon immediately gave me a contract to explain what it was doing and they said my god we didn’t realize by accident we’ve pulled the biggest rip-off in human history this is great.”

  27. james wilson says:

    Garrett, 1952–Rise of Empire

    We have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: “you now are entering Imperium.” Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.”

    If you say there were no frightening omens, that is true. The political foundations did not quake, the graves of the fathers did not fly open, the Constitution did not tear itself up. If you say people did not will it, that also is true. But if you say therefore it has not happened, then you have been so long bemused by words that your mind does not believe what the eye cans see.

    The Roman Republic passed into the Roman Empire, and yet never could a Roman citizen have said, “That was yesterday.” The Republic had a long, unhappy twilight. It is agreed that the Empire began with Augustus Caesar. Several before him had played emperor and were destroyed. What Augustus Caesar did was to demonstrate a proposition found in Aristotle’s Politics, one that he must have known by heart: “People do not easily change, but love their own ancient customs; and it is by small degrees only that one thing takes the place of another; so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about a revolution in the state.”

    The forms of republican government survive, the character of the state has changed. So it was that a revolution took place within the form. The revolutionaries were inside; the defenders were outside. A government that had been supported by the people and so controlled by the people became one that supported the people and so controlled them.

  28. icr says:

    “But, no matter. Let’s concede that the US is an “empire.”
    So what? Why does this concern you?”

    Spoken like a guy who enjoys being felt up at the airport.

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