There is some debate as to whether or not America has an empire. Intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and journalists on the left and the right both claim that an American Empire exists, but have diametrically opposed views on whether or not it is a good thing.
Neoconservatives proudly proclaim that there is an American Empire and that it maintains free trade, keeps order, and promotes democracy and good governance across the globe. The political center (or at least the foreign policy center) acknowledges that the United States is the most powerful country on Earth and that America stands for “Western” principles and democracy, but shuns the Imperial language and the idea that the United States controls the world. The left, and especially the far left, also embraces the phrase, “American Empire,” but believes it stands for oppression, state-sanctioned violence, and secrecy.
The differing perceptions of American power are remarkably similar to domestic British opinion of the British Empire. That entity was brimming with contradictions. It was certainly and Empire, in the literal sense with colonies directly under the control of the British government, or surrogates of the British government, and it was built on the use and threat of ruthless and brutal violence. The Empire relied on subjugation and economic exploitation. But in many places the British, in essence, created local governments and nations where there had been none before. Britain advanced globalization, free trade, and efficient bureaucracy based on the rule of law wherever they went. In many ways the British Empire sowed the seeds of their own destruction by creating nations that would eventually seek their independence. A revisionist historian, moving away from the vibrant pains and horrors of colonialism, with the perspective of time, may see the British Empire as an overall positive influence on the world, much in the same way that the Mongols are now seen to have spread trade and rejuvenation in the wake of their apocalyptic destruction of Asia and Eastern Europe.
When we look at the American Empire from this perspective it is possible to see how both the left and the right are correct. If America has an Empire, it has certainly placed its clients under a mild yoke. There is no direct control or oppression of citizens of foreign nations, just heavy influence. Our allies (who are also the primary victims of our bullying and cajoling) enjoy the protection of the United States military and can be sure that their economic interests will be pursued as long as they align with the American vision of free trade and the standardization of law. Our allies have often not had to get their hands dirty as the United States generally leads military and diplomatic endeavors that have benefits for the states under our influence. In all this the United States generally spreads an ideology and vision for the world which is, on the whole, better for the citizens of nations in terms of their personal and economic liberty than most of the United States’ rivals.
None of these positive things should erase the negative aspects of American Empire. The biggest problem here is the one of perception. Americans in general and the far right and center tend to have a blind spot where the negative actions of our nation in the world are concerned. This is where a publication like The Intercept comes into play. I believe a news outlet like The Intercept best exemplifies the radical left’s view of the American Empire. It is obsessed with the secrecy of the government, with the hypocrisy of the difference between our nation’s professed ideals and our status as the world’s foremost arms dealer. It exposes the tendency to discount or ignore the pain and suffering that our military actions cause. I believe that while this perspective is sometimes skewed and slightly paranoid, especially in the sense that they think any action taken by the government is sinister or driven by selfish, exploitative elites, it is a necessary counterbalance to the comfortable view of the status quo.
America’s influence will certainly endure on a global stage for generations, but public perception of the American Empire will determine, to a degree which seems surprising, the path that the United States takes on global affairs. The lesson of the British Empire is that it collapsed from without and from within by shifts in British opinion of their Empire. That’s why publications which espouse the negative and contrary view of the American Empire have an outsized inportance. If the negative view becomes the dominant one, the United States could very well retreat much sooner from the world stage than would otherwise be the case.