American Empire

“We have it in our power to begin the world anew. It is the opportunity to bring forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved, that gives value to independence. O ye that love mankind! Ye that dares oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! America shall make a stand, not for herself alone, but for the world.” — Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

In the fictionalized novel Exodus, Leon Uris described the emergence of the state of Israel. In the first chapter set in 1946, a too earnest (earnestness being a congenital American trait) young American journalist, Mark Parker, is hectoring a smug British Major, Fred Caldwell. Parker insisted that the British Empire was crumbling. “You are going to lose the whole shooting match,” Parker tells Caldwell. “… first it is going to be India, then Africa, then the Middle East. I’ll be there to watch you lose the Palestine mandate. They’re going to boot you out of even Suez and Transjordan. The sun is setting on the empire.”

While the British Empire was crumbling, the American Empire was in ascendance. However, this was quite a different empire. Rather than soldiers seizing lands across the world, dollar bills were the agents of American influence.

Does American ascendancy really constitute an empire?   Webster defines “empire” as a “political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.” In this conventional sense, there is no American Empire.   There are no lands acquired for permanent rule reminiscent of the British or Roman Empires. There is no central governing political authority dominating imperial vassal states. Americans are too preoccupied with personal acquisition and self-improvement to care much about the deliberate domination of others.

However, more than physical control or authority over other peoples characterize empires. A sense of destiny and importance animate them. The expansion of empires requires psychic as well as physical energy. This energy is supplied by a system of values, a mythology, or a story that explain the importance of empire and why it is inevitable.

Even if base motives like greed or brutality motivate conquest at root, they are justified by a voice of more noble aspirations. Whether it is the Romans fighting for their gods and the glory of the emperor; Napoleon Bonaparte of France justifying his empire as a way to reward “merit regardless of birth or wealth;” or the British, who in the words of Rudyard Kipling, found it necessary to “send forth the best ye breed” to “take up the White Man’s burden;” empires believe themselves to embody righteous goals.

The American Empire, if it can be said there is one, is animated by the conviction that the American Revolution and the American experience have illuminated certain principles that are universally applicable to all people. Indeed, American founding documents found these truths to be “self-evident.” Americans believe in government by the assent of the governed, in representative institutions, in individual liberty, in economic freedom, and in religious tolerance. These principles have been so largely accepted around the world, that even those places that do not live by them usually pay them lip service. A tyrant may have once run Iraq, but that regime at least felt compelled by the ethos of republican democracy to go through the charade of elections. With democratic institutions comes moral legitimacy. The American Empire is an empire of ideas that have overwhelmed the world.

There are times when the American Empire has spread through war, even if the goal of the war was not one of conquest. At the conclusion of World War II, Germany, Japan, and Italy all became constitutional democracies. However, the uniqueness of the American Empire is that afterwards these countries assumed their own sovereignty. The American Empire is not composed of vassal states, but of trading partners and friends.

Radical Islamists represent one of the few ideologies that have not yet subscribed to the principles that constitute the binding force of the American Empire. Though the governments of the West are sometimes referred to as Crusaders, the US in particular is called the “Great Satan.” Satan does not acquire by conquest, but by temptation. Radical Islamists fear the United States, because they fear if left to their own devices, people in their countries might very well reject a theocracy, embrace freedom, and demand representative government. They fear lure of American freedom and its consequent affluence more than the America’s military might, as they indeed should.

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