Most Americans do not believe that our country has an empire. This idea contradicts the comforting anodyne that the USA acts in the world mainly to create freedom and democracy. But if empire means control over foreign lands, then the United States certainly has an empire. The American empire is not a colonial one: It does not directly govern the countries over which it exerts preponderant influence. Direct colonial control generates strong opposition and is also very expensive. The British and French empires collapsed largely from their addiction to colonial forms of control.
The United States, which claims to oppose colonialism, controls its subject countries via potent military, economic and cultural levers. The control exerted is usually not complete, but it is entirely sufficient to serve the interests of the United States ruling class and the needs of global capitalism. Indeed, the American empire might be described as a guided system of capitalist domination or a corporate capitalist imperium.
The costs of maintaining a global capitalist empire are extremely high. The imperial project entails a gigantic military establishment, frequent wars, disregard of proclaimed ethical values (e.g. national sovereignty, human rights, democratic governance), hostility from the billions of people oppressed by imperialism, corporate-controlled mass media, constrained civil liberties and accelerating destruction of the global environment. Why are so many Americans willing to pay these onerous costs?
A functioning empire does provide its domestic constituents with certain material benefits: access to inexpensive food and raw materials, lower commodity prices through exploitation of cheap foreign labor, relatively lucrative employment via the military industrial complex, easy-to-get loans due to the privileged imperial currency, etc. However, the ideological pillars of empire are even more important in generating popular support for imperialism than the dubious (and variable) material benefits it provides to the masses.
Functioning empires produce a form of consciousness that I call imperialist hubris. Racism is often a major component of such imperialist hubris. The population of the imperial country deems itself racially superior to the populations of the countries it dominates. Thus domination becomes a prerogative of racial superiority and harm inflicted upon the racial inferior is of no moral consequence. Exceptionalism is another frequent component of imperialist hubris. The imperial society regards itself as exceptional: It is different from and better than other societies, and therefore not bound by the same rules that apply to the latter. In order to provide exceptional benefits to the world, the exceptional country must escape the constraints of international law. Paranoia, or a sense of looming peril, is often a third element of imperialist hubris. Imperial paranoia suggests that civilization is threatened by an enormous danger against which imperial domination is the only realistic safeguard. Empires may have unfortunate consequences, but a sturdy empire is absolutely necessary to forestall global chaos or worse. Ignorance and disinterest in the rest of the world is a final ingredient of imperialist hubris. Ignorant people focused entirely on their own lives will believe virtually anything spoon-fed to them by the corporate-controlled mass media.
The American empire inflicts enormous harm upon the world. In less than two decades, the United States has destroyed Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. At this very moment, our government is threatening to devastate (via economic or military aggression) Iran and Venezuela. Fortunately, the American empire is not invulnerable. A suitably reformed USA could be a benign and constructive participant in world society. But to curtail the cancerous American empire, advocates of human rights, international justice and planetary survival must effectively challenge the imperialist hubris that currently sustains our corporate capitalist imperium.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.