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How the U.S. reinvented the notion of empire

Preferring “bases not places,” the U.S. does not really resemble the empires of old.

Credit: U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Key Takeaways
  • After World War II, the U.S. developed an “informal empire” through a global network of military bases and alliances.
  • Freedom is central to American identity, which is why the U.S. is uncomfortable with the notion that it has become an empire.
  • The U.S. finds that it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t, get involved in the world’s problems.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the bookThe Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our Worldwith an original introduction written especially for Big Think.

Was the USA’s swift departure from Afghanistan, abandoning Bagram Air Base in the dead of night in June, a failure of nation building or a failure of empire?

Our headlines are filled with updates of the latest military offensive by the Taliban, an Islamist armed group deposed from power by the U.S. military just after September 11, 2001, and now fighting its way back toward the Afghan capital city Kabul.

Some of us can barely recall a time when America’s armed forces (alongside its NATO allies) weren’t in Afghanistan. I started university around the time of the 9/11 attacks, and since then American, British, and other western soldiers have always been in Afghanistan, an omnipresent part of the backdrop of world affairs. Now that they have departed, the Afghan National Army they trained has been sensationally routed by the Taliban.

Two decades of American-led nation-building work is seemingly sinking into the Afghan sand. But two decades is hardly any time at all in the grand sweep of history. And the grand sweep of imperial history offers its own guide to placing the USA’s failure in Afghanistan into perspective.

How the U.S. reinvented the notion of empire

Back in an age of empires, garrisoning restive outposts of imperial power could involve many decades or even centuries of war. Today, the USA’s political and military elites do not tend to see their country in imperial terms, and for good reason, since the old age of empires is over. But this leads to blind spots when the U.S. embarks on empire-like missions abroad in the name of goals that are both euphemistic (“democracy promotion”) and hard-edged (“counterterrorism”) without acknowledging their imperial essence.

I have always found the question of where the modern USA fits into the historical pantheon of past empires to be a fascinating one. When I set out to write a globe-straddling book about how numerous imperial legacies still shape our world, I started with the USA. As a nation forged in the fires of colonial rebellion against the British empire, the USA later became a superpower by reinventing the very notion of empire.

There was an early flirtation with formal empire (in other words, occupying colonies). Just last week (August 13th) was the 123rd anniversary of the end of the Spanish-American War. The Protocol of Peace in 1898 concluded this war, and Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine city of Manila to the USA. This was USA’s coming of age moment in its ascent to global imperial status. However, as the 20th century matured during the world wars, the USA exercised restraint and baulked from seizing colonies, instead opting to work with client state and operating a global network of military bases. In other words, the USA became an informal empire.

Preferring “bases not places,” in contemporary U.S. Department of Defense-speak, the U.S. does not really resemble the empires of old. Nevertheless, maintaining a two-decade military campaign far away from home is precisely the kind of grandiose undertaking that long-gone empires as diverse as the Romans, the Ottomans, the British, and others would recognize.

How can we make sense of America’s tortured understanding of its own imperial essence? I explore this question in this excerpt from the opening chapter of my book, The Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our World (Pegasus Books, 2021).

In subsequent chapters I explore where the USA’s informal empire now fits into the wider world. And the findings should alarm Washington’s global power brokers. From the Middle East to Europe to the Asia-Pacific to the Indian Subcontinent to Africa, Washington’s brand of “empire in all but name” is losing its novelty and its pulling power.

But let’s start — as my book does — with America itself.

Chapter One: America’s imperial inheritance

“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

—Graham Greene (1904-91), The Quiet American

“There will be times when we must again play the role of the world’s reluctant sheriff. This will not change — nor should it.”

—Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope (2006)

“If we’re going to continue to be the policeman of the world, we ought to be paid for it.”

—Donald Trump, Crippled America (2015)

Opinions around the world differ sharply over whether the USA should conduct itself like a global empire and whether doing so on balance helps to stabilize or destabilize the world. The virtues and vices of America’s global role have been debated for the best part of a century. Fewer and fewer people alive today can recall a world in which the military, economic, and cultural power of the USA has not been an overwhelming global reality.

America’s imperial heritage is the historical key that explains why opinions are so strongly divided. Understanding how a nation that was born out of its anti-imperialist stance would end up adopting its very own imperial practices is a complex matter. By kicking out the British Empire, the fledgling American nation made the repudiation of its imperial inheritance a pillar of its self-identity. Notions of freedom became essential to America’s national creed, whether this meant freedom of consumer choice, freedom from government oversight, or freedom from tyranny.

At America’s birth as a nation, the cause was unambiguous: freedom from the clutches of colonialism. However, traces of imperial DNA remained. Contradictory impulses, ignited in its past, still smolder deep in America’s heart, and they continue to shape its domestic character and its foreign policy debates.

This became clear as its power grew across North America and then around the world. In a burst of continental conquest, America captured lands between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Native Americans, Mexicans, and European imperialists alike were kept out or swept aside. Liberty was denied to African slaves and their descendants. Starting in the 19th century, America’s military began to wage a succession of wars of choice in far-flung lands. Its annexations and conquests stretched from Cuba to the Philippines. These American soldiers were unknowingly starting a military tradition of securing their country’s interests by fighting in distant lands.

The tradition endures for America’s “imperial grunts,” who now fight and die not for colonies, but for outposts from which the USA can exert global influence. “From the shores of Tripoli to the halls of Montezuma,” begins the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn: Tripoli refers to the First Barbary War in 1805; Montezuma to the Mexican-American War in 1847. By remembering past wars, new U.S. Marine recruits are reminded that they are expected to fight abroad today. Waging war abroad, for good or ill, has been essential to American military culture.

This has enabled America to stand tall at key moments in global history. During the Second World War, and again at the Cold War’s finale, America appeared to be leading the world away from tyranny. Helping to reconstruct Western Europe and Japan after 1945 and presiding over the spread of democracy east of where the Berlin Wall had fallen in 1989 have been high points. These are the moments in history when America’s heady mix of wealth, military clout, and self-professed moral authority have positively altered the destinies of people far and wide.

These same compulsions also have led to disastrous interventions in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. Two different generations have now witnessed America’s military flounder in ill-begotten wars, each with the expressed intention of spreading democracy abroad.

Over a long span of time in world affairs, there can be no such thing as consistency of purpose or outcomes in the way America has defended its understanding of the free world. Inconsistency, however, seems endemic.

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From invading Afghanistan and Iraq to its refusal to act decisively in Syria, America’s global posture has lurched between dramatic over-engagement and equally dramatic under-engagement. After 2011, when the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began to massacre his own people in that country’s civil war, America remained on the sidelines, demanding that Assad step down, but not forcing him to do so. While the world was hardly clamoring for another American regime-changing invasion, the policy debates in Washington, DC conveyed a sense of war-wariness and a hesitancy to intervene. Syria’s war has raised an important question: if America cannot find effective ways to step in to punish those who are evidently unleashing evil, then who will? In the end, Russia’s military stepped in to back Assad in September 2015, helping his army to win.

The U.S. finds that it is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t, get involved in the world’s problems. Some Americans might be puzzled at how their country’s expenditure in blood and treasure, with an annual defense budget approaching $700 billion, can be spent in maintaining world order when that very same world, in a pique of ingratitude, derides the USA as “imperialist.”

While the USA does not self-identify as an empire, it has become the embodiment of an informal empire. Its global reach includes: military bases dotted around the world; fleets of globally deployable aircraft carriers; strategic alliances on every continent; orbital satellites that guide missiles; technology innovations with global consumer appeal; and economic power underpinned by the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The USA can dominate many parts of the world or at least it can make its influence telling. For now, it remains the country that can intervene militarily virtually anywhere to defend its vision of world order and its notions of right and wrong.

Questions over whether America should be doing any of this have defined global politics for decades. They cannot be addressed without recourse to the origins of America’s compulsions to be a superpower, which in turn reside in its imperial legacies.

The above is an adapted excerpt fromThe Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our World (Pegasus Books, 2021). It is reprinted with permission of the author.


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