The Decline of the Non-Imperial Empire?

In her book, Notes on a Foreign Country, Suzy Hansen points out that the United States has created an empire that Americans, for the most part, refuse to believe exists. From the beginning, she writes, “Americans were in active denial of their empire even as they laid its foundations.”

An empire? Surely, you jest?

Except… the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, while Britain, France, and Russia, in comparison, have about 30 foreign bases combined. More than 300,000 U. S. troops are deployed not only in those 70 countries, but in 80 others as well. In effect, the U.S. dollar is the default currency of the world, and English is either the primary language or the back-up language in world commerce.

So just what is the difference between an undeclared and unacknowledged empire and one that declares its imperial status, as did the British Empire or the Roman Empire?

There are doubtless a number of similarities and some differences, but I’d say that the principal difference is that, in denying its status as an empire, the United States is minimizing, if not denying, its responsibilities to its territories and dependencies. Over the last two and possibly three decades, in pursuit of perceived American “interests,” the United States has effectively destroyed country after country, as opposed to the two decades after World War II, when the primary interest was rebuilding nations, if only in order to create an economically and militarily strong coalition against the USSR.

Exactly how has either the United States or the world benefited from the chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and Somalia, in all of which we’ve had troops fighting and resolving nothing? We intervened… and then decided we couldn’t afford the cost of putting those countries back together again. We didn’t behave responsibly, and we haven’t been exactly all that responsible for the care and needs of the veterans we sent there.

Have these interventions been good for either the U.S. or the world? The list of fragmented countries across the world is growing, not declining, and now the American president seems to be picking fights with neighbors and allies alike.

In the last election, in a sense, we had a choice that I’d caricature as one between “Big Momma” and “Caligula.” The American electorate chose Caligula as the lesser of two evils. Now, before everyone jumps on that, I’d like to point out that when Caligula became the Roman Emperor, everyone was initially pleased. He was a change from the severe, dour, and often cruel Tiberius. He was outspoken and outgoing, but he had no sense of morals, propriety, or responsibility, and he definitely couldn’t manage money, and he lavished money on pleasure palace after pleasure palace, some of which would have made Trump’s Mar-a-Lago seem small and even tawdry.

Now, we have a government that’s abandoning its responsibilities to its citizens, not only in terms of health care, but in terms of basic fiscal responsibility, just as the Roman Senate abandoned its responsibilities. After that, the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula, and the last vestiges of a government being responsible to the people dissipated, and the Empire began the long slow decline, although that wasn’t visible immediately as the territory conquered expanded for a time, just as the number of countries in which our soldiers serve continues to expand.

Just how much of that history might we see repeated… or at least rhyme, as Mark Twain put it?

6 thoughts on “The Decline of the Non-Imperial Empire?”

  1. Tim says:

    One difference with having a real empire based on occupation and conquest is that you do not have to pay for those military bases you mentioned. And I bet the US pays through the nose.

      1. Joe says:

        Actually, US citizens don’t pay for them as much as they should, because it’s put on the nation’s credit card.

        Thus countries that purchase US Treasuries pay for these bases, as do countries that maintain the value of the US dollar. That means China, Japan, Europe, and the Oil exporting countries that use the dollar as currency.

        Countries are already defecting from using the dollar for international trade (to name a few, China, Russia, Venezuela). This trend of dedollarization is being accelerated by the US’ increasing overuse of sanctions, whereby it claims that it has jurisdiction over any use of dollars, and disconnects disobedient foreign banks from the international monetary system.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    In a time when the world’s largest economy (or is it down to 2nd largest now?) inevitably has world-girdling interests, how can those interests be scaled back without reducing the economy and standard of living?

    Or, in a time when oceans are no longer a barrier, is being heavily forward-deployed so implausible?

    Founder’s advice to “avoid foreign entanglements” sounded good then; it’s not so easy now; not that it was easy even back then, what with the French having their own revolution, the Barbary pirates (relatives of the present troublemakers) threatening our shipping in the Mediterranean, etc. And we’re still the least worst choice to fill most power vacuums, compared to anyone else.

  3. Derek says:

    I’m trying to find a history book that does not have a very modern political spin, as most recent historical books in the stores are basically being produced by people who wear their politics pretty openly.

    Are there any decent historical textbooks or collections that you feel are worth reading?

    1. The problem with my recommending a history book is that every single one of them reflects the author or authors. If you want a good feel for history, you’re going to have to read it for years and from a wide range of viewpoints. For example, even the abridged version of Winston Churchill’s excellent A History of the English Speaking Peoples is a hefty hard-cover [the original work is something like six volumes that I read years ago], and for all its knowledge, it’s written from the viewpoint of a pragmatic white male imperialist. And that’s just one small segment of history. But while modern historians tend to, in my opinion, often overemphasize political themes, most older historians tend to minimize historical personages other than males, particularly white males. The other problem is that history isn’t just about who did what. As Jared Diamond points out by example in Guns, Germs, and Steel, resource distribution and geography also play a huge part in why history developed as it did. Even something as seemingly irrelevant as the development of insurance [as told in Against the Gods, The Remarkable History of Risk] has a huge impact on history.

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