“Empire” is a dirty word. Considering the behavior of many empires, that is not unreasonable. But empire is also simply a description of a condition, many times unplanned and rarely intended. It is a condition that arises from a massive imbalance of power. Indeed, the empires created on purpose, such as Napoleonic France and Nazi Germany, have rarely lasted. Most empires do not plan to become one. They become one and then realize what they are. Sometimes they do not realize what they are for a long time, and that failure to see reality can have massive consequences.
World War II and the Birth of an Empire
The United States became an empire in 1945. It is true that in the Spanish-American War, the United States intentionally took control of the Philippines and Cuba. It is also true that it began thinking of itself as an empire, but it really was not. Cuba and the Philippines were the fantasy of empire, and this illusion dissolved during World War I, the subsequent period of isolationism and the Great Depression.
The genuine American empire that emerged thereafter was a byproduct of other events. There was no great conspiracy. In some ways, the circumstances of its creation made it more powerful. The dynamic of World War II led to the collapse of the European Peninsula and its occupation by the Soviets and the Americans. The same dynamic led to the occupation of Japan and its direct governance by the United States as a de facto colony, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur as viceroy.
The United States found itself with an extraordinary empire, which it also intended to abandon. This was a genuine wish and not mere propaganda. First, the United States was the first anti-imperial project in modernity. It opposed empire in principle. More important, this empire was a drain on American resources and not a source of wealth. World War II had shattered both Japan and Western Europe. The United States gained little or no economic advantage in holding on to these countries. Finally, the United States ended World War II largely untouched by war and as perhaps one of the few countries that profited from it. The money was to be made in the United States, not in the empire. The troops and the generals wanted to go home.
But unlike after World War I, the Americans couldn’t let go. That earlier war ruined nearly all of the participants. No one had the energy to attempt hegemony. The United States was content to leave Europe to its own dynamics. World War II ended differently. The Soviet Union had been wrecked but nevertheless it remained powerful. It was a hegemon in the east, and absent the United States, it conceivably could dominate all of Europe. This represented a problem for Washington, since a genuinely united Europe — whether a voluntary and effective federation or dominated by a single country — had sufficient resources to challenge U.S. power.
The United States could not leave. It did not think of itself as overseeing an empire, and it certainly permitted more internal political autonomy than the Soviets did in their region. Yet, in addition to maintaining a military presence, the United States organized the European economy and created and participated in the European defense system. If the essence of sovereignty is the ability to decide whether or not to go to war, that power was not in London, Paris or Warsaw. It was in Moscow and Washington.
The organizing principle of American strategy was the idea of containment. Unable to invade the Soviet Union, Washington’s default strategy was to check it. U.S. influence spread through Europe to Iran. The Soviet strategy was to flank the containment system by supporting insurgencies and allied movements as far to the rear of the U.S. line as possible. The European empires were collapsing and fragmenting. The Soviets sought to create an alliance structure out of the remnants, and the Americans sought to counter them.
The Economics of Empire
One of the advantages of alliance with the Soviets, particularly for insurgent groups, was a generous supply of weapons. The advantage of alignment with the United States was belonging to a dynamic trade zone and having access to investment capital and technology. Some nations, such as South Korea, benefited extraordinary from this. Others didn’t. Leaders in countries like Nicaragua felt they had more to gain from Soviet political and military support than in trade with the United States.
The United States was by far the largest economic power, with complete control of the sea, bases around the world, and a dynamic trade and investment system that benefitted countries that were strategically critical to the United States or at least able to take advantage of it. It was at this point, early in the Cold War, that the United States began behaving as an empire, even if not consciously.
The geography of the American empire was built partly on military relations but heavily on economic relations. At first these economic relations were fairly trivial to American business. But as the system matured, the value of investments soared along with the importance of imports, exports and labor markets. As in any genuinely successful empire, it did not begin with a grand design or even a dream of one. Strategic necessity created an economic reality in country after country until certain major industries became dependent on at least some countries. The obvious examples were Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, whose oil fueled American oil companies, and which therefore — quite apart from conventional strategic importance — became economically important. This eventually made them strategically important.
As an empire matures, its economic value increases, particularly when it is not coercing others. Coercion is expensive and undermines the worth of an empire. The ideal colony is one that is not at all a colony, but a nation that benefits from economic relations with both the imperial power and the rest of the empire. The primary military relationship ought to be either mutual dependence or, barring that, dependence of the vulnerable client state on the imperial power.
This is how the United States slipped into empire. First, it was overwhelmingly wealthy and powerful. Second, it faced a potential adversary capable of challenging it globally, in a large number of countries. Third, it used its economic advantage to induce at least some of these countries into economic, and therefore political and military, relationships. Fourth, these countries became significantly important to various sectors of the American economy.
Limits of the American Empire
The problem of the American Empire is the overhang of the Cold War. During this time, the United States expected to go to war with a coalition around it, but also to carry the main burden of war. When Operation Desert Storm erupted in 1991, the basic Cold War principle prevailed. There was a coalition with the United States at the center of it. After 9/11, the decision was made to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq with the core model in place. There was a coalition, but the central military force was American, and it was assumed that the economic benefits of relations with the United States would be self-evident. In many ways, the post-9/11 wars took their basic framework from World War II.