I have been thinking quite a bit about imperialism lately, and decided to put a few thoughts “on paper.” Mostly, I am concerned about the future of the enterprise, for it appears to be morphing into something even less attractive than before.
To begin, let us agree that America is an imperial power. If our mid-twentieth century dalliances with neocolonialism in Latin America will not convince you, certainly our power projection into the Middle East and South Asia during the past decade will. As a tragic irony, I present to you the September 10, 2001 episode of Talk of the Nation, titled “An American Empire?” Many people making decisions about the United States’ conduct in the world view us as an imperial power.
But what does that mean? In the past, it meant extracting natural resources from a colony and selling them finished goods, with a little bit of tribute collection thrown in for good measure. More recently – after enslaving indigenous populations fell out of favor – imperial countries settled for financial control through loans and free trade agreements. Certainly this form of neocolonialism continues, but new imperial drivers have appeared that are assuming precedence over the old.
After the invasion of Iraq was announced, many people (mostly on the left) claimed that the real motive for war was to control Iraq’s oil reserves. This was a reasonable assertion, given the nature of colonialism and Paul Wolfowitz’s comment that oil revenues would reimburse the cost of the war. But that reasoning dissolved quickly, and was never applicable in Afghanistan. Instead, both conflicts were used to maintain power domestically. A number of imperial behaviors are now exhibited within our own borders by our own government.
The machinery of empire drives the myth of American Exceptionalism, a myth asymmetrically utilized by the right-wing in domestic politics. The myth is the finished good that we are forced to buy after the resource extraction of money and blood to fuel the machine. And, not unlike the Andean peoples forced to work the mines of Potosí, our youth (who are disproportionately underprivileged) are sent to war as tribute. The population at large gives up improvements to domestic infrastructure, a robust social safety net, and future financial security in exchange for funding the business of war (for more on this, consider Andrew Bacevich’s Washington Rules.) Like a colony, this represents a huge transfer of payments to a small group of elites.
Extending this model is even more depressing. The colonial “Other” becomes one’s domestic political adversaries, and their value falls far below that of accomplishing political objectives. This makes it not only easy, but necessary, for the imperial elites to marginalize political opponents. Even the sitting President is treated as Other: he is Kenyan, he is Muslim, he does not believe that America is exceptional. It is not a model for democratic society.
I hope I am wrong. However, in the modern world the prospect of executing a classic model of empire is non-existent, and the momentum that propels our nation is strong. Turning that momentum inward is a probable course. Unfortunately, the consequences are likely to be undesirable.