The Myth of American Empire

by oracleofreason

A frequent complaint among libertarians and even Leftists is that the United States is an empire. A source that libertarians point to as being the hallmark of the beginnings of the American Empire is the US’s War with Spain in the Philippines. The activities of the Anti-Imperialist League and what the group stood for along with what occurred during the Spanish-American War is looked at by anti-war libertarians as being one of the early indications of the United States devolving into an empire, respectfully.

While this notion is understandable, however, it is not consistent with the facts. Simply put, the United States is not an empire, the United States can never be an empire, and the United States never will be an empire. The best indication as to why this is the case is found in Professor Aaron Friedberg’s book In the Shadow of the Garrison State. Interestingly enough, Freidberg’s book was carried by Laissez Faire Books when the paperback version was released. In chapters one through three, Dr. Friedberg outlines the philosophical and ideological underpinnings among members of Congress and the Executive Branch as to what keeps the notion of the US becoming a garrison state in check.

In Chapter One of Garrison State, Friedberg points out that even though crises can come about where there can be a rush to enact new or enhanced military undertakings including the taxes and spending that come with them, the philosophical underpinnings of the people who make up not only Congress but also other branches of government are such that even though they can or may be enacted, they will not last long. The actual beginnings of American businessmen embracing Thomas Jefferson’s laissez faire, self-governance philosophy actually began during the 1830’s and re-emerged soon after the Civil War. No leader, Dr. Friedberg says, will knowingly choose a path that he regards as impassable, and most will also forgo alternatives that they believe to be morally wrong or not in keeping with what they construe as the nation’s basic ideological principles.

In Chapter Two, despite there being a push by policy makers to enact statist measures resulting from the remnants of the two depressions, two world wars and the outset of the Cold War, there was an even larger push to go in the opposite direction. The best example of this was the Office of Price Administration which, according to Friedberg, not only regulated prices, set wages, rationed goods, and issued regulations dictating not only the design of civilian clothes but also the fat content in a variety of meats. The heavy-handedness of this agency caused a backlash that one newspaper editorial commented at the time that they were tired of being pushed around and told what to do. Dr. Friedberg also cites Friedrich Hayek’s influence as well. His book The Road to Serfdom gave a philosophical justification to opposing central planning on the part of business and anti-New Deal conservatives in which Hayek’s book was quoted frequently by publications like Reader’s Digest and was offered as a Book of the Month Club selection.

In Chapter Three, Professor Friedberg shows the attitude policymakers took toward creating some sort of strategy to address strategic and military challenges in a post-Word War II world and with the threat of Soviet Communism having nuclear weapons too. After the Korean war, for example, President Harry Truman went to great lengths to implement a plan to prepare the United States with an all out war with the Soviet Union. This done in response to the U.S.S.R. since the Soviets were anticipating an all out war with the U.S. Truman encouraged the adoption and execution of a massive industrialization strategy that would promote the expansion of arms production while seeing to it that American industrial facilities were protected from military attacks. However, Truman’s plans were curtailed significantly by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in which pending, taxes and manpower levels used to finance Truman’s ideas were cut drastically. Eisenhower ordered military preparedness for a short conflict as opposed to his predecessor who thought if a US-Soviet armed conflict occurred it would be protracted.

It is not just the three entries of Dr. Aaron Friedberg’s book that demonstrate my point. Every chapter is laden with examples from different aspects of public policy making it crystal clear that American law and policymakers sought to avoid the United States from ever devolving into a garrison state of any kind despite the ominous threat the USSR or any enemy may have posed. Despite the fact that Dr. Friedberg signed the statement of goals for the Project for a New American Century, his neo-conservatism does not blind him to the facts and he maintains a clear sense of objectivity throughout. He states in the introduction section of his book:

A brief word about my own biases: while I have not set out to write a morality tale, I do intend clearly to emphasize the long-term benefits to the health and vitality of the American regime of the anti-statist influences that are so deeply embedded within it. That does not mean, however, that I regard these influences as always and unreservedly positive, or that I intend to treat post-war advocates of anti-statism as unvarnished heroes of my story.

To this, none the less, Dr. Friedberg does state that he is an unrepentant triumphalist when it comes to the overall success of America’s foreign policy accomplishments in terms of the Cold War and the American government’s anti-statist impulses.

While Professor Friedberg’s examples are taken from the Cold War, they are applicable today since there is similar resistance to the war on terrorism as evidenced by opposition to the PATRIOT ACT, the drone program as well as the invasion and occupation of Iraq. President Obama has (for the most part) significantly drawn down US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with a plan for complete withdrawl. Even President George W. Bush reduced the number of American military installations overseas by over thirty percent.

The most popular charge among anti-war libertarians and some Leftists is that because the U.S. has 700 bases in 130 countries. However, the definition of what an empire constitutes is one where a single country asserts political, military, and economic control over other nations. What is not discussed among anti-imperialists is that most of the bases in question are, in reality, minor military installations. If one considers the troop deployments culminated by a Heritage Foundation study of historical troop deployments, the majority of troops stationed overseas is much less than is believed. The places where US troops are largely stationed are in countries of interest who are allies of the United States such as Germany, South Korea, Japan, or Great Britain. These facilities are usually the result of mutual defense agreements the US has with it’s allies and also to project military might in areas of potential conflict such as in Korean peninsula.

The other facilities are much smaller in size and scale. One facility the US has in Kosovo has a few thousand troops. Others can be anything from US embassies and consular offices to military golf courses, post offices, retail and food commissaries along with other recreational establishments. Most of the deployments of US troops are not military in nature and if you take into account the overall deployments as opposed to US troops stationed in problem areas the actual number of US military personnel stationed outside the United States is miniscule. I highly doubt that Marine guards stationed at a US embassy is part of an effort to forcibly subjugate the country the embassy is located.

I will be the first to admit that (despite my switch on the issue of foreign policy) that many U.S. overseas facilities should be subject to scrutiny and closure. However, despite my personal preferences, if taking into account the full context of the evidence at hand (be it past or present) the United States of American is not an empire. An empire is not involved in humanitarian or peacekeeping efforts. it would require the United States to invade, control and administer territories subjugated, running their countries while profiting from subject nation’s economies by forcing them to pay tribute to us. The invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were to take out dictatorial regimes hostile to the United States as demonstrated by their support of terrorism. Both countries resources were extracted to charge them for the cost of the occupation. Not different than what the U.S. did with the occupations of Germany, Italy and Japan at the conclusion of World War II.

If there ever was a time in American history that imperialism was a policy of the US and a war ever started under false pretenses, I would say it was for the purposes of fighting the Spanish-American war. Aside from the obvious example of the United States releasing the Philippines from it’s jurisdiction, Professor Aaron Friedberg’s examples relate to opposition to the United States degenerating into a garrison state distinctly detail, imperialism can never last long nor can the US ever become or remain an empire if it ever did. There are too many internal and external checks and balances that can and will prevent it. If overseas facilities are to be closed or American foreign policy changed to being less active on the international scale, it should be for reasons of true public policy and not some mythological notion that the United States is an empire.