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Is America an empire?

By Alan Caruba
web posted May 23, 2005

"All told, there have been no more than seventy empires in history. If the Times Atlas of World History is to be believed, the American is, by my count, the sixty-eighth. (Communist China is the sixty-ninth; some would claim that the European Union is the seventieth.)"

So says Naill Ferguson in his book, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire ($16.00, Penguin Books, softcover). Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University, a senior research fellow of Jesus College, and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. So, when he turned his attention to the question of whether there is an American Empire and whether it will last, he's worth reading.

Most empires have lasted only about two hundred years. The US Constitution became the law of the land on June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. That's 217 years ago. It wasn't until December 15, 1791 that Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights. From a historical perspective, it could be argued that we are at the apogee of our power as an empire.

But, then, you would have to define what it means for America to be an empire. Take, for instance, the fact that before the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq, the US military had around 752 military installations in more than 130 countries and that significant numbers of troops were stationed in 65 of them. We are there by invitation, not conquest. We do not "occupy" these nations against their will. In the case of Iraq, it is now a sovereign nation in the process of writing its own constitution. Are we likely to have troops there for a long time to come? Think of Germany. Think of Japan.

"If military power is the sine qua non of an empire," says Ferguson, "then it is hard to imagine how anyone could deny the imperial character of the United States today." The most obvious feature of this is the way America engaged in a pre-emptive war against the Saddam regime with "a coalition of the willing."

I would argue that we had no choice if we were to reverse the horror that the Middle East, pre-Saddam, held for us. Even an empire has a right to defend itself. Since we drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan, that nation has held elections, Libya has given up its weapons of mass destruction, Syria has been forced to remove its troops from Lebanon, and even the Palestinians are taking a stab at holding elections. These are all signs of real progress toward peace in the region.

Empires, however, are not famous for pumping billions into nations ruined by war. The US did this in both Germany and Japan after WWII. We patiently spent more billions to bring about the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. Our reward thus far has been a residual disdain on the part of France and Germany, a lessening of affection by the British, and one can only wonder what really goes on in the hearts and minds of those in the Middle East. Are they secretly rooting for us?

Meanwhile, Red China remains a major challenge and, ironically, a major trading partner. Cuba remains a communist captive nation off the coast of Florida and there are signs of trouble in South America in places like Venezuela. Mexico, too, is no friend of the US, solving its chronic economic problems by encouraging a US invasion by millions of its citizens who, at last count, were sending $20 billion back home. With "friends" like these, who needs enemies?

We do, however, have real enemies. America is now the target of a stateless group of Islamic fascists and, at the same time, home to the headquarters of an utterly corrupt United Nations that seeks to become a global government whose members include some of the worst offenders against world peace and human liberty.

If we are an empire—and I think we are—then it would be easy to assume we have few friends in the world. What is really happening around the world? For one thing, it is the expansion of democracy throughout the nations of the former Soviet Union and the first moves in that direction in the Middle East. Democracy, so far, has largely failed in Africa where despots rule most of the former European colonies and disputes between nations there leave that continent in a constant state of war.

If we are patient and tough-minded, the 21st century may yet yield the spread of democracy and that can lead to wider opportunities for trade. Who knows? Even Red China may someday abandon communism?

Beyond military strength and trade, American culture is everywhere throughout the world. We have brought the joys of Coca Cola and McDonald's to nations and our movies are the popular fare of nations whose people know the names of our movie stars as well as we do. When we hold elections, people around the world watch carefully to see what direction we might take.

We are a threat to despots everywhere. We are the advocates of freedom and democracy everywhere. Our military strength, beyond challenge by any nation, both protects those who need it and attacks those who would harm us. Wherever an oppressed people seek to throw off tyrants, we are there to offer support. We are an empire and we are a benevolent one.

The American empire can decline if we abandon our most treasured traditions and values. If we drive our shared belief in a higher power from the conduct of our lives, we shall fail. If we do not repair our educational system, we shall fail. If we yield our sovereignty to the United Nations, we shall fail. If we do not solve the out-of-control invasion of illegal aliens, we shall fail. If we do not tend to our energy needs, we shall fail. If we do not destroy the Islamic fanatics, we shall fail.

America stands at the tipping point of all empires, now more than two hundred years of age. Quo vadis, America?

Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, "Warning Signs", posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, May 2005


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