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America and the Tragic Limits of Imperialism

Robert D. Kaplan

Training aids lie on the ground after a counter-improvised explosive device train-the-trainer course at Lashkar Gah Training Center, Helmand province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Bill Putnam (2012).

This essay argues that American imperialism is not a question, but a reality. “Imperialism” is a loaded word. To call the United States an imperial nation in conversation with an American official, whether a President, Secretary of Defense, or anyone of either official party, would be very impolite. And yet, while imperialism is delegitimized in public discourse, imperial reality defines our foreign policy. The U.S. is more of a military empire than many of us realize.

Let me provide some facts. As has been said many times, the American defense budget is now larger than that of the next nine nations combined. Americans have access to bases in 40 different countries around the world. The U.S. Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army Special Forces in any one calendar year will operate in 170 or more countries around the world. These operations span from training programs for the Mongolian cross border police to help against infiltration from the Chinese and the Russians, as well as training programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa; to veterinary units in villages in South America as a quid pro quo for information on Latin American drug lords; to bilateral defense agreements all over the world. In fact, two U.S. Special Forces officers wrote the new democratic constitution for Paraguay in the mid-1990s, when they were there on a military training mission.

When a new American ambassador arrives in a Middle Eastern country, he is greeted by an official from the foreign ministry, sometimes the foreign minister. But when the Commander in Chief of the Central Command stationed in Tampa, Florida flies to a Middle Eastern country, the whole cabinet comes out to greet him, and this is also true in other places around the world. Central Command, which deals with the greater Middle East from the Horn of Africa into Central Asia, is on the point of having more Arabic language speakers than the U.S. State Department.

Since the U.S. is operating all over the world at this level, I think it is fair to describe it as an empire. True, it has no colonies, but then we live in a jet age where borders do not matter as much as they used to. Whether or not you have colonies is simply less of an important factor than in previous centuries.

The word “empire” was never used during the classical era. In his book The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, Erich Gruen notes that the Romans never thought of themselves as an empire.11x Erich Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984). Neither did the Athenians nor did the Spartans. The word “empire” just meant the emperor’s foreign policy. The meaning of the word “empire” as we use it today only came about in the early 19th century, and then it was used retrospectively to describe Rome, Venice, and many other empires.

An empire is defined not only by its foreign policy, but also by the style and psychology of its military. The military expert Eliot Cohen notes that a mass conscription army of citizen soldiers are people who fight in a war in which you can make a distinct separation between good and evil, as in World War I and World War II, in which soldiers fought, for example, to make the world safe for democracy or to eliminate fascism and Japanese militarism.22xEliot Cohen, “Twilight of the Citizen-Soldier,” Parameters (Summer 2001): 23–28. He defined an imperial soldiery, though, as a group of professionals, volunteers, who like the soldiering life for its own sake. When you travel around the various military bases in the United StatesCamp Pendleton, Camp Lejeune, Fort Braggand you interview, as I have, majors, lieutenant colonels, and others, who have spent their lives going from one mission abroad to another, you meet 30-year-old Americans who have served in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and the Middle East. Often bi- or trilingual, they are much different than the soldiers we are used to imagining. This is their job, and they enjoy it. They are always looking forward to the next mission, and they find themselves increasingly separated psychologically from civilian American society.

An imperial military is not necessarily illiberal or anti-liberal. Often bilateral relationships between the American military and other foreign militaries foster and safeguard democratic transition. Regardless of whether one considers new democracies in Romania, Indonesia, or Ecuador, there are a few factors held in common. First, a restive military must be kept under control, which means providing it with good jobs, nice trips abroad, and new toys. A bilateral relationship with the American military serves this objective. Second, a fledgling democracy needs its military to be kept in check, a goal which the American military can often help by showing foreign militaries how to be good citizens and how to be better, more professional solders. Thus, these militaries interfere in their country’s politics less often than in the past. When there is instability, as is so common in any fledgling democracy, these military officers who are at once active and restrained about intervening can safeguard the new democratic regime. A contradiction does not necessarily exist between American activity abroad and an age of new democracies. They go together quite nicely.

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