Imperial Blindness

“The history of the United States is the history of empire,” concludes Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire. Immerwahr’s book argues American political discourse resisted a societal and cultural self-identification of conducting an empire while the US government acted the part of an imperial power through its foriegn policy over the last 120 years. “The country perceives itself to be a republic, not an empire,” observes Immerwahr. Mainstream American historical narrative describes a brief flirtation with controlling “foriegn” territory outside of the continental 48 states — an experiment soon abandoned as a passing and regrettable jingoistic period. Besides, an empire denier would argue, the US occupations of the Philippines, Hawai’i and Puerto Rico paled in comparison to the European empires’ widespread colonization of Africa and Asia! So the US may have dabbled in empire, goes the narrative, but after the First World War the US was largely a force of freedom and democracy. And yet, beyond traditional US “territories” (Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Marianas), there is a “pointillist” system of almost 800 military bases in 80 countries scattered across the planet.

To me, the sheer number of military bases connotes an image of an empire. Now couple this vast base network with US “defense” outlays equaling 15% of federal spending (approximately half of discretionary spending) and equating to over 3% of gross domestic product. At $649 billion in 2018, US defense spending exceeded that of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom and Germany combined. Additionally, consider the hyperactive state of the US military since the end of World War Two: besides waging war in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been dozens of deployments, operations and strikes. This activity accelerated in the “War on Terror” following the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in 2001. Finally, to remain dominant, the US embraces technological military innovation in the form of cyber warfare, space-based weapons, hypersonic missiles and aircraft, and drone and robotic warfare — always a step or two ahead of enemies, whether real or imagined. This is imperial behavior by definition.

We live in a country that casts a huge military shadow on the world, and yet I do not see enough public discourse about the US empire. There is a blindness when it comes to seeing America’s imperial behavior, a topic confined to certain academics, antiwar journalists, and heterodox politicians on both the left and right. The anti-war movement was re-awakened briefly during the George W. Bush presidency, but remained largely dormant since the election of President Obama. The recent “Green New Deal” proposes cuts to military spending, at least recognizing the opportunity cost on environmental and social welfare programs–of course, the rest of the Green New Deal would bankrupt the country and remains in the realm of pure fantasy. However, typically US presidential elections have candidates from both parties trying to top each other in pledges of increased defense spending and hawkishness. Barring a policy sea change in one (or both) parties, there will consensus for US empire in the party platforms of Democrats and Republicans.

I believe historians should play a prominent role in promoting more public discourse. As researchers and educators, historians are perhaps best suited to offer explanations of how the US empire came into being. Offering accessible historiographies, whether through writing “popular” histories, podcasting, journalism, or social media, promotes understanding and increases dialogue. However, historians must remember the topic of empire is charged with nationalistic beliefs and aspirations. Since the Vietnam war, criticism of military policy is often conflated with criticism of service men and women. To most of the general public, questioning pro-US policies appears unpatriotic. Finally, the overly charged analysis of activist historians will only undermine efforts to bring US empire to the forefront of public attention, as such opinions will be too easily (and often rightly) dismissed as ravings from ideologues. Historiographies on empire will backfire if centered on essentialist arguments such as American being inherently and systemically racist, Americans harboring endless aspiration for colonialism, or the inevitable exploitative consequences of U.S. capitalism. This is not to dismiss all of those concepts from public conversation; rather, I believe those aspects should be identified and considered without being the center of an analysis that presents the US as an imperial power.

In this sense, Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire provides an excellent example of historical work provokes dialogue, removing the cultural veneer that causes our imperial blindness. A historian should get people to think, explore, and communicate.

So let’s start: Why is my county an imperial power?

Bibliographic note: Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

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