The New Face of Empire

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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9 Responses

  1. Dean Chung says:

    Actually, I think the old empires like the British empire also were propelled by a desire for new markets for their goods. I remember reading something to that effect in The Great Game, where the British and the Russians were trying to push their goods on the markets of Central Asian during the 19th centuryReport

  2. homais says:

    Access to markets was exactly what the British were after, and what earlier iterations of the American empire were after (I’m reminded here of Henry Cabot Lodge’s “master of markets” speech). And I think there’s a good argument that then, as now, this tended to require a lot of ‘policing’ either by the imperial army or local proxies to deal with people who, umm, did not benefit from the (usually cronyistic) capitalism that the metropole was spreading.Report

  3. greginak says:

    To a great degree empires aren’t always built on purpose. The brits didn’t start out wanting to rule India. they wanted trade access which the british india company got and held. the brit gov only came in later. Just because we didn’t try to form an empire doesn’t mean we didn’t end up with one.

    The native americans who occupied quite a bit of this country would certainly think we were are an empire. So would the Hawaiians. Oh and the Philippines and central america have, or had, a strong resemblance to colonies. Our empire is so ingrained in us that we don’t recognize it.Report

  4. E.D. Kain says:

    Actually, I think the old empires like the British empire also were propelled by a desire for new markets for their goods.

    Certainly this was the case, which is why I said that the means (and not the ends) were the important distinction between American and “classic” empire, though I think that the balance has shifted in that direction even further with the rise of globalism. I was not specific enough in this post, so thanks for pointing that out.

    So, I think the larger point is that we don’t need to implement the same sort of force, or the same colonial-type occupations, in order to do that now, but certainly we maintain an exorbitantly large and powerful military presence across the globe regardless.

    greginak – yes, I absolutely agree that the origins of this expansion go back to the native Americans, Hawaiians etc – but that was when we were still in the conquer and colonize business. The point being that even though we’ve mostly left that approach behind, we’re still effectively, through economic policy and a ridiculously expensive, expansive military presence all under the auspices of globalism.Report

  5. E.D.,

    I’m not sure I completely understand your position but if it is that yes, on some level America remains an empire, I would disagree. I think the compulsion to use that label or imperialism is mostly based on the threat of power. It’s easy to see an American military that has no equal on the planet and see the way that power is projected around the globe and draw the conclusion that we are trying to use that power as a tool in international relations. To a point that is true, but power implied is not the same as power applied.

    I think the notion of ‘economic imperialism’ is a much easier case to make, but even there it is not so much a colony-master arrangement so much as it is a big fish/little fish scenario.Report

  6. homais says:

    E.D. –

    Judging from your comment, I think I misunderstood what you were arguing. So this time I’ll ask before I just talk past you again: are you arguing that in this economic form of American empire, different kinds of military action than what was done 100 years ago be needed to secure dominance and access to markets? And if so, what are those different kinds of actions? What, exactly, did the old empires do that we will not need to do?Report

  7. E.D. Kain says:

    Interesting question, homais. Yes, I think distinction is not so much between military and non-military imperialism, but rather between the sort of dominance exerted by the United States compared to earlier empires. For instance, during the Cold War, the general policy of the US was to combat the spread of communism and the rise of leftist governments, not so that we could have military control of the countries and territories in question, but simply to keep those nations part of the world economy, and within the American economic sphere of influence. So you have coups instigated in South America, and even wars fought in Vietnam and Korea – but again, not so much to colonize but to keep those nations part of the capitalist global economy.

    I think it’s important to emphasize capitalism over democracy as well; the neoconservative movement calls the spread of democracy its goal – similar to evangelicals within the British empire who called spreading Christianity their goal – when in fact it is the spread of the market and access to raw materials, fossil fuels, etc. that drives American economic imperialism. The fact is, though, we simply don’t need to retain military dominance in any region once we have established economic dominance there. This makes us appear to be much less of an empire, since we establish no colonies and so forth, but we still benefit as an empire would from our temporary military ventures and economic sanctions, etc.Report

  8. Lao Tzu says:

    This is an always interesting topic and quite a thorny question as well.

    It’s worth analyzing the economic history of the American “empire.” Examining the economic features of the world and of America will help us better judge the question of whether America is actually an empire, and if so in which ways.

    Following victory in WWII, part of the rationale for the Marshall Plan and rebuilding Europe and Japan was to establish markets for Americans goods to be exported. And Bretton Woods established America as the anchor of the global financial system. Beginning in the 80s (although the process began in 1945) the American economy became increasingly “financialized” whereby foreign nations and markets rebuilt by America (Europe, Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, etc.) following war and devastation increasingly exported to the US in return for financial paper, resulting in large trade deficits. America no longer exported manufactured goods to foreign nations, but rather provided foreign nations exporting to the US with the safety and security of American financial assets, which in turn increased financial wealth in the US and further fed consumption of foreign export goods. This is in no small part due to America’s military strength, presence, and power in the world, as this ensures confidence in US dollars and dollar denominated assets.

    The economist Michael Hudson has written a book called “Super Imperialism” which discusses the economics and finance of the American “empire.” And Henry C.K. Liu of Asia Times ( has written extensively on the topic. Both appear to be left of center, and I don’t agree with everything they say, but some of their work is pretty insightful.

    Also important to note that during the rise of the British Empire, powerful merchant and manufacturing interests within Britain strongly promoted empire as a means for opening foreign countries to export. Cheap production inputs could be imported from the foreign countries, and manufactures could then be made in Britain and exported to those foreign countries, making the manufacturers and merchants in Britain very wealthy.

    As it has become very evident recently in the US, the most powerful interest in the US has been the financial industry and it has become very powerful over the past few decades as the US economy has become increasingly “financialized.” And the financial interest benefits from “dollar hegemony” made possible by American “empire”, standing as they do as a middle man between the recycling dollars of American consumers/investors and foreign exporters.Report