Empire or Borg? American hegemony and the bad economics of empire

by John MacBeath Watkins

Is America an empire?

Not too long ago, I discussed this on line with several of my (mostly)Canadian and antipodean friends. (The thread started on a different topic, begun by a Canadian, but soon drifted, and the discussion continued on to this thread.)

The case for saying it is seems obvious. Bases all around the world staffed be a "defense" department financed with nearly as much money as the rest of the world combined spends on its militaries, economic interests that span the globe, and foreign policy that can be high-handed. 

But what is an empire? In our series on the strangeness of being human, we've discussed the fact that words are the meanings we use to think. Sloppy use of language leads to sloppy thinking, so it seems to me that it's fairly important that we don't allow language to become vague and nebulous.

Traditionally, an empire a group of people with a common identity, such as a nation, that conquers and dominates other peoples with other distinct identities to extract wealth from them. It does not supplant or absorb them, nor does it give them a voice in the running of the empire. The classic empire is the Roman one.

The British Empire came close to this model, but supplanted  native populations in North America and Australia. However, those territories never gained seats in the British parliament. Instead, they calved off into separate countries, loosely linked by cultural and political ties. It therefore acted like an empire even as it supplanted native populations, treating even people of English descent as separate rather than absorbing them into Britain. This in fact was the major complaint of the Declaration of Independence:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

You will be assimilated.
As the British Empire weakened, other colonies split off to be separate countries, whether, like India, they had a different culture or, like America, Canada, and Australia, they were versions of the mother country's culture. This was the devolution of the British Empire, which can hardly be said to exist any more, but may still be devolving.

America has acted rather differently. Those territories it overtook and absorbed became first territories, then states, a process that seems still to be happening in the case of Puerto Rico. Where we invaded and did not absorb the new territory into the polity, we've gained little benefit and proved inept at dominating foreign peoples. The prime example here is the Philippines. We tried, we really did, but we suck at empire. More recently, neoconservatives have had an ambition to achieve empire, which is part of why we invaded Iraq. And how did that work out for us?

Neoconservatives, with organs such as The Project for the New American Century, have argued for a more unilateral and militaristic approach to foreign policy, an approach, in fact, better suited to an empire. It would be an approach more like empire building efforts of the past, such as the Spanish-American War, than the accomplishments we look back on with the greatest pride, such as World War II.

Compared to our failure to dominate the Philippines, consider what happened when we conquered half of Mexico in the 1850s. California has become our most populous state by about 12 million souls more than its nearest rival, Texas, also formerly part of Mexico, and the entire Southwest is prosperous and fully integrated into the American polity. The 14th Amendment made it clear that people born there are American citizens. Two presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, have come from there. In fact, I like to think that our tendency to assimilate shows that we are not the empire in Star Wars, we are the Borg in Star Trek, next gen.
Some scholars have maintained that America is a different kind of empire, a hegemonic empire, which uses soft power as well as military might to get its way and prefers installing friendly governments to ruling countries directly. This is less an accusation than a goal for neoconservative thinkers, who want to assert our national greatness with unilateral military action. As pointed out in Mistaking Hegemony for Empire: Neoconservatives, the Bush Doctrine, and the Democratic Empire, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, "With the obvious evidence of American vulnerability, it became easy to legitimize a course of action that, absent the terrorist attacks on the country, would have smacked of old-fashioned imperialism."

When they spoke of American exceptionalism and national greatness, this is what they were thinking of.
The problem is that hegemony depends on the soft power of being considered worth emulating. American wealth and culture have seemed worth acquiring to many abroad, which made our way of life seem appealing, and far more appealing, in fact, than such rivals as the Soviet Union. The problem with relying on the use of unilateral force, as the Iraq debacle has demonstrated, is that the imperial actions undermine cultural hegemony, resulting in making the nation less secure, as the blowback from the use of force makes the country's way of life seem less appealing and even worth attacking. Grondon calls this a counter-hegemonic reaction.

But why is America so bad at empire? One answer would be that this is not the moment in history for multinational empires, but that just begs the question, "why not?"

Part of the problem is that in a democracy, voters lose patience with the military engagements required, but I wonder if that would be the case if they saw real benefit from these adventures.

Empires belonged to a time when the capitalist way of life had not fully evolved. The East India Company existed to extract wealth from India and bring it to England. Manufacturing in India was limited by law, because India was part of the empire specifically to supply the mother country with raw materials to manufacture. Modern corporations do not feel such loyalty. They often have shareholders all over the world, and are happy to relocate manufacturing wherever it will earn the most for their shareholders. Whether to repatriate income earned abroad is a question of taxes to be paid and where investments must be made.

You cannot have an empire in the old-fashioned sense if you cannot rely on your merchants to use the state's power to enrich the state. Wars to serve the interest of companies uninterested on bringing wealth back to the country that wages them are parasitic, because the taxes to pay for them do not come from the wealth they generate. Eventually, voters become aware that if they benefit, say, Transocean, one of the world's largest drilling contractors, it won't matter that the company started in Alabama. It's now headquartered in Switzerland, and contributes as little to the American tax base as it possibly can.

In fact, the company had good reason to move its headquarters, as it was  facing charges om America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and ended up paying more than $13 million to settle the matter. Such interference might serve the needs of a nation, but not those of a corporation.

Large companies often are larger economic actors than whole countries, never mind the agencies designed to regulate them. Not only did the replacement of a national merchant class with multinational corporations deprive nations of any real benefit from the nationalism of merchants, they now find themselves often outmanned and outgunned by corporations.

The British Empire fell because it became obsolete. For the same reason, American efforts to form an empire, coming later in the evolution of capitalism, failed because empires as a form of economic organization were economically obsolete.

But that does not mean that America is morally superior to empires. Read War is a Racket, by Gen. Smedley Butler if you doubt me. Plenty is done by our nation that smells pretty bad. Nor does it mean that we are less powerful than an empire. Our military is easily the most powerful in the world.

But unlike an empire, if a host nation asks us to remove our military presence, we leave. We don't do this because we are pure of heart. We do it because it doesn't actually pay most of the time to throw our weight around. In fact empire destroys hegemony, and hegemony is what we are actually good at.

The Soviet empire, which really consisted of Russia dominating the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, was quite good at subjugating its client states. It failed, however, to generate the kind of wealth non-empires and nation states that had shed their empires were able to after World War II. We may well look back on it as the last of the multinational empires

But I wonder, is it just the multinational empire that's been left on the scrap heap of history?

Empires worked because there was a cycle, vicious or virtuous, depending on your point of view, that reinforced them. You spent money on your military, conquered turf, and the economic gains more than paid back your investment in treasure and blood. 
As capital becomes increasingly globalized, it strives more and more for the enviable position of the free rider. Even those things that a nation state can provide that will ensure productivity, such as a good transportation network and a well-educated workforce, the rational corporation will try to avoid paying for. Ultimately, the globalization of capital will undermine the nation state. Should we  ever have a global government, it will be because global capitol will need a global tax  base to pay for the infrastructure it needs.