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The Myth of American Empire

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Again and again I run into people on the right and left sides of the political fringe who hold to the bizarre idea that the United States has some sort of international empire because we have troops deployed overseas. While I agree that we have far too many troops in other countries and could save a lot of money in these hard times by bringing some of them home, these deployments certainly don’t seem to fit the characteristics you would expect of troops who are part of an international empire.

The common claim is that we have “700 bases in 130 countries”. That’s almost as many countries as there are member states in the United Nations. Now, the definition of an empire is one nation exercising economic, political and military control over another. If these troops were deployed for that purpose, their role would presumably be to control the governments of those 130 countries, keep the civilian population under control, and protect the vast administrative network of our empire.

Yet if you look at what our troops are doing overseas you see something very different. Conveniently, the Heritage Foundation has compiled historical data on our overseas troop deployments. Foreign Policy in Focus also provides some useful information in a recent report.

The first problem is that to get to this popular figure of “700 bases in 130 countries,” you have to cumulatively add up all of the deployments of the last 50 years and count extremely small deployments and minor facilities which are considered bases even when they have no actual military personnel stationed at them. You have to count as “bases” the the contingents of marine guards at 165 US embassies and smaller consular offices and such things as the hundreds of military golf courses, movie theaters, post exchanges and other recreational facilities. In fact, if you count all the facilities considered “bases” and all the embassies, you get about 860 bases in 165 countries, so the popular figures are a bit out of date.

The truth is that most of these deployments are not really military in character and at any given time the number of significant deployments is much smaller. 20 men guarding an embassy are not building an empire. When you look at deployments of 1000 men or more, you find that there are currently fewer than 20 countries hosting deployments of that size. When you look at deployments of 100-1000 men you find that there are fewer than 30. So rather than 130 countries with significant numbers of US troops in them there are actually only about 40, mostly in Europe and parts of Asia. What’s more, rather than building an empire, these numbers have been steadily declining, and are about half what they were in the 1950s.

In addition, all of these large deployments are the result of mutual defense arrangements which date back for decades where our troops are there at the invitation of and with the cooperation of the local government. The overwhelming majority of our troops are deployed in coordination with the United Nations or NATO or by arrangement with a few major allies like Germany, England and Japan. In many cases, rather than representing some sort of mythical US empire, they are often deployed on behalf of extra-national groups or programs or working in coordination with local forces.

In fact, a great many of these American troops deployed overseas are not even involved in normal military activities, but are engaged in various humanitarian aid programs. In 2006, the US military took part in 556 relief efforts in 99 countries. These efforts on behalf of various international organizations are a major deployment, but they are hardly empire building. They’re things like aiding victims of natural disasters and distributing food aid and medicine in troubled places like Haiti, Georgia and Somalia. Rather than oppressing these nations with our imperial rule, these missions are enormously popular and poll results in disaster-ravaged countries like Indonesia show a substantial increase in pro-American sentiment as a result of our humanitarian activities there.

About Dave Nalle

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    This thread has started on its inevitable downhill slide, with the discussion of the shit sold at McDonald’s Pig Troughs already starting.

    Feh!

    Fortunately, they don’t sell this kind of garbage at the Mac and Dons infesting Israel.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Come on Ruvy, I just like a sausage mcmuffin every now and then after a surf.

    I don’t care what’s in it.

    Why do you think everything about America is bad, mate??

    Israel wouldn’t exist as a soverign entity if it weren’t for America’s influence over that process initially.

    Perhaps it’s best we don’t get drawn into that one, but it’s true nevertheless.

    What America needs now is a Flashman!

  • Ruvy

    Why do you think everything about America is bad, mate??

    Because I remember how good it once was, Stan. America was the greatest nation on earth, the richest, the most powerful and everything else. I loved living there. And I watched it slide into the trash heap even as I lived there. But, it was only after leaving the country, that I realized that what I had been watching was a great nation imploding and destroying itself.

    I just instinctively knew in the States that I didn’t want our kids sucked up into American culture. I thought it was merely a matter of religious assimilation – intermarriage and the like. I was wrong. It was more than that – far more. At least here, our boys have both imbibed deeply on a culture of survival and improvisation.

    In joint naval exercises out here, Israeli sailors far outstrip American sailors in performance. Israelis, always lacking this, that or the other thing, improvise naturally. Americans don’t. They have to learn each time out.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    When you feed the world someone is going to get a percentage.

    Why do you believe that this is necessarily the case, Dave?

    When has it not been that way, Mark. We can change a lot of things, but we can’t change human nature.

    Stan, as you should be able to tell from the article, I’m responding to a very specific characterization of the US. I’m not disputing the idea of a US economic and cultural empire or sphere of influence. I’m not even disputing Glenn’s point about our efforts to build a better world for our interests. I’m specifically refuting the claim that we’re using our military to dominate and subjugate foreign nations as part of a traditional Roman/Napoleonic style empire. THAT claim doesn’t hold up, and that’s the point of the article.

    Dave

  • Clavos

    I’ve watched us DO this in Guatemala, Dave.

    Oh please. Compared to how they govern themselves, our involvement has been positively benign.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I’m specifically refuting the claim that we’re using our military to dominate and subjugate foreign nations as part of a traditional Roman/Napoleonic style empire.

    Nobody makes that claim, Dave – not even me! This is merely a straw man. In its seizure and emasculation of half of Mexico, and its treatment of the Phillipine Islands and Cuba in the early 20th (Christian) century, America was most certainly a colonial empire on the British or French model. But it never attempted to become an empire on the Napoleonic model.

    I’m not disputing the idea of a US economic and cultural empire or sphere of influence. I’m not even disputing Glenn’s point about our efforts to build a better world for our interests.

    Boy, Dave. After being banged on the head for 100 comments, you are finally admitting your were wrong. A first?

    By the way, is the fake “Moslem” thugdom in Arabia part of “a better world for our interests”? Just curious….

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    #104

    We have been changing our ‘human nature’ for millennia.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Mark S.

    certainly it has existed for thousands of years, but not yet on such a mass scale I wasn’t talking about Capitalism there. I think that’s not very clear the way I wrote it. It was societies organized cooperatively.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    When has it not been that way…

    It actually still isn’t that way in some places Dave.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    They taste of sausage, Doc.

    You sure that’s not just your brain filling in the blanks, Stan? ‘Cuz I could never taste much more than just salt.

    (Sorry, Ruvy, but conversations meander. We can’t always be talking about how America is going down the tubes and how we’re all going to die from an uncontrollable global outbreak of homicidal ingrown toenails.)

  • Baronius

    STM, I think we’re talking past each other (and Ruvy too) because we’re talking about too many things. G.K. Chesterton talked about the power of the list, that people tend to accept things in list form, even if one or more – or all – of the items aren’t correct.

    America’s porn culture: I remember French TV in the 1970′s. From what I understand, Italy was worse. Even the Brits crossed lines that American TV wouldn’t. I’m ashamed of much of the content of America’s mainstream culture, but don’t try to blame little old puritan America for pornography. It seems to me that the really nasty magazines always came from Scandanavia, anyway.

    America and Germany: I’m sorry if I wasn’t clearer on this. I didn’t mean that the US was imperialistic in Germany; quite the opposite. I’m saying that the “average” US occupation has followed the German scenario, quick in, quick out, or at least as quickly as possible. If you compare it to, for example, Britain in India, you’ll see that the duration and intentions of most American occupations were far different.

    Don’t make me defend Manifest Destiny, because I can’t. Particularly the confiscation of Texas.

  • Baronius

    To comment #106: The word “empire” implies, well, imperialism. I don’t think you can fairly say that America is an empire, but nothing like any historic empire. Maybe it’s better to say that America is really prominent.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I’m specifically refuting the claim that we’re using our military to dominate and subjugate foreign nations as part of a traditional Roman/Napoleonic style empire. THAT claim doesn’t hold up, and that’s the point of the article.

    I would agree…but (there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?) there are those whose
    ‘benevolent’ reasons for waging an aggressive war run thin when it becomes blatantly obvious that the ‘reasons’ were nothing more than false pretenses built on assumptions.

    And yes, you know who I’m talking about.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No, Glenn, tell me! It couldn’t be the Neocons perchance?

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    I’m specifically refuting the claim that we’re using our military to dominate and subjugate foreign nations as part of a traditional Roman/Napoleonic style empire.

    Nobody makes that claim, Dave – not even me!

    Sorry, Ruvy. This particular argument is widespread on the extreme right and extreme left in the US, particularly among hardcore socialist internationalists and members of the JBS. I run up against it literally every day. They did a big push on the claim of military empire for memorial day, in fact.

    This is merely a straw man. In its seizure and emasculation of half of Mexico, and its treatment of the Phillipine Islands and Cuba in the early 20th (Christian) century, America was most certainly a colonial empire on the British or French model. But it never attempted to become an empire on the Napoleonic model.

    The key thing is that unlike the British or French we made no attempt to hold on to most of that territory. We liberated, cleaned the area up, put in puppet regimes and moved on, hopefully leaving people more free as a result.

    Boy, Dave. After being banged on the head for 100 comments, you are finally admitting your were wrong. A first?

    Again, I’m not admitting to being wrong, just pointing out that I’m writing about a specific type of empire, not any of the newer, broader concepts.

    By the way, is the fake “Moslem” thugdom in Arabia part of “a better world for our interests”? Just curious….

    I believe I’ve pointed out before that I favor the formation of a Hashemite Caliphate and the return of the holy cities to their control.

    Dave

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    For reasons that I don’t understand, Mozilla Firefox kept crashing on me, so I got off in disgust. After doing holiday shopping for Shavuot (Thursday night through Friday night – Pentecost to you Christians), I just got home now….

    It’s about 23:00 now here.

    Sorry, Ruvy, but conversations meander. We can’t always be talking about how America is going down the tubes and how we’re all going to die from an uncontrollable global outbreak of homicidal ingrown toenails.

    Not all of you think America is going down the tubes. This is a point of view i read on the Jewish lists I’m on. It’s tiring for me to read after a while – especially from Jews who complain and complain – but make no move to leave the country.

    Now what was this about dying from homicidal ingrown toenails? What are the symptoms? Is there a vaccine that works? Is it a sexual disease that somehow got misplaced to the toes? You know, you learn something new every day!

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I believe I’ve pointed out before that I favor the formation of a Hashemite Caliphate and the return of the holy cities to their control.

    We agree on this completely. In my own opinion, the crushing of the Wahhabi Thugdom is one of the prime elements needed for peace here, so that Islam actually can be a religion of peace, following the Sufi line of thought. Jihad needn’t be an attempt to hack everybody into pieces who doesn’t accept Allah and Mohammed as his prophet. That’s the Wahhabi bullshit line of intolerance.

    So, any ideas on how to bring this about?

    By the way Stan and DD, speaking of pig, when the bus home to Ma’ale Levona entered the road up to Sh’vut RaHel and Shilo from the main highway leading to Sh’khem, we saw two wild pigs crossing the road, one following the other…. I thought of you two as they progressed into the grass on the side of the road.

    Sorry, Ruvy. This particular argument is widespread on the extreme right and extreme left in the US, particularly among hardcore socialist internationalists and members of the JBS. I run up against it literally every day. They did a big push on the claim of military empire for memorial day, in fact.

    Just curious…. Aside from Cindy, I cannot think of any “extreme leftists” commenting here these days (haven’t seen our favorite Menshevik, Les Slater, around for a while). And I think the closest we had to a Bircher here was banned a couple of years ago.

    Now that you explain yourself as to what you really meant, something that was not clear in your article, it seems you are only aiming at the extremes – small extremes at that.

  • zingzing

    ruvy: “Don’t ever lecture a Brooklyn boy on survival zing. You don’t know shit about us.”

    dude, i live like half a mile from where you grew up…

    and for the record, i didn’t see the attack on you, as it was deleted. it would greatly surprise me if roger’s attack was anywhere near the level of yours. if it had been that personal, i’m sure there would have been some outcry.

    two wrongs don’t make a right, ruvy. i think that old chestnut is something you could actually learn from. “an eye for an eye” is bad. golden rule, good. etc, etc.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    zing,

    they’ve erased a whole bunch of comments – even those that didn’t directly pertain to the subject. Anyways, here’s the context:

    Dave, I believe, talked about being amused by some view (Ruvy’s included). I kind of jumped in saying something to the effect that it should come as no surprise anymore (and used the “f …l” word in that connection. So it was a personal attack sort of, because I didn’t characterize the views represented, only the person.

    Anyway, the rest is history.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    But then again, the reason I’ve done that is because he had starting using sarcastic epithets on all other threads – like “the sage from Christian County, KY” (which is where I happen to live right now). So my use of the “f …l” word was a payback.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I’ll tell you something even stranger. One of the editors in another section made a totally out-of-whack unjustified personal attack (I shan’t go into details) – presumably because I put some questions to one of the authors there. And it’s only by chance that I happened to see that; I was just curious as the whether there were some more comments on that thread. Then, lo and behold – it’s staring me in the face.

    Naturally, I responded – not so much in kind but more along the line of asking pointed questions – e.g., asking to provide a justification.

    It was only following my response that both comments (the editor’s and mine) were promptly removed. Which makes me wonder whether the original comment would have stood all along had I not noticed it and posted a rebuttal.

    Something to thing about.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Errata:

    “Something to think about,” like in “you have another think coming . . .”

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Roger, if you have to stir up old fights – since zing can’t let a subject drop – I don’t give a shit about being called a fool. It’s what you said before that that pissed me off. You know what it was, and that is all that counts.

    If the comments editor had eliminated your remarks immediately, I would have said nothing. But it was only after I defended myself that the comments editor struck – and he will probably will strike this comment out too, because apparently he will be damned if my side gets heard here.

    I will let the subject drop. [Edited by Comments Editor]

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Same here. He wanted a context and I obliged. It’s over and done with.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You should have jumped on Dave in the first place (for his #39 on the other thread). And that still stands.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    I have a much worse episode (see my #122). The only thing is – it’s still a new format and they can’t jump on it as quickly as before.

    Even H&C manages to squeak in now and then and post, under another name of course.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    You can’t mean “f & m ..d,” can you? That was meant as a metaphor.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Let it go, Roger. It is not wise to suggest that a different commenter be ignored. Let it stand at that.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Anyways, your response didn’t really hit me. We just have different philosophies about life and women. All my relationships were great (considering the stage we were in) – each better than the next People grow out of those stages and move on. Better than stick with one another and be miserable.

    So I am quite accomplished by now (like Frank Harris and all his loves). Besides, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear on the net – not even from me.

    Only three legal marriages (one of ‘em shot-gun); but plenty of relationships (some lasting eight years or longer; others twice as long). I’ve always had women in my life, it was a full life, and I don’t regret it one bit. (And I ain’t talking of one night stands.) Those I can’t even count.

    So peace!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    OK. Case closed.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Here’s a link to Frank Harris.

  • Bliffle

    Of course the USA is an Empire, and has been for over 60 years. And that’s not altogether a bad thing. Of course, we have excesses, just like any previous empire. The control-freaks go nuts because not everyone wants to fall in line behind their leadership, but that’s the way it is with people.

    They’re only human.

    But empires shake things up, they expose hidden cultures to the world, they create new values in commerce, they negotiate cultural difference by giving some good things and taking some good things. Of course, there are some bad things exchanged too, but hopefully they fall into disuse.

    The Brits introduced cricket to south asia and improved cricket at the same time indians and pakistanis could learn how to play the games that built that empire.

    The USA has done some good things, and some really malevolent stupid bad things, too.

    After all, we’re only human.

  • Baronius

    Whoa, this is odd. It seems that the commenters have failed to solve the problems of capitalism and human nature. I’m a little surprised at that; after all, there was such a flurry of conversation that you felt was necessary. You determined that working for pay is somehow beneath human dignity, and that the proper price for a good is something other than what the buyer and seller agree upon, but then it just fizzled out. And I’ve got to say, even though these are word-for-word the same conversations we’ve seen before, I thought that this time was going to see a breakthrough. I mean, once you’ve abolished human nature, the answers should just flow. But I’m sure that next week, after another article that isn’t about capitalism and human nature, the exact same tangent will yield the answers we’ve been waiting for. Here’s hoping!

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    If you wish, I can resume.

  • zingzing

    alright.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Dave: “The key thing is that unlike the British or French we made no attempt to hold on to most of that territory. We liberated, cleaned the area up, put in puppet regimes and moved on, hopefully leaving people more free as a result.”

    Looks like more buying into that myth of American exceptionalism.

    So what was the 50 years in The Philippines, under military government, then and the 100,000 Filipons killed fighting the US … and they have issues with the notion that they’ve been left “more free”.

    I was there last year. A couple of astute academics told me that if they absolutely had to be colonised, they wished the British had stayed after capturing Luzon from the Spanish in the late 1700s.

    That, largely, is because they look at the former colonies like HK, Malaysia and Singapore, which have the highest standards of living in the region in that south-east asia region. The Philippines is struggling on that score and depends on a lot of US aid to get by.

    I think in general they are way better disposed to the US than they are to the Spanish and have some genuine affection for Americans but they do get annoyed with US terms like the The Philippine Insurrection, which actually led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Filpinos they say were fighting a war of independence against America.

    That certainly looks like colonisation in my book. You can even see it in the mixture of buildings in downtown Manila. There is a definite American flavour to some of the old government buildings.

    To their credit, they are very reverent towards the US war dead at the big US cemetery/memorial in Manila.

    Having visited some of the Commonwealth gravesites in Europe, I found myself entranced there too. We were there for some hours (looking for people with our surnames, of which there were many even though we’re not Yanks).

  • Bliffle

    Interesting comment, STM.

    On memorial Day PBS ran a documentary about the many American cemeteries in foreign lands, especially Europe. After WW1 the US government commissioned 8 cemeteries for doughboys who died on European soil, employing the best artisans, stone cutters, etc., for the effort. Black Jack Pershing himself was in charge.

    After WW2 I think 14 more were established.

    Each dead soldier has his own plot, with a stone marker such as a cross or star.

    These cemeteries are regularly visited by Americans and by local people.

  • M a rk

    Dave: We can change a lot of things, but we can’t change human nature.

    It seems that all arguments concerning ethics and economy trace back to this ‘golden milestone’. What kind of evidence can you think of that would convince you that it is a false premiss?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That’s one reason, Mark, I’d rather cast my arguments without resorting to this elusive term. I can be talked about, and intelligently, in certain context – e.g., the educational framework – you get my meaning – but not in any general kind of sense like that. So used, it’s only a cop-out or a buzz word.

    BTW, read your article on BC (editorial policies) and totally concur. Nice writing style, focused, and penetrative. (Left a comment there.)

    Do some more!

  • Ma rk

    (Hi Rog. To the extent that that article is readable, all kudos to Clavos and his editorial skills.)

  • Baronius

    STM, Britain did keep an interest in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. That’s because Britain is an empire. They only relinquished Hong Kong in 1997.

    The difference between an empire and the US is the difference between a meaningful relationship and a one night stand. Britain gets to know their new colony and they eventually settle down together. The US wakes up next to a stranger, takes a quick shower, and leaves.

    A rough analogy, I know. You can certainly argue that an empire does more good.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Quite readable, Mark. And poignant.
    I haven’t read the long thread. Just wonder what the management response was. It’d be a nice policy to implement.

  • m ark

    They found the idea unnecessary. And readers generally feared that a heavy hand would result stifling rather than protecting free expression.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, I’m all for responsible journalism whether in fact or opinion. Just hate to be subjected to OBVIOUS ideological biases (unsupported by sound and reasoned arguments). It’s just a waste of time before you can even start getting down to cases. And more often than not, because of it you never do.

  • http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/sundaysurfer/index.php STM

    Baron: “The US wakes up next to a stranger, takes a quick shower, and leaves.”

    50 years of a US military government in The Philippines was more than a quick shower Baron, as was the occupation of Hawaii.

    There are still some genuine American colonies dotted around the Pacific.

    American Samoa is one obvious one but there are a couple more.

    And what about Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands over the other side of the big pond.

    Puerto Rico is nominally independent, but is still actually run as a commonwealth (like the old British dominions) from Washington.

    Then there’s the very strong American influence over much of central America.

    True, they don’t stack up to the number of former British colonies but my theory on that is that when the US was at the point of rivalling Britain in its ability to become a colonial power in the late 19th century, the rest of the world was starting to look askance at the practice and subsequently the colonial nations began to divest themselves of these colonies. It might have been a slow process, but it was starting to happen.

    Of course, Americans themselves have been largely opposed to coloialism, but their government took them there nevertheless.

    I just think they didn’t tell you guys that you have been genuine colonisers.