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America's Invisible Empire

By The Economic and Political Weekly

The American imperial empire has remained largely invisible: only very recently have Americans just begun to learn about their imperial history. But information about empire is fragmented and extensively filtered and the American public remains by and large unaware of the reality and costs of empire. Until empire is placed on the public agenda, it can never be effectively criticised or made an object of basic policy change. David Ludden

10/30/04 "EPW" ---- In the old days of imperialism, before 1945, citizens of imperial nations learned about their empires in school; they imbibed imperial anxiety and pride, and discussed and debated empire publicly. It was never thus in America, where US empire remains mostly invisible. Americans are just now starting to learn about their imperial history, amidst its current crisis, but there is pervasive resistance to such learning, which contradicts patriotic truths about American national character. Resistance to learning supports a national denial of reality that keeps Americans ignorant of the empire built, maintained, and defended in their name. This ignorance helps explain the cognitive shock - as distinct from the emotional and ethical horror - of events on September 11, 2001. For most Americans, the animosity in those planes appeared literally out of nowhere.

National ideology only begins to explain the gap between America's identity in the world and its self-understanding. In the world of national states that emerged after 1945, the old meaning of 'empire' became archaic, because no country could then legitimately administer another country. In addition, America itself emerged from an anti-imperial struggle; and it supported national movements elsewhere, from 19th century Latin America to 20th century Africa, Asia, and west Asia. Support for nationalist struggles could not be offered to communists, however; they had to be constructed as aliens in their own lands, no matter how indigenous their roots, most notably, in Vietnam, where France and America drew a line between north and south that made liberation forces in the north seem alien invaders, while Americans backed 'native' nationalists in the south. Embracing this kind of ideological history, Americans can never admit to being imperialists.

After 1945, imperialism acquired a new format under American leadership. First, the cold war allowed the US to expand military, economic, and political power around the world, posing as a crusader against communism, committed to liberal modernisation. In 1989, the cold war ended; then economic globalisation, global security, and a war on terrorism came to justify more US expansion. Since 1945, US power has expanded steadily and dramatically; it now covers the world of nations, but does not deploy the formal discourse of imperialism. Rather, the US sees itself as the world's leader. Americans lead global progress, facing enemies and obstacles everywhere. In this guise, America uses its power inside international institutions, like the UN, but strikes on its own when necessary. America refuses to allow international laws to operate inside US borders unless they conform to US law. Thus, US power projects itself onto the world, but the world cannot respond; this imbalance is typical of the imperial settings, but Americans think of it instead as a natural state for the 'world's only superpower'.

A flurry of books has appeared recently in America using the term 'empire' to describe US power. The term is beginning to appear flattering in some circles. The growth of an American empire built on the old repertoire of 'indirect rule' had been obvious outside America for decades before 'empire' began to appear in US public discourse, after the conquest of Iraq without international legitimacy. Nevertheless, the idea that the US is an imperial power is not popular among Americans. Journalists, scholars, teachers, students, analysts, and politicians prefer to depict the US as a nation pursuing its own interests and ideals. The phrase 'American empire' will not appear in 2004 election debates, where voters will focus on domestic and foreign policy issues. The war in Iraq is a bigger issue with each passing day, not because of Iraqi suffering, but because of American deaths. Wars come home when bright young people return dead; and to make matters worse, people do not understand the war in Iraq, which most people supported out of patriotic fervour, trusting their president to lead. Now, US 'intelligence' is under scrutiny. Everyone knows Bush lied about 'weapons of mass destruction.' The war in Iraq appears now to have been a mistake, but the US cannot simply back out, and Kerry along with all but one US Senator voted for the war, and Kerry says the US must stay to see the job done.

Living conditions in Iraq are not a political issue in America. Few people even know what they are. Only bombing and death are in the news, sometimes called features of 'resistance' to a US occupation that must seem to most Americans not as popular in Iraq as US propaganda once portrayed it. No one in the US could now believe that ordinary Iraqis want Americans there, based on reading or watching the news. US voters will never see in the news the vast suffering in Iraq caused by American empire; instead they will see security threats and policy options. The cost of empire at home is not open for discussion. The war budget is called a 'defence budget' and continues to soar, without protest. The empire continues to operate out of public view. A tiny proportion of decisions that sustain the empire ever come under public scrutiny.

Fears, Then and Now

This imperial condition contrasts sharply with that of Britain in the old days. US taxpayers and voters pay the entire cost of the America empire, and so must be kept in the dark about its operations. The British people never paid for the empire that so many loved because it was funded by Asians and Africans. If Americans ever engaged in a cost-benefit analysis of the US empire, who knows what would happen. But you can be sure, that will not happen soon, because Americans do not see their empire; what they see is an ever-more-pressing, ever-more-expensive need for national security. Global threats to America must be magnified as much as possible to keep the empire going despite its rapidly rising cost and surely diminishing returns. Bill Clinton began scaring Americans about terrorism. But 9/11 was the biggest gift imaginable for American imperialists: it buried the empire out of sight under the iconic rubble and dust of the Twin Towers.

Once upon a time, Americans believed that Soviets would attack them with nuclear missiles. In the 1950s, we as school children hid under our desks for air raid drills once a week. Families built bomb shelters in their basements. In classrooms, cinema halls, and TV cartoons, Americans learned that a 'communist menace' roamed the world and that only strong, brave American soldiers could defend the world against the 'Soviet threat'. America was like Superman, called to duty when evil reared its head, and otherwise living as a 'mild-mannered reporter', Clark Kent. The idea that America is essentially good, caring, innocent, even nave, like Clark Kent, has managed to survive inside US popular culture despite virtually continuous US imperial warfare since 1945.

Not only do Americans wear ideological blinders, they daily imbibe information filtered and fed by media barons, politicians, scholars, and educators who collaborate in imperialism for different reasons, typically unknowingly. Individualism combined with expert specialisation creates incoherently fragmented images of an imperial reality that looks like an elephant groped by four blind men: one feels the feet and calls it a tree; another feels the trunk and calls it a snake; and each in turn is convinced by his own palpable facts, but as a group they cannot describe what is there. In the same way, some Americans focus on Islamic ideology; some, on nuclear threats; some, on evil rulers; some, on the ghostly al-Qaeda; some, on military options; and others, on civilian and economic issues. Many Americans are humanitarians concerned with suffering. But each group having gathered its own data on its specialised topic, and each struggling daily with work and family - 'just making a living,' as we say - their understandings do not add up to a coherent picture. Empire appears to be a piecemeal scattering of individual facts and events, never a coherent product of a democratic political system where many people might oppose empire, if they could, but where voting against it is not an option.

The ideological composition of American knowledge also leads Americans into raging debates among blind men, instead of into a serious search for better information. Foreign information and opinions are discounted, as in other countries. Non-nationals are always kept away from the levers of public opinion. Because the US has such a heavy impact on so many countries, this nationalist resistance to foreign opinion might be usefully compared to a father discounting cries of pain from his family and neighbours. A US national structure of intellectual work and debate sets firm limits on factual input and applies appropriate filters. Most Americans never learn anything about any other country except what is deemed relevant to the American national context by American experts and defenders. Americans learn a lot about the world, but not what people in other countries want Americans to learn. Rather, Americans learn how every country fits into the American scheme. Some fit better than others, and those that do not fit need fixing. The world appears to be a collection of countries where people emulate America, and where people who can migrate come to America to thrive inside an absorbent American culture that seems to provide a workable model of the world, a much better model, indeed, than the United Nations. In the American model, all cultural diversity fits neatly inside a politics of identity that revolves around the white elites who prescribed the US constitution, assay US values, and dominate all major US institutions. Most Americans believe that people everywhere would be better off adopting the American model of cultural and political stability and economic progress.

The confidence with which American feminists promoted the criminalisation of the Taliban and conquest of Afghanistan is a good indication of how liberal Americans support imperial expansion. Liberal democrats led the fight against communism at home and abroad. Liberals and conservatives equally support the US empire, whose name they dare not speak in public. The empire will not be undone until its reality and costs become visible to Americans who might think about dismantling it, if they could only see it. Until empire is on the public agenda in America, it can never be effectively criticised or made an object of basic policy change. Effective challenges will not appear on the battlefield, let alone among the rubble of suicide bombers; they will begin in newspapers, magazines, books, schools, email, blogs, chat rooms, drinking halls, churches, and dinner parties; then they will move into the streets and finally into election campaigns.

Americans can eventually imbibe the wisdom of the world and engage in dialogue with people who experience US empire from the other side. It is critically important to write books based on experience outside America to sell in America; to get citizens of the world and foreign students in America to bear witness in public to the US empire at work in the world at large; and to organise programmes for action around the world that make sense in America yet change the way Americans think. Obstacles to all these critical endeavours are formidable and mounting under the paranoid national security regime in America today.

Copyright 2001 The Economic and Political Weekly. All rights reserved.

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