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Empire and Imperialism

United StatesBibliography

The question of whether the United States is an imperial power that, like other previous imperial powers, has been acquiring an empire of its own has been hotly contested in U.S. political history. On the one hand, the United States likes to think of itself as different from other powers in the past who have acquired empires, because its motives are supposedly superior (democracy, human rights, a liberal or neoliberal economic order, free trade) and because it has only rarely acquired permanent "colonies." On the other hand, the United States does throw its weight around; has regularly intervened, including militarily, in the internal affairs of other, usually smaller, countries; and has acquired over the decades a large number of satellite states, quasi-colonies, proxy states, and countries that are dependent on the United States. These issues became particularly controversial as, since the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the only superpower ("hyperpower," the French say) and because of its new doctrines of preemption and intervention in such countries as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States does not like to think of itself as an imperial nation. Americans tend to believe that the United States is an exceptional nation, immune from the great power motivations and machinations of other imperial states. It does not acquire "colonies" or practice imperial policies. Rather, Americans see their motives as selfless and humanitarian: peacekeeping, spreading democracy, people-saving or nation-building (as in Somalia or Haiti) interventions. Critics scoff at this, saying the United States intervenes frequently in the affairs of other states, overthrows governments it does not like, protects the corrupt, nondemocratic oil states (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) on which the U.S. economy is dependent, and has sent military forces into dozens of countries to protect U.S. interests. In addition, the critics say, the supposedly altruistic goals for which the United States works, such as neoliberalism, globalization, and even democratization (which encourages stability), all seem to redound mainly to U.S. advantage.

The mythology of U.S. exceptionalism began in the nineteenth century when the United States was a new, young, and still weak power. The country believed it was a "beacon on a hill," an exception to other nations, and in the Monroe Doctrine proclaimed its difference from the Machiavellian states of Europe. But even as a weak power the United States acquired territory, not always with the best of motives, from Spain, France, and Mexico and had imperialistic designs on Cuba, parts of Central America, and the Caribbean. With the country's growth as a major power after the Civil War, and then in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States acquired Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and a string of bases throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean. If the United States was "imperialistic," it was initially so in Latin America and the Western Hemisphere.

During the long Cold War (1947–1989), the United States did not acquire colonies, but it repeatedly intervened in the affairs of other nations, often exercised proconsular or quasi-governing roles in their internal politics, and established subservient governments in many nations. Was this imperialism or not? The United States argues that it was not because it did not acquire permanent colonies, because when it intervened, it usually withdrew shortly thereafter, and because its goals were not domination but stability and anti-communism—presumably good for the countries affected—and eventually democracy and human rights. Relatively few critics of U.S. policy raised the "imperialism" charge. It was mainly Marxists who charged the Americans with colonialism and imperialism, and their critique was largely dismissed, especially as the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the early twenty-first century, as the sole remaining superpower with overwhelming military, economic, political, and cultural influence, the United States again stands accused of imperialism and "neocolonialism." The American public does not like to hear these accusations, but elsewhere in the world they are widespread. They are particularly prevalent in the Middle East where the United States has sought to remake Islamic society in the image of American democracy, as well as in Europe, Latin America, and some parts of Asia. The focus of the critique is not just U.S. military power, which is overwhelmingly dominant, but also U.S. cultural influence (rock music, movies, styles of dress and behavior), U.S. political power, which forces countries to change political institutions and practices they would often rather not change, and U.S. economic influences, which force countries to adopt neoliberal policies that often hurt their economies but work to the economic advantage of the United States itself. In all these areas the United States presumes like an old uncle to know best for the rest of the world. Globalization also seems to benefit mainly the United States. Is this colonialism or imperialism? Most voices in the United States avoid the issue, but abroad many people see the United States as practicing hegemonic policies or neocolonialism—albeit in new garb.

Howard J. Wiarda

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to Ephemeral