Friday, June 29, 2007

British Perspective: Do you believe America is an empire, and if so who controls it?

THE LEAST YOU NEED TO KNOW: A British citizen provides a view of America from outside the echo chamber.

In order to further test the patience and loyalty of his readers, Jay has invited me to blog on his... erm blog. Perhaps feeling there is not enough sarcasm and cynicism here, he has invited a British citizen to post. I hope that my use of the letter "U" will add humour and colour to his blog. But alas, first of all we have a rather heavy posting.

Jay's question to me was: Do you believe America is an empire, and if so who controls it?

In a somewhat cliched manner. let's look at the dictionary definition for the word empire:
  1. Supreme power; sovereignty; sway; dominion. "The empire of the sea." --Shak. [1913 Webster]

  2. The dominion of an emperor; the territory or countries under the jurisdiction and dominion of an emperor (rarely of a king), usually of greater extent than a kingdom, always comprising a variety in the nationality of, or the forms of administration in, constituent and subordinate portions; as, the Austrian empire. [1913 Webster]

  3. Any dominion; supreme control; governing influence; rule; sway; as, the empire of mind or of reason. "Under the empire of facts." --M. Arnold. [1913 Webster]

The first definition here is quite wide. It would obviously be false to say that America has supreme power as is evident from its problems in Iraq, Columbia, Afghanistan etc.

However, the third word, sway, is much looser and certainly more applicable. As a result of its cultural output, its economic might, its (actually our) language, and its military power, America certainly has a large sway over many people.

The second definition introduces the concept of territoriality, i.e. that an empire differs from a nation in that it exerts aspects of the first definition beyonds its borders. Well, yes, America certainly does hold sway over large parts of the world.

However, the word 'subordinate' is more problematic. Whilst other countries may be heavily influenced, even to the point of a loss of national sovereignty, by American decisions, they are still nominally equal in status in the eyes of international law, at the UN and so on.

The third definition, whilst repeating certain characteristics of the first, introduces perhaps the most important concept, that an empire can be of anything. The word empire usually invokes thoughts of the Roman or British Empire which were empires of land and people (or to use the collective term, nations) but we are not limited to these components.

So to answer the question: yes, by these definitions, America can be labelled an empire. An Empire of Language (though you guys picked up the baton from us on that one really) and an Empire of Culture.

But America is not certainly an Empire of Nations (though the Puerto Ricans and Al Qaeda may disagree). Nor is it an Economic Empire. The globalised world is too interconnected for their to be any single dominion holding sway over every else. Unequal influence, power or size yes, but not an Empire dictating its financial whims to others.

However, the final empire that America can lay claim to is the most contentious. It is an Empire of Values.

In the neo-conservative view of the world, America's values are universal and inherently good. They should be propagated far and wide, and in the Bush administration, this policy was combined with a miltary doctrine, to so far limited success. The locus of this policy was to bring nations suffering under despotic rule into this Empire.

Yet, in fact, even without this policy, there are millions who still wish to fall under this Empire. Some would rather strive to gain entry than have America forcibly help them (though I am sure there are still those, who despite Iraq, would welcome American intervention). To this extent, the American Empire of Values merely needs to exist. In doing so, it provides an advertisement for the empirical value of using these values on a day to day basis. We do not routinely speak of a Catholic Empire, yet in theory the Vatican and the Pope propagate and advertise a similar (and sometimes conflicting) set of values.

However, to also answer the second part of Jay's question, there is no one in charge of these Empires. It makes no sense to ask who is in charge of the English language: it's day to day use and empirical value as a lingua franca ensure its survival and its attractiveness. Similarly, there is no one in charge of the values of America. The values exist within America. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution protect these values. We could therefore say that Franklin, Jefferson & Co are in charge of the American Empire.

So, America is an Empire. But its rule is, mostly, passive and beneficial, it is in fact something to be proud of. It's most powerful effect is one of role model for the world. This makes it different to previous empires such as the British and Roman models, which were active and explicitly created for the purpose of subordinating others. As such, the inherent contradictions which ultimately brought down these empires may not apply to the American one. However, the Empire of Values is still vulnerable, still fragile and needs constant nurturing. We are lucky that in a small way this blog contributes to upholding those values by providing a forum for free speech and debate.


Jay said...

Neil: Thank you for this thoughtful assessment of the state of America. I was expecting a harsher view, so I'm somewhat relieved! I hope you'll post more in the future. I'll comment shortly.

Otis B. said...

Remember I am an Americanophile and am moving to New Rome in a few weeks so was unlikely to slate my pending host country!

I can equally write a long article excoriating some aspect of America but I try to never lose sight of the values embedded in America which I do believe are universal and, for the most part, benevolent.