Thoughts on the American Empire

Kevin Glick

“The world has been made worse by having the Americans try to rule it, and it will be made even worse once they give up and walk away.” (Sean Gabb)

That’s an interesting perspective, and one with which it’s difficult to argue. While it is technically correct in pointing out that America long ago made the conscious decision not to build an empire, I think it’s incorrect to conclude that this decision has remained in force up to the present time. The evidence certainly indicates otherwise.

At any rate, at no point does that conscious decision seem to have been based in consensus. As America grew stronger, so too did the will to power of at least a segment of the elite. Moreover, I think it was mostly the result of a realistic assessment of America’s strength relative to other powers at the time. When there did exist a general acquiescence amongst the majority of the ruling elite that America would do well to stick to its own hemisphere rather than try to join in the building of empires common at the time – it was a moot point of discussion, because an empire couldn’t be had at that time, anyway.

Regardless, after the Civil War America became, at the very least, a continental empire. The old constitution having, to say the very least, been degraded by the annihilation of the Southern aristocracy and the inversion of the balance of power vis-a-vis state and federal tiers of government. It didn’t end there. Colonies were taken after the Spanish American War. After the First World War there was a segment of the elite that saw an opportunity to take its seat on the world stage, although that opportunity was lost – the result of strong internal opposition. However, that opposition was effectively neutered by the time the Second World War concluded. Afterwards, it seems to have been the determined will of the elite not to allow that opportunity to slip away a second time.

The only impediment, following the Second World War, was the Soviet Union and by the end of 1991 that impediment was gone. There were plenty of gaffes and lots of fumbling about before that time, but after 1991 the American elite, armed with all the tools of power accumulated during the Cold War, felt that their time had finally come. This is clear from their own words and from the history of American foreign policy from that time down to the present.

I studied National Security, Middle Eastern, & Russian studies at university from 2008 to 2014. In that time, from all the books I was asked to read and all the discussions had with professors, a clear, logical, and achievable strategy or even a coherent guiding ideology for America’s role was strangely absent. Perhaps incomplete would be a more appropriate term. Anyone who has read the Lexus & the Olive Tree, Clash of Civilizations, The End of History and the Last Man, and The Pentagon’s New Map and compared them can see the intellectual chaos and the lack of an informed view of history (perhaps even a refusal to acknowledge its relevance, in some instances).

So America has its empire. It fell into her lap more or less unexpectedly. She didn’t and still doesn’t know quite what to do with it. There is certainly disagreement. But the realities of empire do not wait for intellectuals and statesmen to hash everything out on paper before real problems arise, which demand real solutions delivered in real time. And so America has inserted herself into the midst of nearly every international (and sometimes internal, domestic) dispute and has done so with an eclectic set of goals and varying degrees of understanding of what she was getting herself into, what the ramifications would be, and how it fit in to the pattern of her previous and future actions.

Nonetheless, she provides some stability for the current economic order and has created certain geopolitical balances which, but for her intervention, would tip one way or the other. When she packs her bags and goes home, she will leave in her wake a million accumulated scores, left unsettled and in some cases frozen in time for decades, which will not only thaw and emerge as fresh as they were the day America first intervened, but many will certainly set ablaze. And what of the current economic order? What kind of transition can we look forward to and where will it lead? And what of all the regimes in Europe that have modeled themselves in America’s image and subordinated much of their policies to America’s will? What will they be replaced with and what political turmoil will accompany the transitions? I don’t have any answers.

Sean Gabb recalled an old saying about Augustus – shame he was born; shame he had to die. This is indeed very appropriate here. It certainly matches my sentiments on the matter.


  1. The leaders of America would do well to remember the old saying “Be nice to the people you meet on your way up the ladder, because your going to be meeting them again on your way down”.

  2. I think this post from Kevin Glick began as a response to my comment on the 9/11 thread: (

    My speculation on that thread can be summarised this way-

    Having been evacuated of its ethnic characteristics, America lacks the self-confidence and mission of a true empire. Instead, it has adopted a commercial ideology (individualism, mass democracy, etc.) that it seeks to spread around the globe, which is just a cookie-cutter rationalisation that can be in-filled with whatever foreign or industrial interests hold sway among the Washington, D.C. Establishment – after 1991, it seemed to be a combination of the military/aerospace industry and the Jewish/Zionist lobby. I think part of the reason for, and cause of, 9/11 was a lack of American self-confidence of the kind that gave formulation to the Monroe Doctrine, which was a quiet Republican America telling the rest of the world that it would not be an empire, but would zealously guard its legitimate hemispherical interests.

    In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, we saw a glimmer of this historic self-confidence return in the reaction of the Bush Administration, but it was in my view channelled in the wrong direction. Instead of a truly American-centric foreign and security policy, Bush (perhaps understandably) pursued a policy that put America second to militarism and imperialism. By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and entangling itself in foreign matters that are not its proper concern, the United States has weakened its own security. Of course, the Bush neoconservative approach to things (which really began under Bill Clinton) has to also be seen in the context of forty or more years of domestic and foreign policy in the United States, which includes a massive expansion of the state (ironically, most of all under Reagan, who grew the federal government significantly) and a disastrous immigration and border policy that has existed since the 1960s hand-in-hand with an erosion of American civic virtue and declining self-confidence among white Americans about asserting their ethno-European identity.

    America does act imperially, but it is not a true empire. It does not annex countries. Iraq has remained an independent sovereign state. It had a provisional U.S. military government for a while, but this was explicitly transitional and was dissolved quickly as the civilian government took over. America has invaded or occupied Grenada, Libya, Lebanon, Vietnam and a host of other countries and territories without annexing them. Can anybody name a country that was actually annexed by the United States? I am sure there are some – I can name a hand full without much thought – but they are few in number, even over a time span of some 230 years of the country’s existence, and detailed investigation tends to reveal that the motive in most cases was not empire-building.

    Another argument that is used as a basis to classify America as an empire is to suggest that by annexing territories under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny to expand its reach across the Continent to the Pacific, the government of the antebellum 19th. century United States forged a continental empire. A famous painted mural springs to mind, called ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’:

    I acknowledge that a casual search of the popular literature – and some of the academic work – on the subject reveals a widely-held belief that America was engaged in empire-building on its own continent. But I disagree, as I don’t consider that this reflects reality. The United States itself is a nation-state and so by that criterion is not an empire, irrespective of how it was formed geo-politically. Similarly, nobody says that early England was an empire just because it was formed through the agglomeration of various kingdoms, and I’ve never heard anybody suggest that Britain is an empire, even though its early geo-political history is analogous to that of the United States, and even bears connections in that the folkways of Britain were transposed to Colonial America. But Britain itself is not an empire.

    Not that I am defending the United States – I think America’s record is appalling – I am just trying to categorise its foreign mission correctly. It’s not an empire. You can attach the word ’empire’ to it, if you like, but that’s just a lazy templating of a common word for something that is sui generis and defies easy categorisation.

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