America has become an empire. Everyone says so.
This is a surprise to most Americans, since few imagined that they were building such a thing. But, as historians such as Walter Nugent and Robert Kagan have recently taught us, Americans have been at this imperialist expansionism for quite some time — really since the beginning of the republic. How else to explain that the United States has gone from a handful of agrarian colonies to a world-spanning colossus in the space of only a few centuries? As you read this, American military might is deployed across the planet. The U.S. Navy is literally larger than all of the other navies in the world combined. The United States military accounts for almost one-half of total global military expenditures. Never before in human history has there been such a disparity in power among sovereign states.
So, I have a question. If America is an empire (and everyone says that it is), then why is gas so expensive? I’m serious. One of the principle advantages of empire is the conquest and confiscation of other people’s property. Choose almost any historical empire and you will find just that standard operating procedure. From the Hittites to the Assyrians, from the Arabs to the Turks, from the Mongols to the Mamluks, from the French to the Germans — they all worked the same way. These empires built large military forces and proceeded to conquer their neighbors. They then used the resources of the vanquished to support further conquests, and continued to do so until satisfied, stopped, or defeated. A simple formula, it has been followed by multitudes of conquerors across history.
Now back to my question. Like any empire, the United States is powerful and pretty adept at conquest. In 2003 it conquered oil-rich Iraq. Critics of the war claimed that the Bush Administration lied about WMDs in Iraq so as to get their hands on the petro-wealth of the country. Chants of “No Blood for Oil” rang across American college campuses (or at least among the faculty members anyway). So, where is the oil? Iraq currently produces about 2.5 million barrels per day (down from around 6 million before the war). Americans buy that oil from the Iraqis on the open market. If the war was all about grabbing oil, then why don’t we own it? After all, Iraq was conquered fair and square. Why doesn’t the country belong to the conquerors?
If you find these questions appalling or just foolish, that’s good. So do I. But it is worth remembering that our reaction is unusual, at least from the perspective of history. If past empire builders such as Alexander the Great, Mehmed II, or Adolf Hitler had conquered Iraq you can be sure that it would belong to them. Enemies would be liquidated and the riches of the land would be extracted. Even the British Empire — no hard-knuckled empire of conquest — would have (and did) set up a colonial government in Iraq directly under the control of London.
This method of dealing with conquered territories — either by annexation or subjugation — has been used by history’s great empires for a good reason. It works. There is no need to deal with local government. It is pushed aside in favor of a new provincial or colonial government ruled by the empire. There is no need to train the local military to maintain order. The best soldiers are enrolled in the imperial forces and the rest are expelled or killed. Insurrections are put down brutally until the population accepts the new masters. You do have to have a stomach for slaughter — something the British did not have and thereby lost their empire — but when it is over you can enjoy the rich fruits of conquest.
The American method of empire is precisely the opposite. Rather than extracting wealth and raw materials out of its conquered territories, the United States pours its own wealth and the lives of its citizens into the rebuilding of the defeated. In Iraq, for example, the United States has spent billions of dollars constructing and defending a new country, one that is governed by its own people, not the American people. The same is true in Afghanistan, as well as South Korea, Germany, and Japan. If Americans have an empire (and everyone says that we do), then we certainly have a strange way of building it. It entails conquering enemies, picking them up, dusting them off, and then turning them into new friends. Americans do this not because it is a particularly efficient or clever way to build world hegemony. It is not. They do it because Americans sincerely do not want hegemony. They do not want an empire. They want peaceful friends.
The overriding objective of American expansionism is not opening markets or spreading freedom. It is security. After the devastation of World War II the United States began a policy of seeking security through alliances. NATO was the most visible, but there were others. These alliances were decidedly lopsided. Although all parties promised to defend each other from attack, the likelihood of, say, Belgium being called on to defend the United States from Soviet invasion was pretty remote. The reverse, however, was a distinct possibility. Through their alliances postwar Americans committed themselves to defending more and more countries from attack. In so doing, they extended their own security horizon, effectively pushing threats further away from the homeland. Since most Americans abhor the concept of imperialism, this strategy allowed for the projection of massive American power overseas while avoiding the trappings of empire.
It worked for a long time. Then the Soviet Union fell. With the collapse of Communism, the United States emerged as the world’s lone superpower, its alliances intact and expanding, its military just as powerful and far-reaching. The empire, for all of its quirks, stood starkly revealed (which is why everyone knows about it).
One could still argue that the United States does not have an empire. But history suggests otherwise. There is one historical state that built its empire in much the same way. The early Romans (despite what you may have seen on television) were an agrarian, pious, and isolationist people on the periphery of civilization. Like Americans, they reacted to outside threats by building alliances — first with the other city-states in Italy and then the kingdoms of the Mediterranean. They were militarily powerful but they had no interest in conquest. Throughout the centuries of the Republic the standard Roman practice was to rebuild defeated enemies and turn them into friends. At various times Roman legions conquered Africa, Greece, and Asia Minor — some of the wealthiest areas in the world. In each case the victorious soldiers were withdrawn and the captured lands returned to their people — now friends and allies of Rome. A Roman in the third century B.C. would have objected to the idea that his state was an empire. But a century later, after the fall of the Seleucids in Asia, the last rival superpower of the ancient world, it dawned on the Romans that they had, after all, built an empire. It was a surprise, because that is not at all what they had set out to do. As the Roman statesman Cicero later wrote, “By defending our allies our people have gained the whole world.”
America is not Rome, but it is building an empire in a remarkably similar way. It is one based not on conquest and subjugation, but a deep-seated desire for peace and security coupled with a healthy aversion to the concept of empire.
America does have an empire, just as everyone says. Yet it is not an empire of conquest. It is that much rarer variety: an empire of trust.
— Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History at Saint Louis University. His most recent book, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built – And America Is Building – A New World, will be released in July 2008.