Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Review of a review

Annoying article in the New York review of books here - concerning America and its empire, whether they have one, whether they ever wanted one and whether they should have one. All these arguments unfortunately come from the rightist liberal branch of history, where the narrative is that America had the cold war thrust upon it, that it never asked for the imperial responsibilities and actions that it had to do, that it only ever fought to thwart the intentions of the USSR and now that this bogey man has gone there are a whole new set of reasons for America to act in an imperial manner.

The reviewer is an idiot. He genuinely seems to believe that because America does not have an Emperor, that it does not annex territory and does not call itself an empire therefore it is not. It’s the same thing with the BNP, people say they’re not fascists because they don’t call themselves it. The point is not what you call yourself, it’s the way you act that defines it.
To start at the beginning, with world war two. Where the reviewer would have us believe that America was the most innocent of parties, merely trying to spread truth and justice and democracy about whereas nasty Stalin and crafty Churchill where playing the game of empires. Much as I would like to believe Roosevelt was some Liberal hero I get the feeling he knew a bit more about realpolitik than to take Stalin at his word, perhaps he did, I don’t know, I just doubt it.
The fact is that from the end of the war onwards America did not act like the naïve republic thrust into responsibility and forced to face the evils of communism out of a sense of duty. They were happy to carve up Europe, didn’t really mind Stalin talking the east, they gave it to him at Yalta and he stuck to it religiously. He could have taken Greece but it wasn’t on the list Churchill gave him of nations he could take, so he didn’t fund the communists there. The article fails to mention this quite important point, though it does do a good job of the Stalin Hitler comparison (old hat but good facts) and their similar ideas of empire.
The simple fact is that like many nations America has been imperial since its inception. The article glosses over the conquest of the American west, an aberration it is thought of, ancient history. Never mind those same excuses that are being used now, of freedom and the rest were used to hoover up the lands of the native Americans and happily exterminate them. Once those limits were reached, after taking bits of Mexico and buying other bits from France they had to accept their borders were concrete. That just meant having to change the narrative of their expansions. The Monroe doctrine was only the most blatant expression of this, that only the US could meddle with south America, there were many other imperialist actions. The difference to what the reviewer thinks is imperial is simply that the empire was never formal, the correct comparison would be the early parts of the british empire, where trade was used as the weapon to gain control. Why expend so much effort and resources invading a nation when you can just buy off and bully the government into giving all the benefits of empire with none of the responsibilities. Think british east India company before India became a colony of the Crown.
The success of that strategy was firstly that it generates less bad press, there’s less need for overt control and it allowed America in the 19th and 20th century to pose as the liberator against Europe’s old colonialism. But the policy was that of empire, the reviewer mentions only the Philippines, again as the exception. But what about Cuba? What about Panama? What about any latin American country in the 20th century, each one faced US imperialism.
It is true it is unique, as a method of control and mixed with the permeation of American culture has meant even now people are reluctant to call the US on what it does.
But America does have other features of empires, it is denied but there are enough dynasties in American politics, Kennedy’s and Roosevelts and Bush’s. There is a careful cultural brainwashing within America with much more resonance and similarity to an empire, the whole pledging allegiance, the idea that immigrants can be US citizens if they show enough loyalty, most especially by joining the army, has echoes from Rome.
The reviewer shows more foolishness by calling the IMF and world bank colossal mistakes in the post war world for Americas power. They were part of the perfect web through which America could exert soft power on almost all nations in the world. They did not have to use arms, they could use money. The fact this stick has broken down shows that American power is waning, not improving. Once an empire has to start invading places and drawing them in then you know its on the way out, the best empires are as informal as possible.
Frankly though surely just the mention of Vietnam, of Guatemala and iran in 1953 and Iraq now would be enough to prove that America has an empire, it acts in an imperial manner and that it is self consciously imperial. The guff now about whether america should become an empire, especially from that prat Niall Ferguson, have missed the point by about 150 years. Its already there, the US ruling class is doing nicely out of it and its only failure is that through arrogance in the absence of a strong state contender they have let the mask slip, they have become so blatant, so thick that they believe they can sweep into anywhere they like and nobody can stop them. Iraq has shown them they can’t, so it interesting to see what will happen next.


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