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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

America as an Exceptional Empire


America is an empire and an exceptional one at that. None of the scholars who’ve studied this subject challenge this perspective, but they don’t have a strictly constructed view on how exactly America is an “exception” as an empire in the modern age as each of them has their own reasons for calling America an “exceptional” empire. The themes that each individual author focuses on and extrapolate upon are what make each of the scholars different. These themes are based on a list that all the scholars are aware of in the debate on America as an empire. This list includes: (1) America as a “benevolent” empire that seeks to promote peace and order; (2) America is a liberal and democratic empire; (3) America is an overseas empire like the British Empire that rules through indirect control; and (4) America as a empire concerned with spreading human rights, democracy and free market principles. In summary, the “exceptional” nature of the US as an empire in modern history depends on how scholars choose to see it, as special, through their individual methods.

To set up a framework for evaluating the arguments of the scholars, it’s necessary to get a glossary of definitions set up for the buzzwords that are present in the debate on America as an empire in the modern age. These definitions are found in Stephen Howe’s Empire: A Very Short Introduction. First, the term “empire” is defined as “a large composite, multi-ethnic or multinational political unit, usually created by conquest, and divided between a dominant [center] and subordinate, sometimes distant peripheries.” Second, the term “imperialism” is defined as “the actions and attitudes which create or uphold [empires] – but also less obvious and direct kinds of control or domination by one people or country over others…[by creating a relation ship of economic dependency].” Third, “colonialism” is defined as the large-scale migration of people from core countries that settle in new territories and the “empire” forges a political order that favors the migrant population in a relationship of domination. The final and perhaps most important term is “neo-colonialism,” which is defined as a post-colonial situation “where an outside power – usually, but not always, the former colonial ruler – still exercises very great though half-hidden influence in ways that greatly resemble the older patterns of domination.” These definitions are general ones that provides a base and framework for understanding the debate at hand.

Doug Stokes argues in his article, Heart of Empire? Theorising US Empire in the Era of Transnational Capitalism, that America is “exceptional” in that it pretends – from an analytical point of view – that it’s not an empire and that its policies make it an “empire” that can be paralleled with the British and Roman Empire – who worked to forge order in the world through its tremendous might – and without any permanent acquisition of physical territory. The key element that, Stokes notes, makes the US empire special among US scholars, who examine the issue of American Empire, is the “reluctance” to use America’s great power by its leaders and how it was what allowed for the 9/11 Attacks to take place to give the US the “unintended momentum in…foreign policy” that has pushed it to build an “empire” without US dominance with its belief in spreading democratic values, human rights and free market ideas abroad into areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. What Stokes believes is happening is that the US has been acting like an empire for a long time in the pattern of the British and Roman Empires in its promotion of its political, economic and strategic interests since the end of WWII – which started an age of empire building by the US under the guise of fighting communism, but with a subtle and persistent pursuit of a global system of indirect rule with the US as a the hegemon and with a host of client states that act as markets and pawns of US interests. Opening markets and territories with economic and military might was America’s forte as an empire that was born from the global conflict of WWII. Furthermore, according to Stokes, this policy of indirect imperial rule was, in fact, continued in the Post-9/11 era in Iraq and Afghanistan and the creation of a ordered global capitalist economic order with the “aegis” of the US and consent of other great capitalist powers – which runs contrary to what the voluminous literature on the study of imperial America has stated about the US as being on a new path as an empire. The US role as the principle global capitalist power in the era of globalization, which sees as a creation of a global economic empire of “transnational governments” and “transnational capitalists” is the other side of what makes the US “exceptional” as an empire as it’s the agent that promotes and maintains this “empire” – as explained by Robinson and company. The only thing that makes America relevant is that it remains a distinct state in spite of its “transnational” actions and interests around the world and its place as the upholder of globalization and global capitalism. The summary of Stokes’ article is that the US is a empire that has consistently acted as an empire – but with a dual logic of being a protector of core areas of the world and global capitalist interests – which spans from the end of WWII to the present age of globalization.

In contrast to Stokes, George Steinmetz has a significantly different in his article on the debate – Return to Empire: The New U.S. Imperialism in Comparative Historical Perspective– on the exaggerated and “wildly misused” definitions of “empire” and “imperialism” – particularly within the “leftist” dominated field of sociology – within the realm of the debate about American Empire that portrays the “American Empire” of the 21st Century as a continuation of the ways of past empires. The “proper” definition of these terms, according to Steinmetz, are basically the same as what Howe provides in his book on “empire” as he also notes the non-territorial nature of America’s “empire.” The approach of “empire” is based almost entirely on the “imperial practices” of polities like the US who exert subtle and in some cases not so subtle control over other territories to suit its national interest. These definitions are important because the German overseas empire of the Late-19th and Early-20th Century is the model that is most closely identified with the US “empire” of contemporary times due to the similarities in their “native policies” – which are based on a relation of domination between center and periphery with consideration of the local elites and their interests and no strong direct control. The Iraq War in 2003 brought out something new in that the US was more direct in its attempt to control the new territory of Iraq with open force and direct control under a governor that sheds all the previous attempt to limit direct or overt ways of exerting control to the Iraqi state. Basically, Steinmetz argues that there are clear differences in the “empire” that the US had before the end of the Cold War and the one that emerged after the 9/11 Attacks due to the degree of subtlety used in forging of empire and exertion of control over local rulers for US interests.

In conclusion, the US is a exceptional empire in that it chooses not to be a traditional land empire and chooses to evolve with its interests by building a once discrete empire of indirect influence on the world and acting as a promoter of peace, order and globalization.