An empire is "a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government: usually a territory of greater extent than a kingdom, as the former British Empire, French Empire, Russian Empire, Byzantine Empire, or Roman Empire." (See here.)
It is pertinent that Alexander Hamilton consistently thought of the pre-constitutional confederation of thirteen sovereign States as an empire. In Federalist 13 he writes:
"The ideas of men who speculate upon the dismemberment of the empire seem generally turned toward three confederacies — one consisting of the four Northern, another of the four Middle, and a third of the five Southern States. There is little probability that there would be a greater number. According to this distribution, each confederacy would comprise an extent of territory larger than that of the kingdom of Great Britain."
In Federalist 1:
"The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world."
Hamilton said in Federalist 22 that the existing structure under the Articles of Confederation was infirm because it did not rest on a vote of "the PEOPLE." He wanted American empire to be more solidly based:
"The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority."
James Madison in Federalist 14 sees an empire in place in America prior to adopting the new constitution:
"Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many cords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellowcitizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire."
If America was an empire in 1787, how much larger an empire is it today?
But calling America an empire and knowing that America is an empire, which indeed it is, does not resolve important questions that affect the lives of those who are ruled. An empire is ruled by a "powerful sovereign or government." How powerful? How far does its rule extend over the lives and activities of its subjects? The rule of American government keeps expanding, over many who dissent from it.
Do these subjects of empire consent to be ruled? Do we Americans consent? By what means?
If the government is powerful, what restrains it? What is to stop a government from gaining inordinate power?
Who are the persons who have this sovereign power that creates an empire? How do they decide what to do with it? Who is "the PEOPLE" that sanctions their power? Is it all Americans? Who says we are one people with this sovereign power?
Wherein lies the consent in those persons who do not regard other people (and thus the U.S. government) as sovereign over them? Why should some people have the power to boss everyone else around ad infinitum if the former do not approve? Wherein lies the consent in those who believe that it is a mistake to elevate any man to a position of power unless under constraints that are not in evidence in an existing empire?
What happens if the sovereign reinterprets its constitution without the direct involvement of "the PEOPLE"?
Is a person automatically a subject of a sovereign by virtue of where he is born? Is he automatically part of "the People"? Wherein lies his consent?
Does sovereign power actually rest and emanate from "the PEOPLE"? If so, how does that come about? What of the people who do not accept this notion?
These questions reveal that empire does not rest on a solid theoretical basis. Empire has no basis in a reasoned understanding, nor does it rest on agreement, morality, or even a freely-offered consensus. The American civil war made that clear of the American empire. Compulsion is an important supporting pillar to American empire. Raw force, domination, and power are key ingredients in American empire. Without these, the empire would quickly dissolve, and new structures would emerge. That power includes the power to tax. It includes the power to regulate and legislate in every sphere of American life. It includes the power to communicate and heavily influence communications to the American people. The government has the tools to create enough approval and consensus among enough people and institutions to support its acts of domination. It has the tools to assure that whatever virus of empire is in the blood stays there and multiplies.
George Bush’s attack on Iraq in March, 2003 was an act of empire. It was an act of a sovereign attempting to extend its sovereignty to a foreign land. At a minimum, it sought the goal of changing Iraq’s form of government. The attempt to institute democracy or otherwise control the affairs of a foreign state via war is not a charitable act of giving. It is an act of an empire using force. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld used the term "shock and awe" to describe its effects.
President Bush and others took advantage of the 9/11 massacre to promote the Iraq War. Neither the American government nor the American people have learned from the Vietnam experience to stay away from interminable and costly wars with unachievable objectives. Neither places much value on lives lost, bodies injured, or on families, livelihoods, and structures torn asunder, so long as they are not American. A minimum of 100,000 Iraqis have died. In most cases, no one knows who killed whom, or why. Terrorists were attracted to Iraq. Various groups within Iraq begin to kill each other. The American attack and victory unleashed forces beyond its immediate control.
America attacked another country that was no threat without provocation and justification, or with a host of false justifications. Americans were subject to a propaganda campaign. Bush revved up an incredible and false propaganda machine. It fell on many accepting ears. He had no compunctions about attacking a country that was no threat to the United States. Clinton’s bombing of Iraq and his war making in Yugoslavia were a prelude.
Congress funded the war. Congress approved the war. The war is an act of the American government as a whole. Warfare between the U.S. and Iraq did not begin in 2003. It has been going on since August 2, 1990, when Iraq attacked Kuwait. Leading up to that war, America armed Saddam Hussein, even with the means of creating biological weapons that he used against Iran and his own people. American empire has been operating in Iraq and other countries of the Middle East for a long time. Empire has gotten into the American blood, not without a receptive host and an active effort by government and others to assure its virility. Empire does not meet with anything more than token resistance or disapproval from most Americans.
The United States has significant and influential war lobbies, oil lobbies, construction lobbies, weapons lobbies, and Israel lobbies. The lobbyists influence Congress, which funds the wars through taxes, borrowing, and inflation. Lobbyists have been effective in influencing Congress. They have been effective in gaining media exposure to support their causes. This influences public opinion. The government itself goes to great lengths to influence public opinion. The acts and powers of empire rest on a machinery of money, influence, communications, and legality.
The ambitions of American empire are alive and undiminished today under a new President and a new Congress. How well they are, given the financial problems of the government, is another matter. The government acts as if it still has access to plenteous resources to fund its adventures abroad and at home. As expected, Democrats are less interested in Iraq than in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it’s still empire. The press carries accounts of the Israeli option to attack Iranian nuclear facilities without American approval, but it is extremely unlikely that such an attack is possible without outright American approval or perhaps signals that America would not seriously sanction Israel for such a campaign.
The concept of American empire has deep historical roots, going back as they do to 1787, including the American civil war, the continental expansion, and the coming of age as a world-class power. American empire has deep institutional roots. It has deep financial roots. And it has deep roots in the hearts of Americans.
Neither the British empire, the French empire, the Southern states, the Spanish empire, the German empire, the Japanese empire, nor the Russian empire have checked the American empire. The American empire may have reached and passed its apogee. At present, it’s on a downhill slide. Its policies are increasingly rigid. The business success that formed its financial foundation is increasingly hamstrung. The American people are increasingly subservient and dependent on transfer payments. Their governments are increasingly powerful and yet dysfunctional. The leadership is increasingly shallow. High debt and depreciation of the currency are facts of life. A marked tendency toward concentration of power is present. Large business corporations and lobbies increasingly turn first, last, and always to Washington. Now, with the bailout programs, even venture capital firms are looking to public funding.
A resurgence of empire, an increase in its status and vitality, is not out of the question. There are few signs of it in the political sphere at present. The empire has apparently passed its prime. Empire is something that poisons the blood of the body politic. Empire brings about its own demise. There are signs of increasing fragmentation, as in the case of some legislators in some individual States beginning to resist the national government and speak of secession. The worse that things get for the empire, the more such movements will arise.
Americans are going someday to have to live with the end of their empire. They will have to get it out of their system. This will be a very good thing, because a renaissance in American life at all levels will accompany a diminishment of American empire. Making the transition away from empire and back to a healthy society will be an important and tough challenge, far more so than sending a man to the moon, because this involves such deep changes in thinking and institutions at the personal, social, and political levels. Empire is in the blood of Americans. Purging it is going to be a traumatic experience.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.