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The American Empire.

People often refer to the United States as the world's greatest existing empire. Some even assert that America is the most powerful empire, relative to the rest of the world, since the Roman empire two millenia ago.

Unlike other empires, past and present, however, the American empire is built mostly on its wealth creating capacity (as opposed to, simply, its static quantity of physical treasure), on its liberty, and on its diversity and freedom of thought and expression, not on the insatiable lust for control over finite resources that characterized so many empires before ours. Unlike the Roman empire, the American empire is about ideas and values that people around the world are eager to embrace.

For some, spreading liberty and democracy, promoting free-enterprise, and otherwise advancing the ideas and ideals that made America so great is equivalent to spreading tyranny. For many, especially on the left, there is a sad and unfortunate lack of belief that American values are ultimately universal values. For some, America is hypocritical and imperious when it advances its values throughout the rest of the world. Cultural and moral relativism on the left often go too far, even to the point of refusing to take a stand on clear moral issues. For much of the left, George W. Bush is as bad as or worse than Adolf Hitler.

Failing to believe in the power of America's values is the left's greatest tragedy in recent years, and it explains why the moral underpinnings of the liberal movement are so depleted. For the sake of acceptance and tolerance, liberals have become hostile toward their own country, skeptical of American influence, even to the point of cheerleading for America's failure. Many on the left today believe the world would be better off with a marginalized and diminished United States; if America, the real axis of evil, went into a steep decline, it would mark a glorious and peaceful new day of harmonious cooperation for the world, they think.

The American empire has never been about colonization of foreign lands or subjugation of unwilling peoples. The American people were almost too isolationist for too long, before it became clear that the world is too interconnected to let threats from evil ideologies like Naziism and Communism fester and bubble. Some say that 9/11 shocked Americans out of the belief that two vast oceans protect the U.S. from hostile countries, but it was the two World Wars of the early-to-mid 20th century that shook Americans from their default penchant for isolationism (afterall, the Founders warned of entangling alliances). 9/11, perhaps, revived the idea that America has a duty to actively shape the world for the better, rather than allowing emerging threats to gather unchecked.

America became the power that it is today, though, not because of colonization of Africa or Asia or the Middle East. America became the premier economic power, of the world through innovation, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and trade. America's economy is so large that even with hundreds of thousands of troops deployed all around the world, and active conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, military expenditures total a mere 3.3% of the United States Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which ranks the U.S. at 37th in the world. However, in terms of actual dollars spent on military, the United States ranks first, with more money spent than the next fourteen nations combined.

Click for larger version.

In dollars:

This is a clear demonstration that economic might becomes political and military might; the United States can outspend China, France, the U.K., Japan, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Australia, India, Turkey, Brazil, Spain, Canada, and Israel, combined. Indeed, in some ways the global America military aegis during the Cold War has remained, allowing our allies to maintain smaller levels of forces without any negative impact on their own security. Afterall, the Americans will take care of business if anything bad happens; it's the classic free-rider effect.

When people complain about a lack of a broad coalition in Iraq or elsewhere, are they making a legitimate argument? Could France or Germany even do much to help out in Iraq?

Combined, the military expenditures of France and Germany are only about a fifth of American expenditures. Their actual active-duty forces available for deployment are even smaller, and France's troops and equipment are often tied up in post-colonial quagmires in Africa.

For whatever reason, people who view the world through Marxist lenses are not able to accept that the United States is truly a benevolent empire, a positive force in the world. The Marxists (and let's not pretend Marxist thought is not pervasive in vast segments of academia, the media, foreign governments, labor unions, and much of the Democratic Party, especially the grassroots) assert that America only fights cynical wars for oil; they say that globalization is really a sinister and dangerous form of American imperialism no less imposing and damaging than the Great Power colonialism of the 15th through 20th centuries; they say that America is the bourgeois holder of capital and the third world is the exploited "proletariat." Their solution is redistribution of wealth, which includes the dismantling of the American economy; Marxists do not believe, despite all the evidence, in the mutual creation of new wealth. Marxists refuse to acknowledge that global economic growth can be good for everyone. Meanwhile, mercantilism, the theory that one nation can only grow wealthy at the expense of another, still holds intractable sway with the LaRouche wing of the Democratic Party, and with the labor unions.

Wealth is not a zero-sum game. When America prospers, so can the rest of the world. Likewise, it is not necessary for the American economy to shed its wealth or its wealth-generating capacity for countries in the third world to emerge into economic success. President Bush's recent selection of Paul Wolfowitz to lead the World Bank is a clear demonstration of America's commitment to mutual economic success with the third world.

It is hard for the Marxists to get past their fear and loathing of American economic might, but if they did, they would see that the United States can and must lead the world economically, and when America leads, the world benefits. A prosperous world is a more peaceful world, and the ultimate long-term stability comes from economic growth.

One of the books WILLisms.com has certified as classy, An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power, by John Steele Gordon, deserves a few words of praise from WILLisms.com for its examination of these issues.

An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

At American Heritage's website (not to be confused with the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation), Gordon gives a brief glimpse of his own book:

The “empire” in the title comes from the fact that while the United States is, by far, the most powerful country in the world, it has no empire and never has had. The United States, after all, has only 6 percent of the world’s land area and 6 percent of its people, almost all of whom speak English and regard themselves as American. However, we conquered the world economically and have about 30 percent of the global gross product. While it was the Roman legions who Romanized the Mediterranean basin 2,000 years ago by force of arms, it has been U.S. entrepreneurs who have Americanized the modern world, through such means as blue jeans, Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, rock ’n’ roll, automobile assembly lines, and computer chatrooms.

John Steele Gordon's book is worth reading for the big-picture ideas it advances, but it also provides poignant and relevant details of the American story. For example, you'll learn a lot of neat details about American life, such as James Gordon Bennett's blueprint for the modern American newspaper. Bennett coined the use of the word "leak" to describe stories slipped to reporters by politicians for their own purposes. Bennett also made newsboys hawking papers on the street a fixture of American society for generations.

The book is full of great examples of American entrpreneurialism and its contribution to the rising colossus. But it remains a book about the big picture, about liberty and free enterprise, about America's role in the world.

Gordon asserts, on page 15 of his book:

The relentless spread of democracy and capitalism in recent decades, to a large extent in the light of the American example, is a peaceful and largely welcomed conquest--at least by the people, if often not by the elites who have seen their own power slipping away. It is a conquest more subtle, more positive, more pervasive, and, in all likelihood, more permanent than any known before.

Gordon examines the history and development of ideas that made America great, explaining that many of the Founding Fathers were believers in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. He also takes on Marxism, explaining why America never caught on to outright socialism, noting that while America is not purely oriented to the free-enterprise system, "the United States has consistently come closer to the Smithian ideal over a longer period of time than any other major nation."

Gordon explains why the Marxist view of history, summed up in Marx's own words found in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, is so pitiful:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered and transmitted from the past." That is very true, almost tautological. Marx, however, never visited the United States. (For that matter he never visited a factory--all Karl Marx knew of the proletariat he claimed to champion was what he read in books written by his fellow intellectuals.) Had Marx ever ventured to the New World, he would have seen a country that, because of circumstances, did make its history as it pleased far more than any other Great Power.

WILLisms.com has noted that this Marxist view of the world and of history is shared by leaders of foreign governments, but not by effective American presidents, and certainly not by George W. Bush. If President Bush believed Marx's view of human helplessness in history, his vision for spreading liberty would seem absurd and unachievable. It's no wonder the French, for example, influenced greatly by Marx's view of history, find the notion of advancing democracy so incomprehensible. Under their framework for understanding the world, the Marxists believe there must be some reason (exploitation, empire-building, revenge, megalomania, etc.) for the Bush Doctrine other than liberty and freedom and everything else the President has said all along.

Posted by Will Franklin · 20 March 2005 03:00 PM

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George w. Bush is truly a fearless leader. whether or not you like or dilike him, you have to give this man credit for standing up for his convictions.
From almost the very moment he took office he was bombarded with some real obstacles. The first one being Gore conceding and then taking it back!
Next,911 and having to take all the blame for that!
CLINTON should have done something after the first bombing of the twin towers.
Thank Goodness we have George instead of Kerry!

Posted by: Linda at March 20, 2005 03:20 PM

Wow. Excellent piece (and not just for linking to one of mine, but that helps enormously). I'm going to have to think about this one and read it over a few more times, but I think I'm going to quibble on one point.

You said "this is a clear demonstration that economic might becomes political and military might." I don't think it's quite that simple. Japan and Taiwan, for example, can be argued to be economic superpowers, but they are not regarded as major military (or, in Taiwan's case, political) powers. That's a misperception, because Japan's military is much more capable and potent than many give them credit for, but they are still viewed as not a military power.

I think it might be fairer to say that economic, political, and military power tend to boost one another, symbiotically, and gains in one tends to boost the others. Further, I think political power tends to derive from the other two, and not something that stands on its own. Without the clout of economic or military might behind a nation, it's much safer to just "ignore" them.

Hmm... this is getting a bit long. I might have to plagiarize from myself here and put up my own posting on the topic over at Wizbang. Thanks, Will; I appreciate the food for thought.


Posted by: Jay Tea at March 20, 2005 03:30 PM


Great points.

Japan is in the top 5 in terms of military spending, although it only spends 1% of its GDP on its military forces. Taiwan spends 2.7% of its GDP but maintains a decent military.

You could also argue that Japan and Taiwan could, if they wanted, become serious military forces, and do it without a lot of pain back home, because of their large economies.

But you're right, the causal arrow goes both ways. I think it goes more from economics to military power. The Soviet Union, for example, just couldn't keep up. For America, the arms build-up was still manageable. For the USSR, it consumed a huge proportion of their economy.

Posted by: Will Franklin at March 20, 2005 03:40 PM

Another good piece (found your site over the weekend). I would observe, if you strip away the polispeak, America when she's on her game, is really the champion of what I call the Revolution of Ralph, as in Cramden. A country is nothing if it cannot offer the chance that 'Everyman' can reach their best potential. It is that opportunity that America offers the rest of the world.

And you see that in Iraq now. Having removed the seed of fear, weathered the terrorist storm, average Iraqis since the vote are taking hold of their own destinities. They are telling Jordan to kiss off the terrorists. Even the Sunnis see that if they want to get on the wagon then need to work in the new arena that has been built.

Whoever boards Ralph Cramden's bus is sure to get somewhere. The route may be long, the ride lumpy, and strewn with potholes. But there is and end and it usually is good.

Ideas do ultimately trump tanks.

Posted by: JonnM at March 21, 2005 04:10 PM

One must question the benefit of empire when people who do not share in its' benefits strike back.

Posted by: Collin Baber at March 29, 2005 05:59 PM

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