Last fall, Hugo Chavez stood before the United Nations and accused America of being an empire and charged President Bush with being the Devil incarnate (source). Many Americans wrote off Chavez’s rant as the raving of a crackpot dictator. What many people don’t know is that Chavez’s tirade against “American imperialism” reflects a mainstream view among many people both within and outside of the United States.
The rhetoric of “empire” is a fixture among those who have an antipathy towards American hegemony in the world affairs, and Chavez brought this rhetoric out into the popular consciousness. Chavez merely gave a glimpse of the kinds of things that American academics like Noam Chomsky have been saying for a very long time (see Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance).
I’m interested to know what my readers think about the popular use of the word “empire” to refer to the way the United States conducts its foreign policy. I have noticed more and more commentators throwing the word “empire” around as if it’s apt description of the United States’ place in the world. I do not believe that the United States or its foreign policy is inerrant. Nevertheless, I’m extremely skeptical toward the claim that it is an empire.
Historically speaking, empires (such as Rome or Great Britain) annex territory. Once the territory is acquired, it is governed by a single supreme authority (e.g., for Rome it was the emperors in Rome, at least until Diocletian). Without question, the United States is the single greatest military power in the world. Furthermore, American culture has a pervasive influence around the world. Yet the United States does not annex territory. Nor does it govern the areas into which it inserts itself militarily. For instance, the U.S. military has an imposing force in Iraq right now, yet Iraq is governed by its own democratically elected parliament (that by the way, often says and does things that the U.S. doesn’t like!).
So I’m wondering what you think. Do you believe that America can be fairly labeled an “empire” in the historical sense?