Whereas imperialism is typically characterized by conquest and rule, and colonialism by migration and residence in the conquered territory, neoimperialism is domination and sometimes even hegemony over others primarily by way of formally free legal agreements, economic power, and cultural influence. One of many designations for the form taken by U.S. political power and economic domination in the twentieth century, especially during and after World War II, neoimperialism is a name with serious faults. Other, clearer, and more vivid designations include informal empire, imperialism without empire, empire of liberty, and Pax Americana. But neoimperialism is the most common term, and therefore will be used here. The United States is not history’s only neoimperialist power, and neoimperialism is not exclusively a phenomenon of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, the United States is history’s most predominant and creative deployer of neoimperial power strategies, as opposed to directly colonial or imperial strategies. And the second half of the twentieth century is the period in which neoimperialism became the predominant mode of global political power.
Neoimperialism became a significant topic of discussion after the end of the cold war. Journalists and opinion-makers, poets and scholars, made efforts to measure and evaluate neoimperialism, and to advise the United States in its role as the world’s “indispensable nation” (as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once put it). In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, discussion of the ways and means of U.S. power intensified and took new turns as the United States became far more explicitly aggressive militarily, and returned to doctrines of nation-building and democratization through military intervention. But U.S. neoimperialism is not merely about use of military force, and did not begin after the cold war.
In fact, to understand U.S. neoimperialism, it might even be necessary to reconsider the foundations of the United States itself, as a republic in a world increasingly dominated by European empires. The British public first embraced the idea of a British Empire, an empire to rival or even exceed Rome’s famous empire, after victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1763. When the rebellion that began in 1776 freed the British Atlantic colonies from royal rule, the former colonists used a Roman and Whig political vocabulary to form a republic that emphasized democracy, equality, citizenship, freedoms, and strict legal limitations on governmental power. The new United States built a military apparatus primed more for intervention than conquest. This was partly out of weakness and necessity, rather than principle, and the United States showed little hesitation in using force to take land from Native Americans. However, early in the new country’s political history, the United States also developed its interventive military style and professed ideology of anti-imperialism, in the essentially defensive War of 1812 and most notably, in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. Thereafter the United States combined its insistence on the New World’s political independence and distance from Europe with a developing pattern of political interventions in the Americas, a pattern that might be summarized as willingness to overthrow but not to conquer and colonize the societies that were, derisively, dubbed banana republics by the U.S. media.
In the late nineteenth century, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s arguments for the importance of developing naval power and global reach led to the main exceptions to this developing pattern of U.S. military deployment. The United States provoked a war with Spain that enabled it to take possession of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, and more enduringly, to build naval bases in Manila Bay, in Guam, at Guantánamo Bay, and in Puerto Rico. While the United States did not pursue colonization on a Dutch, French, or British scale, abjuring opportunities to conquer China or even Mexico, it did avidly continue to collect naval bases that would sustain continuing global military power projection. These included the strategically crucial Pearl Harbor and eventually the rest of Hawaii, and also the only island suitable for a coaling station along the steamship route from Hawaii to Guam, an island the United States fortified and renamed “Midway.”
By the end of World War II (1939–1945), the United States had achieved global military domination, and after the war it found itself in a position to direct most of the terms of peace. The new world order largely shaped by the United States was dubbed Pax Americana. Collective memory of the establishment of Pax Americana is dimmed by the nearly immediate onset of the cold war, a mushrooming set of diplomatic conflicts and wars by proxy, as the Soviet Union resisted and contested the new world order planned and instituted under U.S. leadership at the new United Nations. But the logic and reality of Pax Americana is the key to U.S. neoimperialism, which has largely achieved its main criterion, “making the world safe” and keeping global peace, despite the stresses of the long cold war. Whereas between 1850 and 1900 a world population below two billion suffered over twenty million war deaths, and between 1900 and 1950 a world population under three billion suffered over sixty million war deaths, from 1950 to 2000, there were only around ten million war deaths for a world population that grew to well over five billion. Pax Americana is thus very real, and should be understood as a reaction to a history of European imperial rivalry and recurrent warfare—using ever more deadly military technologies—beginning in the eighteenth century and culminating in World War II. The key to neoimperialism, and its difference from older imperialisms, is the limitation of political will. In the United Nations era, no conquest of states by other states, or nations by other nations, is tolerable. The new United Nations and a growing network of global economic regulatory organizations oversaw the largely peaceful breakup of the European empires, including finally the Soviet Union, into what became the only legitimate political form, the nation-state. UN membership grew from 50 members in 1945 to over 150 in the 1970s and over 175 by the early 1990s.
That this Pax Americana is a U.S. neoimperialism has become clearer again after 9/11 and more especially, in the wake of the troubled, and troubling, U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein and occupation of Iraq. Is the United States really, in the last analysis, another imperial power? While some “realists” suggest that the problems and behaviors of all Great Powers are essentially similar, it is important to notice consequential differences. As Frantz Fanon once observed, it was always important to European colonizers to stay different from the colonized, to maintain an imagined superiority of race and civilization, and to imagine that their true society and history was that of their European “homeland,” even when they lived their whole lives in Africa or Asia. The European ideology of the “civilizing mission” created an illusion of the cultural superiority of “civilized” Europeans over allegedly backward natives. In the era of the United Nations, a far different ideology developed and was instituted. In this ideology, all nations are formally equal, free, territorial, and sovereign, and every nation-state becomes a “melting pot,” rather than the essentialist “homeland” of any particular racial or ethnic group. Economists and economic modeling, not historians and cultural education, are thought to be vital to the explanation and eradication of poverty and inequality.
While in the UN era the political will and reach of nations and states have been limited for good reasons, less has been done to trim the sails of the “other Leviathans,” the large corporations. On occasion, wealthy and powerful nation-states do legally restrain, and rarely even break up, corporations (from Standard Oil to Microsoft) whose power comes to threaten state sovereignty. But no similar leverage is afforded the smaller and economically weaker states, which are greatly pressured to take whatever global markets offer. Similarly, the poor states cannot stop the United States, Europe, and Japan from writing unequal and self-serving tariff rules into global trade agreements. Thus it is no surprise that in the era of Pax Americana, the rich nation-states have tended to get richer, and wealth gaps generally increase almost regardless of the internal economic policies of poor countries.
Other social and political developments in the era of Pax Americana have been more surprising, and unforeseen by the planners of this new world order. Elites in poor countries increasingly migrate to wealthier centers, creating unprecedented elite diasporas. These elite diasporas from poorer countries to centers of wealth are often actively encouraged by the governments of poor countries, and increase the “multicultural” character of centers of wealth. Many ex-colonial nation-states abandon democracy, temporarily or perduringly, with army leadership claiming to represent the nation better than ideologically driven and divisive political parties can, a pattern that perplexes planners who expect nations always to behave democratically. And the states in some nation-states collapse altogether, creating complex and violent situations that are rarely resolved through direct military intervention by “peace-keepers.”
U.S. neoimperialism certainly resembles the European imperialism of prior generations in its political manipulation, economic domination, and willingness to resort to military force. But there are also major differences. Through decolonization, many former colonial subjects gained formal rights and freedoms as citizens of new states. Yet nation-states created new, specifically postcolonial predicaments. Ironically, nation-states created by decolonization limit the political reach of the world’s poor to the boundaries of their own nation-states. At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to uplift are more responsible to their donors than to their clients. It is unlikely that the entrenched problems of neoimperialism will be solved by new and further intervention by wealthy and powerful states into the political and economic affairs of poorer states. Inequalities will continue to grow until, one way or another, the globe’s poorest citizenries find means to intervene into, influence, and reorient economic and social policies in the centers of wealth.
SEE ALSO Cold War; Colonialism; Decolonization; Empire; Imperialism; Nation-State; Neocolonialism; Neoconservatism; Neoliberalism
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