The empire in the mirror

By Yousef Munayyer

So what do Belgium, South Korea, Honduras, Italy, Cuba, Greece, Indonesia and Kenya have in common? You may look at this mixed group and ponder what on earth they could share. Different continents, different populations and different forms of government make this question difficult. The answer is rather simple even though it’s not something we constantly think about, and that is the problem.

All of these countries are home to American naval or army bases. This is a mere selection of the total number of countries in which the U.S. has troops. No other nation on earth has troops and bases so widely distributed across the planet. America is, without doubt, a modern day empire.

The question is why is it that the American public has such a hard time accepting and acknowledging that reality?

The Roman Empire was filled with pride. Every Roman marched for Caesar or Rome. Some of the empires most valiant soldiers never laid eyes upon the city yet they entered battle with pride. The English empire, upon which the sun was not supposed to set, had soldiers marching into Sudan with battles cries about “King and Country.”

Today, with what is arguably the greatest empire in the history of empires, the subjects are reluctant to play their traditional roles. With so much of the world under American influence, there is no doubt the United States has hegemonic power. With a recent history of disregarding the international community, we have proven that unilateralism is our way.

In 1898, American imperialism began in the wake of the Spanish-American war. The Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba came under American control. Others would argue that even before that point American imperialism began with its manifest destiny to reach another ocean. Still others will argue that the same manifest destiny is the driving force in the minds of many policy makers today. From Haiti to Iraq, the American empire throughout history has wreaked havoc upon all which lies in its path. The effects of imperialism are still evident today in all these places.

Since 1898, imperialism has been embraced in practice but shunned in discourse.

Perhaps this is because of something rooted within the American culture. Having been a colony one can make the argument that “empire” was a sore spot in the American historical narrative. Even the farewell address of George Washington warned us about involvement abroad.

Perhaps this is because we have grown to learn what empires really are and the affects they have on the native populations that they demoralize.

Or maybe Americans simply find empires morally wrong. The ideological recommendations of the First World War president Woodrow Wilson called for the principle of self-determination. The idea that an individual had the right to be governed by his own people and not some foreign government gained acceptance.

When eight different crusades were launched from Europe hundreds of years ago, the claim to legitimacy was based on divine order. In other words, the motivation for leaving your fatherland and invading another’s was based on a moral principle.

When the Spaniards conquered much of America and encountered natives, many of them, were reluctant to harshly treat the inhabitants of the land. The Spanish crown for years delayed reforming its policy with natives and hid behind the cloak of “moral” legitimacy as they found the need to Christianize the new world. It was not till most of the native population of the Caribbean had died off that the Spanish had begun to realize the sheer hypocrisy in brutally expressing religion.

The colonizers of the last centuries that took over parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East excused their actions by using yet another moral principle. They believed they were advancing the barbaric societies and bringing them out of their savage ways.

Today, the new global empire does much the same thing. We invade foreign lands and justify this with moral principles. This time, however, it’s not direct commands from the divine or the need to spread the good news. Rather it is the burden of bringing “democracy” to those who do not have it.

The trend that develops is one of awakening. Eventually the crusaders gave up on Jerusalem (though some would argue they are at it again). The Spanish realized Jesus would not approve of killing Indians. The colonizers realized Algerians, Somalis, Indians and Vietnamese did not want civilization imposed on them, but rather they wanted the independence to have their own civilizations.

How long will it be before we realize the Iraqis and Afghanis do not want any of the democracy we are trying to force down their throats? If they want democracy, they can do it themselves. They are after all, civilized.

So here is our chance to learn from history. You see the imperial theater is accustomed to tragedy as every empire that rises consequently falls. We have arrived at a critical juncture in the development of the American identity. We have the choice to acknowledge our imperialism and attempt to avert the dangerous path we are on in nations we have occupied or to continue our immorality by justifying it with the so-called moral principles.

It is not till we see ourselves for what we are that we can begin to work on what we really want to be.

Yousef Munayyer is a Collegian editor.