An Empire, If You Can Find It? American Hegemony and Imperial Control
Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire (Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2019).
The concluding words of Daniel Immerwahr’s new book should leave no one in doubt as to where he stands. “The history of the United States is the history of empire,” he observes, stripping away the pretense of a U.S.-led liberal international order and demoting the United States from benevolent superpower into the ranks of greedy European imperial states. America’s overseas territories and military bases are — in Immerwahr’s telling — every bit as much shaped by racist and colonialist forces as their 19th-century forebears. America today still constitutes what he describes as a “pointillist empire”: a globe-spanning hegemon enabled by the tiny specks of land it controls across the globe.
The idea that America is an empire, of course, is not a new one. It has a long pedigree among authors, intellectuals, and left-leaning critics of American foreign policy. At least historically, whether it was westward expansion or the annexation of the Philippines, U.S. leaders repeatedly expanded America’s territorial footprint and global reach while simultaneously denying or concealing that they were doing so.
But while Immerwahr’s book draws a straight line between America’s history and its present, reality is fuzzier. Was America an empire? Undoubtedly. Is America today still an empire? It’s much harder to say, particularly because the author steers clear of the political science debates about hierarchy, imperial systems, and global governance. The concept of “empire” is fundamentally about political control. But Immerwahr instead focuses on the physical aspect of empire: on territory and, specifically, on America’s 800-some bases around the world. His book thus hews to a more traditional understanding of empire as territorial control, rather than to modern conceptions of empire as informal control, “soft hegemony,” or political and economic influence.
Immerwahr’s territorial focus is a compelling frame for understanding the injustices of America’s colonial past — and the fact that the American public has yet to come to terms with it. But today, if the United States has an empire, it is not territorial. It is a far subtler network of informal control that sustains and prolongs America’s privileged political and economic position in the international system. So while there are many good strategic, economic, and even moral reasons to downsize America’s global military footprint, focusing on territory is misplaced. The real question is whether the United States should be seeking or maintaining global political dominance. Primacists — at least tacitly — often agree it should; realists argue that it’s simply not necessary to do so.
To make the case for America’s modern-day “pointillist empire,” Immerwahr’s book inverts a commonly heard argument. As pundits like Thomas Friedman are wont to opine, new technologies shrink the world. That feeling of a smaller, more connected world understandably — though often wrongly — raises fears that American security is imperiled by faraway events. The result, as Patrick Porter describes, is that “fear is never far away from the rhetoric of globalism, about new vulnerabilities and the ease with which aggressors can apply violence over large spaces.”
For Immerwahr, however, it’s not about security. Instead, technology is the great enabler of American empire. Technological innovation — from airplanes to malaria pills — has allowed postwar America to project power without the need for occupation and direct military control of more than a few strategically located specks of land. Aircraft carriers obviate the need for permanent air bases. Radio and satellites enable long-distance communication without control of the territory in between.
It’s an intriguing and intuitively appealing argument in an era of American military primacy. The “pointillist empire” that Immerwahr describes can be visualized as the small pinpricks of land necessary to make the whole system work. America’s base network includes airstrips on remote islands (Ascension or Diego Garcia), forward bases (Ramstein in Germany or Al Udeid in Qatar), and smaller cooperative security locations (various counter-terrorism bases in Africa, for example). Some of these host missiles or drones, others communications technology, and still others just soldiers and sailors.
Yet while the book effectively makes the case that technology enables America’s global military presence, the thornier question is whether that setup truly constitutes an empire. For political scientists, territory isn’t the measure of empire; political control of peripheral areas outside the metropole is. Colonialism is one model of empire, but not the only one. Today’s base network undoubtedly raises some of the same moral issues as colonialism does: There are sovereignty concerns in places like Okinawa. There are human rights considerations, whether it’s human trafficking near military bases or the continued exclusion of locals from ancestral lands in the Chagos Islands. But modern-day America’s territorial holdings — its military bases — simply don’t rise to that level of political control. This is why most political scientists who study the question of empire in American foreign policy today don’t focus on territory. Instead, they frame it in terms of political influence or hierarchy.
Of course, even if America does retain some sort of empire, the book — perhaps unintentionally — makes the case that it is substantially more benign than most historical empires. To be frank, the modern iniquities of the “pointillist empire” presented in the book’s latter half are minor when compared to the gut-wrenching overview of American conquest and colonialism that makes up the first half of the book.
The book is unflinching in its refusal to shrink from the darkest corners of American imperial history. It explores America’s conquered territories — places like Guam, Saipan, the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico — and the choice of American policymakers in the 19th and 20th centuries to largely hide this unofficial empire from public scrutiny. In retrospect, the reasons are obvious. America has long viewed itself as a republic, not an empire. Imperial possessions undermined that cherished myth.
The situation was also complicated by the racist attitudes of the era. Unlike many other empires, the United States offered a path for territories to eventually join the union as full partners. But territories like Puerto Rico or the Philippines could not easily follow that well-worn path to statehood without forcing America’s political class to reckon with the fraught question of citizenship and political rights for non-white residents. Better, leaders decided, to ignore the issue and hide it from public view.
Unfortunately, the results were often devastating for the natives of these territories. The American territories were (and are) a legal no-man’s land: full of U.S. nationals rather than U.S. citizens, bound by only some of the country’s legal and constitutional framework. Some of the consequences were horrifying, from torture at Guantanamo Bay to the use of Puerto Rico as a testing ground for drugs deemed too risky or difficult to test on the mainland.
Immerwahr’s book is thus a call for Americans to acknowledge their own past. Implicit in the text is a variety of challenging moral questions that Americans rarely have to confront: the horrors of colonialism and the culpability and guilt that subsequent generations should bear for the sins of their fathers.
As a British citizen, I and most of my peers are familiar with these questions, if only thanks to family history. My great-grandfather died in World War I defending the Palestinian territories. My great-great-great uncle was David Livingstone. Yes, that Dr. Livingstone. So trust me when I say that I have seriously thought about the legacies of colonialism. It’s deeply uncomfortable to know that your ancestors helped to build an empire, subjugated less advanced countries, and attempted to “civilize” them.
It’s even more uncomfortable to know that many still believe empire to have been an unabashed good; as Boris Johnson once memorably described Africa, “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.” The controversy resonates strongly in Britain’s political culture today and shapes its global interactions.
Is the same true for the United States? Americans, of course, have similarly meditated on their culpability for slavery and segregation. In the 2020 presidential campaign, reparations have become a mainstream topic of discussion. But as How to Hide an Empire highlights, Americans don’t have a similar frame for their imperial past: It has been effectively hidden from them. Generations of American politicians endeavored to convince mainland populations that territories like Puerto Rico were not truly “America,” with the disturbing result that, even today, 46 percent of Americans don’t know Puerto Ricans are citizens. The secrecy continues to this day: It often takes security breaches and intrepid journalism for the locations of America’s overseas bases to even become public.
As a result, Immerwahr’s book is a riveting read whose policy implications — despite the somewhat misguided focus on America’s base network — are as much about facing the past as suggesting a path for the future. America’s status as an empire today may be debatable, but its colonial legacy is laid out clearly and completely in a story that’s hard to put down. That legacy of ambivalence about empire is relevant for today’s foreign policy debates, and it is clearly still shaping life in the semi-American territories today.
At a time when President Donald Trump rails on Twitter about ungrateful and lazy Puerto Ricans and his administration tries to portray that territory as a foreign country and denies it the disaster aid granted to predominantly white states, Immerwahr’s argument is deeply relevant. To right the injustices he spotlights, Americans would need to start a serious debate about Puerto Rican statehood. They’d need to end unjust and unequal laws like the Jones Act, which imposes harsh penalties on businesses and citizens in Hawaii, Alaska, and elsewhere. They’d have to give residents of territories like Guam much more choice about whether they choose to host U.S. bases and missiles.
And to address the more difficult question of modern American empire, they’d need to grapple with whether today’s foreign policy is truly a benign global system of liberal order or simply a more subtle and insidious form of empire. It would be an extremely difficult conversation. After all, as How to Hide an Empire makes clear, how can Americans contend with the legacies of colonialism — let alone consider the tricky question of whether America today has or should have an empire — if its imperial past is hidden from them?
Emma Ashford is a research fellow in Defense and Foreign Policy at the Cato Institute.
Image: Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography