Empire: Affluence, Violence, and U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States is the most affluent nation in the history of the world.

The United States has the largest military in the history of the world.

Might those two facts be connected? Might that question be relevant in foreign policy debates?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for such discussion in the campaigns; conventional political wisdom says Americans won’t reduce consumption and politicians can’t challenge the military-industrial complex. Though not everyone shares in that material wealth, the U.S. public seems addicted to affluence or its promise, and discussions of the role of the military are clouded by national mythology about our alleged role as the world’s defender of freedom. Business elites who profit handsomely from this arrangement, and fund election campaigns, are quite happy.

There’s one word that sums this up: empire. Any meaningful discussion of U.S. foreign policy has to start with the recognition that we are an imperial society. We consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, made possible by global economic dominance backed by our guns.

Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet’s largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her book The Bases of Empire that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That’s in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel, and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East, home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.

Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy, and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.

In its global policy — especially in the Middle East — U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only though invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.

But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren’t sustainable. Just as the age of affluence is coming to a close, so is the age of U.S. domination of the world.

That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert.

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  1. kanomi said on October 7th, 2010 at 12:28pm #

    I should say first, I like Robert Jensen, when I’ve heard him. I think he means well. But we should be used to narrowly-confined thinking emerging from the sepulchural depths of academia, given the mental straitjackets those people put themselves into in order just to get accredited by the system. But even given that low hedgerow, a statement like this is comically naive:

    “That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.”

    Who is “we”? What truth are “we” going to tell? Who is going to listen? Who is going to shape that vision? Some Disciplined Minds chatting over coffee in the faculty lounge? Haven’t reformers and activists, anarchists and unionists, been crying for at least two centuries about the pure evil of “our” own greed and violence? Jensen’s lines are bromides all, and not particularly eloquent ones at that. Jensen, consciously or not is blaming the victim for the oppressor’s crimes:

    I never bombed Pakistan. I never voted for these warmongering whores. I don’t support the two party dictatorship, nobody else should either. It’s not “my” greed and violence – it’s theirs. It’s not my “new vision of a good life” that will be enacted, it is theirs. That is a classic psychopathic manipulation point, attributing the crimes of an individual collectively, even if it was only the individual who enjoyed and profited from them.

    More to the point: Talking about the Empire without talking about either geopolitics or again talking about the global ‘superclass,’ as described in Rothkopf’s book of the same name, that group of transnational corporate criminals who owe no allegiance to anything but their own wealth and power, is unsustainable thinking, to coin a phrase. It is irrelevant what I think, or Professor Bromide thinks, or anyone here commenting thinks. We live under an oligarchical corporate dictatorship. We aren’t paid to think about that.

    The Well-Meaning Professor continues: “But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren’t sustainable.”

    Nonsense. The policies are sustainable if you have no morality. And the psychopathic ruling elites have shown again and again that they have none. The death of millions means nothing to them, provided they can protect and sustain their stolen fortunes. How will the death of billions differ?

    They can sustain their way of life indefinitely, provided 90% to 95% of the population – whom they consider animals anyway – are killed off.

    Until and unless you understand — really think about it and put it in your heart — that the enemy has the amorality of a serial killer and the arsenal of a superpower, you will forever be surprised and flabbergasted by the sheer audacity of their evil striving, forever on the defensive, forever confused, forever afraid, forever saying well-meaning words that do nothing but distract and dissuade from the beating heart of evil at the core of the would-be world regime.

  2. mary said on October 10th, 2010 at 3:13am #

    Compulsory reading here for every American, Briton and those from the other nations who formed the damnable ‘coalition’.

    The Nightmare: The Iraq Invasion’s Atrocities, Unearthing the Unthinkable
    Felicity Arbuthnot