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A Sole Superpower? A Critique of Old Uncle Sam’s Imperialism

As much as they deny it, it is clear to anyone with a good eye to tell how imperialistic the United States is. This imperialistic nature of the United States goes far back to the time of its founding in the late 18th century. In this article, we will discuss the history behind how through imperialism, the US became the dominant state that it is today.

A New Empire Emerges

Very early on the US was already designed to be an imperialistic state that it is. Late in the 18th and early 19th century, the world was a very different place. Western powers needed more money and territories, and as such imperialism was the norm of the day. Due to it, imperialism rooted already in its birth, the first 70 years of the US was filled with expansions throughout North America with a wave of growth that saw the cleansing of indigenous people who populated the continent. But by the end of its Civil War of 1865, its expansionist policy met a unique form of challenge. Americans were divided on whether it should expand further outside its current borders, with some post-war leaders such as Secretary of State William H. Seward argued that the US should become a global power. Attempts of expanding were made, but wistfully, this only resulted in the purchasing of Alaska. Americans including many from Capitol Hill had a strong anti-imperialist bent. These people worried about the US getting more involved in global politics, as well as biased reasons such as fear of having “inferior” populations, integrate into their lands.

Eventually, though something would change the US from the infant that it was to a conqueror of lands. With the rise of the industrial revolution, a surge of economic growth was expanding throughout America. Its booming economy needed a more centralized state and bureaucracy to manage the flourishing economy. This caused power to be concentrated in the federal government, ultimately making it easier for presidents to become warmongers. The next few years would see American expansion like never seen before, bringing it to war with Spain on the island of Cuba, defeating them, and acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in the process in 1898. Just like how addicting victory is like to a drug, they continued to attain lands, such as Hawaii, Wake Island, American Samoa, the Panama Canal, and the Virgin Islands. Such expansion and growth cemented the US as a truly global power on the map. From this, it is clear that the US has already imperialistic ambitions from the start, and its craving for more power isn’t stopping anytime soon.

Figure 1.1: US Eastern Expansion (1939)

Diplomacy Through Guns and Bucks

It is apparent to anyone that the US loves their money and guns, and of course, notoriously they are quite known to have a mindset as Julius Caesar would say, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Interestingly throughout the 20th century, this imperialistic mindset would still come around but in a very different form. As for where early in its years’ wars and territorial expansion would be the norm, this century would mark American expansionism of mainly economics and ideology through the act of “diplomacy”. Already by the end of a great depression and 2 major world wars, the US has already cemented itself as a great political, economic, and military force, being the only major power to avoid an economic ruin during the wars, the only country that has obtained atomic weapons, and a founding member of the United Nations.

Even with this, their greedy hands couldn’t get enough of more things to control in the world. They created, with 730 delegates from 44 allied nations in New Hampshire, the Bretton Woods Agreement (1944). Initially, this treaty was “designed” to be a global financial system that would prevent another great depression and a world war. But the “system” included creating institutions that saw many controversies to this very day in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But essentially this also meant that practically all international transactions, especially in the oil industry, had to be used with the US dollar, securing it as a global currency. This gave major implications for the US, as not only do they now have enormous control of the world’s economy but also are now deeply embedded into the world’s problems. There have been countless examples of many countries that have tried in the past to get away from these restrictions such as Gaddafi’s Libya, where they seek to sell their oil through their currency, but just like the imperialist mindset, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Figure 1.2: Wartime change in GDP: six countries (1913)

Militarily, we can also see examples of what could be considered imperialistic acts, most notably during the Cold War during the 20th century. America’s greatest rival, the USSR, in their sense, could also be considered an imperialist state, saw things differently in the branch of ideology. This caused the Cold War, a battle of 2 main ideologies, democracy, and communism. Such sparked many close encounters of a new world war between 2 great powers, each trying to convince countries to join their side. The US, using their guns and money, convinced countries that they would protect them, and in some cases outright intervene in the internal affairs of other countries and overthrow their government. Examples include the creation of NATO, the largest military alliance in the world, which was designed solely to deter the USSR from western Europe.

With NATO, they installed military bases around the world at an unprecedented rate and essentially making European countries as vassals for their military infrastructure. European countries also had to pay a specified amount of GDP, 2% to their defense, or there would be heavy reprimands. Covertly, the US would also intervene in other nations to contain Soviet influence, sometimes this meant supporting dictators such as in Iran, or supplying arms and money to rebels in Afghanistan in 1979, and Nicaragua in 1985. Due to it, terrorism would spur-like never seen before to this very day. Within the course of the Cold War, the US ended up with a complicated network of alliances, tensions, and relationships in practically every corner of the world. In the end, these acts would see many impacts towards this modern era, regardless of what the US thinks of others, as long as it benefits them, they’ll surely do it.

Figure 1.3: End of Cold War Alliances (1991)

US Foreign Policy Today

To anyone’s surprise, this imperialistic behavior continued to this very day up to the 21st century. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the US would have withdrawn from many of its Cold War policies, severing ties with its allies and drawing down the size of its military. While the US did decrease its military spending, much of the military infrastructure and alliances from the Cold War remained. President George Bush and Bill Clinton decided it would be both in America and the world’s interests for the United States, now the sole superpower in the world, to continue actively managing global affairs. Things such as NATO stayed and even expanded, with the absence of the Soviet threat.

Remnants of this absolutist behavior could be seen as many would consider the post-Cold War era a time where the United States intervened in many global affairs which were mainly motivated by oil, known as the Gulf War. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the question of imperialism was raised as the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with vague reasons such as Iraq claiming to have “weapons of mass destruction” without solid evidence. The invasion led to the collapse of Iraq’s Ba’athist government and its replacement with the Coalition Provisional Authority. The Iraq War opened the country to the country’s oil industry to US firms for the first time in decades and arguably violated international law, while Iraq stays unrest up to this very day.

Figure 1.4: Defense Budget Differences between Major Powers (2013)

In short, the United States wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for this imperialistic attitude it has for the last 200 years. There global system of alliances and institutions created during the Cold War has now become permanent and what’s keeping them in power, as did the political commitments and the 800 military bases in over 70 countries which keep the system running today, and no leading American politician since the Cold War has seriously called for dismantlement — except perhaps for Donald Trump. Will this president be the first to dismantle such systems, or will his word be nothing but an act? Nothing but time will tell.

References

[1] Vox. 2020. How America Became The Most Powerful Country On Earth, In 11 Maps. [online] Available at: <https://www.vox.com/2015/5/20/8615345/america-global-power-maps .> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
[2] 2020. [online] Available at: <https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199 329175-e-83 .> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
[3] 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.sgasd.org/cms/lib/PA01001732/Centricity/Domain/153/APUSH%20American%20Imperialism> [Accessed 7 August 2020].
[4] Npr.org. 2020. NPR Choice Page. [online] Available at: <https://www.npr.org/2019/02/18/694700303/the-history-of-american-imperialism-from-bloody-conquest-to-> [Accessed 7 August 2020].

This piece was written by Fikri Fahmi Faruqi, the vice president for development of Aspiratif.id and published through our page.

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Aspiratif.id is a youth-led initiative that is aimed to give access for youth to express their opinions in fields previously dominated by ‘experts’.

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