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Is American an empire? America is the world's only superpower. It dominates the globe militarily, economically, and culturally. It is a 21st-century empire? And how does the rest of the world feel about that?

Well after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, in a mud-walled Iraqi town north of Baghdad, American troops in Apache helicopters and Bradley fighting vehicles fought for four days against Iraqi attackers hiding in a thicket of reeds.

More than thousand miles away in Afghanistan, American soldiers patrolling near the Pakistani border killed four suspected Taliban members in a three-hour gun battle.

Meanwhile in the South Pacific, American forces stationed in the Philippines were training Filipino troops in counter-terrorism to help them combat Muslim rebels.

Two years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, America's global reach and power has never been more obvious--nor more widely resented, and even feared, in many parts of the world. America now possesses the most awesome military power the world has ever known, surpassing the military might of the next nine nations combined. It maintains more than a million soldiers on four continents and aircraft-carrier battle groups on every major ocean. The U.S. economy, by far the world's largest, propels and sets the roles for global commerce. And American culture permeates the airwaves, movie theaters, and Internet chat rooms in virtually every corner of the globe.

"While Americans may not see themselves as an imperial people, they are so perceived across the globe," says historian Karl E. Meyer. "For reasons just or unjust, rational or otherwise, there is widespread unease about American methods and motives, even among the educated foreign elites whose children attend American universities."


The Bush administration flatly denies the U.S. has become an empire. America has "no territorial ambitions," President George W. Bush told a gathering of war veterans last year. "We don't seek an empire. Our nation is committed to freedom for ourselves and for others."

Of course, America's empire--if, in fact, that's the right term--is not like empires of times past, built on colonies and conquest. Americans think of themselves as the friends of freedom, human rights, democracy, mad self-determination. Indeed, the very idea of an American empire is ironic, considering the nation's history. The U.S. was born out of an 18th-century revolt against the British empire. It also played a key role in the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the fall of the Soviet Union's empire in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War.


Not everyone opposes the idea of an American empire. Niall Ferguson, a conservative British historian, calls the U.S. "an empire in denial." Ferguson urges America to live up to its imperial duties, often echoing the Bush administration's arguments about the need to promote democracy abroad.

Empires have always been seen as a mixture of tyranny and progress. The Roman empire, at its height in 117 A.D., included a huge swath of territory from Britain to the Middle East. The Roman emperor exercised absolute authority over his subjects, who complied under pain of death. And yet the so-called Pax Romana or Roman Peace was a period of stability, during which Roman legal principles and learning spread over Europe, Asia, and North Africa.

More recently, at the turn of the last century, Britain controlled 444 million people living on a quarter of the world's land surface, leading to the famous saying, "The sun never sets on the British empire." The lesson the U.S. can draw from the British Empire, Ferguson writes, is that the most successful economy in the world of that era, while admittedly exploitative and repressive, did a great deal to positively influence less advanced countries--fostering free markets, good government, and the rule of law.

President Bush, for his part, emphasizes the necessity of self-defense and confronting political evil. "All the good that has come to this continent--all the progress, the prosperity, the peace--came because beyond the barbed wire there were people willing to take up arms against evil," he said after visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, which American allies liberated during World War II.

One of the arguments in favor of America's global reach is that, like Rome, it can bring stability to otherwise lawless places. Many believe that a principal lesson of September 11 is that failed states like Afghanistan, or African war zones like Liberia and Congo, are breeding grounds of instability that fuel mass violence as well as terrorism. "Those who want America to stay away from such places have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests," says historian Michael Ignatieff.


But America doesn't have a very solid track record when it comes to spreading stability and democracy around the world. During the Cold War, the U.S. helped topple elected but left-ward-leaning governments in Iran, Congo, Chile, and Guatemala, paving the way for years of abusive tyrannies. In the name of fighting Communism, the U.S. armed and financed corrupt and brutal dictatorships from Central America to Africa Southeast Asia. Or consider the case of Afghanistan: In the 1980s, the U.S. armed and supported Islamic militants who were fighting against the Soviet invasion. But when the Soviet Union withdrew, the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan, paving the way for another decade of chaos, in which terrorists ultimately hatched and planned the September 11 attacks.

This troubled history explains some of the ill will toward America across much of the globe. "The American government has not always shown that it values other peoples' concerns and other peoples' interests and other peoples' dignity," says Amos Sawyer, an exiled scholar and former opposition figure in the West African state of Liberia. For decades, the U.S. propped up Liberian dictatorships before finally withdrawing all support, letting the country slip into a civil war that still rages. "There is a feeling of having been used and abandoned," Sawyer laments.

Perhaps nowhere are people more suspicious of American motives than in the Arab world. One reason is America's unflagging support for Israel, which is seen there as an occupying force. Another sticking point is U.S. support for corrupt Arab regimes that abuse human rights, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "People in Egypt and throughout the region see double standards," says Hanny Megally, an Egyptian lawyer for Human Rights Watch. "The United States talks about human rights and democracy, but then its actions tend to run contrary."

Because America is the world's only superpower, there is no country capable of providing a counterforce to America's imperial impulses. That's particularly worrisome because, historian Karl Meyer notes, mistakes made by imperial powers, sometimes with the best intentions, can wreak havoc for generations.

"What scares me is the casual way that big powers get involved with smaller or weaker powers, and the failure to live up to our promises," Meyer says. "The best case against empire is that it is really beyond the [ability] of even the best countries to run other countries."


* As the world's most powerful democracy, does the U.S. have a moral responsibility to extend its influence around the world?

* How would you answer a student from another country who said the U.S. dominates the world?


To help students understand the debate about American power: Is it a force for good or a source of concern and even fear among people in other lands?


CRITICAL THINKING/INTERVIEW: Break the class into into two groups. One group assumes the roles of spokespeople for the Bush administration. The other group assumes the role of journalists at a press conference. Members of both groups must use information found in "Is America an Empire?" to support their positions in the conference. You or a student of your choosing may glean items from the article to be used as the foundation for questions asked by the journalists and answered by supporters of the administration. Here are three suggested areas of discussion:

[right arrow] The question of empire. Journalists might refer to all three maps and ask the spokespeople whether the maps demonstrate that the U.S. is an empire. How should journalists phrase their inquiries? How might administration supporters use the maps to defend or otherwise explain the spread of U.S. power?

[right arrow] Culture, Movies, etc. The question both sides must address is whether exposure to a foreign culture or entertainment is a broadening or a constricting influence.

[right arrow] Helping Dictators: Refer to the fact that in the name of fighting Communism, the U.S. sometimes armed and financed corrupt and brutal dictators. Both sides should formulate questions and answers that address the problem of dealing with the world as it exists. (For example, is this a matter of spreading empire? Which was the greater threat to the U.S., Communism or anti-Communist dictators?)

WEB WATCH: The earliest and most persistent expression of U.S. power beyond its shores was in Latin America and the Caribbean. For a list of U.S. interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, go to

Upfront QUIZ 3


DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the correct answer.

1. The United States is the world's only

a large democracy.

b English-speaking military power.

c large-scale manufacturing country.

d superpower.

2. President Bush denies that the U.S. has become an empire. He says the mission of the U.S. abroad is to promote

a democracy.

b religious values.

c economic equality.

d understanding of the benefits of American culture.

3. While visiting a memorial to the innocents murdered at the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland, Bush suggested the need

a to outlaw religious discrimination.

b for Europe to become one country.

c to take up arms to fight evil.

d to forgive those who broke the peace in years past.

4. A principal argument in favor of America's new global reach is that it

a will improve the profitability of U.S. companies abroad.

b allows more Americans to learn from other cultures.

c can bring stability to otherwise lawless places.

d will guarantee U.S. military preparedness.

5. In the 1980s, the U.S. armed and then abandoned Islamic militants who fought against the Soviet Union's invasion of

a Afghanistan.

b Iran.

c Iraq.

d Saudi Arabia.

6. Perhaps nowhere in the world are people more suspicious of U.S. intentions than in

a South America.

b Arab countries.

c France.

d Africa.

1. (d) superpower.

2. (a) democracy.

3. (c) to take up arms to fight evil.

4. (c) can bring stability to otherwise lawless places.

5. (a) Afghanistan.

6. (b) Arab countries.

BILL BERKELEY is an investigative reporter for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Berkeley, Bill
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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