Thomas Jefferson, in the 1790s, awaited the fall of the Spanish Empire "until our population can be sufficiently advanced to gain it from them piece by piece." In turn, historian Sidney Lens notes that "the urge for expansion – at the expense of other peoples – goes back to the beginnings of the United States itself." Yale historian Paul Kennedy put it, "From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation." In a 2008 address to Boston University, Noam Chomsky stated that "talking about American imperialism is rather like talking about triangular triangles." Detailing George Washington's description of the early United States as an "infant empire", Benjamin Franklin's writing that "the Prince that acquires new Territory ... removes the Natives to give his own People Room... may be properly called [Father] of [his] Nation," and Thomas Jefferson's statement that the United States "must be viewed as the nest from which all America, North & South is to be peopled," Chomsky stated, "the United States is the one country that exists, as far as I know, and ever has, that was founded as an empire explicitly."
Stuart Creighton Miller says that the public's sense of innocence about Realpolitik impairs popular recognition of U.S. imperial conduct. The resistance to actively occupying foreign territory has led to policies of exerting influence via other means, including governing other countries via surrogates or puppet regimes, where domestically unpopular governments survive only through U.S. support.
The maximum geographical extension of American direct political and military control happened in the aftermath of World War II, in the period after the surrender and occupations of Germany and Austria in May and later Japan and Korea in September 1945 and before the independence of the Philippines in July 1946.
American exceptionalism is the theory that the United States occupies a special niche among the nations of the world in terms of its national credo, historical evolution, and political and religious institutions and origins.
Philosopher Douglas Kellner traces the identification of American exceptionalism as a distinct phenomenon back to 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who concluded by agreeing that the U.S., uniquely, was "proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived."
American exceptionalism is popular among people within the U.S., but its validity and its consequences are disputed. Some American citizens will participate in exceptionalism without even being aware of it. Such instances occur when American interests and advancements are justified solely on the basis of its economic standing or the protection of human rights. The American public's attitude towards intervention in Cuba and the Philippines was one of enthusiasm.
As a Monthly Review editorial opines on the phenomenon, "in Britain, empire was justified as a benevolent 'white man's burden'. And in the United States, empire does not even exist; 'we' are merely protecting the causes of freedom, democracy and justice worldwide."
When World War I broke out in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson promised American neutrality throughout the war. This promise was broken when the United States entered the war after the Zimmermann Telegram. The war for the United States was "a war for empire" according to the historian W. E. B. Du Bois, as historian Howard Zinn explains in his book, A Peoples Republic . Zinn argues that the United States entered the war in order to create an international market that could be beneficial to the United States through conquest.
During the First World War, some of the American Imperialism at the time can be viewed as imperialism to stop the spread of democracy to certain countries, such as Haiti. According to the noted writer and progressive Randolph Bourne, the United States did not enter the war with intentions to make the world a better place or else they would have required a principle of international order. Bourne criticizes intellectuals who gave support for the war without knowing the true intentions of the United States government. Even though Bourne believes that the United States entered the war imperialistically, he states that many intellectuals believed at the time that the United States intervened in the war to promote democracy. Bourne believes that by leading the public into the war, with many intellectuals unsure of the actual reasons for the war, the country led an apathetic nation into what he considers an irresponsible war.
The United States invaded Haiti in July 1915 after having made landfall eight times previously. American rule in Haiti continued through 1942, but was initiated during World War I. The historian Mary Renda in her book, Taking Haiti, talks about the American invasion of Haiti to bring about political stability through U.S. control. The American government did not believe Haiti was ready for self-governing or democracy, according to Renda. In order to bring about political stability in Haiti, the United States secured control and integrated the country into the international capitalist economy, while preventing Haiti from practicing self-governance or democracy. While Haiti had been running their own government for many years before American intervention, the U.S. government regarded Haiti as unfit for self-rule. In order to convince the American public of the justice in intervening, the United States government used paternalist propaganda, depicting the Haitian political process as uncivilized. The Haitian government would come to agree to U.S. terms, including American overseeing of the Haitian economy. This direct supervision of the Haitian economy would reinforce U.S. propaganda and further entrench the perception of Haitians being incompetent of self-governance.
In February, Russia went through the first revolution of 1917, which removed Czar Nicholas II from power. The United States, including President Wilson, praised this revolution and felt that it was a step towards post-war world order. Not long after in October 1917, the Bolsheviks overthrew the new Russian 'unity' government in the second revolution. The United States government was stunned with the second revolution and was against the Bolshevik proposed armistice with the Central Powers. In order to keep the Bolsheviks from gaining allied supplies in Russia, Wilson agreed to an intervention in Russia. The United States and the allies entered into a war with the Soviets, with the first U.S. troops landing in Russia in September 1918. After the defeat of the Germans, the war in Russia continued, with the United States and the allies opposing the Bolsheviks. This intervention in Russia was imperialistic by its nature opposing the Soviet government in favor of a government that would align with the allied and American views. In their attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik government, the United States showed an imperialistic attitude towards a nation that was still aligned with the allies officially.
Journalist Ashley Smith divides theories of the U.S. imperialism into 5 broad categories: (1) "liberal" theories, (2) "social-democratic" theories, (3) "Leninist" theories, (4) theories of "super-imperialism", and (5) "Hardt-and-Negri-ite" theories. There is also a conservative, anti-interventionist view as expressed by American journalist John T. Flynn:
The enemy aggressor is always pursuing a course of larceny, murder, rapine and barbarism. We are always moving forward with high mission, a destiny imposed by the Deity to regenerate our victims, while incidentally capturing their markets; to civilise savage and senile and paranoid peoples, while blundering accidentally into their oil wells.
A "social-democratic" theory says that imperialistic U.S. policies are the products of the excessive influence of certain sectors of U.S. business and government—the arms industry in alliance with military and political bureaucracies and sometimes other industries such as oil and finance, a combination often referred to as the "military–industrial complex". The complex is said to benefit from war profiteering and the looting of natural resources, often at the expense of the public interest. The proposed solution is typically unceasing popular vigilance in order to apply counter-pressure. Johnson holds a version of this view.
Alfred T. Mahan, who served as an officer in the U.S. Navy during the late 19th century, supported the notion of American imperialism in his 1890 book titled The Influence of Sea Power upon History. In chapter one Mahan argued that modern industrial nations must secure foreign markets for the purpose of exchanging goods and, consequently, they must maintain a maritime force that is capable of protecting these trade routes.
A theory of "super-imperialism" argues that imperialistic U.S. policies are not driven solely by the interests of American businesses, but also by the interests of a larger apparatus of a global alliance among the economic elite in developed countries. The argument asserts that capitalism in the Global North (Europe, the U.S., Japan, among others) has become too entangled to permit military or geopolitical conflict between these countries, and the central conflict in modern imperialism is between the Global North (also referred to as the global core) and the Global South (also referred to as the global periphery) rather than between the imperialist powers.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the idea of American imperialism was reexamined. In November 2001, jubilant marines hoisted an American flag over Kandahar and in a stage display referred to the moment as the third after those on San Juan Hill and Iwo Jima. All moments, writes Neil Smith, express US global ambition. “Labelled a war on terrorism, the new war represents an unprecedented quickening of the American Empire, a third chance at global power.”
On October 15, the cover of William Kristol's Weekly Standard carried the headline, "The Case for American Empire." Rich Lowry, editor in chief of the National Review, called for "a kind of low-grade colonialism" to topple dangerous regimes beyond Afghanistan. The columnist Charles Krauthammer declared that, given complete U.S. domination "culturally, economically, technologically and militarily," people were "now coming out of the closet on the word 'empire.'" The New York Times Sunday magazine cover for January 5, 2003, read "American Empire: Get Used To It." The phrase "American empire" appeared more than 1000 times in news stories during November 2002 – April 2003. Two Harvard Historians and their French colleague observed:
Since September 11, 2001 … if not earlier, the idea of American empire is back... Now … for the first time since the early Twentieth century, it has become acceptable to ask whether the United States has become or is becoming an empire in some classic sense."
It used to be that only the critics of American foreign policy referred to the American empire… In the past three or four years [2001-2004], however, a growing number of commentators have begun to use the term American empire less pejoratively, if still ambivalently, and in some cases with genuine enthusiasm.
US historians have generally considered the late 19th century imperialist urge as an aberration in an otherwise smooth democratic trajectory... Yet a century later, as the US empire engages in a new period of global expansion, Rome is once more a distant but essential mirror for American elites ... Now, with military mobilisation on an exceptional scale after September 2001, the United States is openly affirming and parading its imperial power. For the first time since the 1890s, the naked display of force is backed by explicitly imperialist discourse.
In the book "Empire", Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that "the decline of Empire has begun". Hardt says the Iraq War is a classically imperialist war, and is the last gasp of a doomed strategy. They expand on this, claiming that in the new era of imperialism, the classical imperialists retain a colonizing power of sorts, but the strategy shifts from military occupation of economies based on physical goods to a networked biopower based on an informational and affective economies. They go on to say that the U.S. is central to the development of this new regime of international power and sovereignty, termed "Empire", but that it is decentralized and global, and not ruled by one sovereign state: "the United States does indeed occupy a privileged position in Empire, but this privilege derives not from its similarities to the old European imperialist powers, but from its differences." Hardt and Negri draw on the theories of Spinoza, Foucault, Deleuze and Italian autonomist Marxists.
Geographer David Harvey says there has emerged a new type of imperialism due to geographical distinctions as well as unequal rates of development. He says there has emerged three new global economic and political blocs: the United States, the European Union and Asia centered on China and Russia. He says there are tensions between the three major blocs over resources and economic power, citing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the motive of which, he argues, was to prevent rival blocs from controlling oil. Furthermore, Harvey argues that there can arise conflict within the major blocs between business interests and the politicians due to their sometimes incongruent economic interests. Politicians live in geographically fixed locations and are, in the U.S. and Europe, accountable to an electorate. The 'new' imperialism, then, has led to an alignment of the interests of capitalists and politicians in order to prevent the rise and expansion of possible economic and political rivals from challenging America's dominance.
Classics professor and war historian Victor Davis Hanson dismisses the notion of an American Empire altogether, with a mocking comparison to historical empires: "We do not send out proconsuls to reside over client states, which in turn impose taxes on coerced subjects to pay for the legions. Instead, American bases are predicated on contractual obligations — costly to us and profitable to their hosts. We do not see any profits in Korea, but instead accept the risk of losing almost 40,000 of our youth to ensure that Kias can flood our shores and that shaggy students can protest outside our embassy in Seoul."
The existence of “proconsuls,” however, has been recognized by many since the early Cold War. In 1957, French Historian, Amaury de Riencourt, associated the American “proconsul” with "the Roman of our time." Expert on recent American history, Arthur M. Schlesinger detected several contemporary imperial features, including “proconsuls”: Washington does not directly run many parts of the world. Rather, its "informal empire" was one "richly equipped with imperial paraphernalia: troops, ships, planes, bases, proconsuls, local collaborators, all spread wide around the luckless planet." "The Supreme Allied Commander, always an American, was an appropriate title for the American proconsul whose reputation and influence outweighed those of European premiers, presidents, and chancellors." Harvard Historian Niall Ferguson calls the regional combatant commanders, among whom the whole globe is divided, the 'pro-consuls' of this 'imperium.' “The Romans often preferred to exercise power through friendly client regimes, rather than direct rule: until Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer became US proconsuls in Baghdad, that was the American method too.”
Another distinction of Victor Davis Hanson—that US bases, contrary to the legions, are costly to America and profitable for their hosts—expresses the American view. The hosts express a diametrically opposite view:
At an alliance-level analysis, case studies of South Korea and Japan present that the necessity of the alliance relationship with the US and their relative capabilities to achieve security purposes lead them to increase the size of direct economic investment to support the US forces stationed in their territories, as well as to facilitate the US global defense posture. In addition, these two countries have increased their political and economic contribution to the US-led military operations beyond the geographic scope of the alliance in the post-Cold War period … Behavioral changes among the US allies in response to demands for sharing alliance burdens directly indicate the changed nature of unipolar alliances. In order to maintain its power preponderance and primacy, the unipole has imposed greater pressure on its allies to devote much of their resources and energy to contributing to its global defense posture… [It] is expected that the systemic properties of unipolarity–non-structural threat and a power preponderance of the unipole–gradually increase the political and economic burdens of the allies in need of maintaining alliance relationships with the unipole.
In fact, increasing the “economic burdens of the allies” is one of the major priorities of President Donald Trump.
A variety of factors may have coincided during the "Age of Imperialism" in the late 19th century, when the United States and the other major powers rapidly expanded their territorial possessions. Some of these are explained, or used as examples for the various perceived forms of American imperialism.The prevalence of racism, notably John Fiske's conception of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, and Josiah Strong's call to "civilize and Christianize"—all manifestations of a growing Social Darwinism and racism in some schools of American political thought.
Early in his career, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in preparing the Navy for the Spanish–American War and was an enthusiastic proponent of testing the U.S. military in battle, at one point stating "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one".
Industry and trade are two of the most prevalent factors unique to imperialism. American intervention in both Latin America and Hawaii resulted in multiple industrial investments, including the popular industry of Dole bananas. If the United States was able to annex a territory, in turn they were granted access to the trade and capital of those territories. In 1898, Senator Albert Beveridge proclaimed that an expansion of markets was absolutely necessary, "American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours."
Annexation is a crucial instrument in the expansion of a nation, due to the fact that once a territory is annexed it must act within the confines of its superior counterpart. The United States Congress' ability to annex a foreign territory is explained in a report from the Congressional Committee on Foreign Relations, "If, in the judgment of Congress, such a measure is supported by a safe and wise policy, or is based upon a natural duty that we owe to the people of Hawaii, or is necessary for our national development and security, that is enough to justify annexation, with the consent of the recognized government of the country to be annexed."
Prior to annexing a territory, the American government still held immense power through the various legislations passed in the late 1800s. The Platt Amendment was utilized to prevent Cuba from entering into any agreements with foreign nations, and also granted the Americans the right to build naval stations on their soil. Executive officials in the American government began to determine themselves the supreme authority in matters regarding the recognition or restriction of independence.
When asked on April 28, 2003, on al-Jazeera whether the United States was "empire building," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld replied "We don't seek empires, we're not imperialistic. We never have been."
However, historian Donald W. Meinig says the imperial behavior by the United States dates at least to the Louisiana Purchase, which he describes as an "imperial acquisition—imperial in the sense of the aggressive encroachment of one people upon the territory of another, resulting in the subjugation of that people to alien rule." The U.S. policies towards the Native Americans he said were "designed to remold them into a people more appropriately conformed to imperial desires."
Writers and academics of the early 20th century, like Charles A. Beard, in support of non-interventionism (sometimes referred to as "isolationism"), discussed American policy as being driven by self-interested expansionism going back as far as the writing of the Constitution. Some politicians today do not agree. Pat Buchanan claims that the modern United States' drive to empire is "far removed from what the Founding Fathers had intended the young Republic to become."
Andrew Bacevich argues that the U.S. did not fundamentally change its foreign policy after the Cold War, and remains focused on an effort to expand its control across the world. As the surviving superpower at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. could focus its assets in new directions, the future being "up for grabs" according to former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz in 1991. Head of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, Stephen Peter Rosen, maintains:
A political unit that has overwhelming superiority in military power, and uses that power to influence the internal behavior of other states, is called an empire. Because the United States does not seek to control territory or govern the overseas citizens of the empire, we are an indirect empire, to be sure, but an empire nonetheless. If this is correct, our goal is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order.
In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the political activist Noam Chomsky argues that exceptionalism and the denials of imperialism are the result of a systematic strategy of propaganda, to "manufacture opinion" as the process has long been described in other countries.
Thorton wrote that "[...]imperialism is more often the name of the emotion that reacts to a series of events than a definition of the events themselves. Where colonization finds analysts and analogies, imperialism must contend with crusaders for and against." Political theorist Michael Walzer argues that the term hegemony is better than empire to describe the US's role in the world; political scientist Robert Keohane agrees saying, a "balanced and nuanced analysis is not aided...by the use of the phrase 'empire' to describe United States hegemony, since 'empire' obscures rather than illuminates the differences in form of rule between the United States and other Great Powers, such as Great Britain in the 19th century or the Soviet Union in the twentieth.".
Since 2001, Emmanuel Todd assumes that USA cannot hold for long the status of mondial hegemonic power due to limited resources. Instead, USA is going to become just one of the major regional powers along with European Union, China, Russia, etc. Other political scientists, such as Daniel Nexon and Thomas Wright, argue that neither term exclusively describes foreign relations of the United States. The U.S. can be, and has been, simultaneously an empire and a hegemonic power. They claim that the general trend in U.S. foreign relations has been away from imperial modes of control.
Some critics of imperialism argue that military and cultural imperialism are interdependent. American Edward Said, one of the founders of post-colonial theory, said that,
[...], so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism and opportunity, that imperialism in the United States as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of the United States culture, politics and history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture in North America, and in particular in the United States, is astonishingly direct.
International relations scholar David Rothkopf disagrees and argues that cultural imperialism is the innocent result of globalization, which allows access to numerous U.S. and Western ideas and products that many non-U.S. and non-Western consumers across the world voluntarily choose to consume. Matthew Fraser has a similar analysis, but argues further that the global cultural influence of the U.S. is a good thing.
Nationalism is the main process through which the government is able to shape public opinion. Propaganda in the media is strategically placed in order to promote a common attitude among the people. Louis A. Perez Jr. provides an example of propaganda used during the war of 1898, "We are coming, Cuba, coming; we are bound to set you free! We are coming from the mountains, from the plains and inland sea! We are coming with the wrath of God to make the Spaniards flee! We are coming, Cuba, coming; coming now!"
American progressives have been accused of engaging in cultural imperialism. In contrast, many other countries with American brands have incorporated themselves into their own local culture. An example of this would be the self-styled 'Maccas' an Australian derivation of 'McDonald's' with a tinge of Australian culture.
Chalmers Johnson argued in 2004 that America's version of the colony is the military base. Chip Pitts argued similarly in 2006 that enduring U.S. bases in Iraq suggested a vision of "Iraq as a colony".
While territories such as Guam, the United States Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Puerto Rico remain under U.S. control, the U.S. allowed many of its overseas territories or occupations to gain independence after World War II. Examples include the Philippines (1946), the Panama canal zone (1979), Palau (1981), the Federated States of Micronesia (1986) and the Marshall Islands (1986). Most of them still have U.S. bases within their territories. In the case of Okinawa, which came under U.S. administration after the Battle of Okinawa during the Second World War, this happened despite local popular opinion. In 2003, a Department of Defense distribution found the United States had bases in over 36 countries worldwide. A more recent estimate in 2015 found that the number of bases may approach 800 in more than 70 countries, albeit this estimate uses a more inclusive definition of U.S. instillations.
One of the earliest historians of American Empire, William Appleman Williams, wrote, "The routine lust for land, markets or security became justifications for noble rhetoric about prosperity, liberty and security."
Max Boot defends U.S. imperialism by claiming: "U.S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century. It has defeated communism and Nazism and has intervened against the Taliban and Serbian ethnic cleansing." Boot used "imperialism" to describe United States policy, not only in the early 20th century but "since at least 1803". This embrace of empire is made by others neoconservatives, including British historian Paul Johnson, and writers Dinesh D'Souza and Mark Steyn. It is also made by some liberal hawks, such as political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski and Michael Ignatieff.
British historian Niall Ferguson argues that the United States is an empire and believes that this is a good thing: “What is not allowed is to say that the United States is an empire and that this might not be wholly bad.” Ferguson has drawn parallels between the British Empire and the imperial role of the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, though he describes the United States' political and social structures as more like those of the Roman Empire than of the British. Ferguson argues that all of these empires have had both positive and negative aspects, but that the positive aspects of the U.S. empire will, if it learns from history and its mistakes, greatly outweigh its negative aspects.
Another point of view implies that United States expansion overseas has indeed been imperialistic, but that this imperialism is only a temporary phenomenon; a corruption of American ideals or the relic of a past historical era. Historian Samuel Flagg Bemis argues that Spanish–American War expansionism was a short-lived imperialistic impulse and "a great aberration in American history", a very different form of territorial growth than that of earlier American history. Historian Walter LaFeber sees the Spanish–American War expansionism not as an aberration, but as a culmination of United States expansion westward.
Historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that the U.S. does not pursue world domination, but maintains worldwide influence by a system of mutually beneficial exchanges. On the other hand, a Filipino revolutionary General Emilio Aguinaldo felt as though the American involvement in the Philippines was destructive, "...the Filipinos fighting for Liberty, the American people fighting them to give them liberty. The two peoples are fighting on parallel lines for the same object." American influence worldwide and the effects it has on other nations have multiple interpretations according to whose perspective is being taken into account.
Liberal internationalists argue that even though the present world order is dominated by the United States, the form taken by that dominance is not imperial. International relations scholar John Ikenberry argues that international institutions have taken the place of empire.
International relations scholar Joseph Nye argues that U.S. power is more and more based on "soft power", which comes from cultural hegemony rather than raw military or economic force. This includes such factors as the widespread desire to emigrate to the United States, the prestige and corresponding high proportion of foreign students at U.S. universities, and the spread of U.S. styles of popular music and cinema. Mass immigration into America may justify this theory, but it is hard to know for sure whether the United States would still maintain its prestige without its military and economic superiority.