Branding Imperialism


In the fifth edition of World Politics in a New Era, the declaration is made, “The age of empire is over. … Empire has become politically incorrect, as the subjugation of foreign lands is no longer justifiable in terms of ‘civilizing missions’ or ‘white man’s burdens’” (Spiegel et al., 2009, 186). Despite attempts to invalidate the terms “empire” and “imperialism” by purging them from formal vocabulary, the reality of what these words signify remains. Spiegel et al. defines imperialism as, “a superior-inferior relationship in which one state controls the people and territory of another area” (Spiegel et al., 606). For the sake of clarity and to obviate actual expressions of imperialism, Julian Go differentiates between imperialism and imperialistic activity. She defines imperialistic activity as, “the exertion of influence by one state over other states or territories through formal political control or overt uses of force” (Go, 2007, 8). Despite the peaceful and successful international system boasted of by the Westphalian Peace Treaty of 1648, which established a contract between nations to uphold the notion of state sovereignty in matters of geographic territory and the population therein, the average person cannot pass through a single day without hearing of the international conflicts persisting between various nations around the world. If imperialism and empire are terms of the past, why are their reverberations still felt today? Who is still banging the war drum?

Just as competing European hegemons of the sixteenth century vied for world domination, culminating in the Thirty Years’ War that brought about the Westphalian State System, so has the United States of America in the 20th century attempted to achieve and maintain its position as global hegemon through imperialistic activity. Despite claims that imperialism is dead, this paper argues that America is a living and breathing example of empire as it survives today because its project in the Middle East is an explicit example, with all of the brutality, oppression, and gusto that characterized the imperialist enterprises of the past.

Since Spiegel et al. refer to the death of imperialism in terms of the sixteenth century expressions that defined it, therefore we must first paint a picture of what this original version of imperialism looked like. This will be demonstrated in the first section of the paper, through the example of one of the most prominent empires of that period: Great Britain. In the second section we will observe how the contemporary American enterprise measures up to this founding paradigm. Once the similarities are established, we may move forward to delineate the differences in terms of manifestations and motives, in order to familiarize ourselves with the concept of neo-imperialism. This will comprise the third section of the paper, which will demonstrate America’s various uses of the covert instruments of neo-imperialism by outlining some of its foreign policies in the areas of foreign aid and capitalist expansion. A fourth section will then decipher whether America’s project in the Middle East is truly a plight of delivering liberty and democracy, or merely another expression of American imperialism.


The Origins of Imperialism

     We find the roots of imperialism in the early sixteenth century as a result of the European nations competing for international predominance, stemming into its height during colonization in the early twentieth century (Spiegel et al. 2009). This expansion was built upon three rationalizations: the search for trade routes to Asia from which could be obtained valuable commodities, the belief that controlling these trade routes would grant power in relation to other competing European powers, and also the increase in technological superiority, which granted the means to travel overseas (Spiegel et al., 2009). Another reason for European imperialism, which serves at least as a minor justification for expansion, was the growing population. According to Spiegel et al., “By the fifteenth century, western Europe was one of the most densely populated regions of the globe, land was scarce, and natural resources were being exhausted” (Spiegel et al., 2009, 159). The most obvious expression of imperialism is in the case of colonialism because it most closely exemplifies this superior-inferior relationship of one state controlling the people and territory of another. In fact, the definition provided for colonialism almost exactly coincides with the definition provided for imperialism. Colonialism is, “a policy by which a nation maintains or extends control over foreign dependencies” (Spiegel et al., 2009, 601). The first area to be colonized by England was Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 (Spiegel et al., 2009). Although colonization began with a single colony, by the beginning of World War I it was said that Great Britain was the empire on which, “the sun never set” (Spiegel et al., 2010, 173). This was because the empire had extended its rule to almost every part of the globe.

     Supplementing this early blueprint of imperialism, Julian Go offers more poignant signifiers for identifying imperialism by specifying the various expressions of imperialistic activity. They include, “formal colonial annexation … or temporary military occupation … wars, … the sending of troops abroad for various missions, humanitarian or not, … air strikes, [and] provisions of military support to another state” (Go, 2007, 8). According to these stipulations, a broad longitudinal study of American imperialistic activity was undertaken, indicating 256 imperialistic interventions from 1787 to 2003 (Go, 2007, 7). Since the most explicit example of imperialism is colonization, let us examine Go’s first characteristic of imperialistic activity, which is formal colonial annexation. One explicit example of colonialism is America’s annexation of the Philippines in the early 20th century (Go, 2007, 8). Further examples of colonial annexation are cited in the Spanish-American War, which led to the annexation of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the occupation of Cuba, the occupation of Germany and Japan after the Second World War, also the takeover of Samoa, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua following the Boxer Rebellion of the 1900’s. Also notable is the lyric from the US marines’ famous hymn, ‘From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli,’ which alludes to the US occupation of Mexico in 1847 (Go, 2007, 7). Examples of colonial annexation abound, despite being short-lived. Therefore, America is guilty of colonization, one of the most explicit forms of imperialism, and in this way resembles the English model of empire.

There is also a similarity between American imperialism and early British imperialism in terms of incentives. As Spiegel et al. states, one of the main reasons for European expansion was to secure trade routes to Asia, as well as to control these markets. Go writes that, “America’s continental expansion and dominance over the hemisphere … was part and parcel of the drive for the Asia market,” and cites Secretary of State William Seward in saying that, “exports to Asia would help make the US ‘the great power of the earth’” (Go, 2007, 23). Another similarity between American and British imperialism pertains to the third rationalization for early European expansion: that of technology. While many highly developed countries surely have the means to travel overseas to spread their influence, the US has the most muscle. As Christian Fuchs stated just last year, “The USA certainly is the dominant global military power today and has been successful in imposing its will by military means without much resistance from Europe, Russia, China, or other countries” (Fuchs, 2010, 860). In terms of figures alone, the US accounts for a majority 43% of global military expenditure (Sardar, 2005). This technological motivation for imperialism is in accordance with the third original reason cited for the first proponents of European expansion: technological ability. Despite the similarities between contemporary American imperialistic activity and early colonial English imperialism, there is a reason for which Spiegel et al. make the claim that imperialism no longer exists. This view is due to the fact that overt expressions of imperialism have been replaced by covert expressions, making them less apparent than their traditional forms, which most often included colonization and annexation through the outright use of military force. The covert expressions of imperialism pertain to ‘neo-imperialism.’ On top of meeting the traditional qualifications for imperialism, the United States has also found other more clandestine ways of carrying out their imperialistic agenda. It is on these inconspicuous activities we should focus in order to identify imperialism in contemporary America.


      One avid proponent of American neo-imperialism is Michael Ignatieff. David Long explains, “Ignatieff suggests that in the lack of colonies and in Americans’ views of themselves as a postimperial nation, the US empire is ‘an empire lite, hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risks of daily policing’” (Long, 2006, 208-209). Therefore Ignatieff transparently admits to America being imperialist, albeit with more stealth and ease than colonial Empires such as Great Britain. According to Ignatieff, one way neo-imperialism operates is through capitalism. According to Long, Ignatieff defines empire as, “the attempt to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests” (Long, 2006, 208-209). In accordance with this, for Vladimir Lenin imperialism was the creation of sales markets and foreign direct investments in areas outside of the sphere of capitalist nations (Fuchs, 2010). Fuchs explains that this “new imperialism” is just traditional capitalism, “transformed into a more extensive system with transnational economic relations” (Fuchs, 2010, 843). Ellen Woods furthers Lenin’s view of capitalism as a new kind of imperialism, explaining that globalization in the trend of capitalism is, “the ‘opening of subordinate economies and their vulnerability to imperial capital’” (Fuchs, 2010, 840-841). We can observe the detrimental effects of the spread of capitalism. As Long explains, “Western businessmen, imperial adventurers, and racketeers … use every opportunity to maximize their profits at the expense of the local populations” (Long, 2006, 206). These profits are maximized by the spread of capitalism because the opening up of closed markets to the international capitalist system benefits only those nations that thrive in a capitalist economy. The result is what Long calls a “capitalist predation,” (Long, 2006, 208) whereby those nations with more power (in the form of capital) regard the newly opened economies as fresh meat. The spread of capitalism can be tied to another neo-imperialist American foreign policy, that of foreign aid.

Fuchs explains that, in neo-imperialism, there is a new type of colonization that he calls a “semi-colony category,” comprised of countries that are technically politically independent, but which are “enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence” (Fuchs, 2010, 843). Establishing this dependence is another way by which neo-imperialism operates. In this case it operates by disguising itself as humanitarian support and under this guise a dependency is established and maintained through the giving of foreign aid. When one considers the concept of aid, it is generally thought to pertain to, “a gift of resources with no conditions attached” (Richards, 1977, 44). Unfortunately this is not the case for the majority of the monetary aid given by America to LDC’s (Least Developed Countries). One common way to ensure that America gains from the doling out of monetary aid is by locking the receiving country into a contract whereby the receiving country can only purchase exports from the donor country (Richards, 1977, 46). AID Administrator David Bell, in a proclamation to the International Banking Subcommittee said that, “Aid has in fact been one of our best export promotion mechanisms” (Richards, 1977, 51).

Another method by which America benefits from foreign aid is through granting loans. These are grants offered to LDC’s for the purpose of development and growth, but are only given out with the expectation that they are repaid in full, with additional interest. A country that requires monetary assistance in the first place is certainly not in a position of creditability, let alone able to pay interest on top of the repayment of their original loan. Also, because the donor countries decide the form of aid, the recipient country’s viewpoint is invalidated (Richards, 1977, 46). Therefore, donor countries are able to take full control of how the aid is allocated, enforcing ‘development’ in their own terms.

Even more imperialistic in nature is the selective process by which the US chooses who is a worthy recipient of aid. As the Clay Report of 1963 decrees, “despite the proclaimed goal of building independent economies, no aid should be given to any government undertaking that could compete with private enterprise” (Richards, 1977, 47). This is evidence that despite America’s claims to support the success and independence of LDC’s, it is quite clear that aid is just another mechanism of neo-imperialism that ensures a more complete integration of the world into a capitalist system, where it can be dominated by the American capitalist empire. America’s foreign aid policy is merely an extension of its imperialist agenda.


American Imperialism

     We have observed the broad history of America in its imperialistic career. Now let us focus on the critical matter of the present. We turn now to the case of America’s project in the Middle East. The main justification for America’s military presence in Afghanistan is supposedly to secure national safety. Countless instances of warmongering rhetoric attest to this plight. As one former CIA Field Operative, formerly stationed in the Middle East, Robert Baer says, this is a lie (Rethink, 2009, VI). President Obama articulated that America’s primary objective in Afghanistan is to defeat the Al-Quaeda, but General David Patreaus, former four-star General in the United States Army, admitted that there is no longer a presence of Al-Quaeda in Afganistan (Rethink, 2009, VI). Former CIA Station Chief in Islamabad in Pakistan calls the American military initiative a “colonizing occupation army” (Rethink, 2009, VI). If not for national safety, perhaps the American presence can be justified by its claims of liberating the civilians from under an oppressive Taliban regime. As mentioned previously, Michael Ignatieff endorses and embraces American imperialism. However, Ignatieff claims that, “Today’s empire … is the empire of human rights, of democracy promotion in less developed, conflict-ridden countries” (Long, 2006, 210). If this is the case, then the next illustration of neo-imperialism to be discussed must be the one that camouflages itself with the colors of human rights, democracy, and liberty.

     The strongest driving force for the continued presence of American military in the Middle East is the apparent mission of bringing democracy to the Arab nations. George W. Bush, when he spoke to Philippine legislators in 2004, said, “just as the US had seized the Philippines from Spain and democratized it, so too must it spread democracy to the Middle East” (Go, 2007, 7). American intervention in the Middle East began long ago in Palestine. The first people to enter the territory were a group of American Presbyterian missionaries (Pappe, 2007, 4). Therefore, the earliest American perception of Middle Eastern culture was formed by Christian missionaries. Pappe explains, “Interpreting history in terms of the advance of Christianity, they have given an inadequate, distorted, and occasionally a grotesque picture of Moslems” (Pappe, 2007, 5). Therefore, from the beginning America’s perception of the Middle East has been through the lens of a Western Christian ideology. From that point on, the Middle East (and the East in general) has been subject to the West’s contextualization of it. Edward Said, in his Orientalism, explains that the notion of the “Orient” was constructed as the negative invert of Western culture (Said, 1994). His book outlines how this negative view of the East permeates Western culture by tracing an ideological trail through classic American literature from authors such as Balfour, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Dante, and others. Notable is how they all portray the East as being both “other” and “inferior” to the West (Said, 1994). It is with this Western attitude of superiority that the US possesses the nerve to encroach upon the sovereignty of other nations, and it is with the misconception that the American way of life is somehow more civilized than the Arab way. This is the exact same misconception that drove the English to try to dominate the globe. This is the “clash of civilizations” to which Samuel P. Huntington refers (Spiegel et al., 2009, 203). It is essentially a war of ideologies. Let us examine whether or not the spread of the Western ideology has benefited the East.

One of the major thrusts for the propagation of Western democracy into the Middle East is the broadly held opinion that Arab women are suppressed and need America’s help to be liberated from the gender inequality that permeates their society. Let us look at the example of women in Afghanistan. George W. Bush claimed, of the US invasion of Afghanistan, “Today because we acted Afghanistan’s women serve as teachers and doctors and journalists and judges” (Rethink, 2009, V). Under this perception, many Americans believe that the United States military has freed the women of Afghanistan from the oppressive regime of the Taliban. But Kavita Ramdas, the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, and other female representatives for RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) deny this, even stating that violence against women is worse than before (Rethink, 2009, V). Women are being burned with acid for going to school, teachers are being threatened, and domestic violence has increased. Shareem Obaid-Chinoy, a journalist and filmmaker, says that since the invasion of Afghanistan things have improved for women only “cosmetically” (Rethink, 2009, V). These cosmetic changes include placing women in parliament and the creation of beauty schools and driving schools. Sonali Kolhatkar, the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, claims that US imperialist intervention is to blame for the exorbitant degree of violence against women in the first place. She invokes the US funded proxy war directed towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War period. Kolhatkar explains that the US chose to fund the “most misogynistic, the most anti-woman, most fundamentalist extremist men,” to be the leaders of these militias (Rethink, 2009, V). They were the Mujahedin – the predecessors of the Taliban. America has not granted liberty to the women of Afghanistan. In fact, they have further aggravated an already gender-sensitive situation.

Besides bringing liberty to women, the US also claims that its continued military presence in Afghanistan is for the humanitarian purpose of liberating the Afghan people in general. In the same way that Americans believe the women of Afghanistan are oppressed, so too do they claim the civilians are subject to oppressive forces. The truth of this claim can be established by looking at whether or not the military presence is actually improving their quality of life. According to experts featured in the documentary Rethink Afghanistan, since 2001 the US Air Force has dropped 30.97 million lbs of bombs in Afghanistan and over 235 000 Afghan civilians are currently living in Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps as a result of it (Rethink, 2009, IV). American historian Howard Zinn says, “The killing of huge numbers of Iraqi civilians, and the destruction of cities is far, far out of proportion to any possible gain in human rights that has come out of this war” (Zinn, 2003, 736). The documentary also features footage of protestors in Jalalabad and across the country shouting in commune for Americans to leave Afghanistan. One displaced civilian from the Helmand Province of Kabul said, “I swear that our village consists of approximately 2000 or 2500 houses, but there are only a couple left. Whether our houses or our fields, they are all ruined” (Rethink, 2009, IV). The American military is lauded throughout the world for its tactical capacity. Not only is the American military the most expensive, it is purportedly made up of some of the most heavily trained and highly skilled technological combatants. The severity of the inaccuracy that these claims suggest is disgraceful.

In consideration of these figures, it is a wonder that any of the American people can continue to back their government. Perhaps a glimpse at how yet another tool of neo-imperialism maintains its grip will elucidate this. It was mentioned previously that some of the supposed improvements made in Afghanistan were merely cosmetic. That is, they were superficial changes that appeared to help, and were thus adequate to excuse any charges of interference on the part of the US. A major actor in maintaining the smooth surface of things is the American media. Fred Fejes defines media imperialism as, “the processes by which modern communication media have operated to create, maintain and, expand systems of domination and dependence on a world scale” (Fejes, 1981, 281). An example of American media imperialism can be observed in how the façade is presented to its own people. In 2005, the broadcasting company Associated Press ran a story, “with a photo, about a soldier held hostage in Iraq. The photo turned out to be that of an action figure doll; there was no such soldier” (Hoven, 2007). Another common practice in the American media is to cast targets as caricatures called ‘terrorists.’ This term has been thrown around so much in the past decade that it can be applied to anyone with a sharp knife and a bad attitude. Applying the title of ‘terrorist’ to a target is one way that the media acquires public permission to treat possibly innocent people as the enemies, and therefore paint them as the rightful targets of American aggression. Popular media is yet another apparatus of the broader American neo-imperialist system.



     Just as Great Britain ensured its hegemonic status through imperialism in the sixteenth century colonial period, the United States of America struggles to maintain its position as the global hegemon today. The difference in contemporary America’s brand of imperialism is merely the method. America is a contemporary rendering of empire and its project in the Middle East is a demonstration of imperialism. The American empire operates through new mechanisms of imperialistic activity. These new methods characterize neo-imperialism. These methods include the expansion of capitalism, the practice of doling out foreign aid, the proliferation of the Western ideologies of liberty and democracy, and the system of media imperialism. Dislodging the term “imperialism” from the linguistic cannon does not diminish any of its power. Imperialism still exists in the world as we have observed in the case of America. Today it bears a new name, a new face, and a new closet of disguises. It is only once we recognize and reprimand this imperialistic impulse that we will be able to put a stop to the carnage in the Middle East. It is time to pry the pointed finger away from the ambiguous notion of ‘terror’ and turn it onto America.



Works Cited

Fejes, Fred. “Media Imperialism: An Assessment.” Media, Culture & Society. Vol. 3, no. 3, 1981.

Fuchs, Christian. “Critical Globalization Studies and the New Imperialism.” Critical Sociology, Vol. 36, no. 6, 2010.

Go, Julian. “Waves of Empire: US Hegemony and Imperialistic Activity from the Shores of Tripoli to Iraq, 1787-2003.” International Sociology, Vol. 22, no. 1, January 2007.

Hoven, Randall. “Media Dishonesty Matters.” American Thinker. July 2011.

Long, David. “Liberalism, Imperialism, and Empire.” Studies in Political Economy, 78, Jan. 2006.

Morrow, Fiona. “Mushroom Clouds of National Pride.” Adbusters, Vol. 13, no. 1, 2005.

Pappe, Ilan. “Clusters of History: US Involvement in the Palestine Question.” Race & Class, Vol. 48, no. 3, 2007.

Rethink Afghanistan. prod. Jason Saro, dir. Robert Greenwald, Brave New Foundation, 2009. dvd.

Richards, Lynn. “The Context of Foreign Aid: Modern Imperialism.” Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 9, no. 43, 1977.

Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, c.1994).

Sardar, Ziauddin. “Terrorists R Us.” Adbusters, Vol. 13, no. 1, 2005.

Spiegel, Steven L., Elizabeth G. Matthews, Jennifer M. Taw, Kristen P. Williams, World Politics in a New Era, 5th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States.

This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Branding Imperialism

  1. Toadfish says:

    A beautiful piece of research and writing. We always make the assumption that America is a “living and breathing example of empire as it survives today,” but it is really nice to see evidence to such an end spelled out so clearly. Also its interesting that you quote Ignatieff, I’m reading his “Human Rights, as Politics and Idolatry” right now.

  2. Jeff Nguyen says:

    It sounds like there’s nothing new under the sun, this is a well researched and paradigm shifting essay. The dirty secret is that many Americans enjoy their status as the alpha dog on the global playground and the privileges that come with it. But all this hegemony comes with a price tag and the bankers charge interest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s