Book Review, “Empire in Retreat. The Past, Present and Future of the United States” by Victor Bulmer-Thomas (Yale University Press, 2018, 479 pp. ISBN 978-0-300-21000-2, hardcover)
With its cheeky but astute sub-title, Victor Bulmer-Thomas has written an indispensable guide to understanding the rise and imminent fall of the greatest Empire the world has ever known. Grounded in his decades-long studies of the Americas, his term as Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs where he interfaced with world leaders and his years of living and working in the belly of the beast, he is uniquely placed to provide a deep understanding of the nature of the Empire and explain how it came to be and why it is in decline.
Bulmer-Thomas identifies three frameworks of empire: the traditional territorial empire of colonies and possessions, the informal empire of protectorates or client states and the empire of institutions where the imperial power sets the rules under which all nations interact with each other and enforces them. Since the empire was never truly global (given the USSR and China), he calls it “the semi-global” empire, a clumsy but accurate moniker.
When the US declared its independence in 1776 it had a fraction of the land it now rules in North America alone. That same Treaty of Paris of 1783 that most Belizeans are familiar with only because Spain and Britain agreed the borders of the Belize settlement to be between the Hondo and Belize Rivers, actually gave vast territories in North America to the USA. The book takes us on a detailed and often painful tour of how the USA took over the territory north of the Rio Grande—by broken treaties and genocidal wars against indigenous people, treaties with European powers including France, Spain, Britain and Russia. Then there was the war with Mexico, where first Texas then the land between that and California, encompassing all or parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, were taken. In the course of this war, numerous massacres against indigenous peoples were carried out and few would dispute that what was done amounted to genocide.
The territorial empire soon extended beyond the continent. Long before the “Spanish-American War” in 1898, US imperialism had penetrated different parts of the world outside the Western Hemisphere, acquiring Hawaii (which was a US protectorate long before annexation in 1898), the Philippines and Guam, and a part of Samoa became the colony of American Samoa in 1899, and remains a US colony today.
Bulmer-Thomas asserts that a treaty of 1848 marked “the moment that America became an imperialist power in Asia,” since it not only gave the US privileged access to five Chinese ports but also for the first time enshrined the concept of extraterritoriality: US citizens charged with crimes against Chinese could not be charged under Chinese law, and the US had rights to construct buildings in the ports. In Shanghai, the UK and the USA established a system of municipal government that wielded enormous power in a city of more than a million inhabitants and that lasted until the middle of World War II.
In Africa, a number of territories in West Africa taken by the American Colonization Society eventually formed the Commonwealth of Liberia, and while popular myth has it that this was a haven for free blacks from the USA, the Society’s most powerful members were slaveholders. Liberia declared its independence in 1847, but “the Libero Americans, a tiny band of less than fifteen thousand, adopted a constitution drafted by a white jurist from Massachusetts . . . restricting citizenship and property ownership to the Libero Americans”. In 1908, the US provided a loan under which a US customs receiver would also be financial adviser to the Liberian government, and “Liberia was now formally a US protectorate”.
In terms of territory, the US acquired Puerto Rico after the war with Spain in 1898, and the US Virgin Islands by purchase from Denmark in 1916. It also held the territory known as the Panama Canal Zone until the Torrijos-Carter Treaty of 1978, although control of the Canal was not handed over until 1999. Cuba also became a US protectorate after 1898 and was not freed until 1959 with the triumph of the revolution, although the US continues to illegally hold on to a military base in Guantanamo that it acquired after the 1898 war, and uses it to torture people from around the world without trial.
A strong point of the book is the insightful analysis of the doctrines and concepts that US governments used to justify their imperial designs, starting with the Monroe Doctrine (1823), by which the US staked its claim to the Americas as its sphere of influence. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt extended the Monroe Doctrine by “the Roosevelt Corollary”: If any country in the Americas misbehaved (as decided by the US), the US could resort to “the exercise of an international police power”. The US militarily intervened dozens of times in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and even, in 1983, Grenada. During World War II, Britain dished out 99-year leases to the US for military bases on several of its Caribbean colonies, and we in the Caribbean can fully appreciate his sly reference to the Calypso classic “Rum and Coca Cola”! In 1947, the “Truman Doctrine” globalized the goal of US dominance (“it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure”).
Bulmer-Thomas reminds us that “empires have ideological underpinnings, which are given broad popular appeal through the media”. Manifest Destiny was “an ideological, racist, and quasi-religious doctrine that underpinned a US claim to all lands in Latin America from the Atlantic to the Pacific”, and “it was [the movies] that did so much to perpetuate the thinking underlying American government action in the Cold War”.
“American Exceptionalism” is a broader concept, embraced by all Presidents including Barack Obama; it is a most devious, ruthless, racist, supremely arrogant and persistent ideology that infects most “Americans,” and not just white people. It has been expressed in different forms since the birth of the nation, and was summed up by Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton in 2016:
“The United States is an exceptional nation [because] we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead . . . we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress . . . Our power comes with a responsibility to lead . . . Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void”.
The Semi-Global Empire
The USA emerged from WWII as the unrivalled military, economic and financial power, kept somewhat in check only by the military power of the USSR, and it proceeded to build an empire built on institutional rather than territorial control, where even in institutions that theoretically gave equal rights to all parties, the US would always be more equal than others. It started with the inter-American system, where corrupt governments willingly accepted US domination, ultimately resulting in the Organization of American States (OAS), aptly described by Cubans as the colonial office of the USA, and included the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance and the Inter-American Development Bank.
At the global level, the USA was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations, whose statute, in particular the provisions giving five countries veto powers, ensured US control, especially in the early days. The first application under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, for example, was by a US organization that sought to accuse the US government of genocide against “the negro people”. The US ensured that the petition mailed to the General Assembly meeting in Paris never arrived, and Paul Robeson, a prominent member of the Civil Rights Congress, was prevented from travel. Later, with former colonial countries becoming the majority in the UN, the US began to use its veto more freely: “In this way it could at least be certain that the UN would not work against it even if it could no longer ensure that the UN would work for it”. The US has used its veto in the Security Council more than 40 times to protect Israel’s apartheid regime, and stopped dozens of other resolutions merely by threatening to veto. President Trump openly threatened nations with cutting off aid if they voted to censure the US for moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, an act that violates several UN Security Council resolutions.
The major security institution created by the US to prop up its empire is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where although the treaty appears to put all members on an equal footing, the far superior military might of the US gives it total control. Other similar, if less successful, organizations were created for Asia and the Middle East, propped up by bilateral security arrangements with many countries in all regions of the world.
But it is with the use of economic institutions that the Empire really rules. The list is impressive: The IMF, the World Bank (in both of which the USA is the only country with a veto over changes in these institutions), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which in 1995 segued into the World Trade Organization (WTO): “the United States now had a truly global institution that met its requirements for promoting free market capitalism . . . and the US government would no longer need to rely so heavily on domestic legislation to secure its global interests”.
Bulmer-Thomas dedicates an entire chapter to nonstate actors (NSAs), the most important of which are multinational enterprises (MNEs), “noted for their enormous size, efficiency, and technological sophistication. They are global in reach, but rooted in the United States in a legal, cultural and historical sense”. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are also carefully studied and their impact analysed, including major “think tanks,” the big “philanthropic” foundations; the media; religious groups that promoted the concept of US “exceptionalism” rooted in the belief that it is blessed with a “special providence”. Indeed, the evangelical movement “became one of the most powerful forces in support of the US semiglobal empire” for three basic reasons: “the eruption of the Cold War, the birth of Israel and the rise of Islamic extremism”. It is unfortunate that the author uses this latter term, when he doesn’t refer to “Jewish extremism” to refer to Israel’s genocide of the Palestinians nor “Christian extremism” to refer to the mass terrorism carried out by the USA on so many peoples of the world.
To be continued in the next issue of this newspaper