Belatedly, but suddenly with intensity, Americans have begun to debate whether their country is some kind of empire. Most of the world has no doubt that the U.S. is an empire, but now it has plenty of doubt about the kind of empire that the U.S. wants to be. I shall argue that there are four dominant perspectives in contemporary politics and ethics regarding the relation of the United States to international politics; that all four of them have a theological version; that one of them is not compatible with Christian ethics; that that perspective is the one that is currently in power; and that we need a constructive alternative.
The question of imperialism is slippery and connotatively loaded. Imperialism does not apply only to overseas possessions; Native American reservations amount to colonies; and for almost ninety years the U.S. was a slave state, many of whose leaders wanted to create a Western empire based on the extension of slavery throughout the Caribbean. From the Monroe Doctrine onward, American presidents have issued doctrines about what a country has to do to deserve an invasion from the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, who viewed his imperial ambition as a natural outgrowth of the American story, was fond of saying that America's entire national history was one of expansion. His corollary to the Monroe Doctrine declared that the U.S. reserved the right to invade any Latin American country that engaged in "flagrant wrongdoing." Latin Americans took that to mean any action that conflicted with U.S. interests.
Long before TR added the clarifying Roosevelt Corollary of 1906, the U.S. had an ample record of intervening in Latin America. Afterwards, up to World War II, it added interventions in Colombia, Panama, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, and Guatemala; China was another frequent destination of American forces. In the sense of the term that applies only to the colonization of overseas territories, America's formal dance with empire began in 1898, when it annexed and occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillipines, and the Hawaiian islands. In the sense of the term that applies to global military networks, the United States became a world empire after World War II, beginning with its new military bases in western Germany, Japan, Korea, and the eastern Mediterranean.
In the dictionary sense of the term, setting aside the Native American reservations, the U.S. is not an imperial power. It does not exercise direct dominion over conquered peoples; it does not formally rule an extensive group of countries under a single sovereign authority. America's official colonies have been few and scattered, most of its occupations have been brief, the largest of its 14 dependent entities is Puerto Rico, and its domination of Latin America has been mostly indirect. Americans as a whole are very short on imperial consciousness. But since 1989 the United States has forged a new kind of empire--one not based on the conquest of territory--that outstrips all colonizing empires of the past.
The United States is the most awesome world power that the world has ever seen. Its economy outproduces the next eleven nations combined, accounting for 31 percent of the world's output. It floods the world with its culture and technology. It spends more on defense than the next eighteen nations combined. It employs five global military commands to police the world; it has 750 military bases in 130 countries, covering two-thirds of the world; it has formal military base rights in forty countries; each branch of the armed services has its own air force; the U.S. Air Force operates on six continents; the U.S. deploys carrier battleships in every ocean; and the U.S. Special Forces conducts thousands of operations per year in nearly 170 countries.
Moreover, the United States is not merely dominant; it assumes imperial responsibilities and reaps the benefits that derive from them. …