'The Forging of the American Empire' and 'Incoherent Empire'

IssueMarch - May 2004
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

There was a time when anyone caught talking about “US imperialism” was instantly branded a mad Leninist. No longer. Today, aided and abetted by the ever-more brazen antics of the Bush administration, talk of American “empire” and “imperialism” can be found across the political spectrum.

Sidney Lens's excellent historical overview of US imperialism first appeared in 1971 and its reissue now, with a new introduction by Howard Zinn, is extremely timely. For one thing Lens's survey helps to remind us of the deep roots of our current predicament and that when Tony Blair's foreign policy guru Robert Cooper preaches the virtues of “a new kind of imperialism, one compatible with human rights and cosmopolitan values” he is simply replaying an old - and wholly unconvincing - record.

Lens traces his story from 1797 (when former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton started secretly plotting a full-scale war with France as a vehicle for seizing Spanish colonies in the Americas), through the “Indian wars” and the occupations of the Philippines and Haiti, to Vietnam and, as he so eloquently puts it, “the myth of morality ... wears thin against the aggregate of history.”

Meanwhile, in his provocative new book Incoherent Empire, sociologist Michael Mann applies his earlier work on the nature of power in human societies to diagnose the US as “a military giant” but a “back-seat economic driver ... political schizophrenic and ... ideological phantom”.

Mann's basic point is that US massive military power is unsuited for Empire, and is not matched by either its political or economic resources. An excellent illustration is provided by recent events in Iraq, where - for all its spy satellites, B-52s and nuclear weapons - the US has been twisting on the hook of one elderly cleric's demands for free and open elections.

Power, it seems, does not stem solely from the barrel of a gun. Mann provides plenty of interesting detail to back his arguments and the chapters on the US invasion of Afghanistan and “the war against (Muslim) terrorism” are of particular interest.

According to Mann, the new imperialism has already degenerated into what he terms “simple militarism” and unless Americans throw the new militarists out of office at the next election “the world will reduce Americans' powers still further,” albeit painfully. He may or may not be right but Incoherent Empire provides a useful corrective to the tendency to portray the US as omnipotent and omniscient. In reality it is neither.

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