In the final installment of our spin-off series, “Snap Out of It, America!” On November 7, The New York Times published a provocative article titled “The Strange and Sad Death of American Political Fiction.”
The article, written by Northwestern Professor Daniel Emroar, asserted that since 1945, “the United States has taken a position of armed domination of the planet.” In addition, Imroar said, unelected officials in the National Security Council, the CIA, and the Federal Reserve are beginning to exercise undue control over international affairs, foreign policy, and monetary policy. These parallel developments were not accidental, in Emroar’s opinion. “The federal government does not just run the United States; it seeks to run the world. And it is hard to do that while remaining open to local democracy.” The result, he said, was an “opaque government.” [that] Prefer insiders who know how to operate their cranes.”
This premise is the subject of Immerwahr’s 2019 book, “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Great United States,” which The New York Times described as “a satirical, readable and often astonishing…a provocative and absorbing history.”
Imroar was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University and King’s College, Cambridge. He has taught in Berkeley, Columbia, and, since 2012, at Northwestern. In addition to the New York Times, his work has been published in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Nation, and The Guardian, as well as in academic journals. His 2015 book, published by Harvard Press, was “Thinking Small: The United States and the Temptation of Community Development.”
In a recent interview with RoundTable (edited for brevity and continuity), the professor expanded on his thoughts on America’s imperial and militaristic aspirations.
round table: On your website there is a link to your lecture on, of all things, guano, a fuel as important to the nineteenth century as oil to the twentieth century. She maintains that the Guano Island Act, passed by Congress in 1856, became the legal basis for the growth of the American Empire.
Always true or true: It was the first time that it was legally asserted that the United States could acquire Overseas Territories, and that these territories “belonged” to the United States. This language continued to appear in connection with the larger annexations later in the 19th century.
RT: She writes that today the United States has approximately 750 military bases in 80 foreign countries and American territories, making it one of the largest empires in history.
Always true or true: These are round numbers. The US military does not list all of its bases publicly because some are classified and others are too small or ambiguous. But he mentions hundreds of them – last time I checked more than 600. Some countries have a large number of US bases, such as Germany, South Korea, Japan, especially Okinawa. Then there are other US bases that you don’t hear about often. There is one on Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, an important node in the US military network.
RT: In your recent article in the New York Times, you wrote that since World War II we have taken on the role of policing the world and have advocated withdrawing the US military presence in favor of expanded diplomacy.
Always true or true: It is no coincidence that the United States has the largest army in the world or that the US military is the largest employer in the world and that it has those hundreds of military bases. No other country comes close. This is because the United States has assumed the role of global policeman and assumes that any global conflict is an American act and will be the ultimate arbiter of power on the planet.
The rationale is that the world needs a policeman and the United States can be trusted in this role more than China or Russia. Since we prefer order to anarchy and prefer the United States to have that order, it is right and proper – that’s how the argument goes. But this argument rests on the idea that if the United States is Not For a global military presence, things will quickly go wrong, and you’ll see chaos reign and the kind of violence we saw in the 19th and early 20th centuries will return.
But I don’t think there’s a lot of empirical evidence for that, in part because it’s hard to understand what Will be It happens if the United States withdraws. We know that US supremacy has a way of provoking conflict by provoking other countries that do not want to see US bases surrounded or stationed within their own countries. And I think it encourages the United States to permanently solve its problems with war.
One would prefer the form of US engagement with the rest of the world to be in a non-military form. When problems are afoot, the question shouldn’t be who should be bombed, but who needs help? What refugees should be accepted into the country? Where should health care be provided? and so on and so on.
RT: How do the US military and diplomatic efforts compare? Can you measure and compare it?
Always true or true: Yes, and these numbers are highly disproportionate. I moved [the U.S. Agency for International Development], the government agency responsible for distributing global aid around the world, has about 3,500 employees. The Department of Defense has 2.1 million people in uniform as well as more than 700,000 civilian workers. In other words, it is more than 800 times the size of USAID.
RT: What would the United States’ withdrawal from its role as a global policeman look like? how we start?
Always true or true: For starters, there will be a significant reduction in the number of bases we maintain overseas, as well as efforts to reduce the size of the military. Even the generals suggest that we should not have as many bases as we do. And then we’ll invest in diplomacy in a more serious way. Of course the United States has a diplomatic body led by the State Department, but their work can be undermined, as we discovered a few years ago when it was revealed that the United States was spying on its friends, monitoring the communications of Angela Merkel, her country, Germany, a staunch ally of the United States.
I think Americans will have to prepare to give up their role in global supremacy – either because that’s the kind of global privilege no one should have, or because they’ll have to give it up no matter how they feel about it, the relative size of the American economy shrinking globally .
Such a military withdrawal would mean a more normal return to a time when the United States was one country among others. The United States will have interests, and diplomacy will take place around those interests, along with humanitarian concerns, and it will provide foreign aid around those concerns. But it will not be the final arbiter in every political matter, and ultimately the just and ultimate provider of power on the planet.
RT: Are there politicians in a leadership position who would take the kind of approach you’re suggesting?
Always true or true: I consider Bernie Sanders dramatically interested in ending the imperialist dimensions of US foreign policy. He seems to understand that the values we stand for – democracy and justice – are hard to align with the idea that the United States should run the world and that others should be run by the United States
Incidentally, American hegemony is largely unpopular. If you polled people around the world and asked them how they felt about American leadership, the polls would be less than 50%. And in the Trump years it was less than 30%. So, if the United States was truly the bastion of liberty against anarchy and tyranny, most people didn’t get the memo.
RT: Given China’s massive aspirations to global power and Putin’s imperial push toward his neighbors, people might object that this is the wrong time to withdraw from military hegemony, and that it could create a dangerous vacuum. How do you respond?
Always true or true: When will be the right time? The planet has become significantly more peaceful since World War II, in terms of the likelihood of people dying in wars. And I don’t think it’s because the United States has become more powerful. In fact, the United States has seemed to weaken its grip and not have a central place on the world stage since the 1970s. Yet this diminishing of American power has accompanied the growth of peace. And it seems to me entirely plausible that with a more democratic world order we can still have more peace.
This is not a defense of China or Russia, but a defense of the assumption that states with hostile intentions can engage diplomatically and multilaterally. There are all kinds of ways to do this without unilaterally projecting power.
RT: Will that require our allies to step up and align themselves with us in greater diplomatic support?
Always true or true: Yes really. I think one of the problems the US has had is that they have been able to get allies but often at a price and often with the realization that those allies are going to be junior partners. The “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called it, was not a very grand or enthusiastic coalition. This had much to do with the United States’ insistence that it have a place of primacy and armed supremacy on the planet. I think it’s a lot easier to have real partnerships that aren’t hierarchical if the United States is no longer committed to being the global policeman.
RT: Shifting gears, can you talk about your background?
Always true or true: I grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. My mother taught dance at Swarthmore College. My father studied philosophy at Villanova University. I went to college thinking about my majors in music (I played jazz piano) and math. Then I started taking history lessons in Colombia. I studied with some well-known historians such as Eric Foner [two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” and “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” and more than two dozen other books on American history]. I felt that of all the things I studied, history was the most inspiring, and that it often gave me the feeling, “Ah, now I understand the world around me.” And I was excited by how eclectic I am about history: historians are interested in art, economics, high culture, low culture, literature, politics, and how it all relates. It felt an extraordinary excitement for me. And I decided I wanted to be a historian of the United States.
9/11 happened at the beginning of my senior year, and it became indisputably clear that politics and history in the United States could not be fully explained by looking at what happened within the borders of the United States. If you want to understand 9/11, you have to know something about American bases in Saudi Arabia, something about Arab reactions to the Gulf War – you have to know a lot of things that I didn’t know. I realized that I really wanted to understand the place of the United States in the world. So I went to Cambridge with a Marshall scholarship and decided that I would only study non-American history for two years. I studied the history of India, learned the Hindi language, wrote my thesis on African architecture, studied ancient Rome and British history.
RT: What is your course load now?
Always true or true: I finished teaching a course on world history from 1750 to the present with undergraduates. I teach a graduate course on US Empire with my Northwestern colleague Doug Kell.
RT: Are you working on another book?
Always true or true: Yes, I am writing a book about wood and fire in US history. Right now, from a global and historical perspective, we live in a period of extraordinary abundance. And the guarantee on that glut is the fossil fuels that make everything cheap, including plastics made from petroleum byproducts. So fossil fuels are the source of our abundance but as we now know they are also the source of the apocalypse. About 85% of our energy today comes from burning fossil fuels and this is leading to climate change and will give us an uncertain and possibly unpleasant future.
It turns out that there was a similar dynamic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was one substance that drove American prosperity, as it were. And that was wood. The United States had more than many Europeans could have imagined. But the result of building everything from wood was that things were constantly burning.