What it is: Like colonialism, the policy and practice of extending a state's rule over other territories, usually by armed force. It also implies generally extending authority, influence and power abroad, which may or may not use armed force.
What it means: Empires have been created and lost throughout recorded history. The largest was the British Empire, which began in the 16th century and was gradually dismantled in the 20th. Until then empires were made by seizing land, regardless of the people who lived on it. One of Britain's leading colonisers Cecil Rhodes, who brought a large part of Africa under British rule in the late 19th century, said, 'We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies'. But the 20th century saw a new kind of empire develop. The United States of America and the Soviet Union became the world's superpowers, confronting each other in the Cold War until Soviet countries began seeking independence. After this the USA became the world's most powerful state, and it was world power that the US administration wanted to keep. It also had a mission: to 'enlighten', 'civilise', and bring order and democracy to the world - though on its own terms, in its own way, and to protect its own interests. As advisers to the US government put it, they wanted to 'ensure our security and greatness'. They also claimed that their influence on the world was 'uniquely benign', though by 2003 the US had over 700 military installations and bases in over 50 countries and for over 50 years had attacked 'enemies of America' in several hundred wars and military interventions around the world. The US administration has also ignored international laws that didn't suit them, while claiming to be defenders of civilisation (or 'the American way of life'). Not all American citizens have been happy about American imperialism. This is how one US resident put it in 2003:
'I used to resent hearing the word "American" combined with 'imperialism'. But it is now the fact of US imperialism that revolts me. America dispatches its armies to most of the world, but its other exports dominate as well, from corporate logos to Cokes and hamburgers. The American flag's shadow falls dark on foreign climes, and the nation's boot-step digs deep. America killed 2 million Vietnamese. How many others will there be? Ours is an empire without borders, without limits, without the restraining hand of a rival. It is military, cultural, economic, psychological. It standardises mankind on the American model. A good Arab, or African or Chinese is one who speaks English and studied at Harvard, an honorary American, almost one of us.'
Think about it: Here are three thought-provoking views of American imperialism from people who have experienced it in one way or another.
(1) A German writer remembers the end of the Second World War: 'The first time I saw an American was in 1945. He sat in a jeep, looking well-fed, confident and even dashing in his freshly pressed uniform. An army of benign aliens had finally arrived to deliver Germany from its 12-year nightmare. Why these liberators had first bombed us and then imposed democracy on a reluctant population was not quite clear. For a few decades we lived under the American umbrella. It was the Vietnam war that finally shattered the image. We began to realise that our friends from overseas had some embarrassing habits: a penchant for dictatorships in many parts of the world, a fair supply of double standards, a curious mix of ruthless self-interest and missionary rhetoric, and, at home, a bizarre gun cult and a relish for the death penalty.'
(2) A Chilean writer thinks about the 1960s and 'the many ways the US had dominated Latin America: its ownership of mines and fields and banks and ships, its proconsuls in Mexico and Buenos Aires and Bogotá, its invasions of Nicaragua and Cuba and Guatemala, its training of torturers, its coups in Brazil and Bolivia and Honduras, its barely-concealed idea that the only thing Latin Americans understood was a kick in the pants.'
(3) An Indian writer in 2002 regrets that some people 'downplay American achievements. They only see the imperial power, the exploiter and the bully, the invader of faraway lands and the manipulator of international organisations to serve the interests of the American economy'. But he admits that 'on the world stage America is not a pretty sight. Even between its various wars of adventure its arrogance is on continuous display. It has disregarded strictures passed on it by the International Court of Justice, and defaulted on its financial obligations to the United Nations. It has not signed the agreement to abolish the production of landmines. The only international treaties it signs and honours are those it can both draft and impose on other countries. The truth about America is that it is at the same time both deeply democratic and instinctively imperialist. But in India, America, rather than Britain, is the model. America and its ally Israel take no nonsense from the Palestinians, as we should take no nonsense from the Pakistanis. The current Indian admiration for the US has all to do with power. Indian leaders ask only that the US recognise India as the 'natural' leader of this part of the world - as, in fact, the United States of South Asia. Like the US, India is more reliably democratic than the other countries there - and at the same time it seeks to bully and dominate them.'
Can imperialism ever really be benign?