The Empire That Wasn’t

What if the United States had pursued an empire?

In 1898, a surging United States was over 100 years past the American Revolution. The Yanks no longer feared the British Lion and were largely accommodated to the sprawling British Empire that included their commonwealth possession Canada.

The American attitude towards the tattered remnants of the once enormous Spanish Empire was a different story. Cuba had been Spanish for 400 years but was in open revolt. The US was the dominant Cuban trading partner, and American leaders sensed weakness. At that time, when the Americans sensed weakness, they pounced.

That February, the USS Maine mysteriously exploded and sunk in Havana Bay, killing 250 American sailors, which set in motion a ten week war with Spain that the United States utterly dominated. After its negotiated conclusion, the United States was in possession of what remained of the exhausted Spanish Empire; Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

If there was to ever be an American Empire after the model of the European Empires, this was the moment to declare it. But, the United States declined. Both Cuba and the Philippines went on to become sovereign counties and tiny Guam and Puerto Rico became and remain “US territories’ which is a weasel wording which says they are not states but also not sovereign.

But what if the US had become an empire? Empires have real benefits as various empires of the past have demonstrated. Would the US have been successful, and how might it have changed the United States and the world?

One could argue that empires transmit habits and values and the US could have done so from a stronger strategic position had it declared an empire early on. The Roman Empire spread the idea of citizenship. Citizens have a higher set of loyalties and benefits beyond the clan or tribal unit and so the Roman model was a break from the long dominant tribal model. The Romans centralized government, and instituted large scale public works such as aqueducts and sewers. It was when the empire grew too large and too rich that it started to wither on the edges and rot in the middle.

The British Empire conveyed its own set of habits and values and one only need look at a list of the world’s most advanced economies to see the beneficial results. The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, plus a few others, are the most highly developed and wealthy nations on earth and they are all former British colonies. Rather than be the world’s most populous democracy, India might well be a festering welter of murder and reprisal, like the Middle East is now, but for the hundreds of years of British rule.

An American Empire may have engaged the nation in world affairs in a way that would have prevented the 20th Century’s horrible human catastrophes. Had there been no First World War, or a shorter one due to faster American involvement, there would not have been second, which means no Nazis, no Soviets, and no Holocaust.

An American Empire would have expanded markets and it would have done for the US what it did for the British; it would have created a place for disfavored groups in the home country to go and distinguish themselves. The United States is littered with Scottish place names because the defeated and demoralized Scots were denied opportunity in England and so they distinguished themselves overseas in the Empire.  Might those denied opportunity in the Jim Crow south have found a world of opportunity in the far reaches of the expanding American Empire? Might their presence have spread all over the world under an American flag?

One thing empire would have meant for sure is a far larger military and a more militaristic society. Empire means you impose your will on other people by force of arms if need be, and often as the need arises. An American Empire would have meant a larger standing army, and this would have affected everything from resource allocation to the size of families. Maintaining the Empire would have quickly dominated politics for generations to come.

While the United States overtly eschewed empire, one might claim that we have an empire anyway, which we inherited from the British without any formal treaties. The US has controlled territories outside its borders at a variety of times and for various reasons. But, it seems to me that we inherited the duties of empire without the benefits and to this day, we do the work of empires as we are doing in Afghanistan. We’re offering them a localized version of our habits and values, which is an offer they seem to be rejecting. An empire would have at least come with benefits that merely being the world’s largest economy and dominate military has not.

The real question now is about China; does it have empire aspirations? There are many ways in which China resembles an earlier version of the United States, and many ways in which it does not. Should the Chinese begin to behave more like an empire, perhaps there are peoples in the world who would wish that when the empire moment arrived, the United States had aimed a little higher.