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Debate: U.S. Imperialism

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Is the United States of America imperialist?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Andraz Melansek. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

The United States of America (US or USA) is in the process of staking out not just the globe but also the last unarmed spot in our neighbourhood - the heavens - as a militarised sphere of influence. Our earth and its skies are, for the US administration, the final frontiers of imperial control. More and more people speak English and the American way of life has become the best export article of the US. The country's research and development is still the world leader in every field. Its international policies have recently become more unilateral. However, all these phenomena are not necessarily enough for us to say that the US is an empire; it is a mistake to mix primacy with imperialism. The USA, for now, has no formal political or economic control over other countries and denies any imperial impulse which might motivate it to acquire new territory overseas.

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Argument #1

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Yes

The USA has the biggest military capability in the world. It has a global reach with posts all over the world. For Fiscal Year (FY) 2004, the US military budget is $400.1 billion, which is equivalent to approximately 47% of 1999 global military expenditures, and more than six times the budget of Russia. This spending also allows the US military a technological advantage over all possible opponents, especially in the air (e.g. stealth fighters and bombers, unmanned reconnaissance and attack aircraft, satellite surveillance, guided missiles). The Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns underlined the massive superiority of the USA.

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No

US troops are retreating from or reducing their presence in many countries where they have been based for decades (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Panama, Japan, Germany). Despite the global reach of their military they still are unable to resist the new threats of terrorism. Military expenditures nowadays are lower as a percentage of GDP than those during the cold war. Also, after quickly winning battles and wars, the US has proved unable to restore peace and order into failed states, tying their forces down in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, and discouraging its politicians from further adventures overseas in future.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The USA now has an imperial impulse, or desire to establish a global hegemony in a post-cold war, unipolar (only one superpower) world. This impulse is partly justified by the need for self-defence, but it also allows them to impose their policies on the rest of the world (e.g. over Israel), and to promote their own economic advantage (e.g. protecting their oil supplies through two Gulf Wars). This world view is illustrated by a 1992 Pentagon planning document declaring that no rival powers - primarily Germany or Japan - should challenge U.S. global domination. More recently, the USA's policy has explicitly become one of maintaining their supremacy against any other power. Although imperialism was in the past about seizing territory, the determination of the USA to control other countries amounts to the same thing.

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No

The USA is not an imperial power in any generally accepted sense of that term. It does not seek to acquire territory abroad, and has recently returned its land around the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government, as well as reducing its presence in the Far East and withdrawing from Saudi Arabia. Simply wishing to protect itself in an uncertain world by maintaining a military advantage does not make it imperialistic - indeed advances in American air superiority are making it less reliant on bases abroad, not more so. The USA has intervened in other countries, but not purely on the basis of self-interest. It had no economic or real strategic interest in the Balkans, and the whole world has gained from the removal of a terrorist regime in Afghanistan and an aggressive dictatorship in Iraq.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The US economy is the biggest in the world and strongly influences global financial currents. Its economy is more closely intertwined with the global economy than it ever has been. Although the United States hold less than 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for more than 25 percent of the world's economic output. Economic imperialism may be seen in its quest for bilateral trade deals which heavily favour America, rather than real support for progress in global free trade. Its agricultural and industrial protectionism distorts the world economy and prevents wider prosperity.

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No

The US economy is in recession. New low-cost labour is threatening traditional economies. The growing economic strength of Western Europe and the emergence of powerful economies in Asia are threatening the USA's economic dominance. If the country wants benefits it has to negotiate with trading partners and the World Trade Organisation; this is not imperialism but the normal pursuit of economic interests and mutual advantage. In international negotiations, no country does more to promote free trade than the USA.

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Argument #4

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Yes

English is now the dominant or official language in over 60 countries and is represented on every continent. Most of the scientific, technological and academic information in the world is expressed in English and over 80% of all the information stored in electronic retrieval systems is in English. The language and culture of the USA dominates the way we think and express ideas, and this provides America with "soft power" to influence the views and actions of people and countries across the world.

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No

The number of Spanish-speaking people is growing rapidly and it may in its turn become the dominant global language. There are already 392 million Spanish-speaking people in 22 countries in the world, and they include a substantial minority of US citizens. Internet content in English is also decreasing compared to that in other languages. In any case, facility in English as a second-language does not naturally make someone sympathetic to the USA. Nor is there any actual US policy designed to promote this supposed "soft power" through language. The widespread use of English simply reflects both the historic spread of the British (not US) Empire, and the current importance of the US in the World economy.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The USA has become the world's cultural centre, exporting its way of life around the globe. The concept of cultural imperialism today corresponds to the values and structures of the US. Ideas of materialism, individualism, sexual permissiveness and of convenience over quality are constantly pushed to the rest of the world by the US media and other companies. America is omnipresent with fast music, fast computers, and fast food - MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's. US Pop Culture is marketed to the world and attempts to replace indigenous traditions in places like the Altiplano in Bolivia and Peru, and China.

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No

The idea of US cultural imperialism is an overly simplistic notion of culture. The assumptions that US content has only one meaning, is deliberately exported against local wishes, and cannot be resisted by foreign audiences are all false. In the process of globalisation elements of national cultures may also become complementary. Contrary to Americanisation, globalisation is not based primarily on the US culture. McDonaldization and CocaColization are just two of the processes of a wider phenomena. Cultures are critical of new elements; in some places neo-traditionalism is in the rise (e.g. the importance of Fado in Portugal, Bollywood in the Indian subcontinent, and increasing local programming on television in Europe and Asia). Finally, when it comes to sport, Americans more or less have to play by themselves; few other countries show much interest in baseball, basketball, gridiron football or ice hockey.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Over the last several decades the USA has maintained a wide lead over the rest of the world in research and development (R&D). The most recent figures say that the US accounts for 43% of the industrial world's total R&D expenditures. Foreign firms are making substantial R&D investments in the US to the point where foreign firms' R&D expenditures in the U.S. are roughly equivalent to what the US invests abroad in similar activities. The USA is the country with the majority of both the world's patents and its Nobel laureates.

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No

Germany, France and Italy have spent a larger fraction of their R&D budgets on basic research (each at 21-22%) than the US (17%) and the number of scientific articles by authors from European and Asian countries has increased more rapidly than the number of the US authors. Meanwhile American companies are increasingly taking their R&D overseas to places such as India to benefit from cost-effective software and biomedical research. The US share of global R&D has declined by 4% from its high point earlier in the 1990s. Even within the USA, much R&D work is done by foreign nationals, who have moved to the USA for higher education and then stayed on to pursue academic or commercial research; many of these knowledge workers later return to their home country, taking their skills and American business models with them.

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Argument #7

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Yes

The USA has a unique role in modern world politics. The country has dominant influence in the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, NATO, UN Security Council and many other international organizations. The administration is also highly involved in domestic matters of countries around the world, especially South America. The USA can also get away with signing bilateral agreements outside the mainstream international policies and withdrawing from important global treaties, (e.g. Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, and their unilateral reinterpretation of the Ballistic Missile Treaty).

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No

All countries are still sovereign in their essence and US cannot directly control their decisions. The USA needs other countries and the United Nations and can't perform solo political actions, as the war on terror has made clear. Despite current actions, the US in the long term will remain an equal partner in the international community precisely because its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how the limits of unilateral action. The present isolationist position of the USA is associated with just one President, and is unlikely to last. Meanwhile current US dominance is likely to diminish as the EU and ASEAN continue to expand and consolidate their powers, and China becomes an increasingly important economic and strategic player on the world stage while Russia recovers from a decade of turmoil.

Motions

  • This House welcomes The American Empire.
  • This House believes the USA is imperialist
  • This House recognises Washington as the heir to Rome

This debate in legislation, policy, and elsewhere

See also

External links and resources:

Books

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