To some extent, today’s video is about what empire means. Is it just about territory? I think not. Later in the week we will show how the British Empire quickly disintegrated after it lost something more intangible: its “informal empire”. This concept is pretty amorphous, and as I think about the way I’m using it this week, I think I may not do a very good job of sticking to just one definition either. Informal Empire includes what is currently known as “soft power”, the financial and cultural weight that a society has, distinct from its military power. But I consider some aspects of military power to be part of “informal empire” as well. If you are undertaking some sort of quick punitive expedition to get people to act more in accordance with your wishes, I think that’s informal empire too. Obviously, when we’re talking about military action, the lines between informal and formal empire become less clear.
I think my definition of informal empire probably includes everything that is not formal empire. If you’re not planting a flag, or a near century-long “temporary presence” like the British had in Egypt, we’re talking informal empire. US military bases abroad are formal empire. Everything else the US does in those countries, from the bankers to the diplomats, to the fact that people in that country love Apple iPhones… is informal empire. I hope this has been clarifying rather than mystifying, and I hope you enjoy today’s video “Is the United States an Empire?”
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey There. Is the United States an Empire? It’s a difficult question. When we won our independence we fought against an empire. Throughout our history there has been a strand in US politics that hates the very idea of empires. We like to see ourselves as liberators. At the same time, there have always been annoying people like me who point out that we have always been more of an empire than we’d like to admit.
The truth is that the US still operates a lot of imperial territories, lording it over millions of citizens who don’t get to vote. Also, the continental United States itself is possibly the most successful empire in human history. All of that land, from Maine To Florida to Texas to California is so strongly incorporated into one unit now that it’s almost impossible to imagine its former owners taking it back. It took China two thousand years to build up a similar situation in a smaller territory, and we did most of this expansion in just two hundred years.
All of those are great points, but I would argue that they miss something very important about modern empires. Since the Industrial revolution, the very nature of empire has changed dramatically. It’s not about the amount of land you control any more. That’s one of the reasons I think it is so important to compare US power today to the British Empire.
So If you’re watching this channel, you’re probably aware of the British Empire. A small island in the North Atlantic owned an Empire upon which the sun never set. It lasted in different forms from the 1600s until the mid 1900s. Everybody’s got a different date they prefer for the end of the British Empire, but most agree that it’s over. We all know that the British Empire was powerful, but we forget just how powerful it was. We tend to think of it as just those shifting red bits on the map, and as just the biggest and most successful of many European Empires. OH SHIT. I HAVE TO MAKE THE MAP DON’T I?
That might have been true in the 1700s, or after World War One, but for the 100 years between 1815 and 1914 the British Empire was a whole lot more. Yes it controlled those red bits on the map, but it also controlled pretty much everything else. During that century it is very appropriate to talk about the entire world as being jammed into one British World System.
Britain’s control of the seas and world finance gave it the power necessary to force the entire world into one system. We hear a lot about the way Britain exerted direct control in places like India, Ireland, and dozens of other places. But we hear much less about the ways that the British exercised control over the nominally independent Chinese and Ottoman empires in the 1800s. And we hear almost nothing about Britain’s role in Latin America, which was very significant.
The crucial distinction here is between formal and informal empire. In formal empire, you go somewhere, plant a flag, and run the place. That’s always been a super expensive thing to do. When the British Empire was at its most successful it was much more interested in informal empire. Tvhey would let the locals keep their kings or parliaments, but use money and the blockade or bombing of an occasional port to make sure the world did what they wanted. Does that sound a little more familiar? Like something a country we have all heard of may be doing today?
The British get to write their own history in the English speaking world so the true extent of their power is downplayed. You may have heard of the Opium wars, when the UK forced China to open itself up to the drug trade. That wasn’t a one time thing though. It was a series of wars involving British gun ships going up Chinese rivers and that culminated in the burning down of the Chinese equivalent of Versailles. British bureaucrats controlled Chinese economic and foreign policy for well over half a century. We tend to think of the British as just slave drivers in the Caribbean, but their influence across Latin America is much wider. These countries all had their own great liberators in the 18teens and 20s, but it was fear of the British Navy that finally got the Spanish to give up on most of their American empire. The Brits didn’t do this out of generosity, they quickly dominated Latin American markets, most importantly the market for government debt. If any of these countries felt like renegotiating these terms, the British Navy was always a threat. Even the United States itself was part of Britain’s informal empire. Some commentators like to imagine that Britain’s history with slavery is better than ours, because they banned it on their own territory a few decades earlier. But where do you think Thomas Jefferson got the money for the Louisiana purchase from? London. Who provided all the financing necessary to build the horrific machinery of the Cotton South, going as far as to issue mortgages for slaves? English bankers did, and their profits were immense.
The British inaugurated a very new kind of empire. Like the Brits, the Romans controlled territory on multiple continents. But they didn’t determine the trade policy of the Mayas in the Americas, or benefit from massive agricultural investments on Persian territory. The British had a world system, that was just as important to their power and their wealth as the red bits of the map they directly controlled. The US has a world system just like the British one, except ours is even more powerful.
The British would use their gun boats to enforce their ideas of free trade and international law. The United States has multiple international bureaucracies headquartered in New York and Washington DC, that enforce our will everywhere using sophisticated systems of carrots and sticks. The British could physically blockade a port. We are currently throttling the Iranian economy without using a single ship. Because of our control of international banking, every country in the world has to follow our laws, even when their leaders publicly, angrily proclaim that they don’t want to. INSTITUTIINS LOGO BIGGER THAN GUNSHIPS. MACRON N MERKEL V. TRUMP ON IRAN
It’s the extraordinary strength and breadth of US informal empire that makes it the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. And I am becoming convinced that we are making the same mistakes the British Empire did. So convinced that I wrote a book about it, telling the story of the British Empire and laying out how the United States can avoid its mistakes. Please do check it out, and come back tomorrow when we will cover everything you need to know about the past 270 years of world history in under 10 minutes.
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and you can buy my book Avoiding the British Empire at this link, in either paperback or Amazon Kindle form.