The State of the American Empire – How the USA Shapes the World. Stephen Burman. University of California Press, Myriad Editions. 2007.
by Jim Miles
On first perusal my perceptions told me this was my kind of book: lots of graphs, charts, and maps for my visual learning strengths, more akin to the National Geographic where I can glean most of the significant information from the photos and captions as much as I can from the text. But then as I delved into the text that introduces and accompanies the visuals, I realized that this was a bit more than just an atlas – it also made political statements through choice of words and topics.
Unfortunately, that position wavered in front of me, at one time apparently saying this, at another time apparently saying that. The State of the American Empire has a slippery and elusive perspective, but one that finally settles down into a relatively clear theme, perhaps the slippery metaphor being appropriate for American ‘idealism’ as it stands today. Ultimately, the underlying theme to the book, even though it brings forth some very strong criticisms of American actions, is that we, the royal ‘we’, the global ‘we’, need the empire for stability that will bring about the security we need for our energy demands, for our currency markets, for our trade relations.
In the fifth chapter, “Military,” another related theme, much more clearly stated, not nearly as slippery, more like a grasping hawk, much more clearly defined, arises, giving the truth to the type of empire the world is dealing with, and the type of security and stability America is quite literally gunning for. Burman states, “…the USA has its own agenda and national interests to pursue, and it is its capacity to mobilize its armed forces, rather than economic strength, that is the bedrock of its imperial power.” Initially arguing for security through the idealistic goodness of empire and its economic idealism of free trade and global mobility of capital and labour and resources – mainly oil - that has been lost during the Bush ‘regime’ (I’ll come back to that word), the concept of stability falls upon the stability of a military ‘regime’ not unlike that promoted by the likes of Friedman, Ferguson, Ledeen and other hot war promoters: we are morally superior, might is right, and we are going to use it to protect our interests.
Domestically, Burman also recognizes the nature of this militaristic view, as the “…military expenditures make it difficult to cut spending, and this is one of the drivers behind the US creation and exaggeration of threats to its security.” It is not further defined as such, but following the artificially inflated fear of communism to the artificially inflated fear of ‘terror’, the US military keeps corporate as well as domestic America rolling along financially.
Returning to the “Military Abroad”, Burman says that all the overseas deployments “symbolize the power that defines American imperialism,” a rather clear and bold statement of the intent and purpose of the military, acknowledged to include “threats…to oil supplies from the Middle East or the Caspian region.” It is oil where the atlas begins its tour.
Topics on nuclear energy, climate change, energy security, oil consumption, dependency, and policy are covered in the first chapter. It is here that the repetitive idea of the need for security and stability are introduced, and Burman can only see a dominant US hegemony as being capable of providing world security and stability. A distinction is made between a benign hegemony of leadership and the more malignant kind of imperialism that has been created under the Bush ‘regime’, the first of many arguable points. It is also here that certain biases are introduced.
One of those biases is Burman’s curious view that the US has only been empirically aggressive under Bush, even with maps of American interventions abroad showing interventions “to prevent the spread of communism.” This is one of those slippery sections. Did he not say that the US created its own threat to security, in this case the exaggerated fear of communism that dominated US foreign policy for decades? A sidebar on the intervention map indicates that in Indonesia US covert support “…led to a purge of hundreds of thousand of communists.” Most accurate accounts indicate that anyone in opposition to the government was labelled communist and executed, regardless of their actual political persuasion.
Another bias is the word regime itself. I have used it to label the Bush government a regime, as it fits with Burman’s use of it in relation to other countries. Iran had a “nationalist regime”, Chile had a “socialist regime”, Venezuela has a “left wing regime” – all three of them democratically elected governments, the first two terminated by American CIA intervention, and the latter still waiting its ultimate intervention after an initial failure. The commonality was that they simply wanted to use their own resources for their own people and not let foreign nationals control the native wealth. The US cannot accept a democratically successful socialist government to exist within its sphere, as it works contrary to its own corporate interests. The word itself, according to the dictionary, is quite neutral, simply meaning “method or system of government; prevailing system of things.” Okay, we all live with regimes. Interesting how it takes on a hostile tenor when used in opposition to US interests.
There are other small biases that enter the text, a small but important one being the word “hijack”, as in “The trade dispute…over bananas reveals how wealthy corporations can hijack US foreign policy.” To the contrary, US foreign policy has mainly been about supporting corporate endeavours in other countries (witness the statements on the military, above), the ‘banana’ republics of Central America being prime examples, with intertwined interests going back to the late 1800s and the establishment of the Boston based United Fruit Company. There is nothing to “hijack” in foreign policy – it has always been thus, corporations working within US foreign policy, as currently evident with Bechtel, Raytheon, Halliburton, Exxon, Boeing et al and the war on terror now centred in the Middle East.
Another curiosity is the description of the US as an “honest broker” in areas of conflict such as the Middle East, and in Asia.” This is a futuristic view, but it is preceded by the word “resume”. There is nothing to resume, the US has never been an honest broker but Burman sees it doing this after “making tactical withdrawals from hotspots while continuing to manipulate the balance of power in regions of potential conflict.” I’m not sure how to respond to this, it just seems so ludicrous. Later on Burman indicates “The USA aspires to play the role of honest broker in conflict resolution,” in the Middle East, adding another layer of ridiculousness to the ludicrous. The two simply do not go together, not historically, nor will it in the future, not with the label USA attached.
Two of these ‘hotspots’ are Iraq and Iran but that they are labelled as such is disingenuous. Burman’s definition of a ‘hotspot’ is, above all, being an oil rich area. Further, “they are unstable due to internal unrest, anti-Americanism, or threatened by terrorist disruption.” As a result of all this, “the need to secure supplies in a potentially hostile world will continue to drive US foreign policy.” Oh goody, more invasions, more covert actions against democratic governments, more false flag interventions. There is no definition within the idea of hotspots that perhaps the US is a major part of the problem itself, having destroyed democratic governments, or having invaded on illegal and false pretences, or that ongoing occupation is what drives resistance and the resort to terrorism (which it really is not, if it is a local insurgency trying to drive an occupying force out – wholly sustainable under the UN Charter and international law).
Democracy and free markets receive a boost within the text as Burman believes that free markets lead to democracy in spite of the evidence provided by many other academics to the contrary (Stiglitz, Chua, Chomsky, Johnson) that show his belief in “supporting democracy through trade” to be a lie. He then works himself into a contradiction, as do all freemarketeers, by saying that “an unregulated world market poses as serious a threat” as other antagonisms, yet a ‘regulated free’ market is quite simply a contradiction. It is either free or it is regulated. Free marketeers do not truly want ‘free’ markets, they want ‘regulated’ markets that serve their purposes, as corporations and “other countries collude with American imperialism…as providers of stability and security.” Collude? Fraudulent secret understanding as per the dictionary? Burman keeps making these slippery twists and thus loses himself in his own arguments.
Many other slippery interpretations enter Burman’s text. His general factual information is good, but his interpretation and analysis of it is weak, with a creeping (perhaps slithering would work better with slippery) bias that provides a pro-empirical slant. The State of the American Empire is still something I would recommend, strangely enough, as an addition to an academic library, not for the ‘atlas’ quality that it could have been, but for the curious mixture of strong anti-empire criticisms superficially imposed over an overall positive view of the benefits of a capitalist free market system supported primarily not by the goodwill of the markets, but by the world’s dominant military.
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Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. First published in Palestine Chronicle, September 27, 2007.