A number of liberal and libertarian politicians and columnists, led by Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, have been falsely claiming for years that America is (or possesses) an empire. This propaganda is actually worrisome, because its spreaders are using it to justify isolationism and dramatic defense cuts.
What proof of an American empire has been offered?
We often hear, for example, the claim that the U.S. has 700 or 1,000 "military bases" in foreign countries. The truth is that the vast majority of these "bases" are tiny military installations. Only a few dozen are sizable military bases such as Ramstein, Spangdahlem, Mildenhall, Misawa, Yokota, and Kadena.
Similarly, Paulites point to the thousands of American soldiers stationed abroad, allegedly in 130 different foreign countries around the world.
But the majority of these servicemembers are based in just a few countries deemed important enough, including Germany (home to over 30,000 American troopers), Britain, Japan, and South Korea (where about 28,000 American troopers are stationed) -- four of America's most important allies and trade partners. In the vast majority of the rest of those 130 countries, there are usually no more than a few dozen soldiers. There are just a few thousand American soldiers in Kosovo and Bosnia. There are still a few thousand on the Arabian Peninsula, plus various warships stationed there and in the Mediterranean Sea.
In many of these 130 countries, the "troops" stationed are Marine Embassy Guards, peacekeepers, or trainers. In several key countries, American troops are stationed to defend crucial areas or monitor some of the world's trouble-spots -- or to make it possible to project military might in crisis zones in a few days rather than weeks or months.
Some people add American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan to the total number of servicemembers "stationed" abroad. However, the forces in Iraq and the Hindukush are deployed there only temporarily, and their permanent bases are elsewhere (in Europe, South Korea, Japan, or the U.S.). The DOD does not have, and is forbidden by law to maintain, any permanent bases in those countries, so it sends troops permanently garrisoned in other places (the U.S., Europe, or East Asia) for tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, critics ignore the fact that Barack Obama plans to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by December 2011 (already, there are only about 50,000 Americans there) and begin withdrawing American GIs from Afghanistan in July 2011. Isolationists and empire myth propagators also ignore the fact that the Bush administration reduced the number of America's bases abroad by 35% and brought back 70,000 American troopers (including 40,000 military servicemembers stationed in Europe) plus 100,000 civilians from foreign countries to the CONUS.
Well, what about all those land that the US has supposedly conquered during the last several decades? The answer is that, as General Powell has correctly said, during its history, America has conquered just enough land to bury its war dead. The only "provinces" of the "American empire" are large war cemeteries in countries like France, bases where American troops protecting endangered countries are stationed, and a number of small islands acquired by the U.S. during the 1890s (Hawaii, Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.), which have since then become territories of the U.S. (Hawaii is now a state.)
General Powell once told a former Archbishop of Canterbury the following:
I mean, it was not soft power that freed Europe. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GIs who put their weapons down once the was over and helped all those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.
We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we've done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in.
During the 20th century, Americans came to liberate Europe twice, during world wars started by Europeans. Half a million Americans died during those wars. During and after WW2, the U.S. provided huge aid programs to Europe (the Lend-Lease program and the Marshall Plan), with the U.K. being the only country to repay anything.
After WW2, a new threat to Europe emerged: a totalitarian, aggressive, imperialist Soviet Union. The U.S. shielded Western Europe, as well as many other countries, from the Soviet military. It saved South Korea from Kim Il-sung and continues to protect the ROK from the genocidal Pyongyang regime.
The U.S. has liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban and Iraq from Saddam Hussein, a dictator who murdered a million of his own people. It has also helped dozens of nations stricken by economic crises or natural disasters, including the Indonesians, the Pakistanis, the Russians, the Mexicans, and the South Koreans.
The U.S. is the country which ended the genocide in the Balkans -- genocide about which Europe was utterly unable to do anything.
Clearly, the world has never had a more benign hegemon than the U.S.
And where is the American empire? In those bases in countries whose governments have asked (and continue to ask) the U.S. to dispatch troops to their soil to defend them from their enemies? (Admittedly, this reduces the burden on these countries and allows some of them to evade their responsibilities, but nonetheless, American troops are defending, not occupying, these countries.)
As for Iraq and Afghanistan -- Obama has announced timetables for withdrawal of American troops from these countries, so they are hardly provinces of an American empire.
The U.S. has not conquered any part of Iraqi, Afghan, German, or Japanese territory. It has never imposed its political system on any other country. It is the only military hegemon which has never used its military might to impose its own political system nor its diktats on other countries, nor to conquer foreign countries and subjugate foreign nations (although the early 19th-century War Hawks dreamed of conquering Canada).
The "American empire" is a myth. It doesn't exist, and it never did. The only people spreading the myth are implacable ideological opponents of a strong defense like Ron Paul and his cohorts of fans. For them, every American military installation abroad and every war against a foreign country is proof of an empire.
It is important to reevaluate America's entire global military posture, military deployments, and defense commitments, and of course, it is important to avoid imperial ventures. But it is equally important to reject false claims of an American empire and calls for defense spending reductions.