Living in Turkey, it's difficult not to see America as an empire. Despite the anxiety Americans currently feel about their economy, the American economy is still by far the largest economy in the world.
As an American, I'm reluctant to think of myself as part of an "empire," as one of the world's aristocrats by accident of birth. I like to think of America as mainly a humble force for good in the world, absent imperialist motives or the desire to dominate others for my country's own less than noble reasons. The notion of empire is an offense to our democratic heritage, as the American Empire project points out.
I'm reminded of the U.S. empire on an almost daily basis. The U.S. dollar is still one of the world's strongest currencies. We're still one of the richest countries in the world. Even in a relatively isolated Turkish city like Kayseri, where I live, the Hilton Hotel is one of the most prominent buildings on the downtown skyline, with a hopping nightclub. Citibank has several branches here. Clear Channel dominates the airwaves.
Two gleaming U.S.-style shopping malls are quite popular here, with The Gap, Levis, Reebok, Dockers, McDonalds, Burger King, and other American stores. Turks are flocking to the American-made film "Avatar" at the movies and marveling at the 3-D effect. Young Turks listen to American pop music, buy American CDs, watch American television shows like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons," and buy American electronics (far more expensive here than in America). Unfortunately, many Turks also smoke American-made cigarettes, I'm ashamed to say.
Without strong U.S. influence and financial largesse, Turkey's neighbors of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan and Afghanistan would arguably be quite different today. Iran and Syria might not be considered international outlaws, as George W. Bush called them. (Turkey has recently defied its previous history as an American satellite and seeks good relations with both Iran and Syria. It is also showing independence from America in its relationship with Israel, expressing severe criticism of Israel's war in Gaza, and of Israel's militantly hawkish goverment.)
Officially, the European Union beats the U.S. out in some measures of GDP, but individual European countries do not come close. The EU is certainly not united in the way that the "United States" are, and the EU faces a debt crisis far worse than America's.
America's military power is paramount in the world. English is the language of business. Other nationalities must learn our language. We feel little need to learn their languages. America's cultural influence -- some call it cultural imperialism -- through media and financial institutions -- throughout the world is undisputed. American movies and television shows, actors and rock stars, are seen the world over. Despite severe problems in the U.S., American auto makers like General Motors are doing great business abroad. Ford cars are popular here in Turkey.Wikipedia has a thought-provoking article on American Empire.
Ibrahim Kalin in Today's Zaman asserts that "empire" is defined by five factors. A country is an empire if it has 1) amassed land; 2) built a huge army; 3) exploited cheap labor; 4) has political and economic colonies; and 5) engages in cultural influence or imperialism. By those definitions, America comes pretty close to achieving empire.
I have been discussing global politics with Turkish students in my advanced English classes. They are highly skeptical of America's positive influence on Iraq and Afghanistan, and concerned that America might attack Iran. The U.S., they say, has unfair standards in seeking to dictate which nations should be allowed to develop nuclear capacity. If Israel has that right, Iran should have that right, they say, and the U.S. has no business attacking Iran over nuclear energy development.
I point out the despotism of the Iranian regime and the desire of the Iranian people for democracy. But I caution that America is spread far too thin to attack Iran. We have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, where outcomes to our liking are far from assured, and we could get bogged down in quagmires.
My Turkish students ask why America chooses to be involved in countries where we are not wanted, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and why we largely ignore impoverished Africa if we are such humanitarians. The reason, they suspect, has little to do with stopping terrorism, creating democracy, extending human rights, and economic development, and much to do with oil and other products America needs (See U.S. oil dependency map).
I assert that America's empire may be in decline, because we've borrowed so much from China, we don't produce enough products for the world to purchase anymore, and we've over-extended ourselves militarily. China might take America's place as an empire-building superpower, I say. Or "how about Turkey?" My Turkish students laugh and say, "now that would be good."
A Reader Responds: "I've always tended to think of America as a modern empire, a rather benign one. We're not the first empire not to insist on domination - the Romans had "client kings," like Herod, and much of India and Africa were governed by native rajahs or kings aligned with Britain. I don't think there's any way not to be a de facto empire when you have so much wealth, military might, and influence..."
As for the omnipresence all those multi-national corporations as evidence of American economic success, my reader is dubious. "One has to wonder, in a globalized world, how much longer institutions like McDonalds' will be regarded as American, as opposed to being seen as global institutions that started in America. How many Americans stop to think when they get gas at Shell that they're patronizing an Anglo-Dutch company? Or picture Swiss mountains as they drink Nescafe coffee?"
- Feeling Like a Space Alien in Turkey, But Also Learning More About My Identity As An American
- A Neo-Ottoman, New Turkish Empire Or Economic Powerhouse Begins to Emerge
- America Wakes Up to the Shift in Global Power (Andrew Sullivan, TimesOnline of London)
- Can America Match the Glory That Was Ancient Rome?