Words have meanings…
America’s foreign policy critics often call her an empire. They point to two ongoing military operations, America’s prolonged military presence in Europe and Asia, and our territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands as proof of this claim. It is true, America has a worldwide political and military presence and the value and cost of such a presence is certainly debatable. America is not, however, an empire.
The Oxford Old English Dictionary defines an empire as “a state with politico-military dominion of populations who are culturally and ethnically distinct from the imperial ethnic group and its culture.” This is distinct from a federation or union of states voluntarily banded together, as it is through domination that empires are formed.
Puerto Rico has held numerous referendums where the Puerto Rican people vote on their preferred relationship with the United States. Their governor is a Puerto Rican elected by the people of that nation, not an American serving on instruction from Washington, D.C. These territories have enjoyed immense benefits from their relationship with the US, and it is very likely they will decide to become states in the future.
Our prolonged military presence in Europe and Asia is also a moot point. America enjoys no political control of these areas other than NATO and our presence is welcomed by those governments. Even in Japan, where the people of Okinawa are decidedly opposed to the US military presence, the national government of Japan has not taken steps to remove the US military from the island. Regional security concerns regarding China are in part why the government of Japan finds it advantageous to keep the US bases open.
Even where our military presence is a product of ill-planned regime change and national building operations, the term empire does not fit. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is governed by Americans and their governments are not beholden to the US government. The US Congress cannot make law for Iraq or Afghanistan. If this were an empire, the US Congress would have authority over any occupied lands.
In none of these instances is America extracting tribute, exercising direct political control, or conscripting the men of foreign nations into our army. These are the defining characteristics of an empire. Having a worldwide military presence or a foreign policy of intervention is not a determining factor.
Again, the merits and value of such presence is open for debate, but the terminology is not. People arguing for less government and less presence overseas do themselves a disservice by employing words incorrectly. A person who favors heavy intervention and has studied history will scoff at the claim of America as an empire. The incorrect usage of the word detracts from an otherwise poignant argument and presents advocates of intervention with an easy target.
Hyperbole is a poor way to build an argument. Words have meanings. Ignoring or changing those meanings in order to malign America’s foreign policy does nothing to advance the argument for a smaller government and instead makes those offering such arguments look ignorant and misinformed.