The impulse of the great American republic of the north toward domination was evident from its beginnings, expressed in: its economic development on the basis of a lucrative trade relation with the slave plantations of the Caribbean during the seventh and eighteenth centuries; its development of a system of slavery in the US South, and the development of its industry in the North on a foundation of commerce with the slave South; and its expansionism, through which it forcibly took lands from indigenous nations and from Mexico, establishing a nation that extended from coast to coast. On the other hand, during its first century as a republic, a democratic impulse existed alongside its disposition to domination, as was expressed by the continual expansion of political and civil liberties to white men of the laboring classes, and by its abolition of slavery. In 1876, the possibility still existed that the United States could fulfill the promise of democracy that it had proclaimed at its birth. It was not too late for a US government with a democratic political will to compensate the indigenous nations and the freed slaves, and to proceed on a more democratic road. Although the territory of the nation had been acquired through force and the economic development of its principle industry was tied to slavery, much of the economy and commerce of the nation remained in the hands of small scale industrial and agricultural producers that were not directly tied to superexploitation of labor in other lands.
But during the last decades of the nineteenth century, the economic development of the nation took a leap toward concentrated capital and banking, the leaders of which, the “robber barons,” emerged to control the important opinion shapers in the country, including the press, the universities and the churches. During the 1890s, concerned with the fact that the productive capacity of the nation exceeded its domestic market, the elite began to forge a policy of imperialism, characterized by interventions in other lands in order to secure markets. President William McKinley was the first to implement the policy with military intervention in Cuba, and President Theodore Roosevelt developed imperialism as a systemic policy at the beginning of the twentieth century. Imperialism has been the continuous policy of US presidents ever since, regardless of political party or ideological orientation, and maintained in spite of significant national and international developments.
The move to imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century was a decisive turn, for it meant that the development of the economy of the United States would be tied to the superexploitation of vast regions, first in Latin America, and later in Africa and Asia. At the same time, a profound ideological change occurred, as the American promise of democracy was converted into the American dream of upward mobility. The nation was on the road to the creation of a consumer society, constructed on a material foundation of the superexploitation of the peoples of other lands. From that time forward, it would be difficult to depart from an imperialist road, because this would require a change in the structural foundation of the national economy, and it would imply a new direction in the evolving American way of life.
However, the American imperialist and consumerist road was not ecologically and politically sustainable in the long term. The earth has finite limits, placing ecological constraints on human productive capacities; and the peoples of the world would not in the long run accept the conditions of poverty and underdevelopment imposed by global structures of superexploitation. Sensing this, Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned a democratic reform of the world-system following the Second World War. In the Atlantic Charter, he expressed a dream that every person in the world would be freed from want. In other contexts, he spoke in favor of ending the colonial empires; and he voiced his intention to provide financial aid to the newly independent nations, so that greater global equality among nations and persons would emerge.
We cannot be sure if Roosevelt understood the implications of such a vision. It would have required a transformation of global structures of superexploitation, and thus a restructuring of the US economy, including the development of new patterns of investment in ecologically sustainable production oriented toward providing for human needs. As such, it would have involved a reversal of a half-century of imperialism in support of consumerism. But it would have been possible, given the advanced industry, science and technology that the United States had developed. Such a democratic turn would have involved a kind of global Keynesianism, implemented by an enlightened US elite, aware that an anti-imperialist democratic global project would be necessary for the sustainability of the world-system in the long run.
We cannot know if Roosevelt would have been committed to such a global democratic transformation, if he had lived. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy with respect to Latin America was imperialist, and we therefore have reason for skepticism. On the other hand, World War II created a different international situation, in that the United States emerged from the war with the economic and political power to implement a global democratic vision.
Nor can we know if Roosevelt’s third term vice-president, Henry Wallace, a man with progressive vision, would have guided the nation toward global leadership in the development of a democratic world-system, if he had succeeded Roosevelt. Wallace was dumped by the Democratic Party bosses at the convention in 1944 and replaced with Harry Truman.
We do know that Truman surrounded himself with advisers who had none of the vision of Roosevelt and Wallace. And we know that the United States, instead of reconverting its war economy to a peace-time economy, turned to a permanent war economy, creating what retiring President Dwight Eisenhower would later call the military-industrial complex.
The turn of the nation to a permanent war economy, justified with the Cold War ideology, further set the nation on the imperialist road. For it would mean that the United States would be most inclined toward military aid and to military intervention in neocolonies with anti-imperialist popular movements that were threatening the established order. And it would mean that the United States would be less and less capable of leading the world in a peaceful and democratic turn, in that it would be less capable of developing sustainable forms of production that would respond to the human needs of the world. Increasingly dependent on military intervention in order to protect its economic interests, the United States would be increasingly unable to lead the world in a different direction.
Barack Obama inherited this legacy of 125 years of imperialism and seventy years of a permanent war economy. He arrived to the presidency as a result of campaign contributions from the elite, and not on a foundation of a popular anti-imperialist movement. So there was never a basis for thinking that he was prepared to make changes in US foreign policy beyond adjustments in imperialist policies. As the foreign policy of the Obama administration took form, Cuban and Latin American analysists continually have stressed that Obama’s policies are characterized by continuity with his predecessors, rather than change. They have noted, for example, continued US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq; regime change in Libya; supported for terrorist opposition groups in Syria; efforts to destabilize socialist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador; and increasing military expenditures and military presence in the world.
The Obama administration has had some tendency to express support for more intelligent forms of imperialism, characterized by support of internal opposition groups and use of the mass media, combined with destabilizing economic strategies, while formally pretending to respect the sovereignty of the nation. The intelligent use of imperialist strategies has been the approach with respect to Leftist governments in Latin America, and it has been more effective than cruder strategies, such as an embargo. This shift to intelligent imperialism is what Obama now intends with respect to Cuba, eliminating the embargo, which has been universally condemned by the nations of the world, and thus is damaging to US imperialist intentions.
One hundred twenty-five years of US imperialism have put the North American republic on a course of opposition to the legitimate aspirations of the peoples of the Third World, who for nearly a century have formed anti-imperialist popular movements in search of true independence and sovereignty. Attempts have been made to justify antagonistic policies toward the Third World with distorting ideologies: the Cold War, the war on terrorism, and human rights. We the people of the United States must see through these ideological distortions and develop an alternative political party with an anti-imperialist platform that seeks to lead the nation in a foreign policy of cooperation with the nations and peoples of the world, as the only path to the development of a world-system that is just, democratic and sustainable.
In September and October 2013, I published eighteen blog posts on US imperialism in Latin America. The posts tried to show that US policy from McKinley to Obama has been characterized by imperialism. Shifts in emphasis have occurred within the context of a fundamental imperialist intention. The posts are the following:
“Lenin on Imperialism” 9/10/2013;
“The origin of US imperialist policies” 9/18/2013;
“US Imperialism, 1903-1932” 9/19/2013;
“Imperialism and the FDR New Deal” 9/20/2013;
“Post-war militarization of economy & society” 9/23/2013;
“The Cold War and Imperialism” 9/24/2013;
“Kennedy and the Third World” 9/25/2013;
“The Alliance for Progress” 9/26/2013;
“US Imperialism in Latin America, 1963-76” 9/27/2013;
“Imperialism falters in Vietnam” 9/30/2013;
“Jimmy Carter” 10/1/2013;
“Pan-Americanism and OAS” 10/2/2013;
“The national turn to the Right” 10/3/2013;
“Imperialism as neoliberalism” 10/7/2013;
“The “neocons” take control” 10/8/2013;
“Obama: More continuity than change” 10/9/2013; and
“Imperialism as basic to foreign policy” 10/10/2013.
A subsequent post on “The imperialist discourse of Obama” was published on April 22, 2015.
To find the posts, in the category US imperialism, scroll down.
The development of US imperialist policies was integrally tied to the development by the United States of neocolonialism in Cuba and Latin America, and to the US rise to hegemony in the neocolonial world-system. US imperialism has involved the use of a variety of strategies to guarantee cheap labor, raw materials and markets in nations that are formally independent. It was born in a neocolonial context, and it has not been characterized by the seizing of political control through military aggression, as occurred with European colonialism. In the neocolonial world-system, even when military intervention is used and imperialist wars are launched, the occupied nation is presented as independent. Neocolonial domination is primarily through ownership by corporations of the neocolonial power and by the figurehead bourgeoisie of the neocolony of the economic, financial and mass media institutions of the neocolony. The use of military force is secondary, and when it occurs, it is carried out by the apparently independent government of the neocolony, which receives military aid from the neocolonial power. In the heyday of neocolonialism, direct US military intervention only occurred in situations in which the neocolonial system broke.
Inasmuch as the United States has experienced a relative economic decline, and inasmuch as fascism is characterized by the attainment of economic objectives by military means, the increasing use by the United States of imperialist wars in promotion of economic interests can be interpreted as a turn toward global fascism. It may be that the United States is taking steps that could lead to the abandonment of the imperialist neocolonial world-system constructed during the twentieth century in favor of a global military dictatorship and a world-empire directed by a United States government controlled by transnational corporations.
See seven posts on neocolonialism, posted in September 2013 and in 2014.