America’s Soft Empire and the Problem of Sovereignty

In today’s world, no two men are more responsible for the overwhelmingly negative connotations of the English word empire than George Lucas and Ronald Reagan.

In his seminal “Star Wars” films, Lucas introduced us to Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire: it embodied institutionalized evil and served as a foil for the noble Rebel Alliance, which in turn contributed to the positive connotations of words like rebellion and resistance. At the peak of the Cold War, Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” was likely chosen because it would resonate with the popular imaginations of “Star Wars” fans across the globe.

Today, almost no serious voices are affirming the merits of empire. And there are merits: as a beloved sketch from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” shows, even those rebelling against the Roman Empire had to concede that the Romans had given their subjects the aqueduct, good roads, the alphabet, public sanitation, irrigation, civic order, public health, and wine, among other things. Partly because the United States was founded by a revolt against imperial power, Americans have been reluctant to acknowledge the imperial dimensions of America’s global influence.

Yet, undeniably America is an empire.

Without even exploring the problem of whether there is such a thing as a “good” empire, it is plain that America is the best empire in the history of the world. Earlier empires used warfare and territorial conquest to advance their hegemony. Once they had subdued a foreign people, the conquerors claimed their land and subjugated the locals to a remote administrative state in which they had no power.

While America certainly has made use of military prowess to assert our interests abroad, we no longer “claim” territory, and the sites of our recent applications of military force (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, etc.) are not places that are key to maintaining our global power.  Instead, America embodies a soft empire.

For the most part, it is not bombs, but blockbusters that maintain American global dominance.

Films like “Star Wars,” music like Bruce Springsteen’s, food like McDonald’s, sports like baseball, vehicles like the pick-up truck, and clothing like the t-shirt are our best tools for maintaining imperial power. These American people, things, and ideas create an affinity for Americanness (if not always for America) around the world. Taken together, they inspire people from all over to live like Americans.

We are a cultural empire, not a military one. Some on the Left insist on the fantasy that America, if only she would forsake her hegemonic power, could realize Allen Ginsberg’s dream of a world of “comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the Internationale.” But it is more likely that America’s abdication of power would create a violent vacuum from which a more traditional (Chinese or Russian) military empire would emerge. We saw such a vacuum in the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire; and we called them the Dark Ages for a reason.

Thus, it must be with a sense of duty and respect for people around the world that Americans come to grips with the fact that we are an empire—a necessary empire, and one that we are obliged to preserve.

But we find ourselves at a bewildering historical moment: a moment in which many Americans voted for Donald Trump in a desperate last-minute recognition that action was required to preserve America’s place in the world. Rejecting the multiculturalist trends that call for a new order of shared, decentralized power in which each nation’s interests are as important as those of any other, Trump revived an arcane principle as the guiding dictum of his administration: “America First.” He called for a return to national sovereignty—the exclusive right of American citizens to determine the fate and future of the American project.

Trump demands that American actions be determined by a reflection on what is best for Americans. If sovereignty was the exclusive property of Americans, then it would seem to be crass self-interest. But as he has asserted in countless speeches at home, abroad, and at the United Nations, Trump’s sovereignty is reciprocal: America must put America first for the same reasons that Brazil must put Brazil first and Vietnam must put Vietnam first.

In the context of empire, though, the doctrine of sovereignty gives rise to a troubling contradiction.

A return to sovereignty may well be what is needed to preserve American cultural hegemony, but soft empire limits other nations in asserting their sovereignty. For that reason, our sovereignty apparently cannot fulfill its promise of reciprocality, the very promise that serves as the ethical grounds for the elevation of our national interests.

Our imperialism limits the abilities of other nations to exercise their sovereignty. Some places cannot afford sovereignty: it requires various kinds of independence that not every nation has. Many states do not have the natural resources to enable this sort of independence.  Some nations do not possess the military prowess to defend themselves against threats to sovereignty. Some national economies do not have the wealth to avoid reliance on other nations—nations who demand some deference in exchange for their support. In sum, sovereignty is a luxury of the empire.

This might not seem to be a problem for Americans. After all, South Korea’s inability to exercise total sovereignty does not limit our ability to exercise ours. But this contradiction needs to be resolved. Other nations’ willingness to consent to America’s soft imperialism is dependent on the benefits they derive from it.

Like the rebels in “Monty Python,” most nations are willing to sacrifice some sovereignty, provided that American power provides things like prosperity, order, health, or peace. But if maintaining the American order means an American sovereignty that wholly undermines the sovereignty of others, the consent to American soft imperialism will continue to erode at the same rate that it was prior to Trump’s election.

Our empire required an embrace of sovereignty, but it cannot be “sovereignty for me, but not for thee.” As the American government continues to prioritize American interests, we must urgently work towards an imperialism that works to preserve or enhance the sovereignty of the nations who are least able to assert it.  As a great tool of American cultural hegemony, Stan Lee’s Spiderman was always mindful that with great power comes great responsibility. Learning how honorably to fulfill those responsibilities will be critical for maintaining American power in the age of sovereignty.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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