Does it ever occur to you to wonder how the future will look back on the USA? In some future history, how will the States be portrayed?
I suppose in many respects that will depend on who is writing the text books.
We (in Britain) have become apologists for our past, for the misdemeanours of our Imperial antecedents, in many respects simply for having the audacity to make the most of the opportunities that were presented by the circumstances of the time: The introduction of banking (thanks to the Dutch entrepreneurs of the East India company) which facilitated the building of a huge fleet of merchant and naval vessels, the industrial revolution, the dreadful domestic conditions which contrived to convince people that they may be better off trying their luck in the "new world".
This did not happen over night. The 'progress' of Britain into the Indies, the Americas the Far East and Australia was made against a back drop of almost continuous war with Spain and France and the politics of the blockade and siege.
What in fact is "Empire"? Are we currently living in the days of the American Empire? If empire is a global sphere of influence dominated by an individual nation, then yes, we are certainly witnessing a stage in the development of the Empire of the USA.
Historically 'Empire' is forged by more than political will or force of arms. It is true that we associate many empire states with charismatic individuals, Genghis Kahn or Alexander the Great, who wielded political might or were the figure heads for religious fervour and associated 'divine' conquering armies. However it is probably fair to say that most of these individuals were the product of their times, who catalysed a ground swell of popular opinion, a swelling feeling of outrage amongst the common citizenry of the time against their poverty or ingenuousness of the current aristocracy. Whether it be by fomenting religious belief or a sense of being chosen by the their plight, such people are easy to manoeuvre into a fighting force.
One overriding precondition for Empire is culture. Culture in as much as it is a belief by a people in whatever principles bind their society together. Their laws, practices, tolerance of religious belief, which lead inevitably to the expression of the people in terms of arts, education and philosophy. Consider if you will the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Moors all of whom were warlike in their own proportion, but all of whom, after making war, made peace. The geographical spread of these Empires encompassed culturally diverse peoples who were not necessarily simply overrun and 'cleansed' of their existing social structure. Within the overriding ethic of the 'invaders' there was an absorption of local knowledge which fed the arts and strengthened rather than weakened the whole. Probably the most visually impactful outward appearance of this is the growing sophistication of architecture associated with the progress of an empire whose territory is expanding to incorporate different cultures. The Moorish temples and strongholds of southern Spain are subtly different to those of North Africa despite the builders probable desire to faithfully emulate the buildings from whence they came.
This is Empire in it's ascendant.
There seems to be a point where a civilisation begins to turn in on itself, where the cultural influences reach their zenith and are replaced by personal financial and political machinations which begin a spiral downwards in to decadence. (Ring any bells?). There is a difference between entrepreneurial guile coupled with an overriding moral sense or principle which funds growth, and the need to amass wealth, power and influence as an object in its own right. This is decline. It is fragmentary and the cause of inward focus that loses the impetus for growth needed by Empire and eventually fundamentally flaws it's ability to defend itself from external threats.
The Romans never successfully returned to the 'blissful' state of Republic. It's not as if they were crucially overstretched, but they had become a decadent society in so much as their politics was centred almost exclusively around the struggle for survival and inheritance of their Caesers. Nero was by no means the first (or maddest or deadliest) or most self destructive of their Emperors. Succession to the throne by a string of self absorbed rulers had dire consequences for all of those who had formed each previous government. There was generally a cull of the unlucky administrators who had been loyal to the previous Emperor (governors of vassal states, chancellors, ambassadors and generals) to the extent that the Romans eventually effectively decapitated their own administration. (Do we learn? It seems not. There are plenty of comparisons in recent history, although possibly not on the same scale, but Pol Pot and Idi Amin certainly spring to mind).
When the Mayflower arrived in America it did not bring the first settlers from the UK. A settlement had already been established in Virginia. In Virginia the chances of surviving (quite apart from the difficulties of making the voyage) the first year were pretty much 50:50. Departing to America was not for the faint hearted, and indeed the Mayflower was not simply crowded with religious refugees seeking a place to enjoy freedom from persecution. There were more 'adventurers' than Pilgrim Fathers, more people that thought that they stood a better chance of scraping out a living from an unknown soil than the fields from which they had been dislodged in Britain. The population of America grew in no small part because of fish. Thousands of barrels of salt fish were exported from the early British settlements. Make no bones about it, these people came to survive and hoped to prosper, not simply to die whilst maintaining their beliefs.
Puritanism and profit were institutionalised by the Massachusetts Bay Company, and they also discovered the importance of a third ‘p’, procreation. Unlike Virginia the population of Massachusetts swelled rapidly to nearly twenty thousand in the first 15 years of occupation. And they could hardly deny the existence of an indigenous population of American Indians.
(Did you ever wonder why “Indian”. It’s very simply that the British came to India before America, so anyone of a coloured background who couldn’t provide an understandable term for their race became an “Indian”).
The native population was tolerated, but once the numbers of settlers swelled and new land was required, well the story is well told no doubt. But of probably 5 million original inhabitants in 1500 by the 1800's there were less than 250,000, ravaged as much by disease, diphtheria, smallpox, influenza as clashes with their new hosts.
The great paradox of the first ‘civil’ war (there was of course no America at that time), was that by then the New Englanders who fomented it were amongst the wealthiest in the British Empire. In 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings in taxes, whilst the average New Englander paid just 1 shilling.
So why a revolution? It must have been at the very heart of the “American’s” conception of themselves, a struggle to break free from an evil empire? A creation myth perhaps?
And what relevance does this have? It is simply the formation of a state, of a nation. Not all nations that have aspired to Empire have made particularly noble beginnings. China has enjoyed thousands of years of cohesive civilisation, prior to which the land mass that we call China was inhabited by a myriad feudal and constantly warring kings and nomadic tribes. The American civil war had a similar effect to the 'combining wars' of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, bringing together not just two disparate beliefs and geographical areas into one cohesive state, but probably more like at least four (independent California and Alaska would probably have thrived if the larger USA had not been formed).
It is not until after the 1st great war that the United States of America could properly be called a “superpower”. Following the 2nd world war, the fall of the former Soviet Union this status had been confirmed. The USA fulfils almost every criteria to fill the vacancy for Empire: A dominant nation state with immense influence on the peoples of other nations around the world. Protective of its own borders whilst (rather than using “tax” as the instrument of it’s power and wealth) securing preferential access to commodities and necessary raw materials combined with prohibitive trade juristiction. The USA is the cornerstone of the global economy, at present the US$ is not founded on the country’s actual industrial production or balance in trade, it is an arbitrary value, a license to print money, conceded as a right by other countries to a dominant force. This will change, and the change will be breathtakingly rapid for those who live in that era.
So what of cultural exports? There is no doubt that the USA has had a cultural influence on the rest of the world. Without being frivolous there exists a global determinator of wealth which measures how long an individual has to work in any particular society in order to afford a “Big Mac”. It is not America’s fault that it rose to its power in an era of astounding scientific progress hastened by two world wars. That America has presided over the race for space, witnessed and driven the development of engineering and electronic marvels, and turned so much of the technology to the most altruistic avenues of science is to its credit.
This is also the era of communication. We are all so well informed so abruptly that criticism is inherent in our current society in a way that it was not even 100 years ago. (In the 1700’s it took 4 to 5 months to send a message from London to an ambassador or general in Hong Kong). War is become a spectator sport, politics are short term and fragmentary. We have always voted with our feet, whatever policies within a manifesto suit us we will choose. But within that process everything, EVERYTHING is become immediate, because we choose government that can not fulfil its promises to its citizens without a tendency towards Imperialism. There is absolutely no way that the USA can continue to remain a financial giant without interfering in global politics.
Perhaps that’s the difference, the pendulum is shorter, perhaps rise and fall are now just decades apart?