Some of the major proponents of this theory ironically have always been the greatest benefactors of our international largess. European powers were bristling under the influence of our "authoritarian hegemony" 40 years ago, and were particularly vocal about the United States' "Imperial instincts" in recent years via the rantings of France's Chirac and Germany's Schroeder. The powers that move the European Continent have been continually frustrated by the, at times, overwhelming impact of the U.S. footprint in military/political/economic terms. In many instances over the past decade, they have worked at cross purposes with the U.S. in the pursuit of creating a "multi-polar" world order to restrain the apparent omnipotent hegemon.
The divergence in military/political/economic might between the U.S. and the European nation-states is profound, and is increasingly notable when one looks at it collectively in the form of the European Union. Jim Manzi, a highly accomplished business executive, noted scholar on issues of international political economy, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, recently addressed similar issues in a white paper. He was on point with the following prose.
American economic policy in the wake of World War II was developed by a generation of statesmen who dealt themselves a great hand of cards, and then played it brilliantly. It is hard to exaggerate the strength of America's competitive position in the world economy in September 1945: The United States accounted for an absolute majority of all global manufacturing output, had the world's most technologically advanced economy with ample supplies of natural resources, and could protect this state of affairs with an essentially invincible military that possessed a nuclear monopoly. Most of the rest of the world was in ruins, pre-industrial, or under the control of communist regimes that smothered economic initiative.
Most great powers throughout history would have reacted to such circumstances by seizing direct, long-term control over as much of the globe as possible. Instead, the United States established itself as first among equals in a loose coalition of nations that came to be known as the Free World. It also established a set of political and economic institutions and programs — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods system, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and so forth — that encouraged rapid economic development within this coalition. Combined with the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union, this approach to geopolitics turned out to have huge strategic benefits for America.
Indeed, the fact that this strategy worked in the decades after World War II is precisely our problem today. The wealth-creation engine of the post-war world was designed in America, but available to other nations too — and so in time those that had more advanced economies before the war (predominantly Western Europe and Japan) re-industrialized to the point that, by the 1970s, they began to challenge America's position. This revived competition, along with the oil shocks of the '70s, dramatically changed the global circumstances that had allowed the United States to have it all: high rates of economic and wage growth along with a high degree of economic equality.
Since the 1970's, America has continued to grow at superior rates than the European Continent, such that our standard of living is nearly twice that of Europe's today. The fact that the U.S. is disproportionately stronger on many different levels than other nation-states and that this fact creates many negative feelings (including envy) on the part of these states suggests to me that the fault lies within the states themselves. At a minimum, the U.S. should not be made to feel it needs to apologize for the superior manner in which it has been able to administer its domestic and foreign affairs, particularly in the post-War era, as the U.S. is the only nation in history to restrain itself from completely exploiting its overwhelming political/economic/military dominance at the end of World War II. Much like George Washington after the Treaty of Paris had been signed, the U.S. just wanted to go home.
However, America had learned the lesson of the post-World War I world, in that it could no longer afford to walk away from international politics. The vacuum created by an America disengaged from the international arena, was filled by totalitarian regimes bent on world domination. Thus, America had been compelled to refrain from its cultural predilection to go home and let the rest of the world fend for itself. As Manzi stated above, in an act of enlightened self-interest, the United States allowed the destroyed western Europe and Japanese economies to re-industrialize and compete in reformed democratic-republics and capitalist economies all while comfortably blanketed under the strategic/conventional protection of the US military.
Western Europe has managed to completely squander this favorable economic ecosystem over the past 30 years through self-indulgent economic policies via further socialist experimentation which has resulted in a public sector that consumes roughly half of their economic output. The administration of the public sector has been so ineffective that the most basic function of any government (i.e. the preservation of its own sovereignty through a credible national defense) has been almost completely outsourced to the US military. Most European governments procure only 1% of their GDP for national defense; their militaries have been so neglected that they were incapable of subduing the Bosnian genocide, which was perpetrated by a state with a Third World military capability; most European militaries are reduced to the function of a state-sponsored employment agency.
The disparity in power between the US and the rest of the world inspires many individuals to use adjectives that describe the US as an ‘Empire’. While it may be true that the US displays many of the characteristics one might ascribe to an Empire, particularly when one thinks of past empires, you would have to intellectually struggle to analogize US intentions with those of past empires and to honestly and synonymously describe them as ‘Imperial’. I believe that I have provided sufficient evidence above to reject the ludicrous notion of a US imperialist ethos in its conduct of foreign policy. However, to completely quarter off this line of argument in the future, let us go to the historical record to accurately describe what imperial behavior represented in the past, and I am sure you can only conclude that the contrast with contemporary American foreign policy behavior is stark.
The Ancient Egyptian, Persian, Mongol and Greek Empires were the most brutal in terms of their intentions. The aim was to maximize the dominion of land-mass via military success, to exploit the conquered territories’ natural resources, and to enslave the vanquished. The Roman Empire was revolutionary in that it extended Roman citizenship fairly liberally in conquered territory. However, it was extremely difficult for citizens of distant provinces to bring local representation to the Roman Senate and the imposition of taxes on the provinces was at the discretion of the Rome appointed governor.
More recently and ironically, the European Empires of the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, which are represented by the Spanish, French and British Empires, have more in common with the brutal Empires of antiquity than with the relatively more evolved Roman Empire. These “Enlightened” Empires employed a philosophy of political-economy called mercantilism. Mercantilism, as then defined, entailed the conquest of foreign lands and in most cases the primitive peoples of these lands, the exploitation of their natural resources, and the imposition of trading posts in these lands. There was little, if any, extension of the privileges of citizenship to these peoples and certainly no self-determined representation of these peoples at the seats of government.
Contrast this behavior with the behavior of the American Empire of the past 100 years. Americans fought and died in many wars on foreign soil: 405,000 in World War II, 58,000 in Vietnam, and 36,000 in Korea. For all these deaths, the US gained exactly 0 square miles of additional land mass. Indeed, in the case of Korea we gained the ‘privilege’ of defending a nation by deploying 37,000 troops along its northern border for the past 60 years at our expense. For its sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of its countrymen, the US gained the ‘privilege’ of deploying hundreds of thousands of its men in Europe for 50 years of the Cold War at our expense. I will concede that US citizens did gain something valuable for all their sacrifice over the last 100 years. The US gained the intangible benefit of providing a stability among nations (a stability that no other nation had the multi-lateral instincts or the will to provide), such that economic relations could foster and commerce would flourish. American citizens and their representatives have never had any intentions on global dominion or imperial pursuits. Indeed, most Americans have such a high regard for their own country that they would prefer to withdraw behind their own sovereign borders and let the rest of the world consume itself in endless conflagration. However, Americans have learned that is an impossible state of affairs. In the absence of a United States actively engaged in pursuing its enlightened self-interest on the world stage, World War I naturally led to the events that resulted in World War II, and more recently, to planes crashing into skyscrapers. The people of the United States merely wish for a stable global environment so that we can create companies that will kick every other countries’ collective asses in the global marketplace for providing goods and services to their citizens. Ideally, this would occur in the absence of the probable threat of their citizens trying to blow up our citizens.
The idea, when put into proper context, that the U.S. has behaved arrogantly or belligerently in its pursuit of its own self-interests, is factually inaccurate, and insulting to most Americans. It is particularly contemptible when such accusations originate from representatives whose country's acted despicably during their historically imperial period. It is an act of unforgivable hubris whenever a sitting U.S. President seeks to raise his own stature by diminishing that of his own country's by hurling subjective, unattractive and unfounded assertions about the country he is sworn to preserve, protect and defend. All for the purposes of advancing toward the holy grail of some multi-polar world order.
I submit that contemporary U.S. administration of foreign policy has been multi-lateral to the point of paralysis. The US has held itself to a much higher standard of multilateral behavior than any other major country, and has established a precedent of utilizing multi-lateral platforms for which their utilization is ill-suited. The French did not seek the UN’s blessing when it sent troops into Vietnam, Algeria or the Ivory Coast; the Russians did not seek the UN’s approval when it sent troops into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, or Chechnya; and the Chinese did not seek the UN’s approval when it brutally subdued Tibet. These nations, despite being permanent members of the hallowed UN Security Council, did not seek UN approval not because they are inherently evil or immoral, it is because the UN as a multi-lateral platform is not particularly well-suited to serve this function. The UN has no sovereignty, no authority, and no ability to enforce its resolutions. To invest rhetoric into such an organization to fortify these grandiose notions of a kind of global sovereignty (i.e. the brotherhood of nations) is premature given the current evolution of global governance to say the least. In reality, it is to actively indulge in pure fantasy.
Perhaps in some future time the peoples of the world will establish enough trust in their bureaucratic institutions such that they truly believe that their primary motivation is the protection of their inalienable rights, and at that time the people might be willing to invest their sovereignty in some global governmental body. However, the scars of brutal totalitarianism inflicted over the past 60 or so years that has claimed the lives of over 100 million people (e.g. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et al) are still too fresh. The free people of the world love their liberty too much to invest in the trust of nation-states that are unfamiliar with the term.
Although we continue to live in an imperfect world, we can all be glad for the time being that we live in an age where the world is guided by a Benign Empire. An Empire enlightened enough to create institutions that checked its own power and that gave greater voice to those nations that would have none if the world were dominated by virtually any other country on the planet. The United States is THE EXCEPTIONAL NATION because of this. I fear, perhaps, that many will only recognize this in retrospect, when the world may be dominated by emerging authoritarian regimes that are less reticent about pursuing their own self-interest at the rest of the world's expense.