Empire: affluence, violence, and U.S. foreign policy

by Robert Jensen

This article is Part 2 of a 3 part collection of essays by University of Texas at Austin Professor Robert Jensen on important issues that should be highlighted during this year’s US mid-term election campaigns.

Robert Jensen

The United States is the most affluent nation in the history of the world.

The United States has the largest military in the history of the world.

Might those two facts be connected? Might that question be relevant in foreign policy debates?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for such discussion in the campaigns; conventional political wisdom says Americans won’t reduce consumption and politicians can’t challenge the military-industrial complex. Though not everyone shares in that material wealth, the U.S. public seems addicted to affluence or its promise, and discussions of the role of the military are clouded by national mythology about our alleged role as the world’s defender of freedom. Business elites who profit handsomely from this arrangement, and fund election campaigns, are quite happy.

There’s one word that sums this up: empire. Any meaningful discussion of U.S. foreign policy has to start with the recognition that we are an imperial society. We consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, made possible by global economic dominance backed by our guns.

Today the United States spends as much on the work of war as the rest of the world combined, and we are the planet’s largest arms dealer. Professor Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University reports in her bookThe Bases of Empire that we maintain 909 military facilities in 46 countries and overseas U.S. territories, and we have more than 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilians working at those sites. That’s in addition to U.S. bases, military personnel, and contractors occupying Iraq and Afghanistan.

The military is there to project power, not promote peace. We regularly use these destructive forces, especially in the Middle East, home to the largest and most accessible energy reserves. Flimsy cover stories about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, or self-indulgent tales about U.S. benevolence toward the people of the region, cannot obscure the reality of empire. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlawful, in direct violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution, but such details are irrelevant to empires.

Terrorism is real, of course, as are weapons of mass destruction. Law enforcement, diplomacy, and limited uses of military force need to be vigorously pursued through appropriate regional and international organizations to lessen the threats. Most of the world supports such reasonable and rational measures.

In its global policy — especially in the Middle East — U.S. policymakers prefer force, not only though invasion but also by backing the most repressive Arab regimes in those regions and unconditional support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. In the short term, this cynical and brutal strategy has given the United States considerable influence over the flow of oil and oil profits.

But these policies, which have never been morally acceptable, also aren’t sustainable. Just as the age of affluence is coming to a close, so is the age of U.S. domination of the world.

That need not be bad news, if we can collectively tell the truth about our own greed and violence, and begin to shape a new vision of the good life and a new strategy for living as one nation in the world, not the nation on top of the world.

– Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity(South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005);Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen can be reached here:rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, click here.

2 thoughts on “Empire: affluence, violence, and U.S. foreign policy”

  1. Affluence, militarism and happiness have weak and unnecessary linkages. The affluence we acquire through pillaging resources (at this point) does not require even half of the affluence we waste on our military. The relations we acquire through imperialism are fleeting and dangerous. Resources are unnecessarily damaged by short sighted greed. Affluence has only a minimal relation to happiness and if acquired through force is most assuredly temporary.

  2. Robert ignores the critical area of finance and capital but chooses to focus instead upon the “flow of oil” as though this minor element of international trade has some special significance.

    This flaw in his analysis is sadly prevalent within the left discourse which seems to be heavily dominated by Jewish tribalists who seek to divert attention from the true levers of transnational power which are found in banking and not commodities or industry.

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