In order to grow an empire, the people must believe it's for the greater good

Part III of Julian Drury’s American Empire Series


Empires throughout history have considered themselves all powerful and exceptional. Now, in the 21st century the only superpower around sees itself no differently. “American Exceptionalism” is a term that has been used frequently since the end of the Cold War and has become synonymous with the reason why the United States of America retains the power that it does.

America’s brand of exceptionalism takes on a certain “moral” facade. Political leaders and citizens alike believe that America has a certain “moral role” in the world. Like empires of old who waged war to spread Christianity and Islam or tame the savages to assimilate them into their great society. In the US, this perceived moral role has justified some of the worst decisions in recent memory. Those in power who have made these decisions have no intention of letting go to the greatness that is the United States.

Since the end of World War II in 1945, the United States has sought to expand its military and political power across the globe. America’s concept of its own greatness existed much earlier, but it finally had the chance to act upon these beliefs and establish its own hegemony after the collapse of the British Empire and other colonial powers in the world (France, Portugal, Japan).

Noam Chomsky makes the point that America sought to establish a “privileged sphere of influence” over all of Western Europe, which it accomplished. This privileged sphere did not end with Western Europe. The United States already had a nearly iron-handed grip on the Western Hemisphere (Latin America) save for Cuba after 1959. America expanded in Asia after the defeat and collapse of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific, as well as the looming end of British, French, and Dutch territories in the region.

Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union made complete American hegemony difficult for a while. The Russians also held their own spheres of control, and managed to contain American influence and expansion in certain areas of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact states in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, the United States saw the chance it had been waiting for.

American_EmpireIn 1992, Dick Cheney was among many in Washington’s establishment who pushed for complete American hegemony across the globe in absence of a rival imperial state. Its no surprise that from 1991-2004 the United States expanded its influences and alliances rapidly, first in former Russian influenced Eastern Europe, and then in the Middle East.

The expansion was accomplished with both economic and military means. Some states in the eastern bloc only needed money in order to be brought into the fold. Other states (Former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan) required military action.

What has justified all these modern actions by a much more imperially aggressive America is the subtle, yet broad idea of American Exceptionalism. This notion derives from the idea that the United States is a “moral” actor in the world, which means it would never use its military for any aggressive or imperial purpose. From this people will then defer that anytime the United States intervenes somewhere in the world it must be for a morally just purpose. Hence any intervention anywhere could be technically justified.

Just look at Iraq. America had no reasonable justification to invade in 2003. Though 9/11 still played at the heart strings, it was assumed by many in America at the time that we had the right to invade because we were morally just in trying to spread “freedom” to oppressed people. It is true the Iraqi people were oppressed by an awful dictator (Saddam Hussein), but the invasion and war there hasn’t really brought a better alternative, it just brought in some corporate profits to American companies.

obama_sellout_11x17Even after the end of the Bush-Cheney junta, these aggressive imperial policies haven’t gone away. One must assume then that the path America took and is still taking would have been taken regardless of Bush, Gore, Obama, Romney, or anyone else being in office. Obama authorized military action in Libya in 2011, has expanded Bush’s drone program to practically unconstitutional grounds and seems to have no interest in scaling back America’s military-industrial complex. If anything, he seems to be expanding it.

As the 10th anniversary of the invasion in 2003 approaches, American Exceptionalist attitudes have not declined at all. These actions themselves have already been predetermined as righteous by the powers that be in Washington. It is determined that any action we take in the world will automatically be justified by our inherent “morality” by the public at large.

Ten years since the disaster in Iraq, no president or congress will erase this mindset of American superiority in the world. This is a stigma that all empires have had to deal with. All empires consider themselves exceptionally great, and some even fanatically so (Rome, Great Britain). What is even more disturbing is that this may only be the beginning. The continued growth of the American Empire is not inevitable, but that is the direction the country is forever creeping towards. I’m not one for cliches, but it is probably going to get a lot worse before in gets better for progressives in the United States, not to mention the countries caught in the cross-hairs in the future.


  1. Great take on American Exceptionalism. My one big question is, “Why do Americans have to be so exceptional?” The reality is that Americans are not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination. The Americans who run things are simply greedy, war-mongering, egotistical Sons of Bitches, and all they want is instant gratification to soothe their savage Souls. [Now, ask me how I really feel.]

    • I think I know how you feel Hutch. Americans don’t have to be exceptional per-say, yet it is easier to justify an imperial state by believing that your nation is superior to all others. Every empire in history has held this belief. America may not be a full fledged empire yet, but it’s not inconceivable. Remember, Rome was a Republic for 500 years until the Caesars came along and changed everything. Based on the path that America has been taking, our Caesar may not be that far away from claiming power.

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