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The Empires That Brought Us Here

Empire is still (or newly, as it wasn’t always) a touchy subject in the U.S. Empire. Most people in the United States would deny that the United States has ever had an empire, just because they’ve never heard of it, and so it must not exist. And those who tend to talk about the U.S. empire the most either tend to be supporters of violent anti-imperial struggles (as outdated a notion as empire) or bringers of the Good News of the empire’s imminent collapse.

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My concerns with predictions of the U.S. empire’s imminent collapse include (1) like happy predictions of “peak oil” — a glorious moment that was never forecast to arrive before enough oil was burned to eliminate life on Earth — the supposed end of U.S. empire is not guaranteed to come soon enough by anybody’s crystal ball to forestall the environmental or nuclear destruction of pretty much everything; (2) like the progressive takeover of Congress or the violent overthrow of Assad or the restoration of Trump, the predictions generally seem to be little more than wishes; and (3) predicting that things will inevitably happen tends not to inspire maximal efforts to make them happen.

The reason we need to work to end empire is not just to speed things along, but also to determine how an empire ends, and in order to end, not just an empire, but the entire institution of empire. The U.S. empire of military bases, weapons sales, control of foreign militaries, coups, wars, threats of wars, drone murders, economic sanctions, propaganda, predatory loans, and sabotage/co-optation of international law is very different from past empires. A Chinese, or some other, empire would be new and unprecedented as well. But if it meant the anti-democratic imposition of harmful and unwanted policies on most of the planet, then it would be an empire and it would seal our fate as surely as the current one.

What might be helpful would be a clear-eyed historical account of empires rising and falling, written by someone aware of all of this and dedicated to both cutting through centuries-old propaganda and avoiding simplistic explanations. And that we now have in Alfred W. McCoy’s To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, a 300-page tour through empires past and present, including the empires of Portugal and Spain. McCoy provides a detailed account of these empires’ contributions to genocide, slavery, and — in contrast — discussions of human rights. McCoy interweaves considerations of demographic, economic, military, cultural, and economic factors, with some interesting consideration of what we would today call public relations. He notes, for example, that in 1621 the Dutch denounced Spanish atrocities in making a case for taking over Spanish colonies.

McCoy includes an account of what he calls “Empires of Commerce and Capital,” namely the Dutch, British, and French, led by the Dutch East India Company and other corporate pirates, as well as an account of how various concepts of international law and laws on war and peace developed out of this context. One interesting aspect of this account is the extent to which the British trade in enslaved human beings from Africa involved the trading of hundreds of thousands of guns to Africans, resulting in horrific violence in Africa, just as the importation of weapons to the same areas does to this day.

The British Empire is featured prominently in the book, including some glimpses of our dearly beloved humanitarian hero Winston Churchill declaring a slaughter of 10,800 people in which only 49 British troops were killed to be “the most signal triumph ever gained by the arms of science over barbarians.” But much of the book focuses on the creation and maintenance of U.S. empire. McCoy notes that “During the 20 years that followed [WWII], the ten empires that had ruled a third of humanity would give way to 100 newly independent nations,” and many pages later that, “Between 1958 and 1975, military coups, many of them American-sponsored, changed governments in three dozen nations — a quarter of the world’s sovereign states — fostering a distinct ‘reverse wave’ in the global trend toward democracy.” (Pity the fate of the first person to mention that at the President Joe Biden Democracy Conference.)

McCoy also looks closely at the economic and political growth of China, including the belt and road initiative, which — at $1.3 trillion — he labels “the largest investment in human history,” perhaps not having seen the $21 trillion put into the U.S. military in just the last 20 years. Unlike huge numbers of people on Twitter, McCoy does not predict a global Chinese Empire before Christmas. “Indeed,” McCoy writes, “apart from its rising economic and military clout, China has a self-referential culture, recondite non-roman script (requiring four thousand characters instead of 26 letters), nondemocratic political structures, and a subordinate legal system that will deny it some of the chief instruments for global leadership.”

McCoy does not seem to be imagining that the governments that call themselves democracies actually are democracies, so much as noting the importance of democratic PR and of culture in empire spreading, the necessity of employing a “universalist and inclusive discourse.” From 1850 to 1940, according to McCoy, Britain espoused a culture of “fair play,” “free markets,” and opposition to slavery, and the United States has used Hollywood films, Rotary clubs, popular sports, and all its chatter about “human rights” while launching wars and arming brutal dictators.

On the topic of imperial collapse, McCoy thinks that environmental disasters will reduce U.S. capacity for foreign wars. (I would note that U.S. military spending is rising, militaries are left out of climate agreements at the bidding of the U.S., and the U.S. military is promoting the idea of wars as a response to environmental disasters.) McCoy also thinks the rising social costs of an aging society will turn the U.S. away from military spending. (I would note that U.S. military spending is rising, U.S. governmental corruption is rising; U.S. wealth inequality and poverty are rising; and that U.S. imperial propaganda has effectively eradicated the idea of healthcare as a human right from most U.S. brains.)

One possible future that McCoy suggests is a world with Brazil, the U.S., China, Russia, India, Iran, South Africa, Turkey, and Egypt dominating sections of the globe. I don’t think the power and proliferation of the weapons industry, or the ideology of empire, allows for that possibility. I think we very likely must either move to the rule of law and disarmament or see global war. When McCoy turns to the topic of climate collapse, he suggests that global institutions will be needed — as of course they long desperately have been. The question is whether we can establish and strengthen such institutions in the face of U.S. Empire, no matter how many empires there have been or what ugly company they place the current one in.


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of and campaign coordinator for Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at and He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.

Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.

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