Is America's influence "empire by invitation"?

The suggestion that the United States behaves like an imperial power is something that still causes great sensitivity in a country founded in revolt against the British empire, and which has usually seen itself as a champion of the independence and self-d

The Empire Trap: the Rise and Fall of US Intervention to Protect American Property Overseas (1893-2013)
Noel Maurer
Princeton University Press, 568pp, £27.95

“We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been.” So said Donald Rumsfeld in an interview on al-Jazeera in April 2003. Coming one month in to the invasion of Iraq, the claim by the then US secretary of state was met with snorts of derision from across the political spectrum. Later that year, Noam Chomsky published Hegemony or Survival, which argued that the US has pursued an “Imperial Grand Strategy” since 1945 in order to maintain global economic dominance. Niall Ferguson’s 2004 Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire also took issue with Rumsfeld’s disavowal of imperial intentions. For Ferguson, America was in denial about having all the characteristics of the biggest empire that has ever existed, but shirking the responsibility that came with this was both unrealistic and counterproductive.

American exceptionalism, first explored by Alexis de Tocqueville, is nothing new or controversial – every president, including Barack Obama, has articulated a version of it. Yet the suggestion that the United States behaves like an imperial power is something that still causes great sensitivity in a country founded in revolt against the British empire, and which has usually seen itself as a champion of the independence and self-determination of small nations.

This squeamishness is based in part on a rather caricatured version of what was said to have constituted the “formal” British empire of the East India Company or the Raj, or a crude misreading of Britain’s relationship with Ireland over the past few centuries. Although the US has never been a “coloniser”, it has certainly appeared as an empire, being a global hegemon with unprecedented economic reach, to those over which it casts its shadow. This has been the case especially in America’s southern neighbourhood. Hugo Chávez’s protestations against Yankee imperialism are part of a long-established tradition stretching back as far as Cipriano Castro, the Venezuelan president who caused consternation by expropriating properties of the US asphalt trust in 1900.

The Empire Trap is not about the ideas that frame America’s world-view but about a recurrent conundrum faced by the US government since the 1900s: what action, if any, should it take when the property or investments of US citizens and companies in foreign countries come under threat? Over the course of the 20th century, according to Noel Maurer, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, the US proactively intervened in the affairs of other countries, thereby engaging in both “formal” and “informal” economic imperialism.

Foreign direct investment has never been crucial to the US economy but successive administrations “again and again went to bat for private interests”, even at the risk of broader strategic costs – regional confrontation, destabilisation of markets, blowback in the form of hostility from other states, or terrorism. Such was the leverage these investors exerted that even anti-interventionist presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon B Johnson and Jimmy Carter were “dragged kicking and screaming into intervention” on their behalf. As the 20th century wore on, US overseas investors began to “employ more sophisticated strategies” to force the government to act in their interests, by adopting a discourse in tune with American “values”, chiefly anti-communism and free enterprise.

In the 19th century the Monroe Doctrine – which threatened European powers with a military response if they interfered in North or South America – had facilitated the emergence of the new world into existence. At the start of the 20th century Theodore Roosevelt added his own “corollary” to Monroe which heralded a more interventionist approach in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America. Initially framed in response to instability in the Dominican Republic, it first raised the prospect of the US acting as a “world policeman”. “If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters . . . it need fear no interference from the United States,” the president reassured his Latin American neighbours. However, if it succumbed to “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of civilised society”, Washington would be justified to intervene, to ensure good governance and thereby protect its interests.

The seizure of the Dominican Republic’s customs service in early 1905 set a new pattern for American interference which soon spread throughout the region. US marines were sent to stabilise Cuba in 1906, and over the course of the 1910s and 1920s a series of “fiscal interventions” was made in Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama, Peru and Bolivia. This essentially involved despatching US customs and tax officials to secure the successful functioning of weak revenue systems and to make sure that the state in question remained solvent. Gunboats and marines acted as their guarantor.

According to Maurer’s calculations, such enforced tutoring stunted Latin America’s economic development. Moreover, once officials were on the ground, it was extremely difficult to extricate them without destabilising the state in which they were operating. The American government was responsible for the creation of a highly unpopular gendarmerie in Haiti, and between 1918 and 1920 US marines engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign in which more than 2,000 Haitians were killed. Much like with Britain’s creeping intervention in Egypt in the same period, the US remained unable to wash its hands of Haitian affairs until 1934.

It was the Great Depression that finally gave the US the chance to free itself from this burgeoning “formal” empire by breaking the connection between the holders of sovereign debt and the owners of direct investment. Foreign investors also lost out to the imperatives of reviving the domestic economy, which entailed a move towards more protectionist measures. This set the stage for a “Good Neighbour Policy”, proclaimed by Franklin D Roosevelt, which preceded a shift away from active interventionism in Latin America towards reciprocal exchanges and trade agreements. US marines ended their occupations of Nicaragua and Haiti in 1933 and 1934 and diplomatic relations with Cuba and Mexico were also reset.

Anyone hoping for a fresh interpretation of US foreign policy will be disappointed by this rather workmanlike book. Maurer is at his strongest analysing US policy towards Central and South America in the first half of the 20th century. Dealing with the period after 1945 and describing the expansion of America’s “informal empire” into Europe, Asia and the Middle East, he begins to stretch his analysis too thin. Instead of military intervention, he claims that the increasingly global empire of the post-1945 period was supported by a new set of “tools and technologies” – “covert action, the withdrawal of trade preferences and the denial of financial assistance”.

In fact, these are merely the options open to any powerful state seeking to preserve its interests. As even Maurer says, America’s postwar extension of its influence in Europe and Japan was, to a great extent, “empire by invitation”: its obsession with energy security and grand strategy – rather than protection of foreign investments – framed its attitude to oil resources in the Middle East. The extent to which the cold war transformed the parameters of US foreign policy is rather downplayed in the author’s desire to demonstrate the continuity of his thesis. And even though the CIA may have had a chequered history, particularly in South America, he overstates his case in seeing it as a stooge of private investors.

Faded grandeur: the Stars and Stripes flies in Arizona. Image: Gary Knight/VII Photo

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.