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

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.