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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Is new Netflix drama To The Bone glorifying eating disorders?

We spoke to people with experience of eating disorders about To The Bone, a film about anorexia coming to Netflix next month.

A gaunt and thin girl sits at a stylish breakfast bar in an all-American, middle-class home. A plate of bland food is placed in front of her: pork, noodles, green beans and a bread roll. In a flash, she identifies the calories in each foodstuff from memory, raising a fist in triumph when her sister confirms she is correct. “It’s like you have calorie Asperger’s,” the sister says with an eye roll.

This is the opening few seconds of the trailer for Netflix’s To The Bone, a film which will be released on the streaming service this July. It premiered at Sundance this January, and has all the indie hallmarks you’d expect – quirky supporting family members, jangly music, dark jokes, an eccentric British love interest, sarcasm, and rousing emotional speeches. It also features lead Lily Collins (who has been open with her struggles with eating disorders in her teenage years) at a starkly low weight counting calories, performing surreptitious exercise regimes, weighing herself, and avoiding food.

The trailer has been watched over a million times since it was published less than two days ago, and has provoked a divided response from viewers who have experienced eating disorders. While some praise the film for its representation of anorexia, others feel that the film’s light-hearted tone and detailed depiction of the extreme food-avoidance behaviours are a dangerous combination that could be both glamourising and triggering.

17-year-old Maya*, a Lily Collins fan from France, told me she was pleased by the trailer. “I love Lily Collins, and I know she knows the subject well because she talks about her own experiences in the book she wrote last year.” She adds, “It seems to be a movie with a ‘happy ending’, and I think it’s important for people with anorexia to be given a little hope, like, ‘Yeah, you can survive this.’”

But even she is reluctant to comment on whether or not a portrayal like this is helpful as a representation of eating disorders more generally. “I’m not a doctor, nor a psychologist,” she says. “I don’t think only one film could represent all the different kinds of eating disorders, but I think we will get to see one example.”

“I actually cried when I first watched the trailer,” says 18-year-old Tony, a fan of Lily Collins and someone who has struggled with eating habits they describe as “similar to the ones that Ellen [Collins] has in the trailer”.

While Tony acknowledges that it might not represent everyone’s experiences, they remain hopeful about the drama. “What matters is that it’s a representation that feels authentic to both Lily Collins and the writer/director Marti Noxon, both of whom have been very open about their struggles with anorexia in the past. It also feels like an authentic representation of my own personal experiences, and that gives me high hopes for it.”

“My first reaction was that it looks like a fairly decent portrayal of a particular type of anorexia and would like to watch it,” Liv, 25, told me – but adds, “It looks like it’ll be representative of a certain type of eating disorder which the media and society thinks is what anorexia is – they’ve chosen an ‘accessible’ eating disorder involving an obsession with calories, being thin, being in control.”

Putting aside the fact that jokes relying on autism stereotypes perhaps don’t signal the best start to a supposedly sensitive exploration of mental health, eating disorder charities like Beat now advise that the media avoid specifics of behaviours around food in the depiction of eating disorders. This is both because they put an emphasis on food, rather than the emotional issues that lie at the root of most eating disorders, and as they can encourage audiences to adopt the same techniques. Numbers – be they related to weight lost or gained, days gone without eating, or calories consumed, are considered particularly triggering – as are images of people at a very low weight. To The Bone heavily features all of the above.

“I am cautious to divide any form of mental health representation into ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” says Bethany Rose Lamont, the editor-in-chief of mental health journal Doll Hospital. “It’s simply too reductive and encourages a sense of moral panic that does not support those struggling, whilst still fanning the flames of fear.”

Nevertheless, she does have deep concerns about To The Bone, which, she argues, is grounded in thinspiration aesthetics. “As someone who has struggled with anorexia for over a decade I’m intimately aware of the interplay of images and illness. Often the consumers of mental health screen culture are struggling with their mental health themselves – there’s a reason why Cassie from Skins is so popular on thinspiration tumblrs!”

“We talk about recovery from deprivation of food, disordered eating and so on, but it’s also important that we talk about recovery from thinspiration images,” she continues. “Thinspiration has a distinct language and aesthetic: youth, whiteness, model looks, great make-up, knock knees, shining hair, oversized shirts to accentuate one’s smallness. It is also highly addictive and was my drug of choice for many years.”

She adds: “Whatever the earnest intention of this film project might be it is important to discuss how the images we have seen runs parallel with the language of thinspiration. Images have power, images of ‘thinness’ particularly, as anorexia itself is such a deeply visual illness. It is very easy for a film highlighting the horror of this devastating illness to unintentionally fall into this visual language or play into the ‘anorexic gaze’.”

Sadhbh O’Sullivan, who struggled with disordered eating throughout her teenage years and was diagnosed with anorexia at 19, had a similar reaction. “This mental health/tragedy porn is so so irresponsible,” she tells me. “Because when you’re anorexic you surround yourself with visuals like this trailer, which is so reminiscent of thinspo. You feel a compulsion to keep looking at it; to surround yourself with jutting bones and gaunt faces.”

In fact, images and quotes from the trailer, which features close-ups of Collins’s underweight body and the repeated mantra “I’m in control”, have already begun to appear in thininspiration communities on social media (which I won’t link to, for obvious reasons). “Honestly, Lily Collins looks so freaking good in it, I’m just using it as thinspo,” one user writes. Others discuss over the widely-reported amount of weight Collins lost for the part. Another writes they are “thinking about Lily Collins doing sit ups, wondering why I am just laying here”.

Liv notes her concerns that Lily Collins has been presented as still beautiful at a dangerously low weight. “She has clearly had her hair and make-up done to make her look prettier. That sort of gothic hollow look is what I would have aspired to look like when I was a teenager, but in reality when I was in hospital with other anorexics no one looked good. Everyone was really hairy with lanugo, had very hollow faces, and couldn’t really talk much as we didn’t have the energy. This side of anorexia isn’t really portrayed in the trailer.”

“The fact is that the reality of an eating disorder is really, really boring,” says Carrie Arnold, author of the book Decoding Anorexia. “Oh look, someone is counting calories again. They’re weighing themselves for the eleventy billionth time. They haven’t left their room in days except to purge.”

“It’s also not representative of the experience of an average person with an eating disorder,” she adds. “Most people with EDs are average or above average weight. They’re not necessarily young, affluent, or white, either.”

This is something that particularly troubles Sadhbh. “My anorexia never looked like Lily Collins’,” she tells me. “Though I desperately wanted it to.”

For many viewers, watching the trailer alone has been a triggering experience. “I’m not surprised,” says Arnold, citing the screen’s “long history of glamourising eating disorders”. From Skins and Gossip Girl to Pretty Little Liars and Black Swan, eating disorders seems to only exist in TV and film when it’s being experienced by a strikingly beautiful, vulnerable young woman.

“When this pops up without warning it can trigger something that sends you spiralling,” Sadhbh adds. “Though I’m technically recovered, anorexia never really leaves you.”

“This trailer has been a horrible, painful reminder of that.”


*Some names have been changed.

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

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