‘There is only one Empire [today],’ wrote James Kurth in 2003, ‘the global Empire of the United States. The U.S military are the true heirs of the legendary civil officials and military officers of the British Empire.’ Dinesh D’Souza corroborates: ‘America has become an Empire… a magnanimous imperial power.’ Indeed, in a 2001 article published in the Weekly Standard, Max Boot asserted that the world was in need of imperial muscle: ‘Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.’

Image courtesy of Leslie's Weekly © 1916, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Leslie’s Weekly © 1916, some rights reserved.

From its very birth the business of the new American nation was one of imperial expansion. The creation of a continental empire – mirroring the eastward sweep of Russian settlers across the steppe – preceded canon over external territories in the Caribbean, Pacific and the Philippines. Analogous to the origin and expansion of Rome, the combined area of the founding states amounts to a mere 8 per cent of the total extent of the U.S. today. And – in line with Dominic Lieven’s definition of empire – this American territorial expansion was scarcely founded upon the ‘explicit consent of its [indigenous] peoples.’ Even like Rome it had, at least for a time, its disenfranchised slaves arguably representable as an internal colony mistreated and exploited by the American imperial machine.

However, in terms of territory it may seem absurd to place America in the same basket as the British Empire. At its zenith, the British Empire covered approximately 23 per cent of the world’s land surface (more than 13 million square miles) in comparison to the United States’ 6.5 per cent: its current overseas expression only accounts for a meagre 4,140 square miles. What’s more is that, demographically, America and its dependencies constitute barely 5 per cent of the world’s population, whereas the British ruled between a fifth and a quarter of humanity. Even the Roman Empire controlled over 2.5 million square miles of land and about 100 million people, or half the world’s population.

But if military power is the essential underpinning of empire, then it is hard to deny America’s imperial personality. A Defense Department map of the world reveals the extent of their military grasp, which is quite literally now global. Essentially, the United States possesses numerous small enclaves of territory within notionally sovereign states that serve as hubs for its armed services. By 2003, the U.S. military had around 752 military installations in more than 130 countries, with significant numbers of troops being stationed in 65 of these. Further, around 390,000 military personnel were deployed overseas between 2003 and 2005. Is it any coincidence that a map showing the principal US military bases around the world looks remarkably like a map of Royal Navy coaling stations a hundred years ago?

By comparison, the United States today is vastly wealthier relative to the rest of the world than Britain ever was. In 1913 Britain’s share of total world output was 8 per cent; the equivalent figure for the U.S. in 2004 was 22 per cent. Indeed, the total operating expenses of the UN and its entire affiliated institutions amount to around $18 billion a year, equating to just 1 per cent of the US federal budget. Interestingly, British imperial power relied on the massive export of capital. But since 1972 the American economy has been a net importer of capital (to the tune of 5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002).  At its peak in 1913, the UK’s net foreign investment (as a percentage of GNP) stood at 9.4 percent. America’s apex stood at just 1.2 per cent in 1974.

This economic prowess has translated into extraordinary military potential. Between 1870 and 1913, Britain’s defence expenditure averaged 3 per cent of net national product, and tailed-off for the remainder of the nineteenth century. American defence spending also stood at 3 per cent of GNP in 2000, compared with an average for the years 1948-98 of 6.8 per cent. When accounting for the differences in economic strength, America’s might becomes obvious. In 2004, its defence budget was fourteen times that of China and twenty-two times that of Russia. The Financial Times noted in 2003 that ‘the Pentagon’s budget is equal to the combined military budgets of the next 12 or 15 nations’ and that ‘the U.S. accounts for 40-45 per cent of all the defense spending of the world’s 189 states.’ Britain never enjoyed such a lead over her imperial rivals.

Another distinction includes America’s appeal for global immigrants, a clear break from Britain’s mass production of would-be colonial emigrants. Between 1820 and 1869, around 6 million immigrants came to the United States, and nearly 16 million in the years to 1913. This couldn’t be further from the British model: indeed, between the early 1600s and the 1950s, more than 20 million people left the British Isles and, from England alone, total net emigration between 1601 and 1701 exceeded 700,000. And yet, coinciding with the Roman model of empire, citizenship in America is obtainable under certain conditions regardless of ethnicity.

It would be difficult to deny the extent of America’s informal empire of multinational corporations, of Hollywood movies and even of TV evangelists. Is this so very different from the early British Empire of monopoly trading countries and missionaries? The British East India Trading Company at its peak controlled 70 million acres, ruled 90 million Indians, controlled a standing army of 200,000, and made profits of £7.6 million in 1801. Although such feats are somewhat impossible today, the global stamp made by American corporations such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola are nonetheless impressive: whilst the former owns more than 30,000 restaurants in over 120 countries, the latter sells 24 per cent of its produce to Latin America, 22 per cent to Europe and the Middle East, 18 per cent to Asia, and 6 per cent to Africa; a staggering geographical spread. Additionally, United International Pictures, the backbone of Hollywood, owns distribution facilities in as many as 37 different countries, and Twentieth Century Fox operates in 21 countries.

As historian Niall Ferguson argues, it is wrong to be deceived into thinking that, because its traditional mode of expansion was not by colonisation and its very existence was born from a refutation of British colonial rule,  America is somehow not an imperial power. Rather, its imperial expansion has relied on formal and especially informal means, backed by its extraordinary economic and military reach.