In the latest installment of its occasional opinion series, “Snap Out of It, America!” The New York Times on November 7 featured a provocative article titled “The Strange, Sad Death of America’s Political Imagination.”

Daniel Immerwahr
Northwestern Professor Daniel Immerwahr. (Courtesy of the author)

Written by Northwestern Professor Daniel Immerwahr, the piece asserted that since 1945 the U.S. has “assumed a position of armed primacy over the planet.” In addition, Immerwahr argued, unelected officials in the National Security Council, CIA and Federal Reserve began exerting undue control over international affairs, foreign policy and monetary policy. These parallel developments were not accidental, in Immerwahr’s opinion. “The federal government doesn’t just run the United States; it seeks to run the world. And it’s hard to do that while remaining open to domestic democracy.” The result, he said, was an “opaque government [that] favors insiders who know how to work its levers.”

This premise is the subject of Immerwahr’s 2019 book, “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States,” which The New York Times called “Wry, readable and often astonishing … a provocative and absorbing history.”

Immerwahr was educated at the University of California Berkeley, Columbia University and King’s College in Cambridge. He has taught at Berkeley, Columbia and, since 2012, Northwestern. Aside from The New York Times his work has been published in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Nation and The Guardian as well as in academic journals. His 2015 book, published by Harvard Press, was “Thinking Small: The U.S. and the Lure of Community Development.”

In a recent interview with the RoundTable (edited for length and continuity), the professor expanded on his ideas about America’s imperial and military aspirations.

RoundTable: On your website there’s a link to your lecture on, of all things, guano, a fuel as important to the 19th century as oil was to the 20th. And you make the case that the Guano Island Act, passed by Congress in 1856, became the legal basis for the growth of the American empire.

Immerwahr: That became the first time it was legally affirmed that the U.S. could acquire overseas territories, and these territories would “appertain” to the United States. That language continued to come up with respect to much larger annexations later in the 19th century.

RT: You write that today the U.S. has something like 750 military bases in 80 foreign countries and U.S. territories, making us one of the largest empires in history.

Immerwahr: Those are round numbers. The U.S. military does not publicly list all its bases because some are classified and others are too small or obscure. But it does list hundreds of them – last time I checked more than 600. Some countries have a large number of U.S. bases, such as Germany, South Korea and Japan, particularly Okinawa. And then there are other U.S. bases that you hear a lot less about. There’s one on Diego Garcia, a British-held island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which is an important node in the U.S. military network.

RT: In your recent New York Times article, you write that since World War II we’ve taken on the role as the world’s policeman and argue for pulling back America’s military presence in favor of expanded diplomacy.

Immerwahr: It’s no accident that the U.S. has the world’s largest military or indeed that the U.S. military is the world’s largest employer and that it has those hundreds of military bases. There’s no other country that comes close. That’s because the U.S. has arrogated to itself the role of being the global cop and assumes that any global conflict is U.S. business and it will be the ultimate arbiter of force on the planet.

The rationale is that the world needs a cop and the U.S. can be more trusted in that role than China or Russia. Since we prefer order to disorder and prefer the U.S. to be the bringer of that order, this is right and proper – that’s how the argument goes. But that argument depends on the notion that if the U.S. were not to have a global military presence, things would swiftly go wrong, and you would see anarchy reign and the return of the kind of violence we saw in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But I don’t think there’s a lot of empirical evidence for that, partly because it’s hard to understand what would happen if the U.S. pulled back. We do know that U.S. primacy has a way of stirring up conflict by provoking other countries that don’t want to see U.S. bases surrounding or stationed within their countries. And I think it encourages the U.S. to solve its problems perpetually with war.

One might prefer the form of U.S. engagement with the rest of the planet to be nonmilitary. When there are problems afoot, the question should be not who needs to be bombed, but who needs to be helped? What refugees need to be admitted into the country? Where does health care need to be provided? And so on.

RT: How do U.S. military and diplomatic efforts compare? Can you quantify and compare them?

Immerwahr: Yes, and those figures are wildly disproportionate. USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], the governmental agency responsible for distributing global aid worldwide, has about 3,500 employees. The Defense Department has 2.1 million people in uniform plus more than 700,000 civilian workers. In other words, it’s more than 800 times the size of USAID.

RT: What would it look like for the United States to withdraw from its role as global cop? How would we begin?

Immerwahr: For starters, there would be a drastic drawdown in the number of bases we maintain overseas, as well as efforts to shrink the size of the military. Even the generals suggest we shouldn’t have as many bases as we do. And then we’d be investing in diplomacy in a more earnest way. Of course the U.S. has a diplomatic corps led by the State Department, but their work can be undermined, as we discovered a few years ago when it was revealed that the U.S. was spying on its friends, surveilling the communications of Angela Merkel, whose country, Germany, is a strong ally of the U.S.

I think Americans are going to have to prepare to relinquish their role of global primacy – either because this is the kind of global privilege that no one should have, or because they will have to give it up no matter how they feel about it, as the relative size of the U.S. economy shrinks globally.

Such a drawdown of military would mean a return to greater normalcy, to a time when the United States was one country among others. The U.S. would have interests, it would conduct diplomacy around those interests, with humanitarian concerns, and give foreign aid around the concerns. But it would not act as the final arbiter of every political question and ultimately the just and final purveyor of force on the planet.

RT: Are there any politicians in a position of leadership who espouse the kind of approach you suggest?

Immerwahr: I take Bernie Sanders to be interestingly concerned with ending the imperial dimensions of U.S. foreign policy. He seems to understand that the values we profess – democracy and justice – are hard to square with the notion that the U.S. gets to run the world and other people get to be run by the U.S.

And by the way, U.S. hegemony is vastly unpopular. If you poll people around the world and ask them how they feel about U.S. leadership, it polls under 50%. And in the Trump years it was under 30%. So if the United States is really a bastion of freedom against anarchy and totalitarianism, most people haven’t gotten the memo.

RT: Given China’s formidable aspirations for global power and Putin’s imperial push vis a vis his neighbors, people might object that this is the wrong time to pull back from military domination, that it might create a dangerous vacuum. How would you respond?

Immerwahr: When would be the right time? The planet has been getting dramatically more peaceful since World War II, in terms of the likelihood of people to die in wars. And I don’t think that’s because the U.S. has grown more powerful. In fact, the U.S. has seemed to weaken its grasp and has less of a central place on the world stage since the 1970s. Yet that diminution of American power has been accompanied by a growth of peace. And it seems entirely plausible to me that with a still more democratic world order we could have still more peace.

This is not a defense of China or Russia, but a defense of the proposition that countries with hostile intentions can be engaged diplomatically and multilaterally. There are all kinds of ways to do that short of unilateral force projection.

RT: Would that require our allies to step up and align with us in greater diplomatic support?

Immerwahr: Yes. I think one of the problems the U.S. has had is that it’s been able to get allies but often at a price and often with the understanding that those allies will be junior partners. The “Coalition of the Willing,” as George W. Bush called it, was not a very large or enthusiastic coalition. And that had a lot to do with the U.S. insistence on having a place of primacy and having armed supremacy over the planet. I think it’s a lot easier to have true partnerships that are not hierarchical ones if the U.S. is no longer committed to being the global cop.

RT: Switching gears, can you talk about your background?

Immerwahr: I grew up in Swarthmore, Pa. My mother taught dance at Swarthmore College. My father taught philosophy at Villanova University. I went to college thinking I was going to major in music (I played jazz piano) and mathematics. And then I started taking history classes at Columbia. I studied with some well-known historians like Eric Foner [two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” and “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” and more than two dozen other books on American history]. I felt that of all the things I studied, history was the most revelatory, that it most frequently gave me the sense that, “Ah, now I understand the world around me.” And I was excited about how eclectic history was: Historians are interested in art, the economy, high culture, low culture, literature, politics, and how it all connects. That just felt extraordinarily exciting to me. And I decided I wanted to be a historian of the United States.

September 11 happened at the start of my senior year, and it became indisputably clear that the politics and history of the United States couldn’t entirely be explained by looking at what happened within U.S. borders. If you wanted to understand 9/11 you’d have to know something about U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, something about Arab reactions to the Gulf War – you’d have to know a lot of things I didn’t know. I realized I really wanted to understand the place of the U.S. in the world. So I went to Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship and decided I’d only study non-U.S. history for two years. I studied the history of India, I learned Hindi, I wrote my thesis on African architecture, I studied ancient Rome and British history.

RT: What’s your teaching course load now?

Immerwahr: I’m finishing up teaching a course on global history from 1750 to the present with undergraduates. And I teach a graduate course on U.S. empire with my Northwestern colleague Doug Kiel.

RT: Are you working on another book?

Immerwahr: Yes, I’m writing a book about wood and fire in U.S. history. Right now, from a global and historical perspective, we live in a period of extraordinary abundance. And underwriting that abundance are fossil fuels, which make everything cheap, including plastic, which is made with petroleum byproducts. So fossil fuels are the source of our abundance but as we now know they’re also the source of our apocalypse. About 85% of our energy today comes from burning fossil fuels and that is driving climate change and is going to give us a very uncertain and probably unpleasant future.

Turns out that there was a similar dynamic in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was one substance that drove American prosperity, such as it was. And that was wood. And the U.S. had more of it than was imaginable to a lot of Europeans. But the result of building everything out of wood was that things burned down constantly.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

4 replies on “Time to downsize the American empire: An interview with Northwestern historian Daniel Immerwahr”

  1. Great interview–Immerwahr is a talented historian who communicates his ideas well. I hope the RT makes interviews with Northwestern professors a regular feature.

  2. Interesting how can we hear more of this man does he have a website thank you for the interview I will buy the book

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