World Sees 'Imperialism' in American Reach, Strength America's status as the world's sole superpower elicits complicated reactions internationally. Increasingly, those abroad who admire -- and even adopt -- aspects of U.S. culture are also quick to denounce the U.S. government as "imperialist."
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World Sees 'Imperialism' in American Reach, Strength

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World Sees 'Imperialism' in American Reach, Strength

World Sees 'Imperialism' in American Reach, Strength

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

President FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: That we oppose imperialism.

Unidentified Man #1: Let's not call it democracy.

Unidentified Man #2: Let's say we fight jihadists.

Unidentified Man #3: Islamic fascism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're caught in a war on terror.

BLOCK: All this week, we've been hearing about some of the prominent terms and phrases spawned by the events of September 11 and its aftermath, war on terror, for example, and jihad.

NPR's Guy Raz continues our series now with an exploration into how the term imperialism, specifically American imperialism, has gained traction abroad since 9/11.

GUY RAZ: A few weeks ago, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez spoke at the United Nations, and about every 45 seconds in that speech, he used the word imperialist. This is the voice of a translator.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through translator) Yankee imperialist, go home. I think that is what those people would say if they were given the microphone and if they could speak with one voice to the American imperialists.

RAZ: Around the same time, also a few weeks ago, Hezbollah spiritual leader Sheik Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah addressed a crowd in Beirut, where he said -

Sheik MUHAMMAD HUSAYN FADLALLAH (Hezbollah Spiritual Leader): (Through translator) The real danger to the entire world comes from the imperialistic American power.

RAZ: Recently, I asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -

Is America an imperial power whether we like it or not?

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): Yes.

RAZ: We are?

Mr. GINGRICH: Yeah, of course we are.

RAZ: We are an imperial power?

No, Newt Gingrich isn't about to smash up a McDonald's or torch the World Bank or the IMF, he's saying America's a different kind of empire.

Mr. GINGRICH: We have no interest in conquering territories. We have every interest in getting people to believe in their own freedom, getting people to govern themselves, and those are inherently threatening.

RAZ: What Gingrich is talking about is one of two very contradictory ideas America embraces. First, as every American president from Roosevelt to Truman to Bush has insisted -

President ROOSEVELT: That we oppose imperialism.

President HARRY TRUMAN: The old imperialism has no place in our plan.

President BUSH: We're not an imperial power, we're a liberating power.

RAZ: The second idea is that America was founded as -

Mr. NOAM CHOMSKY (Author): - an empire of liberty, which the U.S. would spread over the Western hemisphere and look beyond that at the time.

RAZ: So as social critic Noam Chomsky explains, built into America's founding were these two somewhat warring ideas, anti-imperial but also empire of liberty.

Professor NIALL FERGUSON (Harvard University): I think hardwired into the American psyche is a notion that the United States is an anti-imperial entity.

RAZ: Harvard historian Niall Ferguson

Professor FERGUSON: But you're the red coats now. That's the tough thing to come to terms with.

RAZ: Hard to come to terms with because -

Professor FERGUSON: - the word is tainted.

RAZ: Which is why in Star Wars, Darth Vader's evil theme -

(Soundbite of song, "The Imperial March")

RAZ: - is also known as the Imperial March.

Okay, but what is imperialism?

Professor IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN (Yale University): Oh, I think that's very simple.

RAZ: This is Yale researcher Immanuel Wallerstein

Professor WALLERSTEIN: The effort of a strong power to impose its will, whether it's an economic will or a political will or a military will or even a cultural will on the people of a country which is weaker.

RAZ: Over the past five years, Wallerstein's noticed the term American imperialism has been making a major comeback.

Professor WALLERSTEIN: You go all around Latin America, and they'll tell you the same thing. You go all around East Asia or black Africa, and they'll tell you the same thing. In fact, they'll tell you the same thing in most of the world.

RAZ: But why the upsurge now? Well, Johns Hopkins professor Francis Fukuyama says as long as the U.S. is so dominant militarily, economically and culturally -

Professor FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (Johns Hopkins University): It's almost inevitable that the lack of reciprocity in the influence that the United States exercises versus what other countries can exercise back at us is just going to lead to a lot of resentment.

RAZ: But it's not just America's singular place in the world, he says. That resentment is tied to very specific things, as well, like -

Professor FUKUYAMA: - not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, messing up the occupation, creating, you know, a lot of havoc unnecessarily.

RAZ: Which haven't worked wonders for America's insistence that it's anti-imperial.

Professor FUKUYAMA: And even if people believe that we were well intentioned, they would look at us, you know, like a bull in a china shop and say you guys don't know what you're doing.

RAZ: Which is true in large part because America is in denial over its imperial destiny, says Niall Ferguson.

Professor FERGUSON: And if you do things when you're in denial, by and large, you don't do them very well.

RAZ: Six years ago, the Pew Center started asking people abroad what they thought of America. In the latest poll, the results weren't great. Well beyond 50 percent of people in most countries surveyed resent American power, numbers that have gotten worse each year.

Yet the State Department says the number of people seeking visas to the United States increases annually, and every day somewhere around the world, three new Starbucks outlets open and people stand in line from Beijing to Bahrain to the Bahamas for Frappuccinos and blended iced teas. Here's Cal State classics professor Victor Davis Hanson.

Professor VICTOR DAVIS HANSON (California State University): That's why we're so insidious. We appeal to particular appetites - freedom, leisure, affluence, informality, especially - and that tends to drown out all these other competing systems and all these other competing tastes, and we know it does.

RAZ: And that appeal, Hanson says, has imperial ripples.

Professor HANSON: The freewheeling American approach to money, to education, to popular culture means that the power of the mullah, the patriarch, hierarchy in general is always undermined by radical American egalitarianism.

Professor FERGUSON: I think one has to recognize that empires, like most historical phenomena, have both good and bad aspects.

RAZ: Again, historian Niall Ferguson.

Professor FERGUSON: Clearly, not everything about the Roman Empire was bad. There's a wonderful sequence in Monty Python's Life of Brian about that, when the question is asked what did the Romans ever do for us?

(Soundbite of film, "Monty Python's Life of Brian")

Unidentified Man #4: The aqueduct.

Unidentified Man #5: Oh yeah, yeah. They did give us that, that's true, yeah.

Unidentified Man #6: And there's sanitation.

Unidentified Man #4: Oh yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

Unidentified Man #5: I'll grant you, the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans -

Unidentified Man #7: The roads.

Unidentified Man #5: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

RAZ: It's a question Ferguson asks about America, as well.

Mr. FERGUSON: Ask the question what would the world have been like after 1945 if the United States had said look here, it would be terribly imperialistic of us to occupy Western Germany and Japan for any length of time? I think a world without the United States after 1945 would have been a worse world.

RAZ: In his book, The War of the World, Niall Ferguson writes that history is the history of successive empires. The American empire is simply another chapter, a reluctant, even ambivalent empire, but unable to escape its imperial responsibilities.

Guy Raz, NPR News.

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