Whether it ends with a whimper or a bang, the American Empire is ending. WikiLeaks shows that the empire can no longer control the dissemination of information. Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen show it can no longer militarily defeat insurgencies. Brazil, China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and even Bolivia show it can no longer dictate the foreign or domestic policies of other countries. Compared with previous empires—Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, Ottoman, and British—which spanned centuries, or the Soviet Union’s, which lasted 70 years, Washington’s will be remembered for being arguably the shortest-lived imperial misadventure in history.
Washington will lose the ability to project its power not only directly across the world but indirectly through Third World client states, particularly those in Latin America. With no existing power—not Russia, China, India, Japan, or the European Union—capable of adequately replacing U.S. political, military, and economic assistance to sustain the governments of such states, an opportunity may emerge for indigenous nations in Mexico and Central America to regain their political independence.
The American Empire, however, is still formidable and will resist this as long as possible.
The U.S. government has approximately 6,000 military bases and/or warehouses located within U.S. territory, and another 737 military bases in 63 countries. Unofficially, the number of overseas bases is thought to exceed 1,000. This gives the U.S. Defense Department control of a vast extent of territory—over 30 million acres of land worldwide conservatively valued at $658.1 billion. Its manpower consists of 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, another 1.1 million in the National Guard and Reserves, 718,000 civil-service personnel, and approximately 200,000 local hires. Over 450,000 military personnel, their dependents, and Defense Department civilian officials are stationed in 156 countries. Often, they are exempt from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court by immunity agreements negotiated by Washington with host governments.
As Chalmers Johnson noted in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,
Interestingly enough, the thirty-eight large and medium-sized American facilities spread around the globe in 2005—mostly air and naval bases for our bombers and fleets—almost exactly equals Britain’s thirty-six naval bases and army garrisons at its imperial zenith in 1898. The Roman Empire at its height in 117 AD [sic] required thirty-seven major bases to police its realm from Britannia to Egypt, from Hispania to Armenia. Perhaps the optimum number of major citadels and fortresses for an imperialist aspiring to dominate the world is somewhere between thirty-five and forty.
Washington’s drive for empire can be seen in its partition of the world into six regional Unified Combatant Commands for more effective management: Africa Command, Central Command, European Command, Pacific Command, Northern Command, and Southern Command. It is the Southern Command that will be the principal arena of conflict as Washington seeks to maintain its empire. The purpose of this command is to continue a foreign policy toward Mexico and Central America established in the 19th century. The objective is to suppress indigenous nations and ensure that political and economic power in these colonial-settler republics remains in the hands of Spanish speakers.
Washington has often intervened to enlarge, not just preserve, these Spanish-speaking client states by assisting them in dispossessing indigenous nations. In some cases, these indigenous nations constituted the majority population. What unites American and Hispanic imperialisms are two beliefs: Indigenous cultures are incapable of economic development as defined by the West; and economic growth, therefore, requires that the nonindigenous rule the indigenous. Four examples of this phenomenon of symbiotic imperialisms are the Miskito Kingdom (1850), Yucatán (1901), Kuna Indians (1925), and Guatemala (1953-present).
In the cases of the Miskito Kingdom and the Yucatán, U.S. foreign policy supported Hispanic states invading and annexing de jure or de facto independent indigenous states. On the 1840 map of Central America by Heinrich Berghaus, the page titled Die Vulkanreihe von Guatemala, die Landengen von Tehuantepec, Nicaragua und Panama, und die Central Vulkane der Sud See shows the Miskito Kingdom encompassed significant territory. It was larger than either Nicaragua or Honduras. The de facto independent Mayan states of the Yucatán do not appear on the map because they did not achieve independence until the Caste War of 1847. However, the map does show British Honduras, now Belize, to be larger than her current territorial size.
With the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of April 19, 1850, between Washington and London, the United States, the weaker power with no territorial possessions in the Caribbean, sought to advance her growing economic and political interests by ensuring that a proposed interoceanic canal across Nicaragua was not controlled by the British. Since any canal had to pass through the Miskito Kingdom, a British protectorate, Washington’s objective was to abolish that political entity. This conformed to overall U.S. foreign policy, which was anti-British and engaged in sabre-rattling as it sought to reduce, if not replace, London’s influence in the Western Hemisphere whenever possible. In 1848, Washington, which disputed the legitimacy of London’s protectorate over the Miskito Kingdom, went to the brink of war with the British over the Miskito Kingdom’s control of the port of Greytown. Later, the U.S. government was able to exploit the advantages obtained in its treaties with Nicaragua and Honduras to persuade London to have the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty include the “neutralization” of the Miskito Kingdom.
This was set forth in Article I:
The governments of the United States and Great Britain hereby declare, that neither the one nor the other will ever obtain or maintain for itself any exclusive control over the said ship canal; agreeing that neither will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding the same or in the vicinity thereof, or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast [the Miskito Kingdom], or any part of Central America . . .
Depriving the Miskito Kingdom of British legal and military protection was a first step in its eventual partition and annexation by Nicaragua and Honduras. The next step came on January 28, 1860, when the Miskito Kingdom’s independence was terminated by a British-Nicaraguan treaty whereby it became part of Nicaragua, but with broad autonomy. The end came on November 20, 1894, when Nicaragua abolished that autonomy and officially annexed the Miskito Kingdom. In 1960, the International Court of Justice awarded the northern part of the Miskito Kingdom to Honduras. That land forms much of the Honduran province of Gracias a Dios. During the Nicaraguan civil war of the 1980’s, Washington exploited Miskito, Sumo, and Rama grievances against the ruling Marxist Sandinistas for propaganda purposes but opposed any restoration of an independent Miskito Kingdom. Yet it supported the restoration of the independence of other countries from Marxist rule: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from the Soviet Union; Slovakia from Czechoslovakia; and Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia.
The Maya of the Yucatán achieved de facto independence in the Caste War of 1847. As a result of a Maya uprising, Spanish-speaking colonists in the Yucatán, who had earlier declared independence from Mexico, abandoned most of the peninsula and fled to the safety of the cities of Mérida and Campeche along the Gulf of Mexico. With the $15 million it received from the government of the United States as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War, the government of Mexico rearmed and, in 1848-50, attempted to reannex the Yucatán. It succeeded in securing only the west coast of the peninsula. The rest of the Yucatán remained in the hands of independent Mayan states, the largest being Chan Santa Cruz, whose de facto independence was recognized by London.
By 1893, tensions with Washington over Alaska’s boundary with Canada, U.S. sympathy for republican rebellions in Canada, and attempted invasions of Canada from U.S. territory by Irish nationalists led London to seek to counter U.S. interference in Canadian affairs by improving British ties with Mexico. To do that, London abandoned the Maya, signing a treaty that recognized Mexico’s claim to the Yucatán. Mexico invaded Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, but did not gain complete control of the Mayan Yucatán until 1915. Throughout the 20th century, Washington supported Mexico’s claim to the Yucatán and opposed political movements in Mexico it perceived to be pro-indigenous, such as the Zapatistas in neighboring Chiapas.
In the cases of Panama and Guatemala, no de jure or de facto independent indigenous states existed to obstruct U.S. political and economic interests. On the contrary, Washington intervened specifically to prevent the possible emergence of any such independent indigenous states. It intervened in Panama to prevent secession by the Kuna Indians, and in Guatemala to prevent decolonization and any emergence of an indigenous Mayan state.
In 1925, the Kuna seceded from Panama, declaring their independence as the Republic of Tule. Since Panama is a country Washington created in 1903 so it could build, own, and operate the Panama Canal, and the Republic of Tule bordered the strategically important Canal Zone, the U.S. government intervened and suppressed Kuna independence. Washington facilitated a compromise whereby the Kuna would possess political and cultural autonomy within Panama. Following the Roman adage “divide et impera,” the Kuna were divided into three comarcas, or indigenous regions. Kuna Yala has provincial status, while each of the other two comarcas, Kuna de Madugandí and Kuna de Wargandí, have subprovincial status. As a means of “legally” dispossessing an indigenous people, these comarcas bear a resemblance to the Bantustans created by apartheid South Africa. In April 2003, the government of Panama, with the apparent approval of Washington, rejected a Kuna petition requesting their three adjoining comarcas be unified into one.
In 1954, Washington accused the democratically elected government of Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán of Guatemala of being pro-communist and a “Soviet beachhead” for, among other reasons, expropriating 400,000 acres of uncultivated land owned by the United Fruit Company, a major U.S. corporation. The Árbenz government offered compensation. It would pay the United Fruit Company the same amount for the land that the company had publicly declared the real estate was worth on its corporate taxes. The U.S. State Department demanded that United Fruit be paid millions of dollars more. When the Guatemalan government refused, the CIA staged a successful military coup that overthrew President Árbenz.
The oddity is that the political left in Guatemala, as represented by Árbenz, is just as dedicated to preserving Guatemala as an Hispanic colonial-settler republic, and preventing decolonization and Mayan majority rule, as is the political right in Guatemala. The overthrow of Árbenz unleashed a half-century of political instability, military coups, civil wars, and genocide against the majority Mayan population. During the 1970’s and 80’s, various Guatemalan regimes pursued a race war against the indigenous population, attempting to eradicate all traces of Mayan identity from Guatemala—language, culture, religion, and symbols. Even Spanish words for Indian were officially outlawed. It has been estimated by the Guatemala Commission for Historical Clarification that during those decades 200,000 Maya were killed, and another 250,000 were made refugees. These figures may be conservative. Guatemala embodies the adage “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The 1996 Peace Accord replaced military regimes with civilian governments that continue to represent the interests of the same constituency, the Spanish-speaking minority. The Maya endure, but remain, as American and Hispanic politicians desire, a dispossessed majority. They are, in the lexicon of the former Soviet Union, an “unpeople.”
Modern empires are ephemeral, if for no other reason than they are financially unsustainable. The American Empire is no exception. Financially, militarily, politically, and psychologically, it is at the breaking point. Soon it will be unable to preserve the territorial integrity of its client states. And as the Southern Command unravels, world maps may have to be redrawn, yet again, to include the Miskito Kingdom, Chan Santa Cruz, and the Republic of Tule.
Joseph E. Fallon writes from Rye, New York.