It’s always amusing to hear people say that the United States is “not an empire.” The substance of this “argument” (if we may so dignify such a completely unfounded assertion) seems to be that America can’t be an empire because its agents don’t swan around in white suits, pith helmets and jodhpurs while exercising direct and open colonial rule over its subjects. In other words, it doesn’t look enough like vaguely remembered movie scenes about the British Raj in its heyday.
The fact that the British Raj was only one particular manifestation which imperial rule has taken down through the millennia cuts no ice in our Age of Amnesia, of course. “We seen that movie one time and we know dang well what empires look like, and what we got now don’t look like that, so there.” But even if one’s idea of empire is limited in this fashion, there are still many points of similarity. For example, in the Raj, the British did not plant vast settler colonies and new cities filled with their own people (as, say, the Russian Empire was wont to do). Instead, a relative handful of British officials and soldiers controlled the lives of millions of people, who were exploited for the benefit of the imperial elite — either directly, in the extraction of mineral resources and/or as sources of cheap labor, or indirectly, in situations where the domination of their lives and liberties and territory served some greater strategic aim of the imperial overlords. The parallels to the modern American way are too obvious, and too numerous, to detail here.
Then again, it’s true that you don’t see too many pith helmets amongst the soldiers, mercenaries, diplomats, bureacrats, contractors, spies, special oppers, death squadders and drone jockeys who now cover the earth on behalf of the never-ever-imperial American Empire. So maybe our amnesiacs are on to something. Maybe the Raj is not the most historically resonant model for our modern conglomeration of domination. Maybe we should look to that other empire that people have vaguely heard of, the one where they wore togas and stuff.
While there was certainly plenty of direct rule going on during the Roman Empire, there were also innumerable client kingdoms, nominally independent in their own affairs, although “allied” to Rome and forced to order their affairs in line with the imperial system. Naturally, there were many occasions when these “allies” got uppity and had to feel the iron hand of chastisement, or else had to have their recalcitrant rulers replaced with more amenable retainers.
But the main thing for those in the long shadow of Rome — whether under direct rule or military occupation or in a condition of “independent” clientage — was, as noted, that they adhere to the imperial system, the Roman ordering of the world, in ways both large and small. Whether this inconvenienced the locals was of no matter; Rome’s word was law, and thus rulers and peoples thousands of miles away from the arrogant city on the Italian peninsula were forced to twist and distort their own lives.
It is this model that sprang to mind when reading a small story in the Independent a few weeks ago. Buried in the travel section, it gave British readers a warning about yet another inconvenience coming up for air travellers. In many situation, they are now being forced to submit (a most apt word) their “personal data” to the United States Department of Homeland Security — even if they are not travelling to the United States, or even crossing U.S. airspace.
The U.S. government — yes, yes, the liberal progressive administration of the progressive liberal peace laureate — has arbitrarily chosen a number of foreign airports to which no one can fly without submitting their personal data to the imperial bureaucracy in Washington. This includes — incredibly — British citizens flying to … Canada, which shares a head of state with Britain. Other airports under the imperial travel diktat are in Mexico and the Caribbean. As the Independent reports:
One million British travellers planning to fly to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico this year face the risk of being turned away at the airport – at the insistence of the US Department of Homeland Security.
New rules require British Airways and other airlines flying to certain airports outside America to submit passengers’ personal data to US authorities. The information is checked against a “No Fly” list containing tens of thousands of names. Even if the flight plan steers well clear of US territory, travellers whom the Americans regard as suspicious will be denied boarding….
For several years, every US-bound passenger has had to provide Advance Passenger Information (API) before departure. Washington has extended the obligation to air routes that over-fly US airspace, such as Heathrow to Mexico City or Gatwick to Havana.
Now the US is demanding passengers’ full names, dates of birth and gender from airlines, at least 72 hour before departure from the UK to Canada. The initial requirement is for flights to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and the Nova Scotia capital, Halifax – 150 miles from the nearest US territory. A similar stipulation is expected soon for the main airports in western Canada, Vancouver and Calgary.
Any passenger who refuses to comply will be denied boarding. Those who do supply details may find their trip could be abruptly cancelled by the Department of Homeland Security, which says it will “ake boarding pass determinations up until the time a flight leaves the gate … If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No Fly list.” In other words, travellers cannot find out whether they will be accepted on board until they reach the airport.
Airlines are already scrambling to obey the edict, and the UK government has, naturally, remained mum on this restriction of its citizens’ liberties. The new Obama security net will also tighten the screws a little tighter on that perennial stone in the imperial sandal, Cuba — now in its sixth decade of sanctions for its non-adherence to the imperial system. (And please, no protests that Cuba is being punished because of its tyrannical regime; Washington makes hot, sweet love with tyrannical regimes every day of the year without so much as a quiver of moral concern over their repressed peoples. The Potomac poobahs judge a nation not by the content of its character but by its degree of acquiescence.)
What is perhaps most surprising about the story is that the newspaper actually found some people who seemed surprised by the story:
The US will have full details of all British visitors to Cuba, including business travellers, which could potentially be used to identify people suspected of breaking America’s draconian sanctions against the Castro regime.
Neil Taylor, a tour operator who pioneered tourism to Cuba, said: “Imagine if the Chinese were to ask for such data on all passengers to Taiwan, and similarly if the Saudis were to ask about flights to Israel – would the US government understand?
“One also has to wonder how an American traveller in Europe would react if he were denied boarding on a flight from London to Rome because the German government had not received sufficient data from him.”
Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet travel guides, said “This extension of the rule to include flights that never enter US airspace is scarcely credible. What on earth right does the US have to ask for passenger information if you’re flying London-Havana?”
What right indeed? What right does the United States have to punish businesses in foreign countries who do business with another foreign country, as in the case of the ever-spreading sanctions on yet another state outside the imperial system, Iran? (And again: the same caveat offered above on Cuba applies here as well.) What right does it have to fire drone missiles into sovereign nations and kill their citizens? What right does it have to assassinate its own citizens and imprison them indefinitely without charges, trial or due process? What right does it have to invade and destroy entire nations which have not attacked or threatened the United States?
Rights don’t enter into it. Power doesn’t need rights; it “creates its own reality,” its own rights. The right of British citizens to fly unfettered to Canada and Cuba is in itself a minor matter (and rather darkly ironic, given Britain’s own imperial history and its much-reduced but still persistent continuance); but it is a reflection of larger reality — the power-created reality — of the very real American Empire.