Empire and Extraterritoriality in 20th Century America
Southwestern Law Review, 2011
19 Pages Posted: 9 May 2011 Last revised: 2 Jun 2011
Date Written: May 4, 2011
Powerful nations have long sought empires. The United States is no exception, though its imperial experience is distinctive. In this brief essay I examine the American approach to empire in the 20th century. In the early years of the century the U.S. experienced a brief burst of traditional empire-building. By the Second World War, however, American leaders for the most part foreswore traditional empire, even as the nation became a superpower with global reach and ambition. They instead pioneered a new form of political dominance, which produced many of the effects of empire in a different form. This new form of empire had several important features, but the key was that it was essentially extraterritorial in nature.
Traditional empires controlled territory directly or indirectly; that control was reflected in maps that showed, for example, the territorial holdings of the British Empire in red. The postwar American empire, by contrast, projected national power outward without controlling foreign territory directly. It was predicated not on territorial control but on extraterritorial power and presence. Through military bases sited on the territories of other states, the extension of domestic statutes overseas, and a web of multilateral institutions that embedded and extended American power while creating a favorable environment for American firms, the US achieved many of the ends of empire without the form. The unusual structure of postwar order the United States created and led reflected the nation’s newfound superpower status after 1945. It was, in many respects, an “empire by invitation,” since it was welcomed by many states around the world. But it was also consistent with a wide range of constitutional concerns that had arisen in the Theodore Roosevelt and Taft administrations, largely stemming from the acquisition of the Philippine Islands from Spain. An extraterritorial empire proved more comfortable fit with our constitutional framework, and with our political interests, than traditional territorial empire.
Keywords: Extraterritoriality, Territorial Control, Postwar American Empire, British Empire, Military Control
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