• The U.S. maintains more than 700 military bases worldwide, spanning an area that dwarfs the great empires of world history. Although many leaders today support a policy of foreign interventionism, extensive military engagement around the world is a policy at odds with principles of the republic’s founders—and at odds with the economic, political, and security interests of the American people.
  • The U.S. has military dominance but no longer the economic dominance to match; it accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s military spending but only about 30 percent of global GDP. The U.S. is so dominant today only because other empires declined as a result of losing wars (Germany and Japan) or becoming overextended abroad relative to their frail economies (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). If the U.S. stays the course, America’s economic dominance and political influence will likely decline.
  • Why is the U.S. disproportionately attacked by terrorists? Although the president, other highlevel policymakers, the foreign policy elite, the media, and even large segments of the public are in a state of denial, the key factor is obvious to the rest of the world: the interventionist U.S. foreign policy in support of the informal American global empire. The U.S. has received unfavorable ratings from people in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world, not because of its political and economic freedoms or its culture, but because of its policies—particularly toward the Middle East.
  • Small government conservatives who favor military adventurism should check their history and rethink their assumptions. Increases in nondefense spending have been lower during administrations in which warfare was sporadic or nonexistent (Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton) than during the three administrations in which major long-term wars were being fought. Like prior wars, Bush II’s “War on Terror” has led to increases in both defense spending and nondefense spending (which has increased more during the wartime presidency of George W. Bush than during any comparable period since the wartime administration of Lyndon Johnson).
  • Knowing that popular support for military actions unrelated to American security is fragile, U.S. policymakers resort to “war on the cheap.” This strategy has resulted in the use of military tactics that increase casualties among civilians in the nation being helped. The use of heavy U.S. air and ground firepower results in the moral equivalent of killing people to save them. Thus, military interventions for humanitarian purposes usually achieve the opposite result and are morally questionable.
  • Heavy-handed U.S. military intervention to facilitate social work almost always fails because of the onset of mission creep (e.g., in Lebanon and Somalia), the creation of enemies as a result of taking sides in local disputes or using excessive force (e.g., in Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq), the exacerbation of original problems (e.g., ethnic cleansing in Kosovo), or the loss of public support at home (e.g., in Lebanon, Somalia, and Iraq).
  • In a post–Cold War world, taking into account only the security of American citizens, their property, and U.S. territory, the benefits of an interventionist foreign policy have declined and the costs have escalated dramatically. Americans continue to pay excessive taxes to defend countries that are rich enough to defend themselves or to occupy conquered countries in the world’s backwaters (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan). Their sons and daughters are killed on remote foreign battlefields for reasons even more remote from U.S. vital interests.


Most Americans don’t think of their government as an empire, but in fact the United States has been steadily expanding its control of overseas territories since the turn of the twentieth century. Nor do most Americans think that the global U.S. military presence threatens their security or economic interests or that it hinders the democratic aspirations of citizens of other countries; many Americans consider U.S. interventionism progressive or, at worst, benign.

Unfortunately, a great chasm lies between common perception and reality, according to defense policy expert Ivan Eland (Senior Fellow and Director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty). In The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, Dr. Eland argues against both conservative and liberal proponents of American empire, making the case that U.S. military interventionism harms the interests of Americans politically, economically, and militarily. His thesis—that the U.S. and probably the world would be more free, secure, and prosperous if the U.S. government reduced its military involvement overseas, much as the nation’s founders had urged—is certain to garner intense interest from those who recognize the need for a thoroughgoing examination of U.S. foreign and national security policy.

“The fuzzy criteria that the U.S. government uses to determine whether and where American forces should intervene indicate that American foreign policy is askew,” writes Eland in the book’s introduction. “Unlike the empires of old, which limited their military interventions to certain parts of the world, the United States is trying to police the entire globe. This book offers an alternative vision of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy that is more focused, more achievable, less costly, and a lot less dangerous.”

The Origins and Nature of the U.S. Empire

Although U.S. imperial stirrings began with a colonial foray in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and in the Caribbean and Central America in the early 1900s, the global American empire did not explode onto the world scene until 1950, Eland explains. Only during the Cold War did America finally abandon its traditional foreign policy of acting as an offshore balancer of power in favor of Pax Americana—a worldwide network of alliances, forward-deployed military forces at bases scattered around the globe, and a policy of direct and indirect intervention in the affairs of many other nations. If the purpose of Pax Americana were simply to fight the spread of communism, it would have been dismantled after the demise of the Soviet Union. Instead, the American empire grew larger after the Cold War ended.

Unlike the Roman and British empires, the American empire for the most part is not one of territorial conquest (although the U.S. occupation of foreign territories is happening with increasing frequency). The United States exerts more control over its allies’ foreign policy than over their domestic affairs. Furthermore, the empires of old gained resources, markets, and tax revenue from their territories. The United States gets none of those things from its allies and client states (U.S. allies even refuse to fully open their markets to U.S. exports and investment). Instead, it gets a bill—in blood and treasure—for the defense of nations that are now rich enough to defend themselves.

Why Conservatives Should Be Against Empire

Conservatives should oppose an American empire, because war is the primary cause of Big Government—including the growth of nondefense spending—which in turn requires increased taxes. Hostile relations with other nations also breed protectionism and controls on financial flows, thus undermining the principles of free trade. Bloated government, high taxes, and restricted international commerce slow economic growth, undermining the prosperity and well-being of American society. Over time, lower U.S. economic growth rates could cause the United States to fall into relative decline, as happened to the overextended, overtaxed British Empire in the last century.

Conservatives worry about the nation’s security, but the U.S. does not need an empire to ensure it; America has two great oceans as moats, weak and friendly neighbors, and the most potent nuclear arsenal on Earth.

Why Liberals Should Be Against Empire

Liberals should oppose an empire, Eland argues, because many of the so-called “humanitarian” military interventions of the United States often have unhumanitarian consequences. The abysmal track record of attempts to bring democracy and free markets to countries coercively shows that such interventions usually fail to restructure fractured and violent societies. In the long term, violations of nations’ sovereignties—even for humanitarian ends—undermine international norms against cross-border aggression and encourage separatist groups to revolt. Over time, therefore, more people are likely to be killed than saved by U.S. interventions into failed states. Instead of placing the lives of U.S. soldiers between two opposing sides not yet ready to make peace, the international community should focus on helping nations in which all parties to a conflict are exhausted by war and are ready to stop fighting.

“Humanitarian” military interventionism, Eland argues, also faces strong moral objections: If a military intervention is unnecessary, then killing innocent civilians even accidentally is immoral. Furthermore, foreign wars erode civil liberties at home. Finally, many vested interests—including the arms industry—turn war fervor into corporate welfare. Humanitarian rationales for military intervention are often employed to cloak motives of realpolitik.

Why All Americans Should Be Against Empire

Perhaps the most compelling reason for all Americans to oppose a U.S. empire, according to Eland, is that the empire is destroying the republic. An imperial foreign policy has led to an imperial presidency that is much more powerful than the founders intended. In recent years, the overextended U.S. empire has threatened the American homeland and the civil liberties of Americans—both through “blowback” (the dangerous backlash against prior policies) and the enormous expansion of domestic federal power, including broader police surveillance and detention powers.

As much as some would like to use U.S. military power to restructure failed states, this is likely to be an unsuccessful and dangerous undertaking. Bitter civil wars—ethnic and otherwise—breed terrorism. The United States is hated worldwide for its interference in the affairs of other nations and peoples, and the attacks on September 11 were only the most obvious instances of blowback from U.S. foreign policy. Because intelligence is imperfect and America—the largest truly open society in the world—is very vulnerable to terrorism, improved homeland security can go only so far in protecting Americans from future catastrophic terrorist attacks. A better solution is to white out the bull’s-eye painted on America by dismantling its empire and scrapping its interventionist foreign policy.

With the demise of America’s chief rival, the Soviet Union, the benefits of Pax Americana and profligate military interventions worldwide have declined dramatically. With the advent of catastrophic terrorism, the costs of such an activist foreign policy have increased precipitously. Thus, the quest for empire is a foreign policy but not a security policy.

An Appropriate Foreign Policy for the Modern Age

The republic’s founders realized that America’s geographical remoteness vis-à-vis other nation-states allowed it the luxury of distancing itself from entangling alliances and foreign quarrels, defining its vital interests narrowly, and adopting a policy of military restraint. In an age of catastrophic terrorism, the founders’ original foreign policy is more relevant than ever. Profligate intervention overseas is not needed for security against other nation-states and only leads to blowback from the one threat that is difficult to deter—terrorism. In short, the U.S. empire lessens American prosperity, power, security and moral standing. It also erodes the founding principles of the American Constitution.

Americans have ignored the economic, political and security costs of the burgeoning empire at great peril. Public debate about the U.S. role in the world has finally begun in earnest, and The Empire Has No Clothes delivers penetrating arguments, exposing the imperial motives behind an interventionist foreign policy, questioning the historical assumptions on which it is based, and advocating a return to the founders’ vision of military restraint overseas.

“In short, the U.S. empire lessens American prosperity, power, security and moral standing,” Eland writes. “It also erodes the founding principles of the American Constitution.”

About the Author

Ivan Eland is recognized as one of the leading experts in U.S. defense studies and foreign policy. He is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. He resides in Washington, D.C.