As a veteran of two imperial wars, a witness to the dark underside of America's empire-denial, I've grown tired of the equivocation and denials from senior policymakers. The U.S. can't be an empire, we're told, because – unlike the Brits and Romans – America doesn't annex territories outright, and our school children don't color its colonies in red-white-and-blue on cute educational maps.
But this distinction, at root, is rather superficial. Conquest, colonization, and annexation are so 19th century – Washington has moved beyond the overt and engages in the (not-so) subtle modern form of imperialism. America's empire over the last two decades – under Democrats and Republicans – has used a range of tools: economic, military, political, to topple regimes, instigate coups, and starve "enemy" civilians. Heck, it didn't even start with 9/11 – bullying foreigners and overturning uncooperative regimes is as American as apple pie.
Still, observing post-9/11, post-Iraq/Afghanistan defeat, Washington play imperialism these days is tragicomically absurd. The emperor has no clothes, folks. Sure, America (for a few more fleeting years) boasts the world's dominant economy, sure its dotted the globe with a few hundred military bases, and sure it's military still outspends the next seven competitors combined. Nonetheless, what's remarkable, what constitutes the real story of 2019, is this: the US empire can't seem to accomplish anything anymore, can't seem to bend anybody to its will. It's almost sad to watch. America, the big-hulking has-been on the block, still struts its stuff, but most of the world simply ignores it.