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Is America an empire?

By Timothy H. Parsons

Empire State Building. Photo by robertpaulyoung, 2005. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The intense controversy that this question engenders is remarkable. On the left, critics of assertive American foreign, military, and economic policies depict these policies as aggressively immoral by branding them “imperial.” On the right, advocates for an even more forceful application of American “hard power,” such as Niall Ferguson and the other members of his self-described “neo-imperialist gang,” argue that the United States should use its immense wealth and military might to impose order and stability on an increasingly chaotic world. The two positions appear to be polar opposites, but they both assume that the United States is in fact an empire. One faction argues that imperial hard power can be put to just and humane uses, while the other sees empires as inherently illegitimate and malevolent. And both sides tend to use the Roman Empire as a cautionary reference point in arguing over whether the “American Empire” is likely to fall.

This debate is pointless and ahistorical. The United States is not an empire because, quite simply, there are no empires any more. By strict definition, empire meant the overt, formal, direct, and authoritarian rule of one group of people over another. Empires ruled permanently different and disenfranchised subjects, while the populations of twenty-first century nation states are, at least in theory, rights-bearing citizens. Many of these contemporary states encompass communities that have their own frustrated nationalist ambitions, but no modern government would cite empire as their reason for denying separatist groups the right of self-determination. Doing so would be an open admission of tyranny. Empire became so stigmatized over the course of the twentieth century, particularly after the 1960 United Nations resolution 1514 (XV) labeled foreign imperial rule “a denial of fundamental human rights,” that no power would admit to being one.

But there is more to the institutional demise of formal empire than the nuances of nomenclature or Cold War politics. The main reason that the United States is not an empire is because formal imperial rule is no longer possible in the transnational and increasingly interconnected contemporary world. In earlier times, when most people’s perspectives rarely extended beyond family and village, conquerors built viable and inexpensive empires by using the members of one subject community to govern and police another. The industrial revolution, which produced a sharp but temporary imbalance in global political, economic, and technological advancement, allowed western powers to acquire African and Asian empires on the cheap. But these were short-lived empires because the experience of direct, and most often oppressive, foreign rule broke down the highly localized and parochial forms of identity that were essential to imperial stability and longevity. Imperial administration required local allies, but empire was no longer possible once participation in such a system became treasonous collaboration. Moreover, the ease with which capital, migrants, weapons, and unifying ideologies now flow around the globe mean that conquered populations have the tools to thwart formal imperial rule.

So if there are no more formal empires, then why is the “American Empire” debate so pervasive and controversial? After the 2001 terror attacks, neo-conservative hawks and their academic allies made the case for invading Iraq by claiming that the supposedly liberal French and British Empires of the twentieth century showed that it was possible to use hard imperial power to “reform” and “modernize” non-western societies. This argument contained a strong current of western cultural chauvinism that was doubly appealing to rightwing thinkers, for the only way that European empire builders could reconcile their African and Asian conquests with western liberal ideals was to portray their subjects as backwards and in need of moral uplift. On the left, the opponents of the Iraq War and American unilateralism predictably reject these stereotypes, but they also hold fast to their own imperial stereotypes. Drawing on empire’s Cold War connotations, they deploy empire as an attack word to cast American policy as imperial, and thus immoral. In this sense empire loses it original historical meaning and becomes a banal metaphor for bad behavior or the deployment of hard power.

The utility and versatility of these various imperial metaphors lead both camps to react angrily to suggestions that there is no American Empire. The resulting crossfire obscures the risks of making policy on the basis of ahistorical clichés. While George Bush emphatically declared that the United States did not “seek an empire” in Iraq, his belief in the transformative power of imperial rule and the assumption that it was still possible to rule an unwilling population for an extended period of time proved disastrous.

Furthermore, the critics and defenders of American unilateralism both confuse formal empire, which belongs to an earlier age, with “informal empire” or hegemony (from the Greek hegemon, meaning preeminence or leadership). This exercise of influence and privilege without expense of conquest and direct rule remains a viable instrument of foreign policy. It was the basis of Britain’s global preeminence in the nineteenth century and the potency of the American Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. While the United States and Great Britain occasionally used military force to demonstrate their power to friend and foe alike, they were sufficiently confident in their power to resist the temptation of turning conquests into formal and permanent rule. Debates over the existence of an American Empire obscure the reality that, at least in the modern era, formal empire was an expression of insecurity and weakness.

Timothy Parsons is a Professor of African History at Washington University. He is the author many books, including The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall; The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World History Perspective; and The 1964 Army Mutinies and the Making of Modern East Africa.

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