Monday, 8 February 2010

American Empire?

The unending debate on the existence of an American empire is compounded by the use by numerous scholars of the outdated framework of analysis which frequently compares this twentieth century phenomenon with previous empires such as the British and Roman Empires. Whilst there is a requisite to have a point of reference of comparison to define empire, this essay says there is a “new American Empire” and seeks to show that where comparative historiography is the foremost framework of analysis, it weakens the argument of those who say there is no American Empire. Marxists continue to focus on the lack of rivalry between imperial powers and a post-modernistic concept of empire without a centre and none of these allows us to understand the form of imperialism, uniquely embodied in the American State, which has emerged in the contemporary era . However the clarity of distinction between the hub and spoke nature of empire featuring direct and territorial rule and the more contemporary recognizable multilateral approach in acquiring hegemony status cannot be ignored. Nevertheless it is argued that emphasizing the distinction between hegemony and empire as a basis of substantiation that there is no American empire is inadequate. These distinctions, invariably a discourse in the context of anarchy and hierarchy play less significance than is often associated in determining if the American unipolar order is a latter day empire of something new. Finally this essay argues that most debates surrounding empire is narrow and too focused and don’t give equal weighting to features of empire as relating to all dimensions such as Military, Economic and Cultural. If defined broad enough, most scholars would acquiesce to the existence of an American Empire.

The first section introduces the origin of the empire debate and key actors and their arguments. It then looks at various scholarly attempts at definitions of hegemony and empire and the role of power and sovereignty in assessing and theorizing American empire. This is intentionally not a long drawn assessment of the difference between unipolarity, hegemony and empire as some scholars such as Nexus and Thomas have done . That represents only one facet of the framework for analysis. Though a strong framework, in isolation it could be problematic and lead to an inaccurate conclusion of the non-existence of an American Empire. After this is an exploration of the dominant dimensions used as a basis of empirical analysis to ‘measure’ what constitutes an empire – military, economic and cultural. By assessing each of these dimensions with more contemporary events in the period of 9/11 and the second Gulf war in Iraq in 2003 and outlining the combination of arguments that both support and discount the notion of an American empire for each event, it starts to become evident why there might be a growing acquiescent of the existence of an American Empire.

There are essentially two identifiable prominent periods when the debate surrounding the reality of American empire intensified – the end of the cold war and 9/11. The first was what Charles Krauthammer refers to as ‘the Unipolar Moment’ . At this moment the US was in the enviable position of unparalleled military and economic strength and viewed to have also won the ideological war against communism. David Ludden argued Americans are only recently beginning to understand their imperial history which has remained largely invisible. By comparing and contrasting the ‘old days of Imperialism’ before 1945, he concurs that ‘imperialism acquired a new format under American leadership.” It can be said that the cold war, globalization, security and terrorism justified US expansion militarily, economically and politically. Michael Cox said the political order of nation states made the term empire outdated as one country could not legally administer another. If on this basis alone there is no American empire, then there probably cannot be any other empire. Cox’s implication of an outdated definition could suggest an up to date definition where legal administration over another state was not a pre-requisite would make it easier for America to be classified as an empire. This could be one reason Antonio Negri felt the need to write ‘Reflections on Empire’, an ‘update’ on his original work ‘Empire’? The second period of intensified American empire debate was after 9/11 and the run up to the war in Iraq. Intriguingly, Antonio Negri commented that the attacks on New York and Washington did not change the condition of sovereignty but revealed a change that had already taken place – the inadequacy of any substantial notion of sovereignty. Negri states “In our current transition towards Empire, the sovereignty of the dominant nation states is being compromised, while sovereignty is being transformed by, a new imperial power, supranational, tending towards global control.” America comes to mind.

American Hegemony, understood as domination of the unipolar world since the end of the cold war, and the reality of its preponderance on power, military and economic, today is in little doubt. One perspective describes hegemony as the first step on the way to empire. Admittedly, hegemony does not represent an indispensable prerequisite to building empire especially considering the divide and rule characteristic of previous empires. However, Imperial ambition or American ‘neoimperial grand strategy’ , is too strong a temptation to avoid for the dominant power in a unipolar order. John Ikenberry agrees that ‘unipolarity does generate imperial temptations’, but adds using empire alone to describe the political order around American power in inadequate. This in his view is new without historical antecedent. This is the same ‘new imperialism’ however that Michael Mann argued would create more terrorists and rogue states and a less influential America. According to Robert Jervis, “Great power also instills new fears in the dominant state. A hegemon tends to acquire an enormous stake in world order. As power expands, so does a state’s definition of its own interests.” Only where empire exclusively means ‘direct rule over foreign territories without any political representation of their inhabitants’, Niall Ferguson explains, will the distinction between hegemony and empire be correct. Those who say there is no American empire emphasize that the sovereignty of the nation state was pertinent to the imperialism of European states. However, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, sovereignty has taken a new global form comprising a combination of national and supranational united under a single logic of rule. This they call Empire. Recognizing this new form of sovereignty changes the terms of the American empire debate. Similarly if the definition is broad enough, America can be considered an empire, and if narrow enough a conclusion reached that it is not one.

Nexon and Wright highlight extensively the problem with scholars attempting to address the American empire debate without focusing on how aspects of imperial dynamics compare to unipolar and hegemonic orders. They argue that ideal-typical empires are different from hegemonic and unipolar orders as they ‘rule through intermediaries’ and ‘heterogeneous contracting between imperial cores and constituent political communities’. By graphically illustrating numerous relational perspectives between predominant and lesser powers they compare unipolarity, various forms of hegemony and empire. They found the first two relatively straightforward. On empire, despite a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the concept, however, scholars and commentators agree on many characteristics of empires. Most argue that empires are multiethnic polities, that they involve the dominance of one polity over other political communities and that core-periphery relations are an important component. Nexon and Wright note: “By themselves, however, these characteristics fail to distinguish “empires” from “hegemonies.” They also do not, in of themselves, suggest a spare set of structural dynamics. On features of empire most agree with, America is a hegemonic power with ‘neoimperial grand strategy’

Military Dimension: How much has power got to do with it?

There are two conspicuously absent criticisms in the role of military power in the debate surrounding the existence of an American empire. The first is the degree to which the discourse is skewed in favor of citing military as the predominant source of US imperial ambitions. The second is the lack of recognition that the debate goes far beyond the number of air force bases the US has or the fact that defense expenditure is double that of the rest of the top 6 nations combined. In the first case, it is telling that the ‘Project for the new American Century’ pays such little attention in its extensive policy analysis documents to anything other than security and defense from a military perspective. Brooks and Wohlforth are more careful in avoiding this pitfall and highlight that what distinguishes the International system is American dominance in both military and economic categories simultaneously. On the second point that it’s not just about having power, but its impact and how it’s used. Robert Jervis notes in his review of Brooks’ and Wohlforths book , that even though the conclusion that size matters may be incorrect from the standpoint of much of political science, they dispute claims of the proponents of the three leading paradigms in international politics – realism, liberalism and constructivism that the current American predominance in the International System should generate balancing dynamics that should restrain the United States. However it mustn’t be downplayed that if empire is about winning conflicts and agenda setting, a strong military such as the American forces is important.

Economic Dimension: Whose invisible hand?

After a sustained period of ‘empire by denial’, many neoconservatives are now talking with pride of a “new American empire” which has a new face hiding behind the dominant military and political power. This face of international economic rules and rule making organizations help a hegemon apply its power. Though not necessarily always applicable it is necessary to state the obvious that economic preponderance precedes military power. It does for America and according to Robert Wade, this is America’s invisible hand. Michael Mann has a different metaphor in his arguments suggesting a drive towards imperial incoherence resulting from uneven power resources: a ‘military giant’ and ‘Back-seat economic driver’. Economists like numbers and so presumably Empire economists like big numbers because it represents power. Having $13 billion in GDP representing more than a quarter of the worlds GDP, the US numbers are impressive. Not enough to impress Mann. Even though he admits these are ‘substantial imperial powers’, he insists the US is only a Back-seat driver being unable to directly control foreign investors or economies and limited powers over big economies like Russia, India and China. His assessment of how much control the America really has starts by looking at the carrot and stick approach in this dimension – sanctions and development aid respectively. For the former to be effective requires international organization. For the latter to be a force for global development, it just isn’t enough. Mann uses the word ‘puny’. The failure of US carrots and sticks to win a majority in the UN Security Council over the invasion of Iraq could be cited as evidence of this. However could this really be an argument that the US has limited influence economically as required by an empire? Mann actually contradicts his argument when he suggests that many promises of aid made by the US at the time of the UN vote over Iraq in 1991 were not upheld and this led to distrust of the US to fulfill its pledges. He continued his analogy by saying “This back-seat driver will not pay for the gas. It is difficult to build an Empire without spending money.” This actually weakens the argument of the potential influence of carrots and sticks and points more to a failure of implementing policy. It could be safely assumed that if the US did fulfill all its pledges in 1991, which it had the resources to do, its influence could have been capitalized on in 2003.

The financial and economic meltdown in 2008 has transformed whispers of doubts of American Hegemony into more audible voices. This has brought back into the limelight the question of the benefits and logic of neoliberalism and free trade. This however only lends itself to the debate about the decline of American empire and not as much about its existence. It is paradoxical to talk about the decline of something that doesn’t exist. The US has numerous economic challenges such as a large trade deficit, the growing influence of the European Union as a region of economic influence and the Euro’s growing popularity even though the Dollar’s reserves globally are still huge and the City of London’s rise as a global financial centre. Can any of these be conclusively cited as evidence that there has never been an American Empire and undermine its global influence?

Cultural Dimension: Liberalism or Empire?

Many scholars still find value in comparing America with European Imperial Powers to identify similarities, but more importantly, differences. One distinction is qualitative. The goal and desire of power dominance are the same but the approach to achieving this differs. The importance of ‘soft power’ in America’s foreign policy has had no stronger advocate than Joseph Nye, who says “it comes from being a shining city upon a hill.” Winning conflicts, agenda setting and shaping normality are characteristics of imperialism. According to Nye: “Winning the peace is harder than winning a war, and soft power is essential to winning the peace.” Upon further analysis, the attraction of the American way of life as a magnet or even as missionary is not far removed from the British. The British Empire also actively sought to make its values attractive to others and to spread Christianity. Ferguson explains in a historical context how administrators applied their notions of law and order and the noticeable impact of the use of the BBC in the 1930s is viewed as more than the soft power of the United States today. In the more recent events of 9/11 leading up to the war on Iraq, President Bush’s West Point address evokes American values and speaks of a fight for a just ‘peace that favors human liberty’. Whilst the speech reminded graduates of ‘the challenge of imperial communism’ – Korea to Berlin, to Vietnam, and in the Cold War from beginning to end, the US does face two ‘logics of order’. Ikenberry cites an order based around liberalism and one around imperialism, the former with prominent features of the post-1945 Western system and the latter around unilateralism, divide and rule strategies and coercive domination. Edward Rhodes talks about these two logics of order and combines them to describe ‘The Imperial Logic of Bush’s Liberal Agenda’ arguing that America’s return to Wilsonian Internationalism doesn’t mean that a liberal order based on human liberty and consent, will not require the exercise of power. America has demonstrated in numerous instances little hesitation in exercising this power. Power here, military or otherwise could be interpreted to be the hegemonic characteristic of an empire. This speech reflects a slight contradiction though. On the one hand it serves as a proponent to the power of an idea - in this case, American Exceptionalism, and hence the propensity to aspire to win conflicts, set the agenda and shape normality. On the other hand however, the speech fails in its attempt to disguise its imperial nature. By emphasizing ‘imperial communism’ as what America has confronted diplomatically, economically, militarily and the victory of ‘moral clarity’, President Bush almost illustrates the proverbial fingers pointing back at you when you point one finger at someone else. There is almost the subliminal admission of the existence of the opposite of imperial communism - imperial liberalism.

Jean Bricmont talks about using Human Rights to sell war and explains that since the end of the Cold War, the idea of human rights has been made into a justification for intervention by the world's leading economic and military powers—above all, the United States—in countries that are vulnerable to their attacks. The criteria for such intervention have become more arbitrary and self-serving, and their form more destructive, from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan to Iraq. Until the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the large parts of the left was often complicit in this ideology of intervention-discovering new “Hitlers” as the need arose, and denouncing antiwar arguments as appeasement on the model of Munich in 1938. This ‘Humanitarian Imperialism’ can be argued represents the character of the new American empire. Noam Chomsky agrees describing this as “the new doctrine of Imperial Right” and notes how this was unhampered by superpower rivalry. America hasn’t shied away from playing a leading imperial type role in this growing norm of Humanitarian Intervention in corners of the globe as far flung as Somalia or Sudan.


The prevalent framework for the discourse and debate on the existence of an American empire is at best inadequate and at worst flawed. It focuses too much on the thin line between the definition of what constitutes a hegemonic power and an empire. By attempting to compare formal and informal empire such as the British and Roman empires with this ‘new American empire’ is fraught with problematic analysis if it ignores the changing political landscape. By limiting the features of empire to military power or having the argument weighted favorably in that context further compounds this. It demonstrates that if the characteristics and features for inclusion into what constitutes an empire is wide enough the conclusion of the existence of an American empire is invariably reached. Conversely, if narrow enough, there is no American empire. Proponents and Opponents alike customarily meander towards a definition to the extent to which substantiates their claim. However the impact and not just the existence of all sources and dimensions of hegemonic power – military, economic and cultural – are considered, more boxes than not are ticked and the argument for the existence of an American empire is more plausible. Evidence for this can be found in contemporary events such as 9/11 and the war on terror. Here’s a final thought – The unprecedented interest from all corners of the globe in the recent US presidential elections in November 2008, conjures up images, not that far removed from Roman times, of subjects from all over the world eager to know who the next emperor would be.


Bricmont, J. (2006). Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. (D. Johnstone, Trans.) New York: Monthly Review Press.

Brooks, S. G., & Wohlforth, W. C. (2002). American Primacy in Perspective. Foreign Affairs , 81 (4), 20-33.

Brooks, S. G., & Wohlforth, W. C. (2008). World out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Chomsky, N. (2008). Humaitarian Imperialism: The New Doctrine of Imperial Right. Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine , 60 (4), 22-50.

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Ludden, D. (2004). America's Invisible Empire. Economic & Political Weekly , 39 (44), 4776-4777.

Mann, M. (2003). Incoherent Empire. London/New York: Verso.

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Nexon, D. H., & Thomas, W. (2007). What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate. American Political Science Review , 101 (2), 253-271.

Nye, J. S. (2004). Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.

Nye, J. S. (2002). The Paradox of American Power: Why the World's Only Superpower Can't Go It Alone. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Panitch, L., & Gindin, S. (2006). Theorizing American Empire. In A. Bartholomew, Empire's Law (p. 21). London: Pluto Press.

Posen, B. R. (2003). Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony. International Security , 28 (1), 5-46.

Rhodes, E. (2003). The Imperial Logic of Bush's Liberal Agenda. Survival , 45 (1), 131-154.

Wade, R. H. (2003). The invisible hand of the American empire. Ethics & International Affairs , 17 (2), 77-88.

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