OxBlog

Monday, August 20, 2007

# Posted 11:46 AM by Patrick Porter  

AMERICA AN EMPIRE? SOME THOUGHTS: There is a rich body of work out there, in the blogosphere and beyond, about whether the US is an empire, and if so, what kind.

Before even getting into that argument, though, commentators disagree on whether its a good or bad thing to be one. 'Empire' for many is obviously tinged with associations of exploitation, aggression and chauvinism.

In the US, this is heightened by the country's ideological heritage as a nation founded explicitly on a set of ideas - revolution, independence and rejection of Europe's corrupt old order of colonial powers.

This heritage shapes American anxieties about the problem. For nativists, isolationists and others suspicious of adventures abroad, such as Pat Buchanan, Americans should forever be warned against the dangers of moving from a republic into an empire. To this argument they bring a battery of historical precedents, from the ancient cycle of nations that expand, overreach and decline, to the warnings of John Quincy Adams not to seek out monsters to destroy. Arguably, this has been updated recently by the work of those such as Robert Pape, who argue that suicide bombing, seeming to be the weapon and symbol of fanaticism, is in fact created by (and a strategically rational response to) foreign occupation.

For those supporters of American military interventions, foreign bases, or other projections of power and influence, such as Victor Davis Hanson, America's global presence is to be distinguished from the coercive imperialism of Spain, Belgium or France, not to mention Imperial Japan or communist China. Though America is present and prints itself on the world, this is based more on consent and appeal than on coercion. The US pays for its bases, its military spending for a global superpower is relatively restrained compared to empires past, it has an intelligensia that is critical (even hyper-critical) of its behaviour, its youth and talent prefer commerce to colonial administration, and alongside moments of unilaterism, often where the US does act, this is at the request of other states. Europe needed America as a military deterrent to counterbalance the Soviet Union and its divisions after world war 2, and actively lobbied for it to stay. After the Cold War, when one European statesmen had declared that Europe's hour at last had arrived, massacre and genocide took place within hours of Berlin and Rome, and the Europeans appealed to the US to intervene in the Balkans. If anything, it was not America's overreaching zeal, but its America's eagerness to draw down and disengage from its larger commitments after the Cold War, that is striking. Even when Saddam invaded Kuwait, there were many voices of reluctance and hesitation in the White House.

Most of all, they would argue, American hegemony is subject to a constraint that few other empires have had to manage to the same extent: a reluctant electorate. In the long term, America's potential for becoming a predator in the world is tempered not so much by multilateral institutions or law, but by the broad unease of the US public with the taint of open-ended expansionism and expensive wars. In that sense, while the American revolution embodied the idealism that could easily translate into crusades against monsters abroad, consecrated by the collective memory of World War Two, it also contained the seeds of anti-imperialism and a fear of being tainted as conquerors. Even where the US does act like an empire of old, it is usually reined in faster than history's other powers.

Anyway, that seems to be how the debate runs. For my money, America is an empire, given that it projects power beyond its borders through a range of instruments and channels, both hard and soft, formal and informal. But, at the risk of me looking like a very weak imitation of Niall Ferguson, this comes with dangerous drawbacks and temptations but is not necessarily a bad thing on the whole. A world without an overdog may mutate into something much worse. But I'll put some thoughts up on this in the next few days.
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Comments:
whether its a good or bad thing to be one. 'Empire'


"Having grown up the Southern U.S. and having a very racist father, it was a very bizarre experience hearing almost the same comments being made against Iraqis that I heard as a child being made against blacks. The same venom, for lack of a better word, was coming out of their mouths as they denigrated the people, culture and societal norms of Iraq.

Equally disturbing for me was the colonialist attitude of most of the business- connected internationals (most of the contractors I talked to were South African or English and most of the businessmen were American and all except one were white males). Remarks like, “We have to show them how it’s really done”, or “They don’t have a clue how it’s done in the West”. There seemed, to me at least, to be no attempt at understanding, much less respecting, the culture of the people they ostensibly are here to work in partnership with."

Sanded In Baghdad
by Tom Fox
 
At its peak, the British Empire controled a third of mankind.

Right now, the US could be said to control Iraq only with a careful choice of definitions.

It is interesting to speculate about this difference, but it is certainly there.

America has "presence", but not empire.

Unless you count its conquests in North America.
 
The essence of an empire is having colonies. And I would invite anyone to show me where, in fact, the U.S. has colonies.

Certainly not in Iraq, where de jure sovereignty rests with the Iraqi government, as increasingly does de facto sovereignty: the U.S. is but one militia among many in Iraq. Moreover, the whole debate over Iraq is couched in terms of how quickly the U.S. should withdraw. Not even the most hardened neocon suggests we should hold on to Iraq permanently and incorporate it into some kind of political superstructure.

And where else might the U.S. have colonies? Germany or Korea, given our longstanding military presence there? Not a very plausible argument, since both countries are sovereign in every sense of the world. A forward deployment, without more, doesn't make for a colony.

And does the appeal of U.S. soft power make for an empire? Come on. As Sam Huntington once quipped, "eating sushi doesn't turn me into a Japanese." Neither does karate, Hello Kitty, or Nintendo. Japan arguably has more soft power than any country other than the U.S., but we're not witnessing the second coming of the Japanese Empire.

The model fits around the turn of the century, with respect to places like Panama and the Philippines. But not today.
 
Hi Temoc,

i agree that colonies were the classic hallmark of empires past, but don't agree that they are a necessary precondition for empire itself. Empire is not necessarily about direct physical expansion or coercion. It is about a fundmantal projection of unequal power beyond one's borders, underpinned by a desire to exert hegemony.

There are surely many modes of imperial influence/hegemony?
Throughout the Cold War, for example, the USA subverted and overthrew governments. Today it imposes and enforces economic embargoes, seeks to regulate and order the world's financial and economic system, and has conducted a range of military operations, from no-fly zone shields to strategic bombing to outright invasion.

All of these things I generally support and am sympathetic with. Empire does not have to be a derogatory word, and indeed its values, commodities and institutions can be highly attactive to those outside it. In fact, I would agree that consent is a more fundamental part of the American empire than most other empires. I would also agree with the caveats made by some who bristle at the word empire, that the US is constrained by restraints that have held back few other empires, so that its own nature checks its hegemonic tendencies.

But empire it is.

On the soft power point, I take your point and you are right that the mere appeal of one's products does not make you imperialistic.

But the creation of a world system of norms and conditions through instruments such as the IMF where your economic output and products enjoy an overwhelming advantage surely does entail hegemonic ambition?

however, i guess the problem becomes so definitional that it becomes hard to debate.
 
An interesting book on the subject is "America's Inadvertent Empire" by William Odom (former director of the NSA who earlier worked alongside Zbigniew Brzezinski as Carter's military assistant to the president for national security affairs).

Also helpful might be "Rise of the Vulcans" by James Mann, which basically spells out how many of the neocons came to hold their views about the geostrategic need for an American military presense in every region of the world. (Hint: its anti-communism at first, but also, increasingly, the need to prevent the rise of rivals for regional dominance especially in the Middle East and East Asia, begins to motivate. They seemingly perceive this need to be a moral imperative. The "prevent/preempt any rivals" argument seems like just the strongest for policies they can't help but advocate, regardless of rationale.)

On the statement that "Empire does not have to be a derogatory word, and indeed its values, commodities and institutions can be highly attactive to those outside it." Just because one's values, commodities and institutions are "attractive" or desirable to outsiders, it doesn't mean that those should be considered superior. The problem with empire is that it often convinces one nation of its own superiority and then to act on it in the territory of the inferior.

Japan is attractive and even sees itself as superior. But that government isn't trying to suppress strategic rivals in the same way as the US. Russia doesn't have the soft power of Japan or the US, but that country does seem to be concerned to prevent rivals from emerging like the US. But even Russia seems mostly concerned with its own neck of the woods. The US has got its finger in seemingly every single regional pie in the world. That concerns me.
 
Empire is not necessarily about direct physical expansion or coercion. It is about a fundamental projection of unequal power beyond one's borders, underpinned by a desire to exert hegemony.

My problem with this definition is that it fails to distinguish between very powerful states (whether these are hegemons or status quo powers) and empires. If empires are about "the projection of unequal power," just what country bigger than, say, Iceland, escapes being labeled an empire?

Moreover, this definition leads to some truly absurd conclusions. Suppose Israel were to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank tomorrow. By virtue of its military power and its economy, Israel would still be able to project power far beyond its borders. But it would be a stretch to call a patch of land the size of New Jersey with a population of seven million people an empire.

Or take an even more extreme example: Luxembourg. In the financial world, Luxembourg wields power far beyond its size. Its stock exchange competes with London for listings, and more importantly, even many companies that list in London will do so, for tax reasons, via a Luxembourg entity. By any reasonable standard, its power is unequal and projected beyond its borders. But is tiny Luxembourg really any empire?

[The U.S.] imposes and enforces economic embargoes, seeks to regulate and order the world's financial and economic system, and has conducted a range of military operations, from no-fly zone shields to strategic bombing to outright invasion.

On ordering the world's financial system, this is a case in point of the distinction between a really powerful state and an empire.

The U.S. was a financial center because foreign companies, until recently, saw it as an attractive place to list securities. It could not do so without the active cooperation of others. Now, with the enactment of Sarbanes-Oxley, foreigners no longer see the U.S. as an attractive place to raise capital, so they've scaled back. An empire would not permit the scaling back, at least not without a fight. But the U.S. seems quite blase about it.

On the no-fly zones and strategic bombing, the U.S. did each of these in concert with its NATO allies. Again, not the hallmark of an empire. So on the military side of things, we're left, once again, with Iraq, which is really why this whole debate about empires keeps coming up. But as I noted above, the problem with resting your case on Iraq is that since 2004, the entire Iraq debate has revolved around how quickly and under what conditions the U.S. will withdraw.

I also think that you and Niall Ferguson are fighting a losing battle in trying to rid the term "empire" of its negative connotations. It would be far more savvy to come up with a new name for the kind of polity you are trying to describe.
 
I do not think it useful to describe the US having an empire at present. We might compare the way the US currently regards Argentina to the way 19th century Britain regarded Argentina - but not to the way it regarded India.

That said, I always find this kind of statement interesting:

In the US, this is heightened by the country's ideological heritage as a nation founded explicitly on a set of ideas - revolution, independence and rejection of Europe's corrupt old order of colonial powers.

I wonder if 19th century America, conquering its neighbours and settling their lands after expelling their inhabitants, also spent much time attacking the evil imperialism of Europe's corrupt old order of colonial powers.

A cynic might suspect some people of a guilty conscience...
 
anon 1:54,

what I meant was that America has a certain ideological heritage of anti-imperialism. You are absolutely right that it was/is still capable of acting imperialistically. As it did with its own expansion over its own continent.

P
 
For me, country which is economic superpower, cultural citizens and the country which utilize their resources to help other nations are definitely empire. If US fit in this category then, its also a empire.
draw tickets
 
"For nativists, isolationists and others suspicious of adventures abroad, such as Pat Buchanan, Americans should forever be warned against the dangers of moving from a republic into an empire."

Obama's name should be right there next to Buchanan's.
 
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