While the United States’ preponderant power has been apparent for over half a century, its potential imperial power has, for some, been less obvious. The events of September 11, 2001 and the Bush administration’s subsequent foreign policies have sparked recent interest in the question of America’s empire. As the U.S. unilaterally invades countries in the Middle East, refuses to join key international agreements, and seems to speak lightly of the use of force, its intentions are being scrutinized and its actions are compared to those of the great powers before it. Without the formal trappings of colonies or direct rule over foreign territory however, the term empire” seems to become less clear. Can the United States truly be called an empire? Despite its anachronisms, the term empire” can still be applied, and, this essay argues, can be used to describe the American state.
When conceiving of the word “empire”, the classic examples that come to mind include Rome, Ancient Greece, Ottoman, or Great Britain. While in Greece, the wealth and naval power of Athens governed a large number of city-states, the innovation of a professional army and centralized imperial bureaucracy allowed Rome to spread its influence over the whole of Europe (Lal 2004). The Ottomans, whose armies were neither well-equipped nor professional, inherited Islam, whose unifying and motivating force allowed them to conquer those around them (Lal 2004: 23). Britain, like ancient Greece, maintained its empire through naval supremacy but also emphasized the expansion of free trade and a strategy of maintaining the balance of power within Europe (Lal 2004: 53).
These four ‘classic’ examples of empire underscore the differences between empires over the centuries, or perhaps their evolution. They do, however, share some characteristics, which, when identified, form the basis for a definition of “empire”. At the most basic level, the existence of an empire supposes the existence of a large asymmetry of power between the imperial society and those around it. There have, however, been powerful states that have not been considered empires. Stephen Peter Rosen argues “empire is the rule exercised by one nation over others both to regulate their external behavior and to ensure minimally acceptable forms of internal behavior within the subordinate states” (Rosen 2003: 1). While powerful states may influence the foreign policies or external behavior of other countries, only an empire influences domestic policies as well. The deep-reaching influence and hugely dominant power of the empire establishes a hierarchy among city-states, societies, or nations in which the imperial state can establish rules and maintain order. The crucial criterion then, in identifying an empire, is the ability to sustain its dominant position and maintain the hierarchical order it establishes. In ancient Rome, this was achieved through the creation of a highly skilled professional army and a highly centralized military state. The Ottoman Empire expanded through the guerrilla tactics of its small armies, whose effectiveness was buttressed by the unifying force of Islam. Both Greece and Britain relied on command of the sea to dominate their subordinate states, but the British Empire was reinforced by its economic strength and advanced level of industrialization as well. The importance of military, economic and even ideological strength becomes apparent when considering the reasons for imperial decline. The inability to maintain military or economic dominance as a result of imperial overstretch, the advancement of other societies, or the dilution and liberalization of one’s own forces, have led to the decline of the classic empires, suggesting a final common characteristic: their own mortality.
While the empires of yore can be described as having great military, economic and/or ideological strength allowing them to establish and rule over a hierarchy of states, can this definition be applied to the present international system? The suggestion that an empire should exert influence on both foreign and domestic policies of subordinate states seems an important one in distinguishing between empires and merely powerful states. However, since the expansion of free trade and commerce (through the growth of the British Empire), it is not only the most powerful countries that can have an effect on domestic politics and policies. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization can determine that domestic tariffs on foreign imports violate free trade, while multilateral agreements such as the Montreal Protocol can create phase out deadlines for the domestic production and use of ozone depleting substances. The intricate web created by international law, inter-state treaties and international institutions has created and maintained order out of the anarchy of states, but can it conceivably be called an empire? The erosion of state sovereignty as a result of new priorities to protect human rights and the environment has created a world in which no state’s domestic politics go untouched by outside influences. Ivan Eland argues that today’s world resembles nothing like those of the Roman or British empires because (1) the world is far more interconnected, making the consequences of arrogant international behavior more risky, and (2) the potential costs (in terms of economics and backlash) associated with making empires today are far greater (Eland 2002). The world did not begin changing after the fall of the British Empire however. If we have been able to apply the same term to a wide variety of societies and civilizations for more than a millennium, should another half century matter?
Classifying the United States
The extreme changes caused by globalization and the potential weaknesses of the term “empire” have not prevented commentators, authors or scholars from calling the United States an imperial power. Considering the U.S. military budget is greater than the next 14 countries’ combined spending, and its economy is larger than the next 3 states combined, it seems clear that the U.S. is more than just a great power. The global reach of American brands, media, and culture suggests that this influence extends beyond its military and economic power. But can the United States accurately be labeled an empire?
While today’s ‘Pax Americana’ might share some of the characteristics of the 19th century’s Pax Britannica, which was based on global military reach as well as commercial and industrial dominance, how far can the analogy be applied? Martin Walker names three major objections to comparing current U.S. dominance to the British Empire. He argues that, (1) 19th century Britain commanded nothing close to the current American military supremacy, (2) the U.S. is much more hesitant in deploying its military, and (3) the U.S. is a democracy with a temporary president subject to the rule of law (Walker 2002: 13). While these objections certainly highlight the differences between the British Empire and the current American state, they hardly suggest that the U.S. is not empire. Rather, if it is an imperial power, it is much more powerful, slightly reluctant, and domestically more legitimate. Indeed, Walker argues that the United States is “a new beast… whose power is so evident and so sweeping that it doe not need to be formally exercised” (Walker 2002: 20). He calls it a “virtual empire”.
The global reach of American power, whether or not it is militarily enforced, has, according to Jack Snyder, led to the current paradox of American omnipotence and vulnerability to terrorist attacks (Snyder 2003). Although the US has no formal colonial empire, it now faces many of the strategic dilemmas of the empires before it, particularly the temptation of security through expansion. The unilateral decision to take preventative action against Iraq suggests that while the U.S. may not seek to ‘formally’ rule other countries, it is seeking to secure its own borders by extending its military control outward. Have the 9/11 attacks thus led to the creation of an informal empire? With the first penetration of American’s security bubble since the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941, policymakers seem to think that the virtual empire is no longer enough. The marked change in foreign policy from attempts at multilateralism to unilateral action, suggests a new strategy of imperial expansion backed by a new mission to rid the world of extremism.
If 9/11 has signaled a change from a virtual American empire to an informal one that is more willing to exercise its military power, has it also led to an American acknowledgement of its increasingly aggressive imperial strategy? While politicians openly speak of the U.S. mission to bring its idea of democracy and freedom to the rest of the world, the word “empire” is never used to describe the American state. In fact, President Bush has asserted that, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” and it has “no territorial ambitions” (Ignatieff 2003). The idea that the United States might be creating an empire, like the one it declared independence from, is anathema to most Americans. They see it as perfectly natural that the rest of the world should enjoy the same foods, brands, and films, and share the same ideology and values as they do. They view the past half-century’s military conflicts in the light of protecting the world from tyranny, providing humanitarian aid, and securing its own safety – things any country would fight for. And thus, the American empire has developed in a state of severe denial. Michael Ignatieff suggests that it is “an empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad” (Ignatieff 2003). It should be labeled ‘Empire Lite’.
So, can the term “empire” be applied to the United States? It has a clear dominance of military and economic strength that allows it to influence both the internal and external policies of many countries, and it has additional global influence through the peaceful spread of its culture and ideals. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been more willing to enforce order in the way it sees fit, through preventative and unilateral action. However, while accepting its dominant position in the world, the U.S refuses to call itself an imperial power. As Michael Ignatieff points out, that does not make it any less of an empire.
The term empire has been widely used to describe powers as different as the ancient Greeks and the Ottomans and has been applied to civilizations across several millennia. The argument then that our world today is so different from those of empires in the past as to make the term anachronistic ignores the characteristics shared by empires from Rome to 19th century Britain. The U.S. exerts considerable influence over foreign and domestic policies of other countries through its preponderant military and economic power, and thus enforces a certain world order. Whether the U.S. Empire is virtual, informal, lite or unconscious of itself, it deserves the name and would do well to recognize itself as such. Its current strategy of security through expansion recalls the imperial overstretch experienced by past empires, which suggests that the U.S. may share the final characteristic of its ancestors: decline.
Eland, Ivan (2002) “The Empire Strikes Out: The “New Imperialism” and its fatal Flaws”. Policy Analysis. No. 459.
Ignatieff, Michael (2003) “Empire Lite”. Prospect. Issue No. 83.
Lal, Deepak (2004) In Praise of Empires. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
Rosen, Stephen Peter (2003) “An empire, if you can keep it”. The National Interest. spring: No.7.
Snyder, Jack (2003) “Imperial Temptations”. The National Interest. Spring: No.7.
Walker, Martin (2002) “America’s Virtual Empire”. World Policy Journal. Summer: Issue 2.