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Is America an Empire?

August 27, 2015

The use of the term “empire” has been getting out of hand since it became a dirty word in the late 19th century. Yet this concept remains highly relevant in understanding and debating the history of the United States and the rest of the world.

An historian and a policymaker walk into a bar. On one screen, a journalist is reporting a coup on a South Pacific island. The historian looks at the policymaker and says, “Just another example of American imperialism.” On another screen, a news anchor discusses the ongoing negotiations between Russia and the Netherlands regarding economic zones in the Arctic Ocean, and U.S. concerns about it. Once again, the historian looks at the policymaker and says, “American imperialism is everywhere.” A third screen is showing a documentary on the Civil War (this is no sports bar). The historian throws his arms into the air in frustration: “Imperialism!” Finally the policymaker turns to the historian and says, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

The use of the term “empire” has been getting out of hand since imperialism became a pejorative in late-19th century British politics. The term, its meaning, and its utility have spurred endless exchanges like the one above in both the fields of history and international relations (IR). This debate has ebbed and flowed with Washington’s interventions abroad. It became especially strong during the Vietnam War and then returned with a vengeance after the Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003. “America as empire” is rapidly becoming the consensus view today.

According to Richard Immerman, “America is and always has been an empire.” In another historian’s estimation, “The existence of the American Empire is an undeniable fact.” As several others have affirmed, “an avalanche of scholarship [has] made clear the centrality of imperialism in American history … all that remain[s] of the old view that the United States had not been an empire [is] smoldering rubble.” This interpretation has become so strong, and its advocates so overbearing, that the time has come to ask whether the last words have indeed been spoken in this debate.

Our concern is that, influential voices that view the United States as an empire, if left unchecked, will limit the production of historical knowledge in the near future, with implications potentially reaching beyond academia and into public opinion and the policymaking world. As Elizabeth Cobbs has recently observed, this interpretation is already “verging on dogma” in the American historical profession. How did we get here?

Samuel Flagg Bemis, a historian of American foreign relations who was particularly influential in the 1940s and 1950s, argued that the United States embraced imperialism during the Spanish-American War, and that this represented “an aberration” in U.S. history. The United States began “liquidating” this empire when it withdrew from its Caribbean interventions in the 1920s. Bemis’s interpretation advanced an earlier consensus that the United States had largely confined itself to its own affairs until pressing world problems forced it into internationalism; that aside from the brief aberration of 1898, the United States remained an anti-imperialist force in global history; and that it used its power and influence for good — mostly to check aggression, from Spain in 1898 to the Japanese, Nazis, and Soviets in the 20th century.

William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber began challenging this in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They argued that the United States had begun expanding much earlier than 1898. Its industrial transformation led to a conscious and methodical effort to create a global empire in order to capture markets, acquire natural resources, and sell its agricultural and industrial surplus. Moreover, they insisted, this purposeful pursuit of empire represented the natural culmination of American history — not an aberration. Williams and LaFeber received a mixed reception at the time, but their interpretation has gradually become the dominant one, particularly since the end of the 20th century.

We note that historians have greatly expanded the meaning of empire and imperialism since Williams and LaFeber’s time. LaFeber — who intended to open the door into a lively discussion, not close it — carefully limited his vocabulary to empire and colonialism to denote formal political control, while preferring “expansion” to denote informal economic influence. He avoided imperialism “since the connotations given to it in the Cold War make it almost meaningless.”

Some historians, such as Paul Kramer, are attempting to move beyond what they consider unproductive arguments about definitions. They now assume that the United States is and has always been an empire and design their research and writing around questions pertaining to how American imperialism has functioned and evolved over time. They increasingly use “the imperial” as an approach that emphasizes asymmetrical power relationships. Those who are contributing to this thus insist that “[e]mpire is not a single thing but rather a complex and ever-changing set of unequal relationships.” They employ the imperial to explain white settlement in the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Monroe doctrine, American missionary activities, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, expansion of overseas trade, and all foreign wars from the Spanish-American War to the present, including establishing overseas bases and the use of drone warfare in the Near East today. All of this and more fall within the imperial’s ever-enlarging umbrella. We appreciate these historians’ attempts to move away from imperialism’s definitional problems and explore its utility in interpreting the United States and the world, but they have failed to solve the term’s fundamental problems as an increasingly vague pejorative.

Historians are not alone. In the field of IR, a similar line of thinking has emerged. Kettell and Sutton ask if “the unrivaled power and activities of the United States, and particularly its conduct in the ‘war on terror’ can be seen to have constituted a form of ‘new imperialism.’” This “new imperialism” is simply defined by how the unmatched power of a particular state allows it to influence or coerce other states. Like the above historians, Kettell and Sutton fall victim to conceptual stretching. Redefining and expanding empire renders it meaningless.

As we see it, empire has also become conflated with the terms hegemony and unipolarity. In the post-Cold War era, can the emergence of the United States as a global hegemon and the international system’s transformation from bipolarity to unipolarity be considered evidence that the United States is an empire? Some IR scholars argue that the terms hegemony and unipolarity are and should remain distinct.

Nexon and Wright challenge the notion that states becomes empires simply because they emerge as superpowers (in America’s case, the world’s sole superpower) and urge us to look more closely at the relationships between states to determine if an empire exists. Taking this cue, we argue that unipolarity, empire, and hegemony have similar characteristics, but they are not necessarily all the same. Unipolarity describes a world order where the distribution of capabilities overwhelmingly favors one state. What that state does with those capabilities determines whether it should be further classified as an empire or hegemon. Charles Tilly argues that the core of an empire — the superpower or regional power, depending on the extent of the empire’s reach — exerts “military and fiscal control” in every segment of its periphery. According to Tilly, the core tolerates the existence of a local government, but it coerces, props up, and uses intermediaries within those local governments to ensure “compliance, tribute, and military collaboration.” Tilly’s point is important because it shows that an empire, whether global or regional, establishes both order and control over the states within its periphery. Although the core rules indirectly, it purposefully and directly creates a hierarchal relationship with its periphery. The core state formally places itself above peripheral states.

Unlike empire, hegemony emerges from anarchy — the condition that states exist within a system where no state or entity has been given the authority to rule over the others. Anarchy does not mean there is no hierarchy; each state’s ability to influence others using hard power and/or soft power determines an informal hierarchy that allows us to describe the world system as unipolar, bipolar, or multipolar. A distinction to be made is that a hegemon using hard power (directly or indirectly) to influence other states militarily, politically, or fiscally could also be characterized as an empire. Take, for example, America’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Washington was behaving as an empire when it supported the Contras to purge the Sandinistas from Nicaraguan politics.

Joseph Nye and David Kang have both shown that a state can also exert influence using its ability to attract or persuade others to follow its example. China arguably restructured its economy at the beginning of the 21st century to emulate, in some respects, the economy of the United States and better compete in the international system. The United States remains the global hegemon and benefits greatly from China’s shift, but China is not part of an American empire. The fact that China could financially out-compete the United States and spoil its position as the global hegemon shows the degree to which anarchy, not imperialism, pervades in the current system. A disproportionate amount of power and the ability to influence other states does not an empire make.

These critiques notwithstanding, we believe that empire and the imperial remain highly relevant concepts in the fields of world history, American foreign relations, and IR; scholars are just failing to fully develop these concepts’ potential. Their research and writing remain exclusively centered on the United States and they are ignoring the larger world. They fail to acknowledge other states’ territorial expansion, conquest and subjection of native peoples and cultures, and establishment of military bases and/or cultivation of security alliances, arms sales, and training abroad, to list only a few of the most salient imperial behaviors. Where is the imperial in discussions treating Brazil’s “Blue Amazon,” Argentina’s “Conquest of the Desert,” or Chileans’ forcing Bolivians to cede their entire coast in 1904? The Chilean ambassador told the Bolivian foreign minister, “This coast is rich and worth many millions. We already knew this, and we are keeping it because of this. If it were not valuable, no one would be interested in it … Chile has occupied the coast and taken possession of it by the same right that Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine, and by the same right that the United States has taken Puerto Rico.” Does this not qualify as the imperial?

Alas, too many academics remain mired in a running argument with policymakers, such as President Barack Obama and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who have denied that the United States was or is an empire, and whom they accuse of being lost in the myth of American exceptionalism or simply of using an anti-imperialist discourse to further imperialist projects. They seem to be committed not only to interpreting America and the world, but to actively critiquing current United States policy, hoping to influence public opinion in order to shape policy. This crosses a line.

The role of intellectuals and policymakers must remain divided. Stanley Fish offered sound advice on this point a decade ago, when Academe was returning to the theme of American imperialism: “[D]o your job; don’t try to do someone else’s job, as you are unlikely to be qualified; and don’t let anyone else do your job. In other words, don’t confuse your academic obligations to save the world … don’t cross the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy, whether the advocacy is yours or someone else’s.” Naturally, scholars assume enormous responsibility because they see the need to influence their students before they, or at least some of them, go on to become policymakers. The role of academics, however, should remain within the realm of exposing students to different fields of study and cultivating critical thinking. As scholars, let’s keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to policy and make sure we provide candid and coherent perspectives to practitioners and the public. As practitioners (because sometimes we are both), let’s remain both pragmatic and open to new ways of thinking.

As far as the final word goes on the American Empire debate, let there be no last word. The door on this debate is nowhere near ready to be closed. Let’s do our job as intellectuals and scholars and continue exploring competing interpretations of the United States and the world, and let’s apply the imperial not only to America but to others in global history, exploring its full potential as an analytical concept, and cultivating a broad, world-historical discussion, rather than a narrow, U.S.-centered one, in turn.


Tyrone Groh is an associate professor of political science at Embry-Riddle University in the College of Security and Intelligence. He earned his Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University and has over 21 years of experience as a U.S. Air Force officer. His main areas of study are strategy and unconventional warfare.

James Lockhart is a PhD candidate in American foreign relations and world/comparative history at the University of Arizona. He has lectured at Embry-Riddle University’s College of Security and Intelligence since 2014. He specializes in United States-Latin American relations, particularly southern South America.

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13 thoughts on “Is America an Empire?

  1. Gents,
    Interesting that this debate is being raised in a period when American (military) power abroad is so reduced compared to, say, a decade ago. I was teaching college world history then, and one of my usual final exam questions in modern world history was “is the US an empire?” Two sources which I assigned, still relevant, are Paul Schroeder, “Is the US an Empire?” (http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1237) and Kimberly Kagan, “Hegemony, Not Empire” (http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Protected/Articles/000/000/001/183amzus.asp).
    Timothy R. Furnish, PhD (Islamic, World, African Hitsory)

  2. I am just finishing reading John Darwin’s excellent book, “The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830–1970.”

    In telling this story, Darwin very carefully and precisely defines the different components of the British world-system (the Raj, direct rule colonies, white settler dominions, informal commercial entrepots, etc), how they differed from each other in origin and practice, and how they combined and interacted over time. One of the very clear lessons of his work is that Britain’s global power and influence was never the result of a single blueprint or project, but was instead a complicated, organic, and unruly phenomenon.

    I think this approach might also be a better way to look at this question of American empire. Rather than applying a binary “is it or isn’t it” and endlessly debating that one definition, perhaps it would be better to just examine and classify the widely varying ways the US has exercised power. I think the obvious fact is that there has been a lot variety over time. How then, in different times and places, have these many forms of power combined to constitute an American “world-system?”

    “Empire” is simultaneously a very charged and very vague term–not especially useful for the important task of thinking about the many forms American power has taken in the past and that it may in the future.

  3. In my 28 years in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, always working on international affairs, 1962-1990, and always interagency (i.e., always “whole of government” — we all worked for the Administration in office) — and in attending quite a lot of reasonably high-level policy discussions, I never once ever heard the word “empire” or the word “hegemony” arise (oh, we tended to worry about India exercising hegemony in South Asia). The generic word “power” was never used, nor did I ever hear anyone say “this is in our national interest.” Rather, “we got a big new problem out there that we didn’t anticipate, what are we going to do about it?” The worst term I see in all the external foreign policy commentary these days is “world order” and how the U.S. is supposed to be maintaining it all (world ordure?) But, again, that’s not the way it’s discussed inside government (it’s also a very status-quo type word). If anything bad comes up, in government it’s “can it reach the U.S.?” (never easy) or “how can we be supportive of our allies?” Pragmatism rules.

  4. There’s a very cogent argument to be made that the United States has been a empire, or at least behaved very much like one, since the War of Independence ended. As soon as the Treaty of Paris ended, America has behaved, on the North American continent, very much in the manner of a continental empire like Russia, China, the Mongols, Mughals, or Persians.
    Beginning with the acquisition of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River by the Treaty of Paris, the United States continuously expanded its territory, sometimes by treaty/purchase (Louisiana Purchase, Alaska) and other times by conquest (Mexican War). In all cases, once the land had been acquired, the United States conquered and subjected the inhabitants. And much like Russia and China, the conquered territory was eventually subsumed and became part of the metropole.
    That’s all before the United States acquired any territories off the North American continent – Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, etc.

  5. This is an interesting and timely debate. I’ve found Tom Barnett’s distinction between the enforcement of minimal and maximal rule sets to be useful here. Whereas an empire enforces maximal rule sets (you must meet this bar), a hegemon or “systems administrat[or]” enforces minimal ones: “there are certain things you cannot do,” especially with respect to disrupting global commons and commerce.

    While that’s a pretty hard power-focused measuring stick, that distinction is likely to be helpful. The economic and cultural imperialism of the U.S., such as they are, may be germane to this discussion (especially from the perspective of the periphery), but they are not properly within its scope. As in the hypothetical discussion of Arctic economic zones here, the U.S.’s holding and expressing interests does not constitute imperial behavior as might, say, forcefully adjudicating the Russian-Dutch debate.

    Finally, as the authors note, imperial “aberrations” are very much worth noting and debating. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the war in Iraq, in particular, has renewed perception of American imperialism; the idea that Iraq might be made a democratic example to the region rather than simply free of WMD and/or Saddam implies that U.S. war planners envisioned maximal rather than minimal outcomes. The difficulty in walking those goals back may help explain the ongoing consternation as to what to do about ISIL – are we out to limit their violence and challenges to state integrity, or are we challenging their entire socio-political project? The first option is minimal, the second arguably imperial.

  6. Extremely well written piece.

    The imperial ambitions and actions of other countries should most definitely be included in formulating the modern definitions of Empire, Imperialism, and Hegemony.

    Personally I believe that the U.S. empire is a multi-faceted one, with a mix of military, monetary policy, corporate interests and cultural forces influencing “client states” in a systemic way.

    I digress from your piece however, of which I do have one question.

    I am curious as to how one might critique U.S. policy without trying to exert influence? Isn’t by nature a critique an attempt to initiate discourse from which change would be forthcoming?

    Once again great work! Would love to see more articles/discussions on the topic in the future!


  7. Some times a little work in the dictionary can be clarifying: Imperium, derived from the Latin, means “power to command” or, in a geo-strategic connotation, it can be used to designate the extraterritorial limits of a nation state’s area of hegemonic control.

    So, sine we don’t have an emperor, we’re clearly not an empire; we do, however, most certainly have an imperium.

  8. Groh and Lockhart are right in that social scientists are in no position to pronounce on the ‘last word’ in discussing any theoretical formulation. The discourse is dialectic and must, by definition, continue. This is to be welcomed.

    In so far as America is concerned, though, its unusual combination of capabilities, capacities, ambition and somewhat narcissistic determination to transform other parts of the planet into its clones while extending its over-whelming all-domains pre-eminence into the indefinite future irrespective of the costs, or the views of others, renders it a truly exceptional power. Does that make it an empire?

    If history is any guide, though, this persistent determination is unlikely to prove either wholly successful or sustainable over the long-term. The fiery bowels of Afghanistan and Iraq should have conclusively demonstrated to thinking observers the futility of applying sophisticated lethal mass violence against relatively bacward societies in terms of securing meaningful objectives. But as is known, the one lesson of history is that none appears able to learn it.

  9. I’ll be the first to admit that there are people who have put much more thought than I have on this topic, but there is always one point that I wonder about when America is called an empire. What is the extent of the American Empire? Who is in it and who is out of it? What does it mean to be a member of the empire or outside of it.?

    I have been to South Korea and Japan and none of those places felt like they were subjects of an American Empire, even though those two countries are some of the most involved in the entire world with the United States. The NATO countries are very involved with the United States, as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel. It seems like the American Empire can encompass almost the entire world or nothing at all.

  10. I come down on the America is an Empire side. First, there was no “natural” America to begin with. No cultural or tribal group, sharing a common language. Except for the “Native Americans,” America is a nation of immigrants. So there is no natural geographic base from which to expand. Second, America’s geography is all land taken forcibly. The natives never gave any land rights to North America to the immigrants coming from Europe. They TOOK it! Either by stealth (like “buying” Manhattan Island from a tribe who’s land it wasn’t) or “legitimately” from a country (France) for the “Louisiana Purchase,” Spain for Florida, Alaska from Russia. These lands DIDN’T belong to those countries. Just because they were the first Europeans to explore it does NOT convey “legal ownership.” “Right of discovery” is a European concept and, except for the military and subjugation of local populations by force of arms, really conveys NO rights. But we “philosophize” that they did. Aboriginal peoples don’t really accept the current “nation states” structure as legitimate. They are forced to accept it, but they believe they will survive the existence of any nation-state as they have done for thousands of years. Third, Hawaii and Puerto Rico/Guam were illegal conquests by trumped up rationales for invading those countries. But, fourth, definitionally on the question of empire, is that outright control is not really necessary any longer. Constructive control is the key. Think of a corporation. An old-time “owner” no longer has to own everything (like the old Robber Barons did). Corporate managers simply have to have “constructive” ownership, like today’s corporate CEO’s who physically control their companies but barely “own” any shares. They DO extract a disproportionate share of the wealth from this constructive control. The U.S. system operates just like this new corporate model, espousing that it does so in the name of “democracy” and “freedom.” But if you look at the underlying control mechanism, that’s a sham. So, yes, the U.S. is an Empire, and always has been.

  11. It is not often realised or remarked upon that at root the (US) War on Terror is an imperial project – that of keeping the zionist state transplanted, as sort of an imperial outpost, in a region and on lands where it is not wanted by the population. And that is another characteristic of an empire – its ability to ignore the will of the people who are not at the core.

  12. This article lacks any perspective of the 21st century post-nation-state nature of the world, and also lacks appreciation of the history of Empire evolution, eg. from the era of nation state centric Empires (Kennedy “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” 1500 to 2000) compared with previous Church centric era.

    The current, extant, but uniquely ‘disguised’ and first/last “truly global Empire” is not per se an American or U.S. Empire, but rather a Disguised Global Crony-Capitalist Empire merely HQed in, and ‘posing’as, our former country.

    “The U.S. state is a key point of condensation for pressures from dominant groups around the world to resolve problems of global capitalism and to secure the legitimacy of the system overall. In this regard, “U.S.” imperialism refers to the use by transnational elites of the U.S. state apparatus to continue to attempt to expand, defend, and stabilize the global capitalist system. We are witness less to a “U.S.” imperialism per se than to a global capitalist imperialism. We face an empire of global capital , headquartered, for evident historical reasons, in Washington.”

    Robinson, William. 2014 “Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity” Cambridge University Press