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.