Empire of Confusion

September 3, 2015

Tyrone Groh and James Lockhart do a fine job laying out the history and current state of the American empire debate, lamenting the imprecise language and conceptualization of the debate in many academic disciplines. The origin of this problem, unfortunately, is as much tied to choices by policymakers as it is by those of academics. While current discussions are muddled and unclear, a look at the structure of relationships in imperial rule promises a bit more clarity. Definitional rigor regarding what an imperial structure entails can only serve to improve both our academic and policy discourses around modern empire and foreign rule.

Origins of Conceptual Clutter

As Groh and Lockhart lay out, there is a long record of historians, social scientists, and politicians examining American imperialism, its causes, and its consequences. Unfortunately, the debate over imperialism has come to include claims that every hierarchical relationship between countries amounts to empire. The result is conceptual chaos. Seemingly, no two authors can agree on what imperialism is and the debate over imperialism has hit an impasse, where the definition of imperialism itself seems to be colonizing different distinct concepts.

Why did this happen? It is easy to blame the ivory tower. However policymakers in powerful states must share the blame. When norms of imperial rule changed, powerful states did not stop engaging in imperial actions. Instead, in accordance with a long trend of states changing international law to suit their needs, new legal concepts were created to justify imperial relationships. International law set out to create definitions of occupation, colonization, trusteeship, protectorate and more. This left legal space for states to claim they were not engaging in imperial rule, regardless of their actions in other territories.

States’ efforts to avoid being labeled as imperial powers led pundits, scholars, and commentators to use different legal and normative evaluations of hierarchical relationships between states. Some claim these new hierarchical relationships fit previous definitions of imperialism, and some resort to modern legal definitions to claim they do not, but there is no clear standard. We are left with conceptual confusion that has culminated with the American empire debate leading some to even ask: “Is Everything Empire? Is Empire Everything?”

The Move Towards Structural Definitions

As the traditional definition of empire became passé in the early Cold War, many academics and activists began to define empire as any hierarchical relationship between countries. If a larger state was engaged in free trade with a smaller state, the relationship was empire. If a strong state had friendly relations with a neighboring state, it was empire. Any time a scholar or activist wanted to lament a relationship between states they did not agree with, “empire” and “imperial rule” were deployed as rhetorical weapons. Thus, imperialism became synonymous with unpleasant hierarchy rather than a distinct political structure.

This trend slowly began to abate, luckily, when scholars began to define empire based on its structure rather than normative judgments. Structural understandings of empire largely began with Johan Galtung in the 1970s, who defined empire based on the relationship of the components of the structure, rather than on normative claims about powerful actors.

Years later, Michael Doyle built upon this work, arguing empire consists of “a system of interaction between two political entities, one of which, the dominant metropole, exerts political control over the internal and external policy — the effective sovereignty — of the other, the subordinate periphery.” Here, the characteristics and the actions of the center and periphery do not matter in defining empire, only the relationship of the center to the periphery. Any normative dimension is removed from the definition by focusing solely on the relationship.

Once the concept of empire was defined, structures of other sub-types and concepts were also developed. Doyle expanded the definition of empire to encompass two different kinds of relationships between states — formal and informal empire — based on how the center and periphery structure their relationship. Alexander Motyl, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, built upon this tradition and laid out three distinct models of imperial rule: formal, informal, and hegemonic. Similarly, these three models differed based on the degree of effective control the imperial power held and the relationship between the periphery and core.

The structural turn allowed scholars to differentiate between empire, hierarchy, and hegemony based on the political effectiveness of the relationship. Reducing the imperial relationship to the base structures allowed more recent scholars to begin thinking about how variations in imperial relationships have led to different outcomes. This in turn has lead to more complex thinking about the structures and definitions of imperialism.

For example, Daniel Nexon laid out how the distinct imperial and dynastic state structure of the Thirty Years’ War period led to religious conflict. Paul MacDonald examined how the structure of networks in the periphery can lead to more or less successful colonial conquest. Michael Hechter showed how different strategies and structures of imperial rule can make popular resistance more or less likely. Karen Barkey utilized this thinking about imperial relationships to lay out how the Ottoman Empire governed successfully and unsuccessfully at different points over its tenure.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive, but it illustrates the promising recent trend of studying imperialism and empire structurally as a relationship. It allows us to think about how the contemporary relationship between the presumed imperial actor and the periphery is structured and the historical similarities this structure may bear to previous imperial relationships. This will encourage thinking about how local actors will view the actions of powerful states, rather than relying on what powerful states claim they are intending. In sum, understanding how to define imperialism, and developing varieties of empire as distinct relationships in international politics, will help clarify the conceptual mess imperialism has become.

The Promise of Studying Imperialism

Importantly, analyzing empire based on its distinct structure and relationships allows us to develop a general definition rather than basing it on the identity and the actions of the United States, Russia, or any other actor. Before presupposing that an action is imperial, or reflexively claiming that a country has never had imperial relationships, thinking about the structure of relationships between actors helps provide an objective basis to judge these claims. While many people have normative reasons for wanting the United States to count or not count as an empire, using the United States as a single case to litigate these debates is not productive. Rather, we should continue to scrutinize the distinct relationships the United States has across the globe, examine whether those relationships structurally are similar to imperial structures of the past, and analyze how they differ in the modern era.

While more clarity in this debate would aid the academy, perhaps the greatest benefit of a more sound understanding of imperialism and imperial-like relationships would be manifest amongst policymakers. Improving our understanding of imperialism will give policymakers greater insight about how different policy options can produce different hierarchical relationships, and the benefits or drawbacks those relationships might have. Decision-makers can then think about how policy options will be structured on the ground, and how those structures compare to similar ones from history. Laying out how U.S. relations resemble formal imperial, informal empire, hierarchical, hegemonic, or other structures is an important step forward. For example, instead of being surprised by populist backlash to nation-building, laying out beforehand the similarities to informal imperial structures could have prepared the United States to diffuse backlash or rethink its plans.

While there will always be some commentators claiming every action by the United States abroad amounts to imperialism, reflexively denying that imperial relations occur makes for equally unproductive debate and policy. Instead, focusing on how contemporary relationships may resemble imperial ones in their structures will allow scholars to more productively analyze imperialism in the modern age and provide decision-makers with the tools to craft more effective policy. Luckily, many scholars have already begun down this path of promoting more sound discussion of empire. Now we only need to encourage more clarity.


Ben Denison is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, specifically focusing on International Relations. His research focuses on of the causes and consequences of military occupation and other forms of foreign rule.

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