American Empire

The American Left, and some of the Buchananite/isolationist elements of the American Right, have spent a lot of time and rhetorical energy fretting about the “American Empire”, and/or the “global system of American hegemony”. Lee Harris has written a very informative essay on Hegemony vs. Empire in which he points out that these two words mean different things, and delves into the history of “hegemony” as a form of voluntary organization of groups of states against external threats.

Harris’s implicit point is that in the post-9/11 world, confusion between “hegemony” and “empire” serves the ideological purposes of the enemies of our civilization — the head-hackers, the suicide-bombers, and the rogue states behind them. But even if the word “hegemony” had not been misappropriated and trashed by the anti-American left, the phrase “American Empire” would still have a sting. The implication, quite intentional, is that the U.S. aims to rule the known world after the manner of the Romans or the British.

Does the United States have an empire? There are at least two ways to address this question. One is extensional: ask to what extent the U.S. behaves as imperial powers have historically behaved. The other is intensional; ask what purpose empire serves for the people who control it, and then ask if the U.S. has created a structure of control that achieves the purpose. (The second question is useful partly because it may enable us to discern imperialism that dare not speak its name.)

Let’s take the second question first. What is the purpose of empire? In fact, this turns out to be an easy one. The one consistent feature of all empires, everywhere, is that commerce between subject regions and the imperial center is controlled so that the imperial center imports goods at below-market rates and exports them to the subject regions at above-market rates. The mailed fist, the satrap, and the gunboat are just enforcement mechanisms for imperial market-rigging.

This economic criterion may sound dry and abstract, but it is the one thing that relatively benign imperia like the British Empire have in common with out-and-out despotisms like the Russian or Persian empires. Thus, for example, the Roman grain ships feeding the population of Rome with wheat harvested by slaves in conquered Egypt; the British destruction of the Indian textile industry so its customers would be effectively forced to buy shoddy cloth made in the English Midlands; and, more crudely, the tribute wagons rolling to Persepolis.

Over time, imperial means of squeezing their subject nations’ economies have become more subtle. Early empires looted; later ones used discriminatory taxation; still later used preferential tariffs (all, and this is the point, enforced by the imperial military). Does the U.S. have an empire by this criterion?

Some would argue that it does, and cite U.S. attempts to force an American-style patent regime and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on its trading partners. The trouble with this theory is that the U.S.’s negotiating leverage comes from the size of its economy, not fear of its military. Not even the most tinfoil-hatted of paranoids imagines that U.S. troops will ever land in (say) Brazil to enforce the DMCA; rather, it’s the prospect of being locked out of the world’s biggest export market that alarms Brazilian politicians. Reasonable people may reject the U.S. patent regime and the DMCA, or differ about the fairness of the Brazilo-American relationship, but “empire” is not a good word for it.

(Arguably the U.S. in fact did have an empire by this criterion until the 1950s, in parts of Central and South America and the Pacific. However, that is the past. I am addressing the question of whether “American Empire” is a true or useful description of the present.)

To reduce the market-rigging claim to absurdity, consider oil. If the U.S. truly were an empire, Venezuela (which supplies 25% of U.S. oil needs) would have been subjugated and annexed long since rather than left to the tender mercies of an unstable anti-American dictator like Hugo Chavez. The corrupt and despotic House of Saud (supplying a much higher percentage I don’t have at my fingertips) would likewise have been replaced by American puppets, not left unmolested to dole out billions of back-channel petrobucks to any anti-American terrorist who can pronounce the word “Wahhabi”.

In both cases, these would have been distinct improvements and among the best arguments one could muster for imperialism in the 21th century. But the U.S. has neither done them nor sought the power to do them. It fails the intensional test of empire.

To perform the extensional test, let’s look at some things that previous empires normally did and ask if the U.S. does them. To make the anti-American case as easy as possible, I won’t pick straw-man brutalities like crucifying, impaling, or machine-gunning entire populations in order to suppress revolts, the sorts of things the Soviets or Mongols or Japanese routinely got up to; instead, I’ll confine myself to the subset of common imperial practices engaged in by the Victorian Britons. If the U.S. fails even to replicate the behaviors of that least oppressive empire in human history to date, it’s hard to see how the term “empire” can sensibly be applied to the U.S.’s situation at all.

  • Does the U.S. impose U.S. law by force on conquered peoples without giving them citizenship or representation in the national government?

  • Are there any places outside the U.S. where treaties with subject nations stipulate that an American citizen will be subject only to U.S and not local law?

  • Does the U.S. routinely conscript large portions of its armies from subject peoples who lack U.S. citizenship?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, “no”. The U.S. fails the extensional test of empire as well.

Nevertheless, I am certain the charge will continue to be flung. The most forgivable reason for flinging it is gross ignorance of history and what actual empires are like. Far too often, however, people raising the cry of “American Empire” would not actually care about the facts if they had them; it is the emotion of anti-Americanism that drives their convictions, rather than the reverse.

20 thoughts on “American Empire

  1. An amazingly concise conclusion, considering the vast subject entailed by the original question.

    And yes, I think you’re right. The current actions of the United States do not remind me of various empire-buildings that have happened since the rise of the first Sumerian empire.

  2. A whole lot of irrelevance. Congratulations on forming an intellectual definition of empire that no layman in his right mind would ever employ. The American on the street will portray for you an image of empire that revolves around one country doing whatever it can to stay on top — not just by bettering itself, but actively trying to diminish the strength of the countries around it. This is what the “American Left” has a problem with.

    Also, your statement that the “American Left” is responsible for twisting the meaning of the word hegemony is just plain blind. Conservative pundits in Washington and elsewhere have proven to be great fans of using the word whenever they think it means America should just kick more ass.

  3. Welcome back, ESR! I’ve missed your blog.

    I’m worried though. Just this morning I read that the US is tacitly allowing theocrats to establish rules governing women in Iraq. Also the shiite head of Iraq made a friendly visit to Iran and praised the Ayatollah while he was there. Do you think Democracy is taking hold, or will Iraq become theocratic?

    –The Estimable Hal Long

  4. I take it this was partially inspired by my comments?

    It seems I have still so much to consider! American hegemony works because the United States presents itself as a model for emulation on the economic, political, and human rights fronts. Whether hegemony is a noble ideal or not depends on whether you view American-style luxury and economic largesse as a worthwhile goal. If instead you favor cultural diversity, then the eagerness with which we remake other cultures in the American pattern (Germany, Japan… IRAQ) can easily be construed as dangerous. Lee Harris also reminds us of the danger that hegemonies can and do degrade into empires — something against which we must be vigilant in the U.S. case (just as we are vigilant against tyranny within our own borders).

    I’m still not entirely convinced that “cultural diversity” is just a masturbatory fantasy of soft-science academicians. But I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t, either.

  5. The corrupt and despotic House of Saud (supplying a much higher percentage I don’t have at my fingertips)

    Not so, actually. Last time I checked, Saudi Arabian imports were 9 or 10 percent of all oil consumed. We import more from this hemisphere (not counting the 45 or 50 percent that’s domestic production) than from the Middle East.

  6. OK, so “American Empire” is not a very accurate or useful term. FWIW though, the Soviets were more than even handed – AFAIK they wiped out far more of their own citizens through internal repression than foreigners abroad.

    For non-Americans, the concern is not necessarily “does America behave like an empire?”, but “can we trust it not to act like one when the chips are down?” (e.g. if oil supplies dwindle to the point where the US economy is at real risk).

    As a British citizen, I’m generally inclined to a positive view of the US (although more it’s citizens than it’s government), however there are some things about the position and behaviour of the US in the world which make me nervous for the future.

    1. In 2003 the US defence budget reached $417.4 billion, 46 percent of the global total. The cold war is long over, and in any case you’ve got enough nukes to wipe us all out. We expect you to exercise this incredible firepower with equally incredible restraint, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like that – Afghanistan wasn’t too bad, but the Iraq adventure looks poorly aimed.

    2. Since WWII, US foreign policy (as experienced by those on the sharp end) has been somewhat morally inconsistent*. Or at least it is if you strip away the “pushing back the tide of Communism” justification which seems a bit weak now you’ve won.

    3. America has a large population of clever and well educated people living generally peaceful comfortable lives in a supposed meritocracy. How then does it come to elect someone who appears to be too dumb to run a Macdonalds franchise, let alone the default hyperpower? Is he really more qualified to run the country than all other 142 million registered voters? (Note: I’m not too enamoured of our Mr Blair, but then we can blame the class system).

    4. While to the developing world you seem rich and comfortable, you sometimes act mean and paranoid. For instance, lots of bitching about IT oursourcing to India. The GDP per capita there is $3100, compared to US $40,100. You can hardly begrudge them a few callcentre jobs.

    Overall, the combination of huge miliary power, a questionable history (post WWII) of foreign intervention, questionable leadership, and a global poverty gap is enough to generate a bit fair of whining.

    Of course, most or all of this criticism can be directed at other developed countries. Look at the top 5 economies (US, Japan, Germany, UK, France). Hands up who’s got nothing to be ashamed of this century?

    Maybe it’s just that you’re the biggest, richest, and most well-armed. So you get the flak. And, as your ally, so do we :-(

    * Check out . Regardless of whether you agree with the list, the talk page is fun.

  7. But if you conflate the US government with US business, conquest with cultural diffusion, and military force with failing to give money/aid or do business, then it’s clear that the US is an empire. Once metaphors like these get established in certain circles, the fact that they’re not really accurate goes unnoticed once the conclusion has been drawn from them.

  8. Yes, Adam. But to conflate conquest with trade/aid/cultural diffusion, you have to be an idiot.

    Oh, wait…

  9. The US did prevent Iraq from forming a superpower in the gulf region. I would say this is “empire like” behavior, not that I disagree with it.

  10. John, I liked reading your comment as I enjoy reading all political opinions in general. Though I didn’t agree with a lot of it, it stroke me that you lack reason. I generally prefer people to include reason in their statements of opinion, though many politicians of at least my homecountry believes the vision is enough.

    Mentioning the Iraq war or the Afghan war, I keep getting the feeling that once the peoples have been freed from their undeniably horrible conditions, that is no longer an argument to have done it. Why does people not realise how great a gift freedom and democracy is? I am danish, my country was freed in 1945, after many a dane has died from the opression. I know from my own countrie’s history that opression is very unwanted. The opression of Denmark is uncomparable to the (not using the word evil) fanatisme that existed in Iraq and Afganistan.

    “Freedom and democracy – Now also in Iraq!”

    Thats the major reason of mine, for accepting the war in Iraq.

    US is not an empire, and describing it as such is wrong, since it lacks the historical ressemblance to other empires. For the US to be an empire, you would have to make a new meaning of the word empire. One substanstially diverting from the dictionary.com one:

    A political unit having an extensive territory or comprising a number of territories or nations and ruled by a single supreme authority.

    The US has not tried to been a such unit without also trying to relieve itself of it, the best way it thought possible.

  11. Pedantic quibble time; IIRC the British never conscripted armies from subject peoples.

  12. [snip]
    …the concern is not necessarily “does America behave like an empire?”, but “can we trust it not to act like one when the chips are down?”…
    [snip]
    This is a rather crucial point, which can indeed delineate a threshold separating hegemony and empire.

    It also happens to form the kernel of a compelling argument in Harris’ book “Civilization & its Enemies”, that establishes that this is *precisely* the kind of trust that America has earned, despite the rantings of its vituperrious (and sadly, often homegrown) detractors. Not that there aren’t multiple blots in America’s copybook, far from it, but nothing has so corrupted the nation that it has devolved into despotism, tyranny and empire.

    In this respect, perhaps our best shot at some semblance of global peace is contingent on having such unprecedented power under the control of a nation with such integrity.

    It is certainly hearty food for thought…

  13. I find that the more annoying liberal voices often fall back on one major excuse: that while what they are screaming about has not in fact been done, a parallel construct can be built around something that HAS been done which *implies* that what they are screaming about WOULD be done.

    So when these people say things like “America is building an empire”, any disagreements are met with strange analogies that say things like: if by “America” you mean “someone who has at some time lived in America”, and by “building” you mean “attempting to obtain”, and by “empire” you mean “economic advantage through foreign interests”, then Donald Trump buying hotels in Pakistan is clear and unambiguous evidence that America is building an empire.

    The sad part is that most of the time, neither the people making the argument nor those hearing it are smart enough to figure out how stupid this is. To bring up a tired old saying, it depends on what the definition of “is” is.

  14. John, those of us in the US who support President Bush are getting really tired of Europeans who don’t understand the US electoral system carping about how he’s supposedly stupid. He’s not. You don’t get elected to the presidency if you’re dumb. He projects an image, and that image may appear to you fto be one of stupidity, but it’s an act.

    The people complaining the loudest about outsourcing to India and other places are the American Left, who seem to think that the country owes everyone a living. The rest of us understand that the American worker has, in a lot of cases, priced himself out of what has become truly a global labor marketplace, and is going to have to make some adjustments.

  15. Joseph Garden just said that the commonly-used definition of an empire is a country which does what it can to stay more powerful than its neighbors. That is not the definition of an empire, and no educated person would tell you that it is. An empire occupies and usurps other states, and nothing less.

  16. Meaty and intelligent analysis of the question, Mr. Raymond. I’ve been thinking about an essay on “Anarchism vs. Anti-Americanism” for some time now. Thanks for the extra thought food.

  17. EMPIRES ARE ANTI-LIBERTARIAN! Except, err, the British Empire, which according the Von Miese (Lew Rockwell’s secondary deity) was the most liberal ever. Or Rome, which was way more liberal than the rest of the world. But remember, Empires are eveeel, eveell I tells ya!

  18. Are there any places outside the U.S. where treaties with subject nations stipulate that an American citizen will be subject only to U.S and not local law?

    If you remove ‘treaties with subject nations stipulate that’ the answer is PROBABLY YES …:
    Are there any places outside the U.S. where an American citizen will be subject only to U.S and not local law?

  19. Interesting article, some points I agree with, and some I don’t. It is very interesting to see the variety of responses to this article. Whether or not America is an empire, a hegemony, a paternalistic super power does not matter. Its all words. America is the premier power of the world, and will remain so for the forseeable future. Those who point to the rising power of China, Inda, or the EU as to why the American Empire, for the record I am a patriotic American and do not use the word empire in the oft used pejorative sense, show a lack of historical understanding. Rome at its zenith was not the sole super power in the world, its direct neighbor to the east the Parthinian empire were their rivals, and historical evidence shows trade between Rome and the Ancient Chinese empire. There were three major powers. Rome’s, all flaws aside, major credit to history is leaving behind Western Culture as we know it. Other European empires inhereited the role of Rome for periods of time, Byzantium Empire of Justinian, Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, The Holy Roman/Spanis the Empire of Phillip soverign of both nations, Short lived French Empire, Then the British Empire/Commonwealth, now the American Imperium. I for one do not believe the American Imperium is evil; each empire served a purpose in the development of man, and hopefully the desires of God, each empire was necessary. Now, we have no doubt that American culture has greatly influenced the world, but to what end? Is it solely to benefit American lifestyle for Americans, I point to the rapid growth and wealth of the mid 90’s despite the economic collapses in the Eastern Hemisphere, or is it to some greater aim? My hope is that our Imperium will be the last national Imperium. I want America to work to its own end. What I mean by that is to have an American Imperium be surplanted by a global Imperium. Hopefully, God willing, America will be a tool that will lead to global unification. Whether or not this is a good thing, or if it will be a multu-cultural, or Western American remains to be seen.

  20. anybody here know of a good site to find more info on afghan suicide bombing? I\’ve got this site bookmarked and im gonna keep checking it out, but i still would like to find a site that covers afghan suicide bombing a little more thoroughly..thanks

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