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The United States Is a Super Power but Does that Make It an Empire? - 2003-07-23

What is an empire? The word conjures up visions of Roman soldiers in body armor parading before a laurel crowned Caesar. Or perhaps on hearing the word “empire”, one is reminded of the vastness of the 19th Century British Empire. It spread so far as to inspire the phrase ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire.’ The Oxford Dictionary defines empire as a large group of states under a single authority.

For Niall Ferguson, author of the book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, these days the word empire is best used to describe the United States of America.

“Let me put it to you that militarily, economically, and culturally the United States has all the attributes of past empires,” he says, “and it has them in extremely impressive ways. When one considers these three pillars of power: the military, the economic and the cultural, then from a British vantage point, the only thing that is really quite remarkable about the American empire, aside from the fact that it dwarfs the British Empire even in its heyday, is the fact that Americans refuse to believe in its existence.”

Mr. Ferguson says this refusal is understandable considering Americans’ history and conditioning.

“ I’m well aware that I will lose this debate,” he says, “so profound is the antipathy of the typical American to the word empire. And it’s understandable that Americans should feel at best ambivalent, if not downright hostile to the word “empire.” Their creation myth, the very essence of that strange state religion in which the United States’ political culture is founded is that of an anti-imperial, rebellious colony that fought against an evil empire for its own independence. And it’s therefore an assumption that I think most Americans share that having once thrown off an imperial yoke, it would be inconceivable that the United States itself should become an empire.”

America’s inability to acknowledge the empire-like aspects of its role in the world has led to some major problems, says Mr. Ferguson. One concerns the way the United States conducts its military operations: believing it can go into a country, fight a war and pull troops out shortly thereafter.

“It is a fundamental flaw,” he says, “and it’s visible already in Iraq and Afghanistan today, in an imperial power when it states that it will withdraw as soon as possible from the country that it has occupied. And yet this is what American spokesmen constantly state. The reason that it’s a flaw is that all empires are based not on coercion, but on collaboration.”

America’s short attention span and its failure to invest enough time and money in the countries it has invaded are real problems, says Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order. But he insists just having this kind of power doesn’t make America an empire.

“I think we can see clearly what imperialism is and what it is not,” he says. “And America is not an empire even though it has exercised more influence in some respects than any empire has. But I would suggest that ultimately, if you look at the great success of American foreign policy, it is precisely because everyone has always known that the United States did not intend to exercise imperial control, that America’s rising hegemony in the world was so widely accepted and so little feared.”

Mr. Kagan says that from the early days of British colonization in North America through the first hundred years following independence from England, Americans demonstrated aspects of imperialism.

“Obviously, the revolution itself was an anti-imperial act,” he says, “but if you look at the behavior of the United States in its early years, I would say that the best case for America having been an empire occurs in those years. In the tremendous acquisition of territory some by purchase, mostly by force or persuasion or blackmail, the Americans moved across the continent in fairly classic imperial fashion.”

But over the years, Mr. Kagan says American imperialism diminished, ironically as its power grew. That differs from the imperial power wielded by the British Empire because it is not exploitative.

“What would the world think of a power of our size, of America’s size, that had a design, that had an imperial design, that was expanding to take control of others for its own purposes?” he asks. “Yes, the United States has expanded and wields enormous power. But the rest of the world knows, even today, that it is not a grasping and ambitious country in the way that past empires have been.”

Mr. Kagan thinks some people who call the United States an empire want to get it more active on behalf of this or that cause. But would the American people rally behind the banner of empire?

“We are beyond the age of empire,” he says. “The American people and the vast majority of the world’s people do not accept empire as the purpose of foreign policy. The truth is we must continue to engage in the difficult task of constantly arguing the case for why the United States must remain engaged in the world. Why is must have more constancy. And we also have the task of convincing the rest of the world that America’s actions are not purely selfish but are in the interests of many others who share its views.”

How can the United States invade Iraq and occupy Baghdad and pretend it is not an empire? Mr. Ferguson says by deceiving itself on this issue, America may be weakening its ability to influence events.

“America, and this is rather English in itself, prefers self-deprecation. ‘No, no, no we’re not an empire. Please, call me hegemony,’” he says to laughter from the audience. “Call it what you like. Call it nation-building, Call it hegemony. Call it Wal-Mart as far as I’m concerned. But if you are going to occupy these countries, which are indeed the seed-beds of terrorism, where the threat to your country has already taken shape in the past and will take shape again in the future if you fail, if you are going to undertake these things, call it what you like, but do it right.”

Is the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other countries around the globe an indication of empire or is it not? The question, say both Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan, will continue to be debated as long as the United States remains the lone global superpower.