Is the U.S. an Empire?

News Abroad

Mr. Schroeder is Professor Emeritus of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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At the January meeting of the American Historical Association Professor Schroeder gave an electrifying address on the differences between imperialism and hegemony. AHA President Lynn Hunt ran up to him afterwards to implore him to write an op-ed. At our request, he did so.

American Empire is the current rage--whether hailed or denounced, accepted as inevitable or greeted as an historic opportunity. Common to the discourse is an assumption, shared also by friends and foes abroad, that America already enjoys a world-imperial position and is launched on an imperial course.

But that assumption involves another: that America is already an empire simply by being the world's only superpower, by virtue of its military supremacy, economic power, global influence, technological and scientific prowess, and world-wide alliances. The term "empire," in short, describes America's current condition and world status, and is equivalent to phrases like "unipolar moment" or "unchallenged hegemony."

This is a misleading, unhistorical understanding of empire, ignoring crucial distinctions between empire and other relationships in international affairs and obscuring vital truths about the fate of empires and bids for empire within the modern international system. A better understanding of empire can point us to historical generalizations we ignore at our peril.

First a definition: empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire--economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry--but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another. This need not mean direct rule exercised by formal occupation and administration; most empires involve informal, indirect rule. But real empire requires that effective final authority, and states can enjoy various forms of superiority or even domination over others without being empires.

This points to a critical distinction between two terms frequently employed as synonyms: hegemony and empire. These are two essentially different relationships. Hegemony means clear, acknowledged leadership and dominant influence by one unit within a community of units not under a single authority. A hegemon is first among equals; an imperial power rules over subordinates. A hegemonic power is the one without whom no final decision can be reached within a given system; its responsibility is essentially managerial, to see that a decision is reached. An imperial power rules the system, imposes its decision when it wishes.

Powerful implications flow from this definition and distinction. First, hegemony in principle is compatible with the international system we now have, composed of autonomous, coordinate units enjoying juridical equality (status, sovereignty, rights, and international obligations) regardless of differences in power. Empire is not.

Second, those who speak of an American empire bringing freedom and democracy to the world are talking of dry rain and snowy blackness. In principle and by definition, empire is the negation of political freedom, liberation, and self-determination.

This empire/hegemony dialectic yields some profound historical lessons, offered here without proof, though historical evidence is abundant:

1) There are circumstances (the absence or breakdown of inter-state or inter-community order) under which empires have historically provided a certain order and stability, though almost always accompanied by overt and latent violence, disorder, and war. Where, however, a relatively stable international system of autonomous units already exists, attempts to make that system work and endure through empire have not only regularly failed, but overwhelmingly produced massive instability, disorder, and war.

2) Recurrently throughout modern history leading powers have at critical junctures chosen empire over hegemony, and thereby triggered large-scale disorder and war. In some instances, the choice was conscious and demonstrable, in many others less clear-cut and more debatable. Nonetheless, the historian can point to repeated instances over the last five centuries where leader and powers, having the option between empire and hegemony, chose the path of empire, and thereby ruined themselves and the system.

3) The converse also holds. Where real advances in international order, stability, and peace have been achieved (and they have been), they have been connected with choices leading powers have made for durable, tolerable hegemony rather than empire.

4) Recent developments reshaping the international system (e.g., globalization, the rise of new states, the growth of non-governmental actors and international institutions, developments in weaponry, etc.) reinforce this longstanding trend, making empire increasingly unworkable and counterproductive as a principle of order, and hegemony more possible, more needed, and more potentially stable and beneficial.

These are not academic propositions. They illuminate the choice for America today. It is not an empire--not yet. But it is at this moment a wannabe empire, poised on the brink. The Bush Doctrine proclaims unquestionably imperialist ambitions and goals, and its armed forces are poised for war for empire--formal empire in Iraq through conquest, occupation, and indefinite political control, and informal empire over the whole Middle East through exclusive paramountcy. The administration pursues this path even in the face of a far graver challenge by North Korea to both its imperial pretensions and its own and the world's security.

History here warrants a prediction, based not on analogies or examples from the past but on sober analysis of what can and cannot succeed in this international world. If America goes down the path of empire, it will ultimately fail. How, when, and with what consequences, no one can tell--but fail it will, and harm itself and the world in the process. Not the least harm will come from thereby wrecking an American hegemony now clearly possible, needed, and potentially durable and beneficial.

In July 1878, at the end of the Berlin Congress that patched up peace in the Balkans after a Russo-Turkish war, Prince Bismarck told an Ottoman delegate, "This is your last chance--and if I know you, you will not take it." Bismarck's words, slightly altered, apply today. This is our best chance--and knowing us, we will not take it. But there is hope. Circumstances, the frictions of war, the pressures and pleas of allies, the maneuvers and resistances of opponents, new foreign dangers, challenges, and distractions, and domestic problems and politics could yet deter this country from a potentially tragic choice of empire and compel it to settle for hegemony. In other words, that special Providence Bismarck once said was reserved for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America may again come to our rescue.

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D DB - 2/23/2010

No. America is not an empire. We have not gone out into the world to conquer and rule, but to secure ourselves and our allies. We tried isolationism in WW1 and it didn't work, thus we decided to go and have a stake in the going-ons in the world since staying alone did us no help at all.

Dennis M. Weidner - 1/24/2008

This is a very important question. The accusation of American empire is so widespread and the influence of left-wing thought so pervasive that such azccusations often go unchallenged. Dr. Schroeder very effectively addressed it. I think that the accomplishments of the modern international economic system that America has played a major role in constructing or all to often ignored. TTo name such a few: 1)European integration. America has strongly supported European integration which has brought peace, stability, democracy, and prosperity to Europe for the first time in its history. 2) Asian development. The countries of Asia which have chosen to participate in the modern world (S. Korea, Taiwan, and Singamore have developed economies approaching Euopean levels). 3) Former militaristic states have (Germany and Japan) have become democratic and just socities. 4) Countries that have decided to abancon socialism for free enterprise (China and India) have experienced enormous success. In short under the current economic system that the left so reviles, more people have steped from poverty to prosperity than ever before in the history of the world. The simple fact is that Socialism has created or maintained poverty in country after country (pre-reform China, Cuba, Russia, Eastern Europe, N. Korea, Vietnam) while the free enterprise, international system has made possible for an incredible number of people to lead decent lives.

joshua johnson - 1/17/2004

reply to Schroder: Prince Bismark did indeed predict the Ottomans inability to stray from a cultural dominant mindset. However, Atilla the Hun mentioned to the Roman general that an empire will grow until someone is strong enough to stop it. The Soviet Union stopped us east, and we stopped them west, who then will be our next wall? I am predicting it will not come from latitude and longitude but much more complex and advanced borders.

Ryan Darbonne - 12/2/2003

the u.s. is definitely not an empire. just because they own many countries goods and help the country with many things they need does not make them an empire for the whole world!!

Erik - 10/27/2003

I, too, have been trying to find the Bismarck reference to fools, drunkards and the USA. Were you successful in getting a citation?

Michael Jacobs - 5/1/2003

Can Prof Schroeder (or anyone else) please identify a reference for the attribution to Bismarck of the phrase "God looks after fools drunkards and the United States"?

This is something I have been trying to track down for weeks.
My thanks
Michael Jacobs

DE Teodoru - 3/8/2003

As a European born long-time visitor of America, I note with clarity that American culture has an appeal of its own that results in absorption of its entertainment-recreation emphasis all over the world. But, it is not done copy-cat style. Rather, it is done by each people in the manner of domestic adaptation. This cultural infatuation with America translates, not in Europeans slavishly following America, but rather in giving Americans the benifit of the doubt when it comes to motives.

The American meddling in Mideast Affairs is both seen as a boon and a bane. But that is in terms of the impediment to European Imperialism over the oil-rich Mideast and the prospects of instability in the region. So, the Europeans most upset about American actions in the Mideast are the very rich whose billions are invested there. These people get nervous when denied monopoly. And so, within the context of national direction, both European and Mideastern populations look to America as a moral, conceptual and material model of the ideal state. This is neither hegemonism nor imperialism...It is sheer strength of American ideals that so enthrance (not enslave) the minds and dreams of regular folks the whole world over.

Shroeder need not worry about Bush. He is not, afterall, the dunce that ideology-blinded academics have made him out to be. He knows that America can only lead by example and can only bluff its enemies to capitulate, to be replaced by more congenial people. Academics must get used to the idea that Bush can INDEPENDENTLKY figure out what they figured out and makes them so obsessed with imposing their views on policy. Yes, Bush is as aware as any PhD in history or international relations of the costs and effects of unilateral warfare with Iraq. But while this may stop him from invading, it does not preclude a bluff to get Saddam out. For once, academics, having been so consistenly wrong on everything, owe themselves the humility of silence instead of the temerity of punditry. Look, wait and see....Bush will not throw us into a costly war. Instead, he will use the power of America in the eyes of each and evey Middle Easterner to persuade them to seek a new road-- an American one-- in order to achieve self-interest. Lastly, Shroeder would do well to look at films of a nuclear explosion. Upon seeing that, he should mutiply the extent of its effect by thousands, for that's what's happening to nuclear arms-- they are becoming the poor nation's substitute for soldiers because of its lack of poulation to press into military service. As the only nation with the wherewithall to express the danger of such WMD proliferation on a global scale, our "peacenick" friends would do well to recast this as stepping up to the plate and using its power unselfishly to preserve the peace, rather than imperialism. So, Schroeder's article is well argued and makes important distinctions, but fails to recognize the brden fate and history have dumped upon the United States.

Daniel E. Teodoru - 3/7/2003

The banalities of 17th to 19th Century history have once again gained a new lease on life. History is, afterall, a lesson learned...Alas, it too often is a lesson MISlearned. Marxism has proven to be history killed to fit the killers. However, Muse Clio has escaped the Stalin-Mao axe and, in the gerontologic frame of Paul Shroeder brings us back to a look at the inaplicability of misdefined terms such as "imperialism." AS a denuovo student of history at Rutgers, I kept saying to myself: there must be more to it than all this crap...Well, Shroader has shown, once more, that there is much much more...So, young revolutionaries, don't tamper with the past, for there are enough of us old dinosaures around to catch your fibs....Of course, none of us match the bone crushing Rex of them all, Paul Shroder...Makes me ask: now why can't New Jersey kidnap him and send one of our old blah-blahs in his palce?

Thank you Mr. Shroeder for, above all else, showing that academia is not yet totally devoid of academia.

Jacob Remes - 2/22/2003

How does Britain's informal empire (in Latin America, for instance) of the 19th century fit into Schroeder's dichotomy? There wasn't the same sort of direct control over Argentina as there was over, say, British East Africa. Was Britain merely hegemonic in Latin America, but imperial in Africa?

David F. Trask - 2/19/2003

Whatever the manifestations of empire that immediately followed(but did not precede) the War with Spain in 1898,it seems difficult to argue that the United States did not back away from from imperialist aims in the Pacific as the century moved on. Once you grasp the nettle, it is difficult to let go, but the United States tried hard to do so with the Wilsonian decision to agree to independence and the Rooseveltian followup. Almost all of the U.S. stabs at empire have led to later regrets and ensuing efforts to do something good and sensible.

The Bush initiative is obviously a mistake, but I hate to dignify present policy with a term like imperialism or hegemony. It is more akin to mindlessness than anything else. The idea of settling things between good an evil by means of a shoot out at high noon is a peculiarly natural national trait. I is not surprising that a failed Texan should yty to arrange one. As a former infantry platoon leader, I would not like to lead the first unit into Baghdad unless an infinitely more persuasive case for such an enterprise is presented. Obviously Saddam is a despicable character, but that reality is not enough by itself to justify war and all the uncertainties that follow. All this is elementary, but apparently the Bushites have not gotten out of Kindergarten.

A small aside. I admired very much the comments of
Paul Schroeder, a much-admired colleague who shows that age hasn't diminished his scholarship and his sanity.

Roland Popp - 2/14/2003

"We have to deal with these people as criminals, and respect the leadership which the US has inherited through its size, and appreciate that at least US is not governed the way Russia was or North Korea is."

You obviously don't get to the core of Prof. Schroeder's argument. The US is surely not governed the way the Soviet Union was but they are on a path in the Middle East which could lead to a new kind of Empire comparable to the Soviet control of Eastern Europe. Rhetorically, Rumsfeld is nowadays not so far away from Khrushchev and his diplomatic abilities, well. Fighting terrorist transnational actors is one thing, destroying for that purpose a most of the time well-working international system is a folly.

Colin Henderson - 2/11/2003

This thread has strayed from the original point - is the USA pursuing the right approach if they unilaterally (25% of the force from UK – is that unilateral?) invade and disarm Iraq, followed by the inevitable "nation building" under whatever title you choose to use.

As a UK citizen living in Canada and therefore well versed in CNN /BBC information, I do appreciate the constraints the likes of the Germans and Belgians find on themselves because of their political system. I do not pretend to understand the French, but we all know they will always choose a slightly different course.

Nonetheless, we have a scenario here, where someone (Bush) is prepared to take a leadership role to change the balance of power set within the current "hegemony" approach to diplomacy where different countries take "small leads" on different issues, but the real pervasive issues of international crime (otherwise known by the sexy term - terrorism) lies untouched.

Two points -
1) Bush brings a certain moral clarity to the issue which makes many countries uncomfortable in public but in private will salute US efforts and no doubt be there at the trough to share in the economic gains which will come. This moral clarity makes secular Europe uncomfortqable, but I say get over it.
2) Dealing with Iraq will create a new power balance within the Middle East which will counteract the domino effect which 9/11 created. For example, who here has the confidence to be assured Saudi Arabia will continue as currently governed, and assuming a change there, can we even imagine the world economic impacts if it follows the change which hit Iran several years ago. This type of change was inevitable anyway, but more so now following 9/11.

These are tough times, but terrorism is now something which is taking on the characteristics of multi national crime, and able to operate seamlessly across borders. Despite the rhetoric, they are not at that level yet, but they are well on the way. We have to deal with these people as criminals, and respect the leadership which the US has inherited through its size, and appreciate that at least US is not governed the way Russia was or North Korea is.

Gus Moner - 2/10/2003

Fundamentally, an empire controls, economically, militarily and politically. Does the US try to control? Does it control?

Therein lies the answer, not in now obsolete definitions of empire.

Gus Moner - 2/10/2003

Too clever for me: " would posit that given a choice between being a part of Mexico or the United States, New Mexicans would stay where they are."

Clever, ask now, when they have been overrun. Ask those New Mexicans from 1840-50's,how they felt being trundled by Anglo settlers.

J. Merrett - 2/10/2003

Question: when the "Native Americans" wandered over from Siberia and displaced who- or whatever was here, were they acting as imperialist colonists? When indigenous tribe or nation A routed indigenous tribe or nation B from desirable territory (or just killed them off) were they acting as imperialist colonists? Or is the title reserved for people you were already inclined to whine about?

Rick Schwartz - 2/8/2003

In fact, if you look really, really closely, you'll discover that when American lefty intellectuals prattle about American imperialism it is mostly a metaphorical argument. They confuse our cultural dominance with the Roman Empire's dominance, skipping right over the fact that the Roman Empire installed Roman governors, collected imperial taxes, imposed Roman law, conscripted colonial subjects into the Roman army (eventually), and generally considered Rome the supreme and final authority on any important question.

Saying we rule the world doesn't make it so. We don't rule the world. We lead the world — this is a huge distinction to people who live outside the intellectual menagerie of an Ivy League English department. If the coolest guy in school wears a leather jacket and all the other kids follow suit, that's hardly the same thing as the coolest guy forcing them at gunpoint to buy a leather jacket from him.

Now, the fact that we are not an empire, but could be one if we wanted to, confuses the dickens of all sorts of people. Indeed, some people find the idea so confusing they willfully refuse to believe it and just go on insisting we are an empire the way the guy in the Monty Python skit just kept insisting the parrot wasn't dead. Other folks don't use the word "empire" but they are just as confused about America's behavior. Marxists, for example, have a hard time fathoming that America doesn't behave according to their straight-line predictions about how a capitalistic "hegemon" should behave. So they mine the data. They ignore the inconvenient and misinterpret the unignorable.

-- Jonah Goldberg


dsalmanson - 2/7/2003

I agree with you that the US has generally chosen hegemony over empire in the past, although I would note that the empire period as I described it in the case of New Mexico extended into the twentieth century (like AZ it took NM a long time to become a state). I think that was the article is arguing is that the US has generally chosen hegemony in the past, particularly hemispheric hegemony but that, given the history of the middle east, it will be difficult to maintain hegemony if the United States acts unilaterally. The last hegemonic power in the area were the Ottomans and since then attempts at hegemony have generally resulted in stays of various lengths by imperial powers. After WWI, for example, they were called mandates. I think what the argument is here is that the US needs to be the elephant in the room, the one power nobody can ignore, but not the "reconstructor" which unilaterally decides which parties emerge. Letting the UN handle that end, something they are actually getting better at if reports out of Bosnia are to be believed, would be the smarter move. Likewise, if Saddam can be taken out by a regional coalition supported by US intelligence and weapons and some troops (as in Afghanistan) that too would be preferable. The problem with getting involved in these things is that it gets awfully hard to get out. The US spent 12 years or so after the Spanish American War fighting a nasty guerilla war in the Phillipines and ultimately it took the Pacific War of 1931-1945 (yeah I mean WWII but I see the Pacific and European conflicts as two fundamentally separate affairs joined by timing and the common players of US, UK, France, and the Dutch) to end the US imperial phase and allow it to withdraw into hegemony. In the way this plays out in the press, I would say the argument is Powellite as opposed to Rumsfeldian. (I always wanted to write Rumsfeldian in print. It is also very fun to say aloud. They should name a luxury car that. "Enjoy the feel of rich Corinthian leather in your new Chrysler Rumsfeldian." Oh goodness, the snow day here in Philly made me giddy.) Great talking to ya.

Alec Lloyd - 2/7/2003

Right, so the US acted like an empire when imperialism was in fashion and on a very limited scale. I agree with you that point and congratulate you on your knowledge this this topic. One the great things about HNN, especially for a non-professional historian such as myself, is the amount of incidental knowledge one acquires.

The fact that wholesale disenfranchisement took place while slavery was also the law of the land does not, however, indicate that US is STILL headed for an empire. To the contrary, it demonstrates to me (at least) that it has rejected an imperial framework and prefers an informal hegemony.

david chapman - 2/7/2003

america is in dream land, as the days of christ revelation is upon us.

David Salmanson - 2/6/2003

Mr. Lloyd,

I can only think that you are willfully misreading my comments. I suggested two case studies where the US acted in an imperial manner. I did not say the US was always imperial. Your response was to justify these past actions by the outcomes that happened many years later. I pointed out that this was the rational used by Stalin and indeed was key to Leninist-Stalinist historical theory. I did not suggest that the process of land alienation in New Mexico was equivalent to Stalin's Ukranian starvation, the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. I was trying to point out that you shifted the debate to the present day rather than the past and that you were using the outcomes to justify past actions. My point is that those outcomes were not necessarily pre-determined because people actually shape history as they live it.

The definiton presented was that an empire exists when one entity has control over the vital political decisions of another entity alien to the first. In New Mexico, (the case I know best) you have a bunch of Spanish speaking people who called themselves Nuevo Mexicanos in Spanish and Spanish Americans in English. They speak a different language from their conqueror allies, are largely a different religion, and have a different set of common law practices around issues of land and water. They joined their allies, the Americans, expecting to maintain a certain amount of autonomy and, in fact, had those rights around land and water guaranteed by treaty. However, almost immediately after incorporation, the systematic negation of those rights took place despite every attempt to preserve those rights. Attempts to prevent these actions taken by the territorial legislature were negated by Congress or Govenors. Legal procedures around these issues such as the Court of Land Claims established ground rules that practically guaranteed the alienation of land and water rights. These actions seem to fit the definition of an imperial power. I am not saying it is right or wrong. I am not saying Neuvo Mexicanos are better off now or in some alternate universe. I'm saying it happened. Isn't that the historian's job? For comparative purposes, I suggest that the Nuevo Mexicanos ended up like the members of the Delian League, allied with Athens initially as equals, only to lose control over their lands, how and where their money was spent, etc.. Unlike Delian League member, Spanish Americans were eventually incorporated into the empire as full members but only after they had been stripped of most of their assets. Thus, there was an imperial phase in New Mexico's history (1846-statehood); followed by a transition period (statehood to New Deal) in which new relationships were worked out and the shift completed in the pockets where it had not yet been completed while urban areas underwent incorporation and a final period of integration (New Deal to present) wherein New Mexicans, while not regaining their old rights and priviliges are able to acts as equals in society.

Martin - 2/6/2003

What is remarkable and so typical about this article and the responses to it is the total absence of the point of view of the peoples and nations who've been on the other end of US "hegemony" and raw imperial ambition, their fate, their wishes, and so on. They never seem to figure in these discussions among American pundits and conventional academics like Schroeder whose focus is entirely on the US side of the equation.

Of COURSE the US is an empire and has been almost since its very inception.

In his pathetic response, James Wilson seems to believe that empire is built and fostered only by elites and government, not by ordinary people. That's probably the most laughable and most bizarre characterization of empire I've yet seen. He exempts colonizing settlers who stole native lands, violently expelled them from their lands, and often embarked on campaigns of mass murder against them to "free" the land for their habitation. To the native inhabitants whose entire existence was being destroyed, these were invading imperialists, plain and simple.

The conquest of Hawaii was a shameful, racist episode in which the wishes of the natives and the Hawaiian monarchy were thoroughly disregarded, and in which the US government backed the white commercial interests on the island for outright takeover. Hawaii was thus totally under direct US political authority. The natives lost their independence and their freedom to develop their culture in the way they saw fit. THAT is empire.

As to Schroeder's definition of empire: "empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire--economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry--but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another. This need not mean direct rule exercised by formal occupation and administration; most empires involve informal, indirect rule. But real empire requires that effective final authority, and states can enjoy various forms of superiority or even domination over others without being empires."

Schroeder's article fails entirely in offering a convincing, clear distinction between empire and hegemony. When the Philippines rebelled against the Spanish for their independence, they were fighting against an old empire. When they then found themselves fighting a savage, racist war against the US, they were fighting against a state embarking on old-fashioned empire---the violent acquisition of nations or states that do not want to be associated with it. The US held total political authority over the Philippines for several decades.

In Latin America for decades, the US has exerted EXACTLY the kind of overbearing, indirect political authority (and direct in the early part of the 20th century) that Schroeder describes. He fails totally to understand that no government in Latin America can afford to conduct not only its foreign affairs but its DOMESTIC affairs as well without considering the will, authority, desires, selfish interests and power of the US. Every single new government that comes into power in Latin America automatically receives a letter "of welcome" from the US instructing them how to vote in the UN, for example.

In the 80s, archaic fascist Central American dictatorships long due for radical change were not allowed to evolve into a long-needed and natural revolutionary phase because of the absolute will and authority of US imperial power. The same is true for Chile in the 70s.

If tomorrow Mexico were to have a presidential coup and, say, the Zapatistas were to ride into victory in Mexico City by popular will, it is absolutely GUARANTEED that the US would immediately swing into action and stop such a development with the use of force.

I find Schroeder's definition of empire entirely oblivious to the changing nature of power politics in the modern world. The US is not an empire in the sense of sending colonists to outposts. Certainly in that sense, the nature of empire-building has changed over time but its essential character remains the same.

The US is an empire by the mere fact that it has military bases in almost every country on the planet, that its military basically rules the sky and seas of the globe (not to mention outer space). If tomorrow the South Korean government were to formally demand the immediate removal of all US military presence on their soil (with a deadline of, say, a week) do you really believe the US would comply? The people of Okinawa and the people of South Korea have for years wanted exactly that -- majority after majority in both places show this. Yet the US is still there. The majority of the people of the Philippines want no US military presence on their soil, but their will matters little to the US, because true democracy and freedom are are completely antithetical to US power.

Furthermore, Schroeder argues that empire means the negation of democracy and freedom whereas "hegemony" does not. The fact that US "hegemony" (or whatever weasel word you want to use) has in fact overwhelmingly stood on the side of dictatorship, its constant and absolute refusal to respect the will of the many populations who want its military out of their countries proves that this is a ludicrous distinction that does not bear out in reality.

In fact, US empire or hegemony or "influence" has always stood for, promoted and protected tyranny and its own selfish, blind interests. I have to laugh when I hear so-called experts call the US "an empire by invitation" as if the PEOPLE of those governments did the inviting and not their weak, often corrupt governments who were bribed and bullied into accepting the presence of an overbearing US military full of delusions of its laughably "benevolent" role.

Alec Lloyd - 2/6/2003

How we get to Stalinism from New Mexico's statehood seems a little strained to me. Puerto Rico's peculiar status is hardly equivalent to the liquidation of the Kulaks.

Which is the whole point, isn't it? One has to really reach to make the definition fit. That shows me the label isn't warranted.

David Salmanson - 2/6/2003

Mr. Loyd,

Your argument is one that a) promotes a notion of the end justifying the means (one of Stalin's favorite tactics) b) posits only two possible outcomes out of what could be many, to use the New Mexico case, for example. Old New Mexico families would have rather joined the US (many welcomed troops with open arms or openly fought with the US during the War) but been allowed to keep what was legally theirs. If the past is contigent and determined by at least some human actions, than the military conquest did not necessarily have to lead to dispossesion via fraud, seizure, or government takings. c) The Puerto Rico case reflects the complicated issues of economic imperialism. After so long a relationship, structured in a particular economic way, PR is caught in the situation of being unable to economically support itself either as an independent country or as fully-fledged state. I am not saying that the US is always imperial, I am saying that the US has, at times, acted as an imperial power in the past.

Alec Lloyd - 2/5/2003

I would posit that given a choice between being a part of Mexico or the United States, New Mexicans would stay where they are.

As for Puerto Rico, if they want to leave they are welcome. Right now the gain considerable benefit (security, social services) for little cost (no income tax).

David Salmanson - 2/5/2003

While the Cuba case is certainly anti-imperial, I wonder where Puerto Rico fits into this scenario, or for that matter Guam. Many New Mexicans would assert that after the Mexican American war their land holdings, guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, were systematically stolen using legal and extra-legal means and as such would fit under the definition of imperialism no mater how democratic seeming the integration of NM into the republic seemed.

Suetonius - 2/5/2003

Prof. Schroeder wrote:
"Not the least harm will come from thereby wrecking an American hegemony now clearly possible, needed, and potentially durable and beneficial."

I've read it several times over in the paragraph and couldn't figure out which interpretation he meant: that U.S. hegemony should remain (not the least, harm...i.e. of equal or greater importance) or that it should =not= remain (not the least harm...i.e. not the slightest). Not the inflection stemming from the comma.

Could Prof. Schroeder clarify? It affects his argument significantly, I would think.

Alec Lloyd - 2/4/2003

Unlike other empires, America has no interest in occupation per se. It would prefer nothing more than to liberate Iraq, participate in a multinational occupation force, and go about its business.

This is the textbook definition of hegemony: we are leading a coalition of the willing, not threatening the disobedient with reprisal.

An imperial America would not only be establishing colonies in Somalia and Iraq, it would retaliate against threats to its Imperium: France and Germany. Instead, they are facing diplomatic humiliation, nothing more.

As for South Koreans using credit cards, what of it? International commerce has been good to the Republic of Korea, bringing them a standard of living many times better than that of their oppressed neighbors. The Marxist core/periphery paradigm is a bit long in the tooth. It is increasingly clear that capitalism is not a zero-sum game and that yesterday's sweat shops are tomorrow's Asian Tigers.

James Wilson - 2/4/2003

No stretching of the word can make America into an Empire, and the course currently resolved upon is in no way imperialist. The expansion of the United States in its earliest times was generally not led by elites or ordered by government. Expansion occurred quite literally by the will of the people, in defiance of law and treaty if necessary. The "conquest" of Hawaii was accomplished in a similar manner, but in every other case America has conquered, rebuilt, and set free. None of the nations conquered during Spanish-American War and WWII were retained, and none paid tribute. The recent war in Afghanistan is the embodiment of the Bush Doctrine, and it is not now part of an Empire, nor is it like to be. Imperialism in the modern sense is like capitalism; a derogatory straw man invented by socialists to argue against. While its possible that (being Americans) we take to heart imperialist the way we did capitalism and yankee, then perhaps someday there will be an American Empire. The likelihood is slim, however. After 9/11 the most historic reaction would have been obliteration of any perceived enemies. Not just half of the middle-east but China, Korea and probably Somalia as well. But that would be un-American. France not forty years ago repaid a much smaller terrorist act with massive retaliation, killing perhaps 100 times the number of their own dead, but America has yet to take a similar course despite the Atomic Bombs. While I have no quarrel with the definitions at the beginning of this essay, the most deceitful line is found towards the end. "This is our best chance--and knowing us, we will not take it." What is obvious is that the writer doesn't know us, nor history, and his blind bigotry makes it impossible for him to be other than a deceitful cynic--which is redundant, there being no other kind. The history of America is painful at times, horrifying at others, and occasionally inspiring, but it provides no reason to believe that true imperialism will ever become popular.

ian august - 2/4/2003

As a proud american who is sick of the republican/democratic monoply of my country, i believe those two parties leading our nation having created an empire..i will use one of my favorite phrases..same wine different bottle..and think about this for a minute, have we been launching a descrete economic war on the world for decades-forcing nations to be dependent upon us, and if you are skeptical read the article on the bbc news for feb. 2003 about how the average south korean now owns 4 credit cards, and ask yourself what is the deal with that?? i bet they are not south korean credit cards..

donkates - 2/3/2003

The author's definition requires reiteration precisely because of his failure to apply it: "empire means political control exercised by one organized political unit over another unit separate from and alien to it. Many factors enter into empire--economics, technology, ideology, religion, above all military strategy and weaponry--but the essential core is political: the possession of final authority by one entity over the vital political decisions of another." By that definition the closest the U.S. has come to "empire" outside the N. American continent are: 1) seizing Hawaii - indeed, an imperial act except that the seized territory was then incorporated into the U.S., thereby losing its imperial character; 2) the seizure of Cuba during the Spanish-American War which never became imperial for Congress immediately resolved that we would w/draw after a short occupation; 3) Phillipines - same war - a lot closer to empire, but we eventually resolve to, and did, relinquish control; 4) invasions of various banana republics in which we used temporary control to restore order, or attempt to; 5) ditto for Lebanon in '58 and various other nations in WWII and to date.
The author fails to distinguish empire, which we have generally eschewed from "nation building." In saying this I am not trying to defend "nation building." It is none of our business, nor is it w/in our power, to determine what government some other nation has. If we have, as is the case w/ Iraq, some URGENT other reason, in this case keeping a brutal psychopath from obtaining nuclear arms w/ which to threaten the world, that is well and good. But just trying to plant our form of government in alien political and cultural soil will never work.
Nonetheless it is not "imperial" activity, but rather charitable in nature. That is one reason it is so unworkable as the shown by the disparate examples of Somalia and Saudi Arabia. If we were had imperial ambitions our response to 9/11 and to "Blackhawk Down, would have been massive retaliation and the long term stationing of troops who would engage in suppression of all resistance, or try to do so. The fact that we have not done this is proof-positive that we are acting out of different purposes. In the case of Saudi Arabia we have a strategically based continuing relationship. In Somalia we had no compelling reason to be there so we just got our people killed for nothing and withdrew. That is why we should eschew military operations unless we have some vital objective.