Empire, Hegemony, and the U.S. Policy Mess

News Abroad

Mr. Hunt, Emerson Professor in the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance (University of North Carolina Press, March 2007).

The deepening plight of the Bush administration fits into a puzzlingly persistent pattern. The Vietnam-induced collapse of the Johnson presidency was followed by Nixon’s disgrace, dramatic reversals under Carter and then Reagan, and a dizzying search for a post-Cold War conceptual foundation under Bush senior and Clinton. These difficulties doubtless had their roots in the grand international role that Americans embraced in the course of World War II and the early Cold War. The initiatives of that “golden age” carried heavy and unforeseen consequences that began to sow confusion among the foreign policy public as well as the mass public by the late 1960s. Policy turned erratic and public support uncertain. A more global and comparative perspective on empire and hegemony is needed to help deepen our analysis of this disarray. This approach can also help us move beyond commentary filled with vague references to a U.S. “superpower,” emotive invocations of empire, and casual conflation of empire and hegemony.

The notion of an American empire is now fashionable – and usefully employed if well grounded. Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) is used to subjugate a territorially delimited area. Once created, empires acquire other structural features. Maintaining control depends on collaboration between metropolitan and colonial elites (with each exercising disproportionate influence within their own societies) supplemented by a variety of other mechanisms from proximate military bases to a class of imperial administrators to ideological orthodoxies that rationalize dominance at home as well as abroad. Skeptics may want to argue that informal control, so prominent a feature of the U.S. case, does not qualify as empire. This objection does not withstand scrutiny. Rome’s eastern frontier and China’s subordination of lands beyond the line of direct imperial authority leap to mind.

Rather than focus on distinctions between formal and informal control, we might more fruitfully think instead about how control is exercised – within the limits imposed by imperial resources, by the technologies of the time, and by the tolerance of subject peoples. Even formal control has recurrently depended on enlisting subordinated groups in the imperial enterprise by making concessions that make dominance more manageable and cost effective. Rather than make the test formal or informal control, why not ask who ultimately decides whether local rulers stay or go, who makes the ultimate decision on alliances and foreign military bases, and from what direction the indigenous military takes it cues?

This definition would suggest that the United States has been an empire for a long time and in several guises. It began as a continental empire (a form of settler colonialism already at the time of national independence); it turned to formal overseas empire at the end of the nineteenth century; and it thereafter practiced informal empire in large hunks of Central America and the Caribbean, a broad swath of maritime East Asia, western Asia amongst a loose assemblage of clients, and arguably even western Europe in the early Cold War. In each of its imperial phases Washington has mustered the obligatory justification for extending frontiers (whether Manifest Destiny, the Monroe doctrine, the containment doctrine, or the war on terrorism), has sought accommodation with amenable local elites, raised to prominence U.S.-sponsored armies, created a formidable network of military bases and alliances, dispatched proconsuls to sustain and direct client regimes, and in extremis launched U.S. military forces and covert operations to change governments. This long and varied record suggests empire is imprinted in the national genetic code.

The peculiar aspect of this empire is that time and again significant parts of the citizenry have responded with aversion and even outright opposition. The oldest source of hostility is the conviction on the part of classically-trained American leaders that empire is a fundamental threat to republican survival. Their conviction gave rise to sharp disputes in the 1840s and again after 1898. Fear for fragile republican institutions persisted through the twentieth century and is still evident in such current authors as Patrick Buchanan and Chalmers Johnson.

A second source of anti-imperial sentiment is the consumer republic that arose during the twentieth century. Consumer-citizens don’t rank imperial glory among their top priorities, and have made clear at the ballot box their reluctance to make personal sacrifices for distant, dirty wars. Finally, American doubts about empire have flowed from a fundamental national principle given sharpest articulation in wartime propaganda. Beginning with World War I and continuing with World War II and the Cold War, Washington has sought to draw a clear line between its commitment to national liberation and its foes’ record of imperial subjugation.

This combination of lingering republican anxieties, an inward-turning consumerist ethic, and rhetorical support for self determination makes Americans not just odd imperialists but arguably in various measures self-deceived, ineffectual, and frustrated ones. Compounding the muddle, U.S. backing for self-determination and decolonization has created expectations abroad subversive of the very control American leaders have sought to exercise. Seen from overseas, Americans have placed themselves in the contradictory position of celebrating self determination while violating it in multiple ways in many places and not just in the present but over several centuries. An anti-imperial people trying to justify and manage an “empire of liberty” in a post-imperial era creates some of the problems afflicting U.S. policy.

No less important than empire, hegemony is more difficult to pin down. The comparative literature offers less help, and the historical cases from which to generalize are more limited. While there are lots of empires, there are fewer hegemonies, and no hegemons wielding the kind of multi-layered influence on a global scale like the United States. The most obvious close comparison, Britain, operated within decided limits imposed by a substantial field of near equal competitors, by relatively rudimentary communications and transport technologies, and by a comparatively minor league economy.

A starting point in defining hegemony is to highlight the ways in which it is not an empire. One of its leading features is the broad and subtle penetration of economic and cultural practices and products across entire regions rather than the focused exercise of political and military power. Another is the self-conscious promotion of trans-national norms and institutions rather then the creation of specific subordinate colonial or client regimes. Perhaps the most important attribute is legitimacy. Hegemony involves more than reaping material rewards and psychic gratification; integral to any claims to international leadership on such a broad scale are heavy obligations. In its lack of coercion, in its defuse sources of support, and in its amorphous territorial range, hegemony has to be seen as distinct from empire.

If in the U.S. case empire is genetic, hegemony is an acquired characteristic. Hegemony was made possible by a rate of economic growth over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that had no precedent in human history. This achievement created the preconditions for a U.S.-inspired, designed, and regulated international system that took shape during the first two thirds of the twentieth century. American economic and cultural clout remade societies and reshaped the practices of daily life around the world.

But since the 1970s Washington has neglected the duties of the hegemon and at times has shown open hostility to the very international institutions and norms earlier put in place. This negligent if not defiant stance has depleted U.S. legitimacy in foreign eyes. Whether Americans can rescue legitimacy may depend on their response to looming global problems – from growing income inequalities, to environmental degradation, to nuclear proliferation, to the persistence of pervasive hunger and disease. Washington’s anemic, distinctly corporate understanding of hegemony as a commitment to global free markets makes an effective response unlikely.

U.S. hegemony, while distinct from empire, has become entangled with it in ways that compound the crisis of legitimacy. Empire pursued too enthusiastically can eat away at legitimacy abroad. International polls reveal a widespread revulsion against U.S. policy dragging down favorable attitudes toward U.S. society and culture. Nowhere is this dysfunctional tangle more striking than in the Middle East. After World War II U.S. policymakers carved out an informal empire. Faced with sharp regional resistance in recent decades, American leaders have tried to justify the imperial presence in terms of hegemonic goals – in various combinations democracy, stability, free markets, counter terrorism, and human rights. In the process they have deepened the doubts in the region while confusing themselves and perplexing their own public.

As with empire, thinking about a history of hegemony can help illuminate the options before us. What are the possible costs as well as benefits of revitalizing the commitment to hegemony or abandoning that role altogether? If abandonment is the choice, then how should the United States relate to the rest of the world? Without considering what might follow a discarded hegemony, Americans run the risk of perpetuating the very disorientation now afflicting them.

Introducing empire and hegemony into the lexicon of the foreign policy establishment and even work-a-day political discourse may seem like a tall order. But some serious historical perspective grounded in global and comparative insights may offer one of the few ways to break out of our current malaise in which empire is practiced but not widely accepted, in which hegemony is claimed as a prerogative without corresponding obligations, and in which as a consequence disorientation becomes a congenital feature of U.S. foreign relations. History cannot solve our problems, but it can help us think about them more clearly.

[Acknowlegment:] Thanks to Peter Filene, A. G. Hopkins, Steven Levine, and Richard Talbert for their help. This essay builds in part on my H-Diplo review of Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.

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Charles Severson - 8/30/2007

While I appreciate your discussion, your historical references seem to be very narrow indeed. Your points as I understand them center around an American imperial age that changes over time; after WWI decolonization to a Democratic Hegemony. Then jumps to the post WWII face off with the USSR called the "Cold War" and the proposed moral intentions of both nations. Finally culminating with a difference of opinion about Saddam's would be empire. There is so much more in history that relates to this issue that you haven’t mentioned
Take a look through the Library of Congress at the relatively newly released documents due to the freedom of information act describing US military intervention under the guise of “Protecting United States interests”.
One example that comes to mind is Panama. The US has actually invaded Panama twice. Teddy Roosevelt sent in the Marines to quell a movement by the locals to gain control of the Panama Canal. Most recently the American government used force to remove Manual Noriega; who they put there in the first place. Whether it is covert or out in the open the use of force to maintain control over smaller nations by the US has been part of our foreign policy since the beginning.
The US government has been protecting Capitalist investments since Jefferson sent marines to Tripoli during his presidency; today it’s George W. Bush and Iraq. I think one will notice a solid trend through out our history. We have been all over the world from China and the Philippines
to Mexico, Central and South America protecting American business interests. Calling any of these documented situations a Hegemony is a sham. When money failed to keep a foot hold in a country used by US industry for cheap resources and labor; the use of force generally followed whether it was US trained and supported local troops or the United States Marine Corp. By some of the descriptions and definitions given in many of these replies a term that definitely comes to mind is Imperialist Empire

Chris Coward - 8/29/2007

Mike Hunt concludes this article with the statement: "History cannot solve our problems, but it can help us think about them more clearly." Although this is a quality start to finding resolutions for current problems it is not the correct final thought process. Hunt often gives examples in his article from the past. He Gives examples of Empires, of dominant nations with strong influences on weaker countries and how they relate to the current foreign policy of the United States.

However, just to introduce moments in history when the United States' foreign policy was not unpopular and perhaps poorly founded does not suggest that these times are models to follow. Times in American History that Hunt mentioned included "World War II and the early Cold War". There are not only different resolutions for different problems, but also different resolutions for the same problems at different times. Micheal Hunt is correct in introducing these past times in American history to spark ideas for new answers, but he is incorrect in suggesting that empires can be handled and foreign policies founded the same way at different times in history.

John Charles Crocker - 6/2/2007

"how many times do you need me to say the same thing again and again:"
This is the first time that you have explicitly stated the definition that you have made up for imperialism. Your definition does not match with Webster's, the OED, or common usage. It is simply a definition you have constructed to try and opt the US out of imperialism (although early US treatment of Native Americans does still match your definition).

European powers certainly gave up much of the territory that had gained in their days of imperial conquest. The US though has kept virtually all of the land gained by its imperial conquest. Not that we should give it back to Mexico, but we still have Texas. We still have Hawaii. We still have the land we took from the Native Americans. I don't think that it is either practical or desireable to hand all of that land back, but to define the US as anti-imperial and a decolonizer is more than a little simplistic. The US military presence has expanded not contracted since WWII and the influence we exerted on the world expanded with it.

During the Cold War and less so now the US has exerted the dominant social, cultural, ideological, and/or economic influence over most of the world that was not under the sway of either the Soviets or China. For good or bad our influence is felt everywhere. Look at post war US policies in South America and South East Asia. We propped up some regimes and helped overthrow others in our struggle with the Soviets. Without the US military Europe would have been helpless before the Soviet military might and we both knew it. To deny that this effected our influence is simplistic and naive. Hegemony describes well the US role during the Cold War and beyond. Without the Soviet Union as a foil that role is eroding. Current foreign policy is speeding that erosion.

Hegemony itself is value neutral. How it is acquired and used determines it moral value or lack thereof.

"America's stance towards the Soviet Union was ANTI-IMPERIALISTIC and not a quest for global dominance."
America's stance towards the Soviets was both anti-Soviet imperialism and pro-American global political and economic dominance.

You deride my views as simplistic, but it is you who see the world in purely black and white, good and evil.

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/2/2007

it might help you to consider that, contrary to the quasi-marxist canards of bureaucrademe, american history is essentially progressive. hegemony and other theories of informal (and usually invisible) power 'structures' are answers to concrete, historical developments that refute the insistent negativity of anti-capitalist, anti-liberal and anti-democratic theorists incapable of retreating from their errant historical and political and economic diagnosis.

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/2/2007

how many times do you need me to say the same thing again and again:


the history of the united states is not one without territorial conquest (your vision of it is lopsided and simplistic) but both america and europe were decolonizers in the post war world.

the point you can't seem to accept is the uneven historical evolution - that the soviet union was still in the 19th century and America wasn't and that 'hegemony' is a manner of erasing the great gaps between the two powers, and that America's stance towards the Soviet Union was ANTI-IMPERIALISTIC and not a quest for global dominance.

John Charles Crocker - 5/31/2007

Again, what definition of imperialism are you using?

You say that valuing freedom and liberty permeate US history, presumably back to its founding. You also say that being an imperial power is antithetical to these concepts. Yet you carefully phrase your denial of American imperialism to exclude pre-WWII American history. This is presumably because you realize that you cannot deny its imperialism during its expansion West and into the Pacific. You cannot have it both ways. You must admit that either it is possible to be an imperial power and have respect for freedom and individual liberty or you must say the US did not respect these values in its early, expansionist days.

Whether or not the US became wealthy without exploiting others depends largely on a very restrictive definition of how the US became wealthy and of exploitation. You must deny that the taking of Native American lands and repeated breaking of treaties involved exploitation or deny that the expansion it allowed created wealth for America. You must either deny the role of slave labor in early American development or deny that it was exploitative. You must deny the role of Chinese and other immigrant laborers in building the railroads and working the fields in the nearer past or deny that it involved exploitation. You must deny the exploitation of the Gilded Age or deny its role in the growth of America's wealth. These are all untenable positions.

"as for england, i do not see much of an equivalence either in the post war setting"
Does this mean that you believe that pre-WWII England was the moral equivalent of the nations I earlier listed?

"opponents of british imperialism room to protest that they simply wouldn't have in a 20th century imperialist power."
England was a 20th century imperialist power. Perhaps you meant a pre-20th century imperialist power? Either way this acknowledges a change in the mo of imperial powers over time.

Hegemony is distinct from imperialism. Using the term hegemony distinguishes American economic, cultural, and political dominance from the imperial powers of the past rather than placing them in that same mold.

Your contention that democracies, or more precisely republics, do not have an appetite for military conquest and colonization is just silly. England, America (at least you concede pre-WWII), and Rome are all ready counter examples.

"...but it was still an empire just like the soviet union."
America is/was still an empire but not just like the Soviet Union. America is likely the most democratic and liberal of imperial powers to date and that is due in part to the vision of its founders and in part due to the technology and the times.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/31/2007

you don't read very well : sadaam was an imperialist, and he failed. that's because imperialism is a failure. the united states is a success precisely because it doesn't follow the historical norms of the past : namely, becoming wealthy through the exploitation of others. it's historical record at the end of world war II is not that of an imperial power, unless one adopts falkey and abstruse definitions of imperialism that enable one to ignore tangible reality and thus conclude that both russia and america were imperial powers.

as for valuing freedom and individual liberty, these are themes that permeate u.s. history. these themes do not lead to a jingoisitic pro-american history as left wing propagandists passing themselves off as historically literate would proclaim. your history is one of expansion and exploitation, with absolutely no cognizance of any facts that would moderate your cartoonish claims that america's present is imperial and exploitive because its past is imperial and exploitive.

in fact, america's geographical expansion is largely due to escaping the relatively tolerable restraints of established colonial and then state societies. american expansion was facilitated by greater democracy in new states, which in turn, pressured older states into increasing the franchise.

if you're actually interested in how themes of individual liberty permeate american history, you might try reading jackson's bank veto message; you might also read jefferson; last, you might even read the speeches and writings of members of the anti-imperialist league!

returning to your misreading of my post : i see absolutely no moral equivalence between the u.s. and any of the powers that you mentioned; as for england, i do not see much of an equivalence either in the post war setting. but that's because england was a democracy, and thus gave opponents of british imperialism room to protest that they simply wouldn't have in a 20th century imperialist power. you might read orwell's essay on ghandi to gain an appreciation for the ineffectiveness of civil disobedience in totalitarian societies.

the problem i have with the notion of hegemony and the notion of american "dominance" is that both insist on putting america in the mold of past imperial powers, and it simply doesn't fit that mold. it may be the most potent imperial power as it spread across the north american continent, but past that point in history, it becomes less and less imperial. furthermore, as a democracy, it doesn't have much of an appetitie for military conquest and colonization.

hegemony is one of many abstract and vague concepts that reflects the intellectual fllabiness of those seeking to escape from objective realities that contradict an essentially marxist claim (i know, i know, none of you are marxists, except when one measures what you say against fundamental marxist principles) and the fundamental wish is to prove that liberal-democratic capitalist societies go against the tide of history and doomed to self-destruct...in other words, they are fundamentally retrograde, and differ little in their essential immoral and exploitive character from previous social and political and economic systems.

but they have proven very resilient. at first, the affluence wrougt by capitalism was charade just like the growth of democracy that accompanied it. an essential ingredient of the ahistorical insistence that capitalism is immoral and exploitive is imperialism. thus, despite nit-picking protests from other posters, the notion of hegemony fits very well with a marxist-leninist outlook. why do the workers not overthrow capitalism as they should? because it provides for them? no, it takes from the third world and gives to the first! thus the workers are bribed and "co-opted".

thus, the left contorts the third world into oppressed and exploited victims of america, wrongly thinking that their revolt will usher in the marxist fantasy of marxist revolution in america.

but the idea that the third world is a victim of capitalism and liberalism can only be sustained by those willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the obvious that the lack of both is what distinguishes the societies they say they want to liberate. that is why we have this idea of hegemony. it is "informal" control. thus the american troops in germany are part of an empire just like the soviet troops in hungary. sure, the american troops never mobilized to suppress anti-american political groups or shut down newspapers or jail dissidents or do anything to inhibit democracy. but it was still an empire just like the soviet union.

actually, the defining characteristic of the american age is the death of empire, and americas military has done infinitely more to stop imperial expansion than it has to facilitate it. thus its influence is do to the fact that it promotes freedom.

that would be the view of poland, the czech republic and romania, all of whom are being bullied (along with the rest of europe)by putin who is threatening to cut off russian oil if he's not given a free hand in what he considers russia's natural imperial holdings of eastern europe.

John Charles Crocker - 5/30/2007

What definition of imperial are you using?

You say that the US was not an imperial power after WWII because it did not acquire new territory after that time (though its influence and power surely expanded greatly and its military bases expanded to many countries were it was not previously present). Apparently you believe that an imperial power ceases to be an imperial power as soon as it ceases to claim new territories, unless you don't like that power. Iraq also has acquired no new territory since WWII yet you feel that they are/were an imperial power.

Did the Soviet Union cease to be an imperial power after its final territorial acquisition?

Is China an imperial power? How about North Korea, Sudan, and Chad?

"insisting that it was an imperial power does establish a moral equivalence between the soviet union and america as imperialism is certainly not consistent with any professions to valuing freedom and individual liberty."
Do you really see a moral equivalence between the US and UK, prior to their final territorial acquisitions, and the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Iraq under Saddam, and even Nazi Germany as your statement would suggest?
When did the US begin to value freedom and individual liberty?

Jason B Keuter - 5/30/2007

no - -to deny that the cold war was a war between two imperial powers would be consistent with historical facts. in order to maintain that contention, one has to come up with a tortured definition of imperialism, or, as the concept of hegemony does, one that is sufficiently vague to entrap a generally non-imperial power.

in sum, in the post-war world, the united states was not an imperial power, as it didn't extend its territorial control in that time. the soviet union was an imperial power as it did extend its territorial control at that time. to speak of "influence" is just a cop out: the united states did not exercise an influence that was profound enough for it to be a de facto imperial power. insisting that it was an imperial power does establish a moral equivalence between the soviet union and america as imperialism is certainly not consistent with any professions to valuing freedom and individual liberty.

as for sadaam hussein, his ambitions were clearly imperial and his actions, again, conform to the characteristics of an imperial power. maintaining control of the kurds and the shi'ite south was imperialistic, as were his wars against iran and kuwait. last, while you hesitate to acknowledge this, sadaam hussein never did. he was a pan-arabist.

John Charles Crocker - 5/30/2007

Setting aside the poor biological analogy, imperialism has a defined meeting and it is not synonymous with tyrannical or dictatorial. When calling the US or any other nation imperial the definition usually intended is as follows:
2: the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas; broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence

Saddam came to power (however brutally) over a single nation. He made two unsuccessful forays into conquest of a neighbor. The second ultimately led to his downfall. He nation was not imperial, at least not successfully so.

The US on the other hand has regularly over its history extended its power and dominion by policy, practice, and advocacy. The US over its history has directly gained control over other nations territory by military force and by other means. Additionally indirect the US has exerted control over the political or economic life of other areas particularly during the cold war.

The cold war was a conflict of two empires. That is not to say that the two sides were morally equivalent, merely to acknowledge that both sides were imperial powers. To deny this one must create for oneself a rather tortured definition of imperialism.

1 : preponderant influence or authority over others : domination
2 : the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group

Neither of these terms carries an inherent value judgment. Imperial has gained some emotional context and implied value judgment in some quarters. Hegemony, though, is not a well enough understood term by the bulk of the populace to have acquired such baggage.

The US is now having to come to terms with the shrinking and changing face of its hegemony that peaked during or shortly after the cold war.

Jason B Keuter - 5/30/2007

and it's a "paradigm" of foreign policy analysis that emerged (or re-emerged, considering the greek roots of the word, which do indeed pre-date marx - as does every word marx ever used) in order to validate an equivalence between the US and the USSR as both imperialist powers in the post-war world. Sticking with a more observable, tangible and concrete definition of imperialism, the USSR is the post war Imperial power. The US rebuilds and then trades with western Europe. This is decried as "selfish"; it's simply liberal-democratic capitalism, which is the animating spirit of American foreign policy. If it wasn't, we'd turn the tv cameras off in Iraq and wouldn't concern ourselves with them building a government and would indiscriminately terrorize the people into submission. according to the hegemonists, the only reason we don't do that is because it would interfere with our long term goal of acquiring total power and then...well, doing that.

thus, hegemony justifies other powers (who are indisputably and consistently imperialistic ) free reign to continue being Imperialists because they are acquiring power with which to resist the hegemon that is bent on world conquest. should the hegemon try to contain this threat so it can maintain its mutually beneficial trade relations with the powers that are threatened by the actual imperialists, this is not an act preserving those nation's freedom - instead, it is hegemony.

so you're right. it isn't marxist. hegemony was a communist and imperialist paradigm; now it's just imperialistic.

Jason B Keuter - 5/30/2007

indeed - both of you need the luck. comparing the united states to past imperial powers exposes more differences than similarities. your assumption is that the United States is powerful because it is an "Imperial" Power, and this designation carries with it the assumption that US power is built on conquest, territorial control and coercion. the united states is prosperous because it is a liberal-democratic, capitalist society. it stands at a higher level of historical evolution than the Sunni Imperialists of Iraq.

As for you Glenn, you don't address any definition of imperialism. you don't address the question of acquiring control of foreign territory through force; of maintaining control of that territory through force; and of extracting the resources from that territory and impoverishing the people in that territory through force. this is the image you invoke when you call the US powerful and IMperialistic, but it is an image that best fits non-democratic and non capitalist societies. moreover, it is a manner of acquiring power and wealth that simply doesn't work. that is why the societies that use it fail - Iraq being a good case in point, the Soviet Union being another.

Further, neither of you take into account all of the free nations with which the United States has long standing trade relationships. Insisting as you do that the only path to power and prosperity is exploitation, you are blind to the historical facts which point to the United States and its partners enjoying reciprocal benefits. While Imperial Powers are predictable (sadaam must attempt to take over the middle east or collapse under the weight of his own sick regime), the United States is not. It's relaitonships with England, france, germany, poland, beligum, canada, australia, the netherlands, sweden, etc.....are not imperialstic at all.

since you can't show any American tanks rolling through the streets of France or Belgium in response to routine anti-American rhetoric from those countries, you can't argue that America is imperialistic. the tanks you can show would be the tanks there to liberate those countries from nazi imperialists.

so you turn to vague, ill-defined and abstract imperialisms. whereas sadaam hussein gasses kurds, belgian cafe owners unwittingly buy coca cola and tune their tv's into dubbed american sitcoms and live in a nightmare matrix of false consciousness.

the influence and importance of the united states and the anxiety it provokes in its partners is not a measure of its imperial power but a measure of how dependent other powers are on the us for their well being. the source of that dependence is not some kind of overarching might but trade. resenting though they do american might, those who dislike it profoundly fear imitating it because america is a revolutionary power, not an imperial power.

last, your insistence that america's prosperity is due to imperialism suggests that america must be MORE imperialistic than other powers or much better at imperialism. the problem is that, historically, most major powers have been imperialistic. america's exceptional power and wealth and influence are due to the fact that it doesn't abide by those historical norms to the same self-destructive degree as other powers.

one need only look at the following formula:

in the u.s. and other free (i.e. liberal democratic) capitalist nations

dissent and discussion = more dissent and discussion and a change in government if the dissent has persuaded american voters to change their minds.

everywhere else :

dissent = jail, tanks in streets, poison gas, mass execution, etc....

Glenn Scott Rodden - 5/25/2007


Keep in mind that you are arguing with a person who believes that a creation of British imperialism (Iraq) is an imperalist nation, but the most powerful empire on earth (the US) is not an empire. Good luck.

David Lion Salmanson - 5/24/2007

Hunt isn't a Marxist. And his use of hegemony doesn't follow Gramsci's. The word predates Marxist analysis. Hunt is using hegemony in this older sense: the ability to acheive one's goals relatively unimpeded through force or other means.

John Charles Crocker - 5/24/2007

So, the Mexican land taken by the US military doesn't count as imperial conquest because American citizens and others were invited to settle on the land and/or there weren't enough Mexicans there for it to really be Mexican?

Americans slaughtered Native Americans and took the land on which they had been living for in some cases decades in others, centuries or even millenia. Then the Native Americans were relegated to relatively small pieces of land and moved from those when anything of real value was found there (coal, uranium, etc.). BTW this movement is current. Look what is happening to the Dineh and Hopi in the four corners. In what way is this not imperial conquest.

Even if your theses about US-Native American is accepted without question or qualification, the US still continually expanded from its relatively small footprint in the east until it reached the west coast forcing out any people in their way.

Saddam on the other hand seized control of an already extant nation and did not successfully add new territory to said nation.

America has conquered and now occupies Iraq. The ultimate intention of that conquest is hotly debated, but the PSDs being pushed by our current administration do give some indication.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/24/2007

great points. I especially liked your comment about trying to make empire a "bloodless' concept.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/24/2007

well said.
marxism isn't just behind the times : it is an evil philosophy. it has a predictable trajectory when put into practice and that predicatable trajectory is injustice (mass starvation, police states...anyone who's not a marxist knows the drill and doesn't try to excuse the ideology from its consistent historical consequences).

informal concepts of power like 'hegemony' are part of the marxist lexicon that grossly misrepresents capitalism as deterministic. it isn't. there is no predictable end point to capitalism. it is a living and dynamic system. but the only way to convince people who believe iin humane values to go along with destroying it and the freedom upon which it is based, is to make it a historically deterministic system that must, by its very nature, destroy democracy. this justifies the marxist in destroying democracy, which he conveniently defines as a charade in order to prevent the 'immiseration' that capitalism must bring.

as a former marxist i can tell you the illusions adherents to this pathologically ill ideology cling. they don'tt really believe in socialism. they think it desirable but not possible anymore. they think marx was probably wrong about history and point to the resilience of capitalism, and by this they mean that marx underestimated just how underhanded and sneaky the capitalists can be (their favorite concept is cooptation - that the capitalist are bribing the masses with prosperity to trick them into supporting a system that will eventually enslave them all). some marxists even acknowledge that marxism shouldn't be tried beccause it has led to tyranny in the past, but this is done rarely and never without great hesitanncy and pain.

but the real thing marxists can't bring themselves to admit is how grossly wrong marx was about capitalism : that he not only didn't undderstand it historically, he really didn't understand it economically. he is wrong about the labor theory of value; it is the inventor of capital that makes labor able to produce value. he is absolutely wrong about laissez-faire capitalism leading to monopoly capitalism. he is, in essence, not a great intellectual. he remains within the pantheon of great intellectuals because of his hatred for capitalist societies, which is the only thing his adherents have left.

Nancy REYES - 5/23/2007

A nice Marxist analysis, but one wonders if the writer actually has seen the "results" firsthand.
Hunger is rampant in Africa, where wars and marxist policies have decimated the economy (Zimbabwe, Mozambique). Not the fault of the US.
But elsewhere, hunger is decreasing, and here in Asia, obesity is the big problem
There is an increase in the gap between rich and poor, but it is mainly because more people are getting rich. I mean, small primitive farmers aren't any worse than they were 1000 years ago, but now you see village bamboo huts replaced with concrete and tin roofs, with a TV antenna.
Nor is it an American monopoly: You see McDonalds, but also Jolibee. Indeed, the main problem in trying to grow the economy in Eastern Asia is China, whose cheap goods thanks to deliberately underpricing their currancy, undermines the local economy.
For heaven's sake, go out and read Thomas Friedman. Your marxist "analysis" is about twenty years behind the times.

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/23/2007

not in the same sense. to use mexico as an example. the area in question had never been heavily populated with spaniards and upon achieving mexican indepence, the mexican government actively recruited americans to settle in the area, hoping that they would bring economic development and provide an adequate european population to counter indian threats in the region. thus the area that was "taken" from mexico was sparsely populated ,first with spaniards and then even more sparsely with mexicans. thus, geographically, the history history off american conquest of mexican territory would appear to be the same on an historical map - as long as that map didn't show population distributions.

the united states has, historically, been an imperial powerr; but that doesn't mean that it still is. At the end of World War II, EUropean IMperialism and American IMperialism came largely to an end, while Communism marched on with Imperial conquest. It is in this era that such notions as "hegemony" and other kinds of informal approaches to imperialism came into being. These intellectual constructs thus turn into imperialists decolonizing non-communist powers (which describes the U..S and its allies historical trajectory beginning with the post- world war II period) while divverting intellectual atention away from the nakedly obvious reality of communist imperialism - the existence of which is not at all in doubt.

Your mention of Indians is problematic. First, it is ahistorical, as it suggests a line of seemless continuity between Jamestown and Iraq. Secondly, to characterize American Indian policy as simply Imperialistic grossly misrepresents a large part of its history. It is not until the conclusion of the War of 1812 that American INdian policy wasn't primarily directed against ENgland and sometimes France and sometimes Spain and sometimes a combination of all three, for whom the Indians served as proxy armies, often times laying claims to lands over which they had no historical claims. Even at the end of the War of 1812, Britain and Spain were still at it in Florida, which was the basis of the so-called Seminole Wars, named after so-called seminole Indians that were really a combination of creeks and cherokees and Floridian tribes. This your picture of unimpeded American Imperialists trampling on natives bears little relation to any kind of historical reality until after the Civil War.

As for Sadaam, such an image would be very apropos regarding his savage actions to the north and south of the sunnni triangle.
American foreign policy in the middle east bears at best a close relation to British foreign policy in Palestine - that of befuddled middleman.

Roger C Peace - 5/22/2007

Michael Hunt's comment, "Empire pursued too enthusiastically can eat away at legitimacy abroad," makes no sense to me. What is legitimate about empire? Two world Wars among imperial powers followed by the formation of the United Nations and declonization of Asia and Africa have discredited the notion in most of the world. What international body sanctions empire? I would also caution against making empire a bloodless concept, where historians imagine themselves sitting amongst the decision-making elite, assessing developments in terms of increasing and decreasing national power. There are people who oppose empire because, at its foundation, it kills and exploits.
- Roger Peace, Florida State University doctoral student

John Charles Crocker - 5/22/2007

Yet the US, which conquered and displacing native peoples (plenty of force and fear used in this), took Texas from the Mexicans by force of arms, and established a nation that extends from one coast of the continent to the other is not an empire?

Jason Blake Keuter - 5/21/2007

sadaam was a sunni from the center of iraq...he used force and fear to control two distinct national groups in both the north (kurds) and the south (shi'ite). further, those two areas are the most important resource areas (without them, no real source of revenue for the sunnis - the shi'ites control most of the oil and the north stands between the sunni triangle and full enjoyment of the tigris and euphrates). so in this sense, it is a classic empire in the sense of controlling other peoples and extracting from them - by force - the benefits of their natural resources. last, sadaam's sunnis were a minority of the population.

this fits an objective definition of imperialism - the old fashioned kind. or, as some might say, the actual kind/

John Charles Crocker - 5/21/2007

How exactly was Saddam, or Iraq under Saddam an empire?

Jason B Keuter - 5/21/2007

by the way, the reason informal empires are subject to more criticism is because they must first and foremost be proven to exist. Intellectuals don't need to spend too much time "proving" obvious imperialisms. This leads to a disproportionate amount of time discussing emphemeral (perhaps non-exitent) imperialism and thus largely absolves real imperialists from the critical scrutiny they need to avoid if they wish to remain in power.

Jason B Keuter - 5/21/2007

the distinctions between formal and informal control are vitally significant. the former are tangible and iobjective, the latter are not. the united states has historically owned a burden of "hegemony" and "neo-Imperialism", both terms the author rightfully regards as imprecise and meaningless. But to propose ignoring formal and informal exercise of power is to propose simply finding a replacement for terms like hegemony and neo-imperialism, which are problematic precisely because both are terms that validate the notion of an Informal Empire.

If one were to stick to the objective and tangible, then the US isn't an Empire but the Soviets were; the US isn't an EMprie but Saddam was; in other words, it is only through validating notions like "hegemony" and "neo-colonialism" that the good old fashioned actual Imperialists (who dop not seek such subtle mechanisms of rule but rather seek to impose thier rule through violence) can go about their merry way in an intellectual climate where ephemeral imperialists are the only ones subject to criticism.