Blogs > Cliopatria > American Imperialism

Aug 4, 2005 1:54 pm


American Imperialism



We have had Niall Ferguson argue in his book Colossus and now in an article in Daedalus (Spring 2005) that Americans need to buck up and admit that they are imperialists and that they have created an empire. As he writes, we have invaded two countries in the last 3 years and replaced their governments. Empire? Of course!

What stops us from admitting this basic fact? Well, the obvious one is that we are uncomfortable wearing an imperial crown such as might have fitted Napoleon comfortably. No country that owes its birth to a fight for independence from a colonial empire can turn around and embrace empire without a twinge of self-acknowledged hypocrisy.

To ask us to give up on our birthright is to ask us to do something that no people anywhere at any time has ever been known to surrender willingly: it's identity. Ferguson as a British subject is not in a position to understand this apparently.

In this case our identity is the product of illusion, as Ferguson rightly claims. Who can really argue that we are not an empire when we have, as Chalmers Johnson points out, some 700 bases around the world. Please.

And illusions are powerful things. Another word for an illusion is myth. And as I have argued in several books, myths are what define us as Americans in that we do not share a common ancestry. In a polyglot nation like ours it is our myths that give us a sense of ourselves.

And it has been the case for as long as we have been in existence as a nation, even before the great sweeping surge of immigrants (my grandparents among them) in the late 19th century. Crevecoeur's great question,"What then is the American, this new man?", is several centuries old by now, proving that we were puzzled by our own identity even before we achieved nationhood. (Crevecoeur:"Whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen."

Even Teddy Roosevelt, our first self-proclaimed imperialist president came to realize that imperialism isn't in our DNA even as we act out imperial schemes. As Kathleen Dalton writes in her splendid biography of TR (how many times can I toot this book? Watch!), Roosevelt concluded that "public opinion in the United States was not ready to sustain the work of ‘civilizing’ people from less advanced civilizations." We weren't ready then and we aren't ready now. To be sure, if it were easy, well, maybe, we'd embrace it. But it's not easy to take on the "White Man's Burden." As TR told the Kaiser, how very "difficult it is for men in highly civilized countries to realize what grim work is needed in order to advance the outposts of civilization in the world’s dark places."

Difficult indeed--as we are now finding out in Iraq.

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bobbie boobie bobo - 8/13/2005

How quickly Haiti seems to have disappeared from memory.


Jean lepley - 8/12/2005

With all due respect to Crevecoeur and "this new man, the American,"
two centuries earlier Daniel Defoe paid a similar compliment to the "true-born Englishman" -- who in Defoe's poem of the same name is indeed all the better for being a mix of many peoples. (Defoe was also a supporter of William of Orange and a lifelong Dissenter.)
So by all means, let's be inspired by idealistic visions of America and its (please, not "it's") plural identity, but let's not imagine that we have a corner on that vision...


Jonathan Dresner - 8/12/2005

In those situations, the US had an international obligation to do precisely what it did, but that didn't prevent the US from shaping the government and political scene as much as possible to its own advantage, and siting literally hundreds of military bases in those formerly entirely sovereign nations.

American intervention and influence in Latin America, the Carribean, the Pacific are more typical of Empire.

But it is possible (and there are those who argue that the British empire began this way) to begin to have an Empire without being Imperialist.


Ross A Johnson - 8/12/2005

I disagree with your statement that the US is imperialist. You point to Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of empire. What of Germany, Japan, Italy, and other country's we liberated and then help move to democracy? If we were a true empire building nation we would have installed governments in each of these countries that had American administrators at their head. But instead, we work to create governments of each countries own making. We may provide a blue print but once elections are held we pretty much do a hands off. No, the US isn't an empire builder. We are a democracy promoter.


Kathleen Dalton - 8/8/2005

Niall Ferguson's argument about American hegemony assumes that vast military strength, bases, and a mobile carrier system make for empire, but America's view of its place in the world today seems to be not as emperor but as a reluctant and unappreciated police force, called up for the unpleasant duty that no one else wants to do. When scholars hint at empire nostalgia, i.e. that any order is better than the current worldwide evasiveness and confusion about who is responsible for obvious violations of international standards of civlity such as the Rwandan or Darfur genocides, I fear that they forget the cost and the brutality of past empires. America runs a highly selective world police operation, fearful about taking action to stop genocides, yet peculiar in the choice of sites where terrorism should be fought aggressively, i.e. Iraq rather than Afghanistan. Akira Iriye's essay raises the profound question--can non-state actors provide order if superpowers or soverign states fail to do so? Lately I have been reading the internationalists who hoped that worldwide cooperation would emerge from World War II, one world born of all nations, nations able to act together to protect human rights and provide a just political order. Internationalists acting outside the U.N. did win a few victories over the years. Would apartheid in South Africa have degenerated into an all-out bloodbath if the international non-governmental community had not applied moral pressure for change using sanctions and peaceful protests? And the United Nations has acted as a peacekeeper more times than their critics would concede. Even Theodore Roosevelt almost a hundred years ago argued that nations acting alone out for their own gain could not be trusted to create a peaceful world. He favored a league or some form of non-binding cooperation to prevent war and territorial aggression. But our times are different from TR and Wilson's times and from the 1940s--leaders in the U.S. have become mired in a hardened nation-bound consciousness, a reactive and wounded nationalism after September 11th which works in their political iinterests. I regret that they have taken such a path.