The end of the American Empire

* Published in the Transatlantic Studies Newsletter, May, 2008.

Asle Toje

The following is not a strictly scientific product, which I emphasize by keeping footnotes to a minimum. That is likely to please at least some of the readers. I do hope, however, that the content is founded in political science and proves provocative in an academic sense. The question examined is the following: Is the United States a modern empire? Before I venture some of my own thoughts on this topic first let me briefly outline some of the perspectives that have emerged in the ongoing debate.

Comparing the United States of America with empires of old is not a new phenomenon. Like many other countries the US experienced imperialist currents, especially towards the end of the 19th Century. Later, some internationalists took up the empire theme as a means of breaking out of the isolationalism they felt characterized American foreign policy in the inter war years. Geir Lundestad, has successfully employed the term in his analysis of relations between the USA and Western Europe (1945-52). But empire was not applied in a literal sense. It was without nostalgia that Jack Snyder in his book Myths of Empire from 1992, noted that the term empire has become outdated as a political scale.

There are three primary reasons why a relatively good humoured academic discourse, where the term was used with explicit or implicit inverted commas in a relatively short time became deeply contentious. One was the forewarned neoconservative turn in American foreign policy during the first presidency of George Bush the Younger. A second was the terrorist attacks on America on 9/11 and the strategic decisions that these attacks triggered. A third reason is that the term empire was found to be user-friendly in an increasingly politicized academic discourse. It worked well for the neoconservatives who used the term, not as an analogy, but rather as a political inspiration. At the opposite end of the political scale left wing intellectuals saw that the mask being torn off the old foe. America as empire was in line with what Marx, Lenin and Galtung had predicted.

This is not to say that the idea of an American Empire was taken out of thin air. No-one that visits Washington can overlook the imperial ambition of those who built the capital. The Houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and many other buildings have been built in a Romanesque style. And it is not just the architecture. Political symbols and terminology are saturated with Roman references. In this sense it is not at all curious that some took to calling the city ‘Rome on the Potomac’. As Andrew Bacevich has pointed out in the book American Empire, the concept was never very popular in the United States. To many empire stands as the very symbol of pomp and privilege; for arrogance and hubris; the opposite of the values that Americans like to associate themselves with.

Whether an object of research approves or disapproves of an analytical concept is, of course, not a reason to use or to discard it. The criterion has to be whether it helps us better understand the role of the US in the global order. Michael Cox points out that there are a number of reasons to apply the concept of empire in a US context. He notes that no two empires are identical – that they have varied in shape and content throughout history. Further, empires do not necessarily have to control, the territories of others – various forms of tribute are as common. What is important is that the empire sets the rules for those who live within its sphere of power and that it punishes and rewards accordingly. Further it is usual to underline the ability to spread that language and culture of the imperial power to the borders of the realm. In the book Colossus Niall Ferguson demonstrated how the USA meets all these criteria, and more.

A number of thinkers unfurled the empire-banner, especially during the years 2001 – 2005. A quick search on Amazon yields shelf-meters of books on the American empire. They range from intellectuals such as Michael Ignatieff to economists such as Deepak Lal, conspiracy theorists such as Mathias Broeckers, military leaders such as Anthony Zinni, sociologists such as Emmanuel Todd – and a truckload of historians. Interestingly most of the authors accept without qualms the metamorphosis where the US is assumed to have gone from being primus inter pares among liberal democracies to becoming an empire. President Bush is, as a matter of fact, one of the few I have seen object to such a re-branding as a matter of principle. It says something about the intellectual climate in the United States that a thought that only two decades earlier would have been met with near-universal condemnation came close to being accepted as fact.

It was, of course, the relative strength of the United States vis-à-vis the rest of the world that made some see empires in broad daylight. America’s mobilising capacity, cultural vigour and capacity for technological innovation is daunting. The end of the bipolar balance of terror swung open the doors to a new age where the military, political and economic primacy of the United States seemed limitless. The primacy of the remaining superpower was, and is, an indisputable fact. The US $11 trillion-economy has allowed for technological progress and a defence budget that is greater than the sum total of the next 25 states. There can be no question regarding America’s capabilities. Just as there can be no question that the international system has not seen a similar imbalance in power since the Peace at Westphalia marked the beginning of the age of the nation-state. But it was the initially victorious campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that most of all provided fuel for the empire debate. America unleashed is an awe inspiring sight.
At the beginning of 2008 the mood has changed. The situation in Iraq offers few happy prospects for the future. Also in Afghanistan many of the early successes are in the process of being rolled back. The US economy is still strong, but it has no longer blushing cheeks. We are witnessing a deep trend where capital and production base is shifting away from the transatlantic area and is driving, combined with increased consumption, the Asian challengers faster, higher, stronger. Further, Russia has carried out a surprising comeback, and is alongside China now willing to challenge the US in ways that would have been difficult to imagine ten years ago. In addition the US is in a process of giving up many of its old strongholds. The closing of the Keflavik base is only one part of a broad shift that in the coming decade will minimize the US military presence in Europe. A similar process is also underway also in Japan and Korea.

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’, says Shakespeare. As the leading great power in the international system the US shares many of the same concerns as the empires of the past. And it was in reference to the burdens of leadership that Benson K. Whitney, the US Ambassador to Norway, recently sighed: ‘If the United States is an empire, then we are the worst empire ever’. American leadership was never, as Geir Lundestad has pointed out, based on fear or coercion. It was – and is – per invitation. European leaders wanted the US to exert leadership. But also on this count there are signs of change. Seen with American eyes the PEW-institute’s ‘Global Attitudes Project’ from 2007 makes disheartening reading. In only 25 of the 47 states polled a majority of those questioned are positively inclined to the USA. The German Marshall Fund’s 2007 survey of transatlantic trends shows that only 36 per vent of Europeans view American leadership in the world as ‘desirable’. This figure is more or less unchanged since 2004.

With many of the features that had been taken to be tell-tale signs of empire on the wane much of the talk of ‘The American Empire’ has fallen silent. In a recent article in Survival, David P. Calleo pointed out that the core of the empire debate is America’s unique position in the international system, combined with a faith in certain quarters that the US would be able to maintain this position over time. The idea of The American Empire was in reality the idea of a lasting unipolar world order, a ‘New American Century’ as one neoconservative think tank called it. And the reason why much of the air has gone out of this concept is, as Calleo points out, that we today see the contours of a future multipolar world. Not tomorrow – but in a not too distant future either. Power has a tendency to balance power. The analysts, who used to talk about the unipolar order, are now talking about the unipolar moment.

Empire was, as G. John Ikenberry has persuasively argued, always an awkward description of America’s role in the international system. As a political system empire is usually used as interchangeable with a land ruled by an emperor. The USA is not an autocracy, it is a democracy. This is but the first of a long line of modifications that is required in order to fit the US into the empire mould. America does not resemble the Roman or the British empires. An empire is usually several countries and nations united under one rule, often as a result of conquest. The difference between an American and other empires is that the US is ‘ruling’ over formally independent states.

America primarily works through trade agreements, alliances and international organisations – much like other states. Allies such as my native Norway stand free to defy the US without fear of the sort of imperial retribution that history books are so full of. Our population will not be led to Washington in chains; our lands will not be ploughed and sown with salt. The American overseas possessions such as Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Hawaii do not bear witness to an empire-scale will to dominate. And finally there is the issue that the USA, unlike other empires, does not speak its name – it does not call itself an empire. It is important to keep in mind that this is a question concerning what the US is für sich, but rather what it actually is, an sich.

In the book Two Hegemonies Patrick O’Brian and Armand Clesse invited 18 scholars to consider whether empire or hegemony is the more appropriate term for describing America’s power and reach. While empire is about overwhelming power, hegemony is, according to one of the contributors, S. Ryan Johansson, about leadership. Hegemony refers to a state that collects, organises and leads a group of states without acquiring permanent power over them. This time it is the role of Athens in the struggle against the Persians that serve as model. There is something deeply problematic in applying historical models in this fashion. By free association selecting a handful of characteristics from a given historical case – and then relying on these random variables to navigate: If the USA displays enough of the traits from Roman antiquity, then America is an empire. This is methodologically questionable, to say the least. Since the two cases are contextually and substantially fundamentally dissimilar, the equation will not add up without an added assumption that history repeats itself. And that is, of course, not the case. Sometimes history rhymes, but it does not repeat itself. This sort of unstructured theory building is little more than bad political science.

‘Beware of historians bearing analogies’, says Michael Cox, reminding us of the Trojan’s warning of Greeks bearing gifts. Historical parallels can be more confusing than helpful. Such abstractions often say more about how we try to understand a complex reality than about reality itself. In this sense the empire debate is in itself worth examining. Social science with contemporary history under tow seems to be especially exposed to conceptual fads. Time and again we see new concepts experience explosive popularly, with journals brimming with new articles containing the new term in their titles, only to disappear almost without a ripple. It is in fact not at all dissimilar to the lifespan of a popular hit song.

‘American Empire’ is a textbook example of such a hit. Such sudden shifts have a tendency to set off a pendulum movement. In stead of questioning the worth of this kind of models the momentum tends to swing to the opposite extreme. We must not forget that in the 1980s many argued that the US was past its prime and heading for decline and fall. The backdrop for these downbeat assessments were, of course, the defeat in Vietnam, and the economic downturn of the 1970s. There is therefore every reason to anticipate the rise of an ‘end of the American empire’ –genre, to emerge over the next few years. All in all, one gets an uncanny feeling that it is the observer that is moving, and not the object of study. I will therefore conclude that the American empire is at an end. Most of all, because it never existed. Because of the way that the American empire was created – as a fashionable term among academicians and commentators, there was never much doubt how this empire would meet its end: at the touch of a keyboard.