American \"Empire\"

Max Borders distinguishes between the so-called US "Empire" and empires of the past. I have to shake my head when I see people describe US foreign policy as part and parcel of an "empire".

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David, I generally reject


I generally reject the broad applications of the word because they seek to appropriate the intent of the narrow usage to imply intentional (and thus addressable) action in a broader sense. I think that's somewhat dishonest and also denies the agency of the people in many cases - for example, cultural imperialism is the term used for what happens when foreign people enjoy US-produced entertainment content over domestic. It's nothing more than a vulgar cover for rent-seeking by the domestic content producers, who use it to deny the agency of their would-be consumers by saying they're somehow forced into watching US cultural products, etc. I think that is both demeaning and condescending.

We should call US interventionism interventionism because that is what it is. The problem with the definition you provided is that hegemony != imperialism. You can be hegemonic by default, simply by being the biggest player in the game. Imperialism's necessary condition is overt political intention to dominate and make subservient other state's economies & polities. The explicit intent is necessary (as well as revealed preference; obviously you have to actually do it, rather than simply advocate & agitate for it, like China thus far).

So if a more academic word is preferred, hegemonism is more accurate than imperialism. The US's policies post WWII were to contain the Russian empire and maximize freedom of action for the US, which would include intervening about the world to make conditions more favorable to US economic and political action, while not necessarily intending any specific program across nations or to explicitly align 3rd party economies to the US (ala colonial trade blocs and forced trade relations of the 19th century). An imperialist would have (ala the US in the 19th century) gone and invaded countries and dictated economic terms (ala Nicaragua, Cuba, Panama, Haiti, etc) vs. simply knocking out a govt and then trying again with negotiations.

Interventionism with the intent to maintain hegemony often DOES lead to Imperialism but it is neither inevitable nor sufficient to be imperialism.

Imperialism can be used

Imperialism can be used broadly. Cultural imperialism is a popular saying, for example. If we want to narrow imperialism to mean only the nation conquering and "the sun never sets" of empires such as the British one, then what do we call US interventionism? Hopefully nothing that hides the spirit of our government's coercive and destructive nature in dealing with other nations and the loss of self-determination suffered (or gained according to your point of view I guess) by those nations.

Joe- As a drive by for the


As a drive by for the last bit re: colonialism v. imperialism, I see a distinct difference between the expansions of Rome & Persia vs. the expansions of Greece and Phoenicia, the former being imperial (seizing & subsuming foreign peoples & polities into a larger central whole) the latter being colonial (going out from one area to transplant your home culture in toto to create a new part of your own polity or meta-polity).

Britain in North America in the 16th-18th centuries is colonial, not imperial. Britain in India starts out colonial and then goes imperial. Australia is colonial not imperial, while Britain's behavior in China in the 19th century is wholly imperial.

Granted this may be splitting hairs and/or not very useful as a general distinction but I think Rome's agglomeration of polities under the Roman umbrella is different from Carthage's cultural & demographic domination of western North Africa and Spain. And, I think it is useful to note, Rome did in fact "Romanize"/standardize the classical world under the Imperium, essentially making everyone a Roman after a time. (The Greeks called themselves "Romanoi" all the way up to the nationalist rebellions in the late 19th century vs. the Turks; they considered themselves Romans from the Roman Empire (i.e. Byzantine, which always called itself the Roman Empire internally) even though their language & culture was thoroughly hellenic. So in one regard Rome did as you say the US is trying to do- enforce a meta ethic/structure such that eventually everyone adopts that identity vs. a Persian (or even Indian) model of intentionally maintained multiculturalism with distinct ethnic polities underneath a ruling elite/overculture. Granted the Indian model is caste system within the Indian ethnicity, but...

If cultural imperialism is

If cultural imperialism is meant to deny the agency of consumers, then I join you in dismissing the idea. US interventionism certainly does, however, deny the agency of many individuals and states.
I don't think we can describe certain types of active hegemony as imperialistic (ie. Tsarian or Napoleonic) and simply dismiss less direct methods of coercion and influence. It is reasonable to distinguish between absolute imperialism and marginal imperialism. Besides, wouldn't we expect the most industrious and entrepreneurial nation in the history of the world to innovate when it came to the stuff of political and military hegemony, whatever you called it?

But anyway, if intent to dominate is what makes an empire imperial, we must enter a debate regarding the intentions of those in power. And that is the substance of the debate for many libertarians already. I am fine conceding the term "imperial," but I get the impression that Borders isn't worried about semantics; he just wants a pot shot at anti-war types while attempting to place American foreign policy in a good light (by comparing it with gruesome empires of the past).

You understand that the

You understand that the whole idea of "US = Empire" is just Rothbardian leninist propaganda, don't you? That it has no rational basis in libertarianism and is just a Talking Point invented by the Rothbardian Cadre? I hope you do....

I didn't know that Rothbard

I didn't know that Rothbard had so much influence. He (or his "cadre")invented the notion?

The term imperial refers

The term imperial refers more to a narrow def of empire; imperialism nearly always uses the broader def of metaphor and simile.
A relationship between two states may be imperialistic if it has any one of the 5 criteria; it need not have all five.
Empires often work through client states; the Japanese empire installed puppets like Sukarno and Chang Kai-shek.
Empires may work through commercial entities like the British East Indian Company or United Fruit.
If resource extraction is the goal, and the goal is accomplished, the exact political structure is not determinative.
If trade to and from county A goes more than 50% to country B, that's a clue country B may be imperialistic.
If trade relations are negotiated via gunboats, that's a stronger clue.
Historically, dominant empires weren't based on the smartest generals - it was whoever controlled valuable metals and the technology to work them.
Is the US imperialistic? Compare it to other countries at random - let's say switzerland or swaziland or uraguay. Which has intervened militarily in the most places? Which is the dominant trading partner of the most places? Which has installed puppet states, or uses corporate subsidiaries to domainate a country? Based on my research, the answer is Uruguay.
Is the US an empire?

Brian, I can live with the


I can live with the distinction that you draw, though perhaps a clearer example of colonialism but not imperialism would be Israel in the West Bank. The Brits in 16th-18th C Americas still strike me as imperialists. They do still meet Borders' fairly strict test for an empire (governors appointed by the sovereign, resource extraction, etc.).

I can also agree with you, I suppose, that there are different types of empires that do different sorts of things, and that some of those things are worse than others. _If_ one is going to have an empire, then the pre-19th C British empire seems to be a good model. I don't know enough to comment on the differences between the Greek and the Phoenician empires and Rome, but I would have thought that the Greek empire pretty much was an example of the conquer model. Maybe we're talking about different periods, but I thought I remembered something about that Alexander guy...

Your distinction might be useful in determining what sorts of empires actually are acceptable and what sorts are not. I'm not totally opposed to colonialism/imperialism in the right contexts (in failed states, for instance). Whatever you call it, though, it has to (a) be temporary, as short as possible, in fact, (b) retain as much local flavor as possible, and (c) refrain from exploiting the subject nation and/or its citizens.

The Greek, early British and even Roman models do at least some of those things, and the Brits came close to all three in places. The U.S. did those sorts of things in Germany and Japan, is doing them now (with varying degrees of success) in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and perhaps ought to be doing them in Darfur.

Brian, I don't think that


I don't think that anyone really believes that American 'imperialism' is anything like it was in the 19th C, nor does anyone (outside of perhaps a few leftist lunatics) think that the U.S. really is interested in establishing anything like the Roman, the French or even the British empire.

That said, I do think that there is some sense in which 'empire' or 'imperialism' is the right term. Isn't there some sense in which attempting to turn nations into capitalist liberal democracies is establishing political and economic hegemony?

Now granted, that hegemony isn't going to look all that much like that of a traditional empire. But then, traditional empires (at least the successful ones) typically allowed other nations to retain a pretty fair amount of their individual character. The Soviets didn't do this and their empire lasted only a few years. The Romans and the Brits did, and theirs lasted for rather a long time. Hegemony can take lots of forms; turning all other nations into mini-Americas strikes me as one form.

NB: I'm not really opposed to turning nations into capitalist liberal democracies. I just think that we should be upfront about what we're doing.

Oh, and isn't colonialism just a subset of imperialism? Can a nation really be colonialist without also being imperialist? Just wondering.

David, I'm not sure that


I'm not sure that definition is particularly useful, in that it doesn't at first glance provide any meaningful distinction between colonialism, unless we're to believe that colonialism is simply a subset of imperialism?

Further, the US is not trying to systematically create both economic and political hegemony over Iraq (its actively getting rid of the latter) and certainly isn't doing so elsewhere in the world. France is more imperial than the US in the latter day (what with its recent invasion of the Cote d'Ivoire to extract economic & political concessions), but nobody (aside from the Ivorians) is particularly worried about the French Empire coming back.

And compared to the late 19th century, the current US administration is filled with pikers in the imperialist department, and thats just by American standards, let alone European ones.

Talk about beating a minor

Talk about beating a minor point into the ground. Saying that the US doesn't fit the traditional mold of empire is like saying that the cavalry in today's military doesn't resemble the cavalry from 200 years ago. So what?


1.The policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.
2.The system, policies, or practices of such a government.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

The real question is: where does Iraq NOT fit in such a definition? I could not take over my neighbor's house, change the family structure, break stuff and then pay my friends to fix it without exerting political and economic power over him. Even if I promise to walk away after several years or devise a "transition head of the household." What makes an entire country any different?

At best, Borders is picking on leftists who think anything remotely related to capitalism is American, evil, and imperialistic. More likely, he's fishing for diversions from the fiasco in Iraq.