An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism

By Ferguson, Niall | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism

Ferguson, Niall, Harvard International Review

It used to be only foreigners and those on the fringes of US politics who referred to the "American Empire." Invariably, they did so in order to criticize the United States. Since the attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001, however, there has been a growing volume of more serious writing on the subject of an American empire. The phrase is now heard both in polite academic company and in mainstream public debate. The striking thing is that not all those who now openly use the term "empire" do so pejoratively. A number of commentators--notably Max Boot, Thomas Donnelly, Robert Kaplan, and Charles Krauthammer--seem to relish the idea of a US imperium. "Today there is only one empire,"James Kurth of Swarthmore College declared in a recent article in the Natonal Interest, "the global empire of the United States."

Officially, however, the United States remains an empire in denial. In the words of US President George Bush during his presidential election campaign in 2000: "America has never been an empire. We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused--preferring greatness to power, and justice to glory." Freud defined denial as a primitive psychological defense mechanism against trauma. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable that, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, US citizens would deny their country's imperial character more vehemently than ever. It may nevertheless be therapeutic to determine the precise nature of this American Empire--since empire it is, in all but name.

Military Pre-eminence

Imperial denial may simply be a matter of semantics. Many post-war writers about US power have used words like "hegemon" to convey the idea that US overseas influence is great but not imperial. There are other useful alternatives to the term "empire," including "unipolarity," global "leadership," and "the only superpower." Define the term "empire" narrowly enough, and the United States can easily be excluded from the category. Suppose empire is taken to mean "the forcible military occupation and governance of territory whose citizens remain permanently excluded from political representation." By that definition, the American Empire is laughably small. The United States accounts for around 6.5 percent of the world's surface, but its 14 formal dependencies add up to a mere 0.007 percent. In demographic terms, the United States and its dependencies account for barely five percent of the world's population, whereas the British ruled between one-fifth and one-quarter of the world's population at the zenith of their empire.

Yet this narrow definition of empire is as simplistic as it is convenient. To begin with, the expansion of the original 13 US states westwards and southwards in the course of the 19th century was itself a quintessentially imperialist undertaking. In both the US and British empires, indigenous populations were vanquished, expropriated and marginalized. The people living in the newer states were all ultimately enfranchised, but so were the settler populations of large tracts of the British Empire: "responsible government" was, after all, granted to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The only substantial difference between the two processes of white settlement was that the United States absorbed most of its new territories--even Alaska and Hawaii--into its federal system, whereas the British never did more than toy with the idea of imperial federation.

In any case, the US empire is--and can afford to be--much less concerned with the acquisition of large areas of overseas territory, than Britain's was. The United States has few formal colonies, but it possesses a great many small areas of territory within notionally sovereign states that serve as bases for its armed services. Before the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq, the US military had around 752 military installations located in more than 130 countries.

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