An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism

By Ferguson, Niall | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

An Empire in Denial: The Limits of US Imperialism
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.