American Empire?

Date April 9, 2003
Speaker Dominic LIEVEN(Professor of Russian Government, London School of Economics and Political Science)
Moderator KOBAYASHI Keiichiro(Fellow, RIETI / Guest Editorial Writer, The Asahi Shimbun)


Is the US an empire? To answer this question, I am compelled to offer the response that many academics use, which is: it depends on the definition. Empire is a term of abuse to the extent that the real question might be, "Do you like the US or the US administration?"

Is the US an empire? It is a useful question for at least three reasons. First, the question is being asked around the world, even in the US. Second, it may be interesting to examine US power in general. Third, an empire is about more than power. An empire's rise and fall can affect the livelihood of many people, including those in other countries. For these people, the collapse of an empire would be unpleasant. Examining this question can help us to determine which values are dominant.

My presentation will explore four issues: the meaning of empire; the nature of power; the nature of US power; and the strengths and weaknesses of US power.

Let's try to define the concept empire. Empires have been around for thousands of years. Karl Marx looked at modern empires as extensions of modern capitalism. I do not find this approach useful because if you want parallels, the US is more like ancient empires than modern. European empires were exclusionary; there was a distinction between the core and the periphery. Rome and China, by contrast, were more assimilative. At the end of the Roman Empire, for example, many emperors were not even Roman.

The British Empire was about colonization, about making new Britains. British rule in India was more like a traditional land empire. So a broader context is needed. Defining "empire" requires caution: it is not just a curse word. Traditional empires were more often loose alliances: more like the relationship between George Bush and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia than that between Mr. Bush and the governor of Utah.

Nowadays any empire is seen as illegitimate, as it flies in the face of nationalism, the concept made popular with the invention of the modern nation. Empire is the rule of alien people without the consent of those ruled. But this form of policy survived over time because empires provided public goods, such as security, secure trade routes, peace, the movement of ideas, great civilizations, tolerance and coexistence. The modern nation state is deeply intolerant.

My definition of empire is this: a polity ruling over huge territories and many people, in which rule is not based on explicit consent by the governed; it is a very great power that defines the international system and is linked to a great culture.

Let's look at modern power. Modern empires faced a dilemma: to be a great power, you needed resources of continental scale, which naturally brought about multi-ethnicity. How do you square power with legitimacy? One way is to base the polity on a universal religion or ideal (the USSR did this). Another way is to base the polity on a historical religion or ideal (the Ottoman Empire did this). Yet another was to create an empire of federalism (as the British did), making new states, through genocide or consent. All of these models failed.

The empires that made the transition to a non-empire changed their name or identity. China is a good example here. The US tried this and the EU is grappling with this transition. In Europe the idea of nationalism has been battered to such a degree that people are willing to give up their nationalism. The EU will never be an empire, but it does need to become more skilled at imperial tasks. It makes no sense for the EU to criticize the US's use of power when Europe is always asking the US to clean up European messes.

If there will be an empire, it will be the US. But some elements do not fit. It is in US foreign policy that American empire becomes most relevant. It is necessary to put US foreign policy in the context of globalization. The US does not want to control aliens the way traditional empires did. But if you take into account globalization, no one chose to live in the world we live in and there are no extraterrestrial living options.

Where is sovereignty? It is no longer clear where sovereignty lies, which brings us back to an older era, Medieval Europe in particular. US soft power penetrates more deeply than did traditional real power. But it is not the first time that fundamental Islam has challenged an empire (the Ottoman Empire and British Empire come to mind). And now modern technology allows them to strike at the core (witness the September 11 attacks).

Americans say they are not imperialists; they are wrong: Americans see their values as universal. But it is right to say that Americans do not want to rule over the world despite the fact that most of the world perceives the US as an imperialist power. The Europeans were unwilling to pay the costs of empire and decided to vote themselves out of the game; Portugal and the USSR lasted longer as empires because they were not democracies. The US cannot remove itself, however; and Americans have been forced to become imperialists.

Let's turn to US power in particular, and then its strengths and weaknesses. Political scientists divide power into parts: military, political, economic, and ideological (and geopolitical and demographic, I would argue). American geopolitical power is pretty straightforward; with the US flanked by the two great oceans, its power is consolidated. The US is supremely ideological, which stems from the philosophy of the Enlightenment and Liberalism. It is not ethnic. In this way, it is easier for others, outside of the empire, to join.

Many people underplay the military, but the US is analogous to Great Britain circa 1825. Sure, after you defeat everyone, you need less military. The US exerts its power on the cheap compared to earlier empires. It was the US military that united the US during the 1800s, and thank god the confederacy did not survive. If weapons of mass destruction become available worldwide, urban life as we know it would disappear in the name of security.

I would argue that the Judeo-Christian ideology has been less successful than Confucianism, which is based on behavior not belief. While democracy and equality are the ideals of the American empire, the world is actually more unequal than it was 500 years ago.

Questions and Answers

Q: Having a key currency and a dominant language contributes to power too.

A: Currency is crucial. The power of sterling was real, but its maintenance hollowed out the UK. The US must be committed to free trade values. You are right that language is power; the American definition of "aggressive," as something positive, is now widely accepted.

Q: Is the US overstretching its power, as in Iraq?

A: Nowadays Paul Kennedy's analysis seems strange. The key is to manage your clients. If the US gets rid of its clients, it will leave the US in an unhappy situation. Donald Rumsfeld's language is scaring everyone and the US's thinking now encourages a state to develop a nuclear weapons program to deter attack.

Q: The US uses its soft power to suppress a backlash. I call the current system Pax Americana.

A: Professors of international relations are impatient. People were dismissing a backlash right after the Cold War. Some areas are happy with the US Empire's public goods. But the Bush Administration is playing with fire. The EU could become a commercial superpower. All great powers should naturally agree with the effort to remove weapons of mass destruction from the rogue states, but President Bush is alienating his natural allies.

Q: What will be the future role of the UK?

A: While the British Army is in action, it is hard to criticize British policy. The lowest common denominator in British politics is the anti-French card.

Q: Some argue that 1979 was a turning point for the US because that was when the US started using proxies, including Iraq. So the US must come back to traditional military power. Maybe the US is returning to an older style of empire.

A: It would become more difficult for the US to bear the cost of empire without using proxies, especially without the Cold War going on. I would find it hard to imagine the US directly controlling the oil in Iraq.

Q: Could you imagine a female empire some day in the future?

A: It is already on its way. The scariest thing in a university is a sex scandal. This represents a shift in the balance of power between the sexes. Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations was about a white Harvard professor's fear of future faculties being run by Chinese-looking females.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.