The American empire

by Chris Bertram on December 28, 2005

Does the United States have an empire? That question seems to generate a certain amount of serious and not-so serious debate in the blogosphere and media. Blogger Adloyada, for example, gets seriously upset with historian Linda Colley, writing huffily of Colley:

For example, she represents the USA as self-evidently an imperial and imperialist power.

But the terms of the argument that Adloyada and Colley both accept seem to me to be seriously misleading since they centre on such questions as whether an informal network of client and subordinate states constitutes an empire or not. But there’s an obvious and much more straightforward way of answering in the affirmative, and that’s to hold the United States to the same standards that people (including Colley) use when dealing with other countries. And here I’m thinking of Russia and China.

Just to take the latter for a start, here’s Colley, in the course of her article :

Some variants and examples of empire have proved powerful and durable. China, for example, is essentially a land-based empire, forged over the centuries by conquest and migration, which has managed to reposition itself as a nation state.

And how about Russia? The boundaries of Imperial Russia in, say, 1904 were rather larger than they were under Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century due to a progressive expansion, subjugation of native peoples, colonization of new territories by ethnic Russians, and so forth.

I guess readers will see where I’m going with this: if the expansion of China and Russia via a process of subjugation of native peoples and colonial settlement is a bona fide instance of empire and imperialism then so must be the expansion of the United States across the North American continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. It too involved the subjugation of native peoples and the projection of settlers and the eventual incorporation of the newly colonized territory within the expanding state. Of course, a little bit of selective amnesia and pretence can avoid the acknowledgement that, just like Britain and France, American too was a classically imperial power, just one that, in the end, was more successful.

This doesn’t sit well with a certain American self-image: one that sees the United States as somehow different from other powers, as not, historically, imperialist or colonialist at all. And that isn’t an image that is restricted to the right, it also occupies the thoughts of American liberals who believe that there is a danger of the US becoming something that, historically, it wasn’t and thereby somehow betraying its original ideals. But like their opponents, those liberals have bought into a myth. If China and Russia both were and are imperial powers, then, by exactly the same token, so was and is the US.

{ 179 comments }

1

Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 7:06 am

The contrast between growing American land and sea power, and American self-image, is rather reminiscent of the Sir John Seeley’s famous description of the British Empire in The Expansion of England (1883):

We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind. While we were doing it, that is in the eighteenth century, we did not allow it to affect our imaginations or in any degree to change our ways of thinking; nor have we even now ceased to think of ourselves as simply a race inhabiting an island off the northern coast of the Continent of Europe. We constantly betray by our modes of speech that we do not reckon our colonies as really belonging to us; thus if we are asked what the English population is, it does not occur to us to reckon-in the population of Canada and Australia.

Of course, the original inheritors of the War of Independence may have been more forthright about their designs on Indian territories.

2

rea 12.28.05 at 7:35 am

Note that we actually have foriegn territories we control in traditional, imperial fashion–e. g., Puerto Rico, Guam, etc. And if client states don’t make an empire . . . well, let’s just say that Romans of the time of Caesar would not have agreed.

3

Steve 12.28.05 at 7:42 am

Yes, but by your definition, every “New World” country is an empire. Mexico is an empire. Brazil is an empire. Australia and New Zealand are empires. France, which only permanenently acquired Alsace-Lorraine after WWII (from Germany) is an empire. Big deal.

The ‘is America an empire’ question hinges on intentional confusion. First, define ‘empire’ in a way that is reasonably benign (i.e. a people that expanded, a nation with economic influence in other nations, a nation with military bases in other nations, etc etc etc). Second, declare ‘empire’ and accept the non-benign impact of that statement-the word ‘empire’ doesn’t call to mind Australian settlers moving into the outback (and displacing the natives), it calls to mind the British, owning 1/4 of the globe. Or Rome, conquering all of the known world.

You want it both ways-define empire to be able to call the US an empire, then use ‘empire’ (or, EMPIRE!!!) to accuse the US of being evil (or, EVIL!!!!).

There are similar sloppy uses of language all the time. I had a professor that used to call the Japanese internment camps in WWII ‘concentration camps.’ He wanted to do the same thing: both the US and Germany locked up minorities behind barbed wire (i.e. concentration camp=locking people up), then ignore that redefinition of concentration camp in order to get the rhetorical effect (ergo US HAD CONCENTRATION CAMPS!! US=NAZI GERMANY!!!!). Anytime anyone calls Bush, or the US military, or policemen, or anyone else Nazis, they are doing the same thing.

Its just intentional sloppy use of language for rhetorical effect. Very Orwellian.

Steve

4

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 7:52 am

Steve,

First, I didn’t say anything about anyone being evil.

Second, whilst many Latin American states are indeed the residues of empire, the expansion of the US resembles that of China and Russia in important material respects.

Third, since you mention the use of “Orwellian” language, I’d qualify your phrases “a people that expanded” and “moving into the outback (and displacing the natives)” as _exactly_ that.

5

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 7:55 am

And as for “concentration camps”, I believe that we British invented them to detain the Boers at the time of the Boer war. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to draw attention to parallels between the American detention of the Japanese and the British detention of the Boers.

6

Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 8:05 am

Steve,

I think, whether they come from the right (e.g. Niall Ferguson) or the left (e.g. Noam Chomsky), those who talk about American imperialism are less motivated by a need to portray America as ‘evil’, than to make the United States fully conscious of the international nature of its power. What they happen to think should be done with that power is another matter. (Those who portray America as an imperial power may also have historiographical reasons for using the language of imperialism in investigating the rise and fall of large states, but those reasons tend to be forgotten in the consequent political controversy.)

This historical language may (or may not) be sloppy, but ‘Orwellian’ is not a synonym for rhetorical slippage.

7

nnyhav 12.28.05 at 8:16 am

just like Britain and France

Chris, here, not with Russia or China, your supposed neutrality of language (and neutering of ‘imperial’) is belied.

8

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 8:21 am

Chris, here, not with Russia or China, your supposed neutrality of language (and neutering of ‘imperial’) is belied.

Um no, because I don’t regard the Russian and Chinese colonizations of nearby and adjacent places as being somehow more benign than the British and French colonizations of far-away places (or Ireland for that matter).

9

Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 8:33 am

Okay, another good and useful word bites the dust. As Bro. Steve demonstrated with the evolution of the word “concentration camp” and I could toss out several other words that are evolving as we write. So, let’s grasp American Empire and see what we can come up with. Of course we share many traits in common with the Roman Empire, for under both empires science, technology, religion, language, trade, economics, human rights, and liberty have all been advanced. And what was Imperial Romes greatest contribution to the world? The idea of freedom.

10

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 8:37 am

Okay, another good and useful word bites the dust.

Not at all. I’ve often read people making the point that the expansion of Russian power into its hinterland and the subjugation of the indigenous peoples who lived there was a straightforward instance of imperialism. I’ve never heard anyone saying that using the word of Russia in that way devalued the language.

11

Alan 12.28.05 at 8:41 am

And what was Imperial Romes greatest contribution to the world? The idea of freedom.

Are you absolutely sure the classical idea of freedom was a product of imperialRome?

12

Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 8:48 am

Bro. Bartleby,

First, (as I understand it) Imperial Rome’s idea of liberty was rather different from our own idea of innate human freedom. The Romans treated liberty as a sort of property that differed according to your station. Slaves had little liberty, non-citizens had some liberty, citizens had lots of liberty, and so on. Liberty was a function of the force of arms. I doubt Boudicca appreciated the extension of Roman ideals of ‘freedom’.

Second, I’m curious about your claim that Rome ‘advanced’ religion, as opposed to merely orchestrating various religious changes. Whatever can you mean?

13

Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 9:02 am

The “idea” of freedom. Just as the idea of cacti was absent in the lexicon of the Inuit, the idea of freedom was absent to many of the folks that Rome imperiled.

14

Barry 12.28.05 at 9:08 am

Of course. They didn’t understand freedom; in fact, they *liked it* when Rome conquered them. They’re not like us, you see. They wouldn’t know what to do with freedom if one were to be so foolish as to set them loose.

15

Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 9:12 am

“I’m curious about your claim that Rome ‘advanced’ religion”

Of course it all depends on your definition of ‘advanced’ and I suppose ‘religion’ … but during the Byzantine period, from the reign of … say, Theodosius I.

16

Steve 12.28.05 at 9:14 am

“And as for “concentration camps”, I believe that we British invented them to detain the Boers at the time of the Boer war.”

Chris-
this is another example of what I am talking about. I don’t believe British invented ‘concentration camps.’ In common usage, ‘concentration camp’ means ‘a place where people were worked literally to death, intentionally starved to death, and even intentionally slaughtered and executed’ (i.e. German death camps). When you say British invented ‘concentration camps’ in the Boer War, is that what you mean? Did the camps in the Boer war intentionally collect people to execute them (in the 10s or 100s of thousands, or millions)? I admit I don’t know, but I suspect not-I suspect they were detention camps-where people were sent to live, presumably until order was restored, or the war was won, or whatever (note: I’m not saying these were pleasant places, or even morally defensible-I’m just saying they weren’t death camps).
Thus, you want it both ways- you define ‘concentration camp’ as ‘detention camp (probably extremely unpleasant, but detention camp nonetheless)’, even though the RHETORICAL effect of using the words ‘concentration camp’ is to accuse Britain of creating ‘a place where people were sent to be gassed and burned.’

And similarly with ‘empire.’ As I said, if you redefine ‘empire’ the way you have, then virtually every nation on earth is an ‘empire.’ By this rhetoric, Mexico is an empire (or has the weak glimmerings of empire) because “colonization of new territories by ethnic Russians(Mexicans)” could include illegal immigration into Texas and New Mexico (Note: this is clearly absurd).

“Third, since you mention the use of “Orwellian” language, I’d qualify your phrases “a people that expanded” and “moving into the outback (and displacing the natives)” as exactly that.”

I’m not sure why. Here is your own definition of the same phenomenon. “Russia in, say, 1904 were rather larger than they were under Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century due to a progressive expansion, subjugation of native peoples, colonization of new territories by ethnic Russians, and so forth.” You mentioned ‘subjugation of native peoples’ where I didn’t, but I mentioned ‘displacing the natives’ where you didn’t, but other than that, the two definitions are virtually identical.

“First, I didn’t say anything about anyone being evil.”

I am quite confident that you are defining America as an ‘empire’ because it is a good thing, because it is a morally neutral thing, or because it is an evil thing. (if you wish to substitute ‘bad’ for ‘evil’, that’s fine with me). You are correct-I merely assumed that for your purposes ‘empire’ is neither good nor morally neutral (and thus must be evil/bad). If I was incorrect in my assumption-then tell us: is ‘empire’ in your use of the word good, or morally neutral?

Steve

17

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 9:24 am

Steve,

1. You can read about the etymology of “concentration camp” at the Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_camps

2. I wasn’t aware that “displace” and “subjugate” are synonyms. It is Orwellian to use “displace” where what is actually going on is “ethnic cleansing”, murder, subjugation etc.

3. Of course I think imperialism and colonialism were bad things. But I don’t think that America’s colonial and imperialism past makes the United States more (or less) evil than any of the other countries that sent out waves of settlers to “displace” indigenous peoples, took over territory etc. It is just that you Americans are, legacy-wise, in the same boat as the rest of us (British, French, Russians etc.).

18

Tietjens 12.28.05 at 9:34 am

I’m just not convinced that any discussion of what an empire is and whether or not the US, China, and Russia are empires has a really relevant point. Homo sapiens have been migrating into new areas even before we left Africa, whether there was already an indigenous population in the area or not. We supplanted Neanderthal in Europe. Does that make all Europe a vestige of the Homo sapiens empire? Is the UK itself still an empire? England governed Wales and Scotland (and all or parts of Ireland) by both military force, intimidation, and influence, subjugating its native peoples and forcing unification. The Scots still want their own parliament. And the “English” who did this, at least those in power, were of Norman descent, (read Vikings by way of France), who subjugated both the western Anglo-Saxons and eastern Vikings who resided in England in 1066.

Aren’t we just talking about how recently these migrations/subjugations have occurred? Whether it was clan, tribe, or nation state who did the migrating or made the invasions, it has been going on for as long as our species grew in population and needed or wanted more space. Is “we were here first” much of a justification of moral primacy for earlier arrivals over later ones? How long must the indigenous peoples have been there? How “pure” must these peoples be in lines of descent, given the constant waves of new “invaders” into all the world (except isolated pockets) throughout history. Aren’t the Welsh the descendants of the Romanized Britons who were forced to the west by invasions of the Angles and Saxons, who in turn were then forced west by invasions from the Danes?

Shouldn’t this discussion be about the modern use of power by nations, international organizations, and global corporate powers who seem to be transforming our world before our eyes?

Industrialized and developing countries now share a world economy that requires a certain amount of stablilty to allow our present way of life to survive. All of North America and all of Europe need oil to survive. The stable and constant supply of oil is a requirement for our lives. How do we insure this stability? Stability of a civilization also requires a certain amount of the rule of law, including insuring the safety of its members. How do we protect ourselves without over-compromising our liberties, including the free flow of people, goods, and ideas?

On the whole, the US is not an empire in the historical sense. (Puerto Rico likes its status. We’d prefer they opt for statehood or for independence. Statehood would require them to pay US income tax. Independence would deprive them of US citizenship and free travel into and out of the US.) We are a superpower, perhaps in decline, who uses power in ways and degrees that, in the past, were only available to empires. Corporations also have and use powers that were once exclusive to nation states.

I’d prefer to discuss the aspects of the use of power – whether in Iraq by the US and UK (mainly) or in Turkey by the EU or in Tibet by the Chinese – than to evoke emotional responses by calling names.

19

Seth Edenbaum 12.28.05 at 9:42 am

The difference you’re discussing hinges on whether the empirial power considered itself to be conquering states or merely populated land. it also hinges in the historians answer to that question. Are tribes states? Empire is merely a word.

As far as American self-image is concerned, I think most people here assume that we’ve been an empire for a long time now. But many Americans still defend their self interest in terms of its supposed civilizing influence. Foreign policy ‘wonks’ -professional political intellectuals for hire- if they are liberals, can be no more than liberal nationalists, and as such defend the status quo, which is empire. see these people and most of the politcal yuppies at TPM cafe (“Starbucks”).

The other problem is that Chomsky’s moral puritanism, while equally American, isn’t a very practical response.

20

Seth Edenbaum 12.28.05 at 9:43 am

-The accidental strikethrough!-

ARGHH!

21

Arm 12.28.05 at 9:48 am

And what was Imperial Romes greatest contribution to the world? The idea of freedom.

Ye Gods, man. One of the Roman Republic’s contributions to the world was the idea of freedom (though the Athenians might have had something to say about that). Imperial Rome was a dictatorship of a fairly absolute kind, with appallingly restrictive laws and massive lack of freedom.

22

nnyhav 12.28.05 at 9:48 am

It is just that you Americans are, legacy-wise, in the same boat as the rest of us (British, French, Russians etc.).

Perhaps we differ in how we come to terms with our past. Whatever the denials from the fringe, US internments (whether Nissei or Phillipine or …) are roundly denounced. Whereas the more benign imperium

23

Villaveces 12.28.05 at 9:49 am

I feel that Steve has some very solid points on the use of language in his posts. For me, personally, that something should be “Imperial” is more a question of a despotic reign, as I would link it to the contrast of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. I think that it is quite clear that the Chinese Empire, or the Japanese Empire, were far, far different entities, with almost no real similarities in what the Imperial system truly meant for those countries. Now in terms of cause and effect, I think that there is a vague conception that any nation that has succeeded in reaching “Empire” status is very influential, and so if we could accept that “Imperialism” is a question of massive power in modern colloquial usage, with negative connotations, well we could agree that it is a negative way of talking about US power.

From Wikipedia:

“The term imperialism was a new word in the mid-19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it dates back to 1858. The Latin root is imperium (command or supreme power).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary(OED), imperialism was generally used only to describe English policies.

The term imperialism was used to describe the American war supporters in the Spanish American War by the now defunct Anti-imperialists. Many historians, such as Stuart Creighton Miller, author of “Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903″, use the term imperialist and anti-imperialist to describe the two rival factions.

In the 20th century, the term has often been used to refer to the actions of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan during the 1930s and World War II. Later, during the Cold War, it was also used in reference to the policies of both the United States and the Soviet Union, although these differed greatly from each other and from 19th-century imperialism. Furthermore, the term has been expanded to apply, in general, to any historical instance of a greater power at the expense of a lesser power.

Since the end of World War II and following the collapse of the Soviet Union , accusations of imperialism have almost exclusively been levelled at the sole remaining superpower, the United States.”

I think it is curious that I have rarely heard of Nazi Germany or the former USSR referred to as “Empires”. Could this be linked to the fact that Lenin was the principle exponent of capitalist imperialism?

24

Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 9:50 am

I don’t actually think this discussion of empire is very useful. Almost any modern nation you can think of is an imperial power.

Any modern state in the Americas is imperial. That definitely includes Mexico, where native populations were “displaced” and settlers brought in. Essentially all the European states were imperial, in one way or another: UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Latvia (in the Caribbean), Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Turkey. The few who weren’t were colonized by other powers: Ireland, Poland (even there it is iffy), Finland, etc.

Asian states were obviously imperial: Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Indonesia (ongoing in Papua and elsewhere), etc.

There are actually very few states that are not imperial in the sense that the original posting is talking about.

So the only thing I can understand about this is to draw attention to the scale of the empire, perhaps. But even there, the US is not particularly important in terms of imperial populations. After all, the Russian state still controls many millions of people who would prefer their own state, all things considered. This is even more true for the Chinese state. In comparison, the US imperial possesions include things like Puerto Rico (~4 million) and some Pacific islands with neglible populations.

If we are going to talk about imperial control, the UK in Northern Ireland has a much more serious and long-lasting imperial problem than the US does.

25

Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 9:53 am

Forgot to add:

Just looking at the British Isles, it is clear that successful native peoples were “displaced” and replaced by settlers. Look at the Highland clearings, the potato famine, and the Pale as clear examples of official policy to get rid of troublesome natives and replace them with settlers.

26

pedro 12.28.05 at 9:53 am

Steve-

I know you didn’t ask me, but I’d say that empires are what they are not because they are ‘good’, ‘morally neutral’. There are good and bad things about empires, just like there are good and bad things about monarchies–it’s good to be the King!, like Mel Brooks would say–, about aristocracies, about democracies, etc. Naturally, the bad things about empires tend to overwhelm the good things, at least from the point of view of a fair number of those who are subjected by empires. But this is not what makes empires what they are.

By the way, when I hear the phrase ‘concentration camp’, what comes to mind is something far more generic than a nazi concentration camp. Nazi concentration camps are but a reminder of why concentration camps can become mass graves. But our collective condemnation of concentration camps ought not to derive simply from the proposition that they may sometimes end up being mass graves, mind you. We must condemn concentration camps for their essential injustice and cruelty. There may be a difference of orders of magnitude in degree of cruelty between Japanese-internment camps in the US and Nazi concentration camps; but that fact alone constitutes an incredibly petty reason to absolve the US for what it did to Japanese-Americans, if you ask me. Finally, what seems Orwellian to me is the unabashed defence of political excesses of a State by pointing out the supposed rhetorical excesses of its detractors, as if pointing out the existence of varying degrees of evil somehow rendered the State a victim of slander, and thus innocent of the charges imputed against it.

I often wonder how it is the case that the very people who–often, sensibly enough, I may add–distrust the government with their money are so willing to trust that it won’t violate the civil liberties of its most vulnerable inhabitants. When you think about it, giving the State money to spend (presumably unwisely) in welfare programs is far less threatening than giving the government the right to engage in massive data mining of communications without court warrants, or to conduct illegitimate kidnappings of foreign subjects with the ‘unintended purpose’ of sending them to countries where they ‘might’ be tortured.

27

Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 9:54 am

Steve,

Even under the Nazi regime not all concentration camps were places ‘where people were sent to be gassed and burned’. And Chris is quite right that the Boer War saw the use of concentration camps, as the Parliamentary documents of the day called them. You can read a little about this and view some of the original documents online, thanks to Stanford University.

Bro. Bartleby,

It’s risky to accept the opinions of imperialists about the colonized, but I don’t think the Romans certainly believed they were bringing freedom to the conquered, or that those they conquered had no idea of liberty. In Gallic War, 3.10, Julius Caesar notes that ‘all men likewise, by nature, love liberty and hate the condition of slavery’. And look at the speech he places in the mouth of his enemy the Gaul Critognatus (Gallic War, 7.77):

The Cimbri, after laying Gaul waste, and inflicting great calamities, at length departed from our country, and sought other lands; they left us our rights, laws, lands, and liberty. But what other motive or wish have the Romans, than, induced by envy, to settle in the lands and states of those whom they have learned by fame to be noble and powerful in war, and impose on them perpetual slavery? For they never have carried on wars on any other terms. But if you know not these things which are going on in distant countries, look to the neighboring Gaul, which being reduced to the form of a province, stripped of its rights and laws, and subjected to Roman despotism, is oppressed by perpetual slavery.

(Quotations from the Bohn translation at the Perseus Digital Library.)

Tietjens,

Shouldn’t this discussion be about the modern use of power by nations, international organizations, and global corporate powers who seem to be transforming our world before our eyes?

But thinking about modern states in terms of empire is just one method of of putting them in historical perspective. And it allows historians and pundits to use related concepts, like ‘imperial overstretch’, to analyse the potential and limits of US hegemony. Or to put it another way, thinking in terms of empire is a way of thinking ‘about the modern use of power’.

28

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 9:55 am

But even there, the US is not particularly important in terms of imperial populations. After all, the Russian state still controls many millions of people who would prefer their own state, all things considered. This is even more true for the Chinese state.

For fuck’s sake ….

The fact that the Russian and Chinese states still control non-Russian and non-Chinese peoples in those large numbers and the United States doesn’t might have something to do with the sorry fate of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

29

Hogan 12.28.05 at 9:57 am

Of course it all depends on your definition of ‘advanced’ and I suppose ‘religion’ … but during the Byzantine period, from the reign of … say, Theodosius I.

So by “religion” you mean “Eastern Christianity,” and by “advanced” you mean “turned into an instrument of centralized social control”?

30

Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 10:19 am

Chris,

Russian “indigenous” populations have declined in pretty much a similar way to American “indigenous” populations. I’m not actually counting them in the numbers. The Russians actually went farther, conquering the Caucasians, Tatars, Buryats, and Mongols, with relatively high population densities to this day. The Russians have been pretty successful at wiping out their indigenous populations also, but they were even greedier in terms of conquest than the Americans.

I’m sure there are also lots of Chinese indigenous groups who have been wiped out as well – the records just aren’t as good.

I still don’t see an argument that the US is some amazing imperialist relative to other countries.

31

zdenek vajdak 12.28.05 at 10:21 am

Chris– what are the parallels between British detention camps that they ran during Anglo-Boer war camps and Nazi camps ? Secondly why is one interested in drawing these parallels ? On the first question the camps held only women and children ( idea here was to prevent the men who were fighting a guerila war from slipping home at night and receive shelter from their families.) no intentional mistreatment was involved . What you got was suffering ( bad food and bad hygiene ) caused by neglect essentially. Observe : when British press got hold of the fact that conditions were unhygenic in the camps ( fotographs of starving children ) there was an outcry and the British army dispached inspectors to check the situation out. The result was general elevation of hygene etc. Detainees were allowed to keep their possesions etc.

So what are the parallels you see exactly apart from the boring once ? We all use the term ‘concentration camp’ to mean death camp playing a role in *intentional* killing of people or it means organised mass murder.In other words what British did and what the Nazis did is morally apples and oranges. But you know this and this brings me to the second question of motivation . Well its a game called ‘character assasination’ Bush is a Hitler, American prisons are gulags on so on down the line .
It seems to me that intellectually one does this sort of thing when one runs out of good argument since what you do is use an ad hominem argument. But secondly you argue in a dishonest way because you know that the comparison wont stand up but you *pretend* that it does and insist on using it.

[CB replies: Zdenek, God knows what you are smoking, but a cursory inspection of my post and the thread would reveal that it was "Steve" who raised the matter of concentration camps. My role was to inform him that the modern use of the term originates not with the Nazis, as he appeared to believe, but with the British during the Boer war. ]

32

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 10:23 am

I still don’t see an argument that the US is some amazing imperialist relative to other countries.

Since the argument was that the US was imperialist in the same manner that China and Russia were and not that it was “some amazing imperialist compared to other countries”, that isn’t surprising.

33

soru 12.28.05 at 10:24 am


The difference you’re discussing hinges on whether the empirial power considered itself to be conquering states or merely populated land. it also hinges in the historians answer to that question. Are tribes states?

Are you claiming that:

there was a substantial difference between pre-conquest african and american locals?

no imperialism happened in africa?

something else?

In pragmatic terms, an empire is any country that someone thinks they might be able to get away with changing the boundaries of, either by breaking a bit off or adding a bit. If they succeed, they were right (see trad. definition of treason).

soru

34

john m. 12.28.05 at 10:27 am

The most powerful military in the world by a long, long, way? Yup.

The most powerful economy in the world by a long, long way? Check.

Does it really matter whether the US can be described an empire? Nope.

Fun argument though – especially from #9 and others who seem blissfully unaware of the Roman Republic.

35

roger 12.28.05 at 10:27 am

William Everdell, in his book the First Moderns, traces the history of the concentration camp back to Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish officer who used the word “re-concentration” for his policy of uprooting rebel villages in Cuba and moving them to barbed wire camps. Everdell remarks upon the fact that Weyler had been sent by the spanish as an observer during the American Civil War, and he had acquired an admiration for General Sherman, and particularly the tactic of total warfare employed by General Sherman in the March to the Sea.

When thousands of Cubans died, the U.S. protested to Spain. When the U.S. fought Spain and took possession of the Philipines, the Americans re-thought their objections and decided that Weyler’s reconcentration camps were just the thing to subdue the rebellious Fillipinos. And of course we are seeing them apply a version of the same methods in Iraq, now — Fallujah being one example, and Samara another. From a recent AP story about Samara:

“Since 2003, Samarra has come to symbolize the trials and errors of U.S. strategy in Iraq – a cycle of military offensives, lulls and new waves of lethal insurgent attacks.

In recent months, U.S. forces have resorted to draconian tactics to try to drive insurgents from Samarra and keep them out. In late August, Army engineers used bulldozers to build an eight-foot-high, 6 1/2-mile-long dirt wall around the city, threatening to kill anyone who tried to cross it. Entry into Samarra was limited to three checkpoints. Since then, attacks have fallen sharply, and voter turnout was high for the Dec. 15 national elections.”

Weyler lives on.

36

Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 10:28 am

Trackback doesn’t seem to have kicked in. But I’m gratified to have “annoyed Jane Galt”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005652.html , who tells us that the American claim not to be imperialist amounts to saying that the US never acted like King Leopold of the Belgians. Or perhaps I should quote her exact words:

bq. Anyone who purports to be unable to distinguish a shoe factory in Malaysia from what King Leopold did to the Congo seems to me to have perceptions so hopelessly deranged as to make further discussion useless.

Homme de paille?

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 10:33 am

Chris,

You haven’t actually established that the US is an Empire comparable to Russia and China. After all, Russia and China control far more people in a far more dictatorial fashion than the US does. Russia and China are amazing imperialists. They continue to hold large numbers of people under colonial control, while the US does not. If anything, the UK is more imperial than the US if we consider Northern Ireland and the failure of self-rule there.

Yes, the US is powerful, and yes the US has client states. But in the sense of empire, as you have defined it, in the present day, the US isn’t actually that significant.

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peter 12.28.05 at 10:36 am

Chris,
I am no expert in these matters, but, for what its worth, I think many indigenous peoples in China did in fact suffer more or less the same sorry fate. I’m not sure about comparisons of scale or extent, but here is some casual empiricism. Where I grew up in upstate New York you can still easily find the remaining enclaves of native populations (eg Mohawks) among a vast sea of European and African Americans. In my travels through China, I have frequently run into small pockets of minorities in a sea of Han Chinese. For instance, two years ago I took a detour from a cruise down the Yangtze to visit some of the famous hanging coffins. In the area I visited, a people called the “Bo” or “Ba” were responsible for these. According to our Han guide, they used to live throughout a massive stretch of China, including the middle Yangtze, but have now been reduced to really tiny and isolated pockets. I’m not sure there really is as much difference as you think.

Well, there is one big difference: pathogens were probably the most important tool in the displacement of Native Americans, and as a general rule I’m pretty sure that the Europeans who colonized the US had only a limited understanding of their role in so depleting native populations (the recent book “1491″ describes numerous such instances). When the Chinese encountered these indigenous peoples, presumably their epidemiological isolation had not been as great and hence there was more need to actually kill them with their own bare hands. I’m not sure either death is a pleasant prospect to those doing the dying, and I do not believe that ignorance of germ theory exonerates the early Americans for their role in decimating indigenous populations with disease. My only point is that this was a messy and brutal process in both cases.

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Henry 12.28.05 at 10:39 am

Many, many interesting things to pick through in the Galt post, but this quite hilarious claim:

bq. A propos of absolutely nothing, I haven’t seen many Americans going over to Europe to inform them what they think, and then grandly disabusing them of their illusions.

seems to me to sum up in one sentence Ms. McArdle’s particular style of contributing to our understanding of world affairs.

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peter 12.28.05 at 10:41 am

I should add that my Han Chinese guide was explicit that the Bo (or Ba (I heard them called both)) were so reduced by conquest. He seemed neither proud or ashamed of this. He was just very matter of fact about it.

By the by, when I grew up in upstate New York, in school we were made well aware of the total destruction of pre-Columbian New York during the colonial era.

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john m. 12.28.05 at 10:42 am

Chris,

Whilst I must admit to having never thought to compare shoe factories in Malaysia to what King Leopold did to the Congo (which in fact was nothing as it was his son Leopold II that decided Belgium would be a colonial power – try reading that sentence without grinning), I prefer this from the same post:

“No one in America is unaware of what happened to the Indians; no one that I have ever met has tried to justify it, though we are all awfully glad that we have a country”

Here’s my version: I killed a family and took their house. Now, I’m not going to justify it but I’m awfully glad I’ve got a house.

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tib 12.28.05 at 10:43 am

I have to agree, largely, with Steve. The interesting question is what sort of global power the United States is, rather than its national history. Its national history may inform the answer, but any global power will have an imperial history so that fact alone does not give us much to go on.

Neocons contend that the United States should behave like the imperial power they believe it is, and that it should rely on force to shape the world to its liking. Our efforts in Iraq demonstrate each day how juvenile their thinking was.

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Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 11:03 am

Tib,

In the terms of those who think the United States has an empire, I think it would be more accurate to say that the neocons believe that the United States should stop practicing ‘soft’ imperialism (e.g. using economic incentives and international legal structures to keep client states in line) and start practicing ‘hard’ imperialism (e.g. military regime change in unruly client states). That switch has indeed been less than entirely satisfactory, not least because, as empires go, the United States has an admirable commitment to the welfare both of its own troops (from what I remember, this particularly irked Ferguson) and of the people they conquer (within various notorious limitations), including a belief that they should enjoy at least a Potemkin democracy. Of course, there are incentives to have such a commitment, when rival great powers are armed with nukes. The Romans and the Brits, in their imperial heyday, never faced those.

(Sorry if this gets posted twice.)

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Mrs Tilton 12.28.05 at 11:23 am

Hektor,

there is plentiful ground for just criticism of the British state with respect to its acts and omissions in Ireland and Scotland, it’s true; but you’re being silly. You think the UK has an ‘imperial problem’ in NI now? In the face of the fact that the majority of NI’s people want above all else to remain part of the UK? Still, I can see your point. Republican theology promises us, after all, that the scales will one day fall from the eyes of the majority, who will then see that they are colonisés and start voting Sinn Féin. (Except, of course, when it hints darkly that the majority are colons who should start learning to swim.) If the UK has an ‘imperial problem’ in NI, then it is precisely the same problem the US has with respect to its native American population. Rather less of one, in fact, the depredations of the planters having been much milder than those of the American pioneers, and the lot of the descendants of the ‘colonised’ population today being incomparably better in NI than in the US.

Your argument that the potato famine and the highland clearances were ‘clear examples of official policy to get rid of troublesome natives and replace them with settlers’, by contrast, is spot on. Spot on, that is, so long as one includes under the rubric of settlers ‘native’ Irish strong farmers in the first instance, and sheep in the second.

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Dave Schuler 12.28.05 at 11:24 am

Is the US an empire? Beats me. But if we’re using the standard of “subjugation of native peoples and colonial settlement” so are Britain (and I mean the island of Britain), France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and practically every other country I can think of. You might want to narrow that definition a trifle.

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 11:38 am

Mrs. Tilton,

Yes, Northern Ireland is an imperial problem. It’s exactly the same problem as France had in Algeria, with long-entrenched groups whose political orientation is towards Britain, while the native majority wanted independence. However, unlike the Algerian case, Britain opted for partition and created a nasty little mini-state instead of evacuating its partisans.

Just because Britain cobbled together a pro-British majority while grabbing as much land as it could (otherwise, why include Derry?) doesn’t suddenly make it not an imperial problem. Why do you think so many people (40+%) support joining Ireland and leaving the UK (based on their party preferences), if their lot is so great and British rule is so benign?

You may support the inclusion of NI in the UK, but that doesn’t make it not an imperial problem. It’s not like grievances suddenly evaporate because a group gets a 50%+1 majority. Deal with it. Was Kazakstan not an imperial problem because the Kazaks were less than 50%? How about Talinn, where Russians at one time outnumbered Estonians?

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 11:39 am

After all, Russia and China control far more people in a far more dictatorial fashion than the US does.

Irrelevant to whether the US is an empire, although one of the reasons one might be interested in whether the US is an empire is because there is a long controversy in historiography whether imperials powers can be governed with republican institutions for any length of time. (The Bush administration appears to be tacitly arguing that they can’t.)

Russia and China are amazing imperialists. They continue to hold large numbers of people under colonial control, while the US does not.

No, one way or another we killed off most of ours. But direct colonial control is not the only possible form of empire.

If anything, the UK is more imperial than the US if we consider Northern Ireland and the failure of self-rule there.

Again, this is irrelevant, unless you’re claiming that there can be only one imperial power on the planet at any one time. Does the US exercise power over other countries comparable to the power exercised by the late classical Roman imperium or the nineteenth-century British empire? That’s the only question here. If the answer is no, then that’s that; if the answer is yes, we can move on to other questions, of motive and effect and possible alternatives. But “every other country did it too” isn’t responsive, except as an implied and reluctant “yes.”

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john m. 12.28.05 at 11:49 am

Nice to see Northern Ireland creeping into the discussion for useful reason. A perfect sea of troubles indeed…

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 11:50 am

Hogan,

(1) The reason I discuss Russia and China is that Chris wanted to make a direct comparison between the US and them in the present day. (Read the last sentence of the initial post.) That comparison is not instructive, for the reasons I have mentioned above.

(2) Russia and China also have killed off many of their colonial subjects. They just happen to have gone after larger groups of people, and continue to go after them to the present day. So there is a difference in quantity. If the US still ruled the Philippines and Cuba, there might be more basis for comparison, but the US doesn’t.

(3) Almost every country you can name has been imperialist at some point. That’s a useless designation. What do you mean by imperialist? If you are comparing US actions to current colonialist actions by Russia and China, then I don’t accept the comparison.

If you want to make a claim that the US wields great power in the world and has client states, then I agree with you. But that isn’t necessarily implied by the word “imperialism”. Decide what you mean by power or imperialism, then we can discuss what you mean.

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john m. 12.28.05 at 11:50 am

Oops. Above should read “for no useful reason”.

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 12:06 pm

Hektor,

Chris wasn’t making a comparison in the present day. He was picking up on Colley’s definition of “empire” as applied to China in its era of expansion and pointing out that that definition applies just as well to the US in its era of expansion (something no supporter of manifest destiny would ever have dreamed of denying). And the point was not gratuitous US-bashing (as if the word “imperialism” were nothing but an epithet–it is an epithet, but that’s not all it is), but pointing out the hollowness of the “Golden Age” myth some liberal anti-imperialists invoke of an innocent, pre-imperial US that we must now restore. That US never existed; it was Jefferson who spoke of an “empire of liberty” stretching across the North American continent, right there at the founding.

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 12:14 pm

Hogan,

I agree with you and Chris that the idea of an innocent pre-imperial US is a mirage. But I don’t agree that the US and Chinese and Russian imperial histories follow the same pattern. Frankly, if Russia and China followed a similar pattern to the US, Chechnya, Dagestan, and the rest of the southern Caucasus would be independent, along with Tatarstan and a few other republics, and so would East Turkestan, Tibet, Manchuria, and probably Inner Mongolia would be part of Mongolia as an independent country. Taiwan goes without saying, not to mention parts of Yunnan province.

So I think a direct comparison of Russian and Chinese imperialism to the present-day US isn’t that useful. Historically it is useful, but not really in the present day.

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Scott Martens 12.28.05 at 12:36 pm

I’d argue that while Brazil probably qualifies as an empire if the US does, not all Latin American states do. Mexico is largely inhabited by descendants of its pre-colonial population. Its maintenance of mestizo nationalism hides a population that’s actually a whole lot less mixed than that. It’s true that it still has communities that define themselves as aboriginal and deem the existing state as the result of a theft of their lands, but they are only a small part of the population.

The same applies to Peru, Paraguay, Guatemala, and I should think most of the rest. (Not Argentina, Chile or Uruguay though.) The dominant language, religion and culture of those nations was changed by conquest, and they were once part of a genuine empire. But that empire has now completely retreated and the descendants of the aboriginal population form the bulk of the population.

In order for those nations to still be empires – by the definition given – we would have to deem France to be an empire because it was conquered and its population converted and absorbed to an alien language and culture by the Romans. Modern Frenchmen still mostly trace their ancestry to pre-Roman Gaul, and those that don’t certainly don’t belong to cultures that ever conquered France. But, the language and culture of France owes far more to Roman than Celtic roots. If European France – seen in isolation from its present and former colonial empire – doesn’t qualify as an empire, than neither does Mexico.

If historical conquest by an expansive power, and the existence of some form of continuity between that conquest and the present government, were enough to make an empire, than the term really has lost all meaning. There is no inhabited corner of the earth that has never been conquered and assimilated by somebody.

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Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 12:47 pm

27: Bro. Ben, ” but I don’t think the Romans certainly believed they were bringing freedom to the conquered,”

Again, the ‘idea’ of freedom was grasped by the imperiled from observation. Somewhat like a paleolithic tribe coming across another tribe that has mastered the art of making fire. They themselves are fireless, yet by example, they can see how to transform the idea to reality.

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Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 12:49 pm

Perhaps we need to differentiate between the fact that a lot of state-building has involved imperialism, on the one hand, and ongoing imperialism, on one hand. That is, we need to stipulate a fuzzy line at which people’s perceptions have changed so that what were once imperial territories have become part of the nation. Such boundaries can be complex (e.g. between Cornish, and English, and British). British involvement in Ireland, or American involvement in Iraq, involve a much earlier stage of imperialism than the English conquest of Wales or the American annexation of Texas.

Or to put that all another way, we need to incorporate theories of imperialism into our general notions of state formation, state power, and international relations.

Imperialism can’t be used to characterise all state formation, because states can although group together in a federation which eventually becomes a superstate. But that’s not how most modern nations were created.

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Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 12:53 pm

Bro. Bartleby,

Like I said, you’re seemingly ignoring the view of the Romans themselves on the matter. But in any case, the only way I can make sense of your view is to rephrase it thus: the Roman Empire made people aware of the idea of freedom by taking its reality away from them.

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Mrs Tilton 12.28.05 at 12:57 pm

You may support the inclusion of NI in the UK

I don’t, though. I support any decision about the continuing inclusion in the UK of that part of the island of Ireland being made by the Irish people who live there. (Republicans would say the same, of course; they simply have a more restrictive notion of who Irish people are than do I.)

You want to learn a bit more Irish history before making grand pronouncements about it, by the way. ‘Britain’ didn’t ‘opt for partition’; Irish unionists insisted on it. (Just as Irish nationalists insisted on a partition of their own — unionists did vis-à-vis the Free State only what nationalists did vis-à-vis the UK.) Was partition an ideal solution? Hardly; it was merely the least bad one available at the time.* (Mind you, the border would have run rather differently if I’d been consulted.) For its part, the British government of the day expected that partition would be a brief and transitional thing, and that in due course they’d be shut of the whole damned island. They were wrong about that, but then they were wrong about a lot of things having to do with Ireland.

Anyway, back to the larger point. Me, I think it’s neither accurate nor useful to describe NI’s problems as ‘imperial’ in nature. But if you want to do so, fine. It’s simply that it is, as others have pointed out, no more an ‘empire’ than is the USA, and if anything rather less of one.

* Plausibly available. In retrospect, it would probably have been for the best if nationalism had kept its shirt on for a few more generations. Had the Home Rule question been decided at the time Scotland and Wales got their devolutions, I don’t think we’d have seen anything like the violence and sectarian divisiveness that we had in the real world, do you? But of course, deferring until the late 20th century the decision on whether to split from the UK wasn’t on the cards. And after all, why should it have been — why should early 20th c. nationalists have deferred gratification merely because that would, in the long run, have been better for Ireland? Ireland’s dead generations owe us as little as we owe them.

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Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 12:57 pm

Looking back, it would have been a lot clearer if I’d said that, today, British involvement in Ireland, or American involvement in Iraq, involve a much earlier stage of imperialism than British involvement in Wales (the product of conquest long ago) or American involvement in Texas (the product of annexation long ago).

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Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 1:36 pm

Just to respond to some criticisms above ….

Lots of people have made the not unreasonable point that very many states are the products of colonial expansion. Indeed.

But many of them are the debris of such projects rather than the outcome of their successful completion. China, Russia and the US are the more or less successful outcomes of such projects which have involved the subjugation, incorporation or elimination of the previous residents.

Contrast Bolivia (debris) and Australia, a successful project, but one which has spawned a society independent of the imperial initiator of that project.

Now whether or not we want to call China, Russia and the US today “empires” is really beside the point, which is to say that whilst Americans often contrast themselves with other states and think of those other states as being “imperialist” (a historical claim), their own history is sufficiently similar to those other states to undercut the implied claims of difference and moral superiority.

Actually, I think there’s a curious process of doublethink going on. Americans do, in many contexts acknowledge the wrongs done to the native population but then forget about that history when comparing their history to other “old” powers. So, for example, in Jane Galt’s thread there is both explicit acknowledgment of the former AND sentiments like this:

bq. United States, a nation whose interventions have consistently been aimed at preventing conquest by others and has consistently moved to restore the sovereignty of any territory taken post haste

A statement that can only be explicable in terms of some kind of odd mental comparmentalization according to which the whole experience of the “frontier” doesn’t count as conquest or the seizure of territory from other peoples,.

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 1:42 pm

Hektor,

Saying “the US is as much an empire as China is” is not the same as saying “the US is exactly the same kind of empire that China is.” Koko the gorilla and I are both primates, but we differ in some significant details (at least I consider them significant). We should be able to talk about what primates have in common without having to insist, at every step of the way, that they’re not all identical.

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Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 2:09 pm

Hmm, do Imperial Powers allow such debates as this? Just wondering.

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djw 12.28.05 at 2:16 pm

no one that I have ever met has tried to justify it

This is the most astonishing part of Galt’s silliness. I’ve got loads of undergraduates she should meet….

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jayann 12.28.05 at 2:21 pm

I think it is curious that I have rarely heard of Nazi Germany or the former USSR referred to as “Empires”.

“The Soviet Empire”‘s a fairly well-known term, actually (but perhaps it is/was used mainly by students of the F/SU).

For the US see, in particular but certainly not solely

Arthur Schlesinger, The ImperialPresidency

my apologies for the lack of spaces in the title, Firefox seems to be playing up again.

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cm 12.28.05 at 2:22 pm

steve: Your argument sounds like sophistry to me. You brought up the irrelevant analogy of the term “concentration camp”, and then concluded with an ad hominem.

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cm 12.28.05 at 2:33 pm

Is not one essential aspect of Empire the central rule of “outer provinces”? Aside from the few excontinental US territories, the US does not have a “formal” system of provincial viceroys “reporting” to a central power, e.g. the US administration.

If at all, imperial control is exerted via “business ties” and through strongly US influenced international entities like the IMF or WTO, and large corporate players. It strikes me it is not primarily the US administration ruling the empire/conglomerate of trade “partners”, but an entangled system of (multinational) corporate interests, with the administration partially acting on its behalf.

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 2:44 pm

Is not one essential aspect of Empire the central rule of “outer provinces”? Aside from the few excontinental US territories, the US does not have a “formal” system of provincial viceroys “reporting” to a central power, e.g. the US administration.

But we still reserve the right to decide who governs certain countries (e.g., Haiti). The list of those countries isn’t always the same, but at least since 1898 or so, there’s always been a list.

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 2:56 pm

Mrs. Tilton,

I do think we are straying from the point a bit now, but I’ll just respond to a couple of your points.

First off, I’m not a republican, but I will say that my impression is that republicans say that the issue of Northern Ireland should be decided by Irish people as a whole, that is, that it should be voted on by the whole island and not by the rump bit that was created in 1921. (Obviously, this would favor their political position.) It wasn’t until the Good Friday agreement that this changed. I don’t actually think there has been in recent memory a strong call for only certain people in Ireland to be able to vote and not others. So I don’t know where you are getting that from. I don’t see it from Sinn Fein, for example.

Britain always “opts” for partition because the “squabbling natives” demand it. They did it in Ireland, then in India and Palestine. It’s the default British mechanism for resolving their colonial pursuits, and it has in general led to irridentism and continuing bloodshed. There were certainly groups in Ireland that wanted partition, and other groups that did not. Britain had both the power and the authority to side with whatever group it wished. It chose partition.

By the way, I’m hardly the only one to compare Ireland to Algeria, which I imagine you would agree was an imperial problem. It’s a pretty mainstream position. For example, take _Postwar_, by Tony Judt, page 466: “Like French Algeria, Northern Ireland — Ulster — was both a colonial remnant and an integral part of the metropolitan nation itself.”

It’s also pretty clear that independence for Ireland has been good for the country in the long run. After all, it was always the poorest part of the British Isles while in the UK, but now it is one of the richest.

Scott Martens,

You are entirely too forgiving of South and Central America. Bolivia, despite having an indigenous majority, we can definitely characterize as an empire until fairly recently. Similarly for Peru, with large numbers of indigenous. Every country in Central America is similar, except Costa Rica, which is more like Argentina. Paraguay is the only counterexample I can think of, since the Guarani also completely dominate the state and most people speak it, from the president on down.

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 3:07 pm

Hogan,

The US isn’t as much an empire as China is. We don’t have anything comparable to the Tibetans, Uigher, or Mongols.

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 3:12 pm

Chris,

One other point. Australia and America are functionally the same in your analysis. They are both debris states which spawned societies independent of the imperial initiator of the project. You could throw Canada in there too.

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 3:23 pm

The US isn’t as much an empire as China is. We don’t have anything comparable to the Tibetans, Uigher, or Mongols.

It’s not a question of headcount. Both China and the US meet the definition proposed by Colley. An empire with a smallish number of surviving indigenes is nonetheless an empire.

Australia and America are functionally the same in your analysis. They are both debris states which spawned societies independent of the imperial initiator of the project. You could throw Canada in there too.

After independence, neither Canada nor Australia purchased territory from other imperial powers (Louisiana, Alaska), nor did they acquire territory by conquest from other recognized nation-states (Mexico). It’s not quite the same.

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jlw 12.28.05 at 3:26 pm

Like cm, I think the distinction between programs of territorial expansion, consolidation and incorportation (i.e., the United States, Russia and China) differ substantially from systems of client states, subjugated overseas territories and economic hegemony.

In the former, the ultimate goal is to make the seized territory part of the nation (often through direct settlement by the conquering ethnic group) and the fate of the aboriginal population is assimilation or death. The United States annexed the Oregon Country in order to make it an integral part of the U.S. and people it with Americans.

I’m not sure if “empire” sufficiently captures this concept, if only because the British Empire of the 19th and early 20th Centuries seems to be the prime mental definition of the term these days, and it is squarely of the second type. Sure, the British did settle Canada and the Antipodes, but I doubt anyone thought there was going to be mass migration to the Gold Coast or Burma. These were states that were being controlled by the English crown for economic and security reasons, not for eventual assimilation.

The Russian and Chinese projects, though run by titular emperors, seem much more like American “expansionism.” The Soviet “empire” of the Cold War, though run by titular presidents, seems close to the British Empire.

Whether the U.S. seems to be trending toward an British/Soviet imperial style in its dealings with other nations is certainly a question worth debate. Whether the U.S. territorial expansion paralleled the Russian and Chinese ones seems beyond it.

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Tietjens 12.28.05 at 3:28 pm

You cannot compare murder and theft by a living person with the collective sins of long dead people in their dealings with other long dead people. (“I killed a family and took their house.”) My ancestors did not immigrate to the US until the 19th Century, a few decades before the mass immigrations several years on either side of the turn of the century. Most current US citizens and their ancestors had no hand whatsoever in the treatment of Native Americans. My only responsibility is to support fair treatment now and to champion the truthful teaching of our history as a people. If a family was killed and their house stolen 100 years ago, you cannot lay guilt on the house’s current occupants who were transferred from out of town.

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Shelby 12.28.05 at 3:33 pm

So, at what point does an empire become a former empire? Or is it a permanent condition? It seems to me the US has not done any of the conventional “imperial” things in the past century or so; conquering new territories, etc. It certainly has extended its influence, but generally by mutual exchange; it’s not as though even “client” states such as Taiwan will comply with the US’s whim.

Isn’t the US something of a post-Empire state at this point? Whereas China and Russia are still shooting and forcibly migrating restive occupied populations, making the term fit them better.

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jlw 12.28.05 at 3:38 pm

BTW, this thread seems quite similiar to the one about Thomas Frank’s book over Christmas. Everyone is squabbling over what a word means, when in fact the problem is that one word is trying to cover multiple concepts. In the prior case, people were arguing over whether income or education better defines class, when in fact the more sociologically powerful way of dividing the population is income X education, so that the bins are high-ed/high-income, high-ed/low-income, low-ed/high-income, and low-ed/low-income (or however you want to bin it).

Here, empire is trying to encompass both nationalist expansion and various types of suzerainty. They aren’t the same thing, and using the same word for both leads to nothing but sound and fury.

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soru 12.28.05 at 4:08 pm

First off, I’m not a republican, but I will say that my impression is that republicans say that the issue of Northern Ireland should be decided by Irish people as a whole, that is, that it should be voted on by the whole island and not by the rump bit that was created in 1921.

By the orginal definition, that would make them inperialists, as they strive to conquer by force of arms a populace that doesn’t want to be ruled by them.

Taking a vote across the whole British Empire, when it covered a third the map, whether or not it should invade some particular country of a few million people would not have made it a non-empire.

soru

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Hektor Bim 12.28.05 at 4:13 pm

Soru,

By that rationale, any national liberation movement is imperial, because there is always a population, however small, that wishes to remain under the control of the occupying power. And that’s a ridiculous usage of the word imperial.

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steve kyle 12.28.05 at 4:33 pm

A nation has one “people” who all consider themselves to be members of the same club. There can be minorities but there arent definable sub-territories that would rather be separate countries.

An empire is where one nation subjugates another and the people in that subjugated nation remain distinct and remain subjugated.

The US isnt really an empire because though we did indeed subjugate another people we KILLED THEM ALL AND TOOK THEIR LAND. Rightly or wrongly, the fact that we have now peopled our land with the winners and either killed or absorbed nearly all the losers means that there arent any areas left that are populated with subjugated people who would like to secede from the US.

Now, as for those foreigners over there in the Middle East, well that is a story for a different post.

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John Emerson 12.28.05 at 4:40 pm

Just dropped by to see how many people said “America IS NOT an empire and anyway, what’s wrong with empire anyway?” Cousin Bartleby seems to be about there.

One of the primary ways of supporting American imperialism, now or in the past, is to deny that it’s imperialism. Another is to point out that imperialism really isn’t all that bad. To me it makes the most sense to have different people make these two arguments, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

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Hogan 12.28.05 at 4:52 pm

The US isnt really an empire because though we did indeed subjugate another people we KILLED THEM ALL AND TOOK THEIR LAND. Rightly or wrongly, the fact that we have now peopled our land with the winners and either killed or absorbed nearly all the losers means that there arent any areas left that are populated with subjugated people who would like to secede from the US.

Not all were killed, and not all of the survivors have been “absorbed.” Many live on land regarded as the sovereign, or at least more or less self-governing, territory of their tribes, albeit under the supervision of our Colonial Offi–sorry, Bureau of Indian Affairs. It would probably be hard to get a considered answer to the question of whether they want to secede, because they realize there’s no way in hell the Great White Father is going to let that happen; but their current lack of active resistance doesn’t make them less subjugated.

80

Alan 12.28.05 at 5:17 pm

Britain always “opts” for partition because the “squabbling natives” demand it. They did it in Ireland, then in India and Palestine.

Nonsense on a stick. The aim of the British Govt in all three examples you cite was to try and avoid partition;in Ireland & India, the British authorities lost control on the ground,and in the case of Palestine were strong-armed into a situation
which lead to partition by the Truman Govt.

81

roger 12.28.05 at 5:29 pm

JLW,

Your definition that ties together an outflow of the population of the imperial center towards the colonies is, I think, pretty good. But according to Niall Ferguson, at least, the statistics for the outflow from the British Isles strongly show that tendency. Australia, Canada and the U.S., Ireland,South Africa, Kenya, and India, show evidences of that massive outflow.

America does something different — it absorbs the influx from the periphery. Instead of depending on American planters in Guatamala, this country depends on Indian doctors in El Paso and Indian engineers in Silicon Valley. That is pretty interesting, actually, since it diagrams the difference between the U.S. and, say, the Russian empire.

I think the real interest in this question of empire has to do less with whether empire captures a certain configuration of America’s behaviors in comparison with other empires and more with analyzing America’s foreign policy interests. One of the most irritating things about the pro-war discourse of the past couple of years has been the almost absolute lack of acknowledgment that nation’s have interests that may be peculiar to the nation itself. The U.S. isn’t a moral force, but a powerful nation that has, at times, been an instrument for moral good – but has never been merely an instrument for moral good — it has always served its interests, and the universal good has always been secondary to those interests. This isn’t to criticize — this is just what nations, and empires, do. To legitimate what they do, however, imperially inclined nation’s present themselves as a civilizing force, or the lynchpin of democracy, or some such thing. By talking about empire, we are reminded that you can’t erase the question of interest.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.28.05 at 6:30 pm

But the terms of the argument that Adloyada and Colley both accept seem to me to be seriously misleading since they centre on such questions as whether an informal network of client and subordinate states constitutes an empire or not. But there’s an obvious and much more straightforward way of answering in the affirmative, and that’s to hold the United States to the same standards that people (including Colley) use when dealing with other countries. And here I’m thinking of Russia and China.

The problem here is that Chris is using one definition of empire in one context to criticize an almost completely different definition of empire in another context.

Trust can mean confidence in someone’s integrity and good character. In another context it can mean a number of firms working together to set prices and limit competition. It doesn’t help anyone to criticize anti-trust laws on the basis that one shouldn’t work against people’s confidence in good character.

The confusion over empire is not as obvious as over trust in this example, but the definitions are different enough to cause confusion here. Under Chris’ definition of empire the US certainly is an empire, but the observation is almost completely banal because so many other countries would also qualify under that definition. (Contra Scott Mexico would almost certainly count if you look at those who rule in Mexico–very often descendants of the Spanish–rather than mere population percentages).

Chris is correct that Colley doesn’t use that definition later in her text, but that isn’t confusion on her part. It is obvious that she isn’t using “empire” in that sense when she talks about US influence over countries like Taiwan because the US is uninterested in making citizens of those who inhabit Taiwan, nor is it interested in changing the borders of the US to include Taiwan. Criticizing the term of art she uses as not in line with the original definition is no more helpful here than it is in my trust example. Both specialized definitions have historical roots in the more general definitions, but that doesn’t mean that using them in the more technical definitions is seriously misleading (at least not to those who see when they have shifted gears). When Colley is talking about empire and the US in Europe or the Middle East, she is clearly not using the definition that Chris and she is clearly not confused about which sense of the word she is using.

Part of the problem may be that the modern technical definition of empire as people apply it to the US intentionally tries to link dissatisfaction with empire in the original sense to actions which don’t qualify under older definitions. They are attempting to argue by analogy when a different term would have been more clear and useful. But if that is true, the term is seriously misleading in the opposite way from that which Chris is talking about. It is misleading because it is attempting to apply the imperial label to situations where the US is clearly not attempting to expand its territorial boundaries, nor is it attempting to gain colony-like control.

83

John Emerson 12.28.05 at 6:47 pm

I don’t see how can clearly know anything about US intentions. Bush is, ah, not very forthcoming, and for the next three years the US intentions are George Bush’s intentions. We don’t know who will succeed him.

Thare have been lots of trial balloons by respectable, well-connected people about empire or an empire-like world order. When respectable, well-connected people talk about a monopolar world or “the world’s only superpower”, empire is one direction they can be going.

A lot of the rage at liberals you see on the right is because of liberal foot-dragging about America’s military world mission. Plenty of Bush’s supporters support his policy on the understanding that it’s really much more aggressive and less defensive than it pretends to be.

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Bro. Bartleby 12.28.05 at 6:51 pm

Maybe we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Traditionally, imperial powers were ‘elite’ folks that went about subjugating ‘less elite’ folks in far off lands. But in modern day U.S. ‘less elite’ folks have come from far off lands to stake claim to their piece of America, and in doing so are subjugating the tired and old former ‘traditionally imperial’ folks, those who point back to grandparents fighting in the Civil War or sailing on the Mayflower. This too might explain why Americans seem so arrogant to folks from other countries, for most likely that arrogant American’s family came from that other country … and after all, one is allowed to act boorish to another family member, especially one that was too timid to cross the ocean and was left behind. I do think the American experiment is still in process.

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Chris Bertram 12.28.05 at 6:56 pm

Sebastian H.:

It is misleading because it is attempting to apply the imperial label to situations where the US is clearly not attempting to expand its territorial boundaries, nor is it attempting to gain colony-like control.

Then. 13 colonies.

Now. 50 States.

clearly not attempting to expand its territorial boundaries

Sometimes I worry about you Sebastian.

86

ken 12.28.05 at 7:00 pm

Before all the subsidiary issues took on lives of their own, Steve still said it best. What good does it do to take refuge in dictionary definitions? When the word “empire” is used, it conjures up images of the British Empire or the French Empire or the Belgian Empire. You gave a minimal definition of the word “empire” so that you could apply the term to the United States with all of its maximal connotations. Your own post belies your motivations. You take pleasure in being one of those who “seriously upsets” people like blogger Adloyada (or blogger Jane Galt) and boldly challenging the self perception of Americans on the left and right.

If you have anything insightful to say about the extermination of American Indians or contemporary relations between the United States and its client states, let’s hear it. Simply applying the label “Empire” is a poor excuse for analysis and a pretty poor pretext for a post on a blog that usually has higher standards. This discussion of empire certainly falls into the category of “not so serious debate.”

87

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.28.05 at 7:08 pm

Wow Chris, you really do have trouble with context don’t you?

Quick context quiz. In the portion you quote from my post am I more likely talking about Puerto Rico, Texas, or Taiwan? When Colley talks about US bases is she talking about California, Virginia, or Germany?

I presume you don’t want to figure out the difference, since you aren’t actually an idiot.

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Randy Paul 12.28.05 at 7:23 pm

Brazil is an empire.

Was an empire. It actually had an emperor.

89

Scott Martens 12.28.05 at 7:31 pm

Hector and Sebastian: I didn’t say Mexico or any other country was necessarily run by any kind of ethnically representative government. But most Latin American nations actually have populations that identify with it, even if not with the rulers. The US also rules over a black population that isn’t represented in the ruling class in anything like its proportion to the population. This is wrong, but not necessarily imperial.

In order to be an empire, somebody has to be displaced by people from somewhere else. The aboriginal population of Mexico, and most of Latin America, was not displaced. Enslaved, massacred, treated like dirt, forced to speak Spanish and attend Catholic churches – yes, those things all happened and I’m not endorsing them. But majorities in every Spanish-speaking South American and Central American country with the exception of Argentina and Uruguay counts majorities of primarily aboriginal descent who identify with their nations, even though not always with their ruling classes.

The notion that I should have made plain is that the displacement of aboriginal population is a key component of what makes America, Russia and China empires, and a part of what once made Rome an empire. Not all empires are like that: The French empire rarely displaced people, but it ruled over a large territory with a large population to the benefit of a part of its population living in a small part of the empire.

90

soru 12.28.05 at 7:32 pm

By that rationale, any national liberation movement is imperial, because there is always a population, however small, that wishes to remain under the control of the occupying power. And that’s a ridiculous usage of the word imperial.

Do countries get to be divided into ‘nations’ and ‘occupying empires’ solely by fiat of the something like the Divine Right of Kings, or is there any 18C or later influence on your thinking?

soru

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ken 12.28.05 at 7:48 pm

As for the rest of you arguing the point, if the word “Empire” can be applied to the United States, China, Russia, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Belgian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Seljuk Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire, then the term has no real analytic value. First declare the terms in which you propose to analyze empires, then define the term in such a way as to include those empires that lend themselves to comparison in thse terms and exclude those that don’t.
None of you are really interested in analysis, you are interested in rhetoric. If the United States can be called an empire, you figure, it can be tarred with the same brush as the British or Chinese or Russian or Belgian empires. If empires are bad and the United States can be called an empire then the United States is bad. Sloppy thinking. There are plenty of critiques to be made of the US past and present. Applying the term “Empire” may even be germain in the context of some of those critiques. But none of this is critique. It is simply name calling.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.28.05 at 8:03 pm

“The notion that I should have made plain is that the displacement of aboriginal population is a key component of what makes America, Russia and China empires, and a part of what once made Rome an empire. Not all empires are like that: The French empire rarely displaced people, but it ruled over a large territory with a large population to the benefit of a part of its population living in a small part of the empire.”

Ok, I understand how you are using it. In my view (when using the limited definition of empire that Chris uses) completely transforming the aboriginal population culturally to fall in line with the rulers (changing language and religion by force) probably counts too.

93

yabonn 12.28.05 at 8:19 pm

Apologies for the late, Aquavitted post, but :

You could find in lots of the reasonings of the pro war people – remember, back when it was oh so shrill to oppose it? – that complacent self image of the kinder, gentler, not-as-bad-as-19th-century-europe-anyways u.s. imperium (see Galt’s post for another helping if you feel so).

This is preoccupating, because it’s preoccupating that the current big military power is lost in a nationalist dream. And maybe some real examination of the history of the country would help for that. Really, it’s sooo, like, 2 centuries ago, y’know.

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Contradictory Ben 12.28.05 at 8:24 pm

Ken,

First, even though the word state can be applied to the United States, China, Russia, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Belgian Empire, and so on, it retains ‘analytic value’, doesn’t it?

Second, as Chris stressed (see comment #4), he was not trying to portray the United States as evil for being an empire. As I pointed out in comment #6, even cheerleaders for the United States sometimes think about it in terms of imperialism.

Third, as I tried to suggest in comments #6 and #55, thinking about modern states in terms of empire is really only the beginning of analysis not the end of it. It’s a way of bringing on board a whole load of interesting historical work that has been done on classic empires and seeing how it applies more generally.

95

trotsky 12.28.05 at 9:00 pm

It’s plain that 19th-century America was an actively growing empire. Radicals like Henry David Thoreau recognized the Mexican War as an aggressive expansion and protested it as such.

There’s a worthwhile distinction to be made, however, between the assembling of the nation back in the day and the overseas military web — 300-odd bases in 170-odd countries, isn’t it? — that we have assembled.

96

ken 12.28.05 at 9:00 pm

Ben,
To start with your second point, Chris began his post by referring to an exchange between Colley and Adloyola over the American adventure in Iraq and whether this made the United States an empire in the same way that the British Empire was an empire. Apparantly granting that the parallels between the contemporary United States and Imperial Britain are not a %100 match to say the least, he focuses on a throwaway line in Colley and finds another way to call the US an empire: it is an empire in the same way that China and Russia can be called empires. Does this open the way for an analysis of the US in light of scholarship on imperial China and Russia? No. It simply allows him to declare the United States an empire and then gloat over the fact that this is bound to ruffle American feathers and crow in triumph when Jane Galt took the bait and denounced him in her blog (#36). This comparison sheds no light on the debate at hand: whether current American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq make it an empire.

As for your third point, I agree with what you say in your post #55 about fuzzy lines and complexity. I think that a good deal of the fuzziness and complexity come from applying a vague and unhelpful term–imperialism– in an unrestricted way to discussions of America on the world stage today.

Is the word “state” a useful analytic tool? That too depends. If you are talking about the member states of the United Nations, then, yes, it is an accurate way of describing all 191 of them: each has a delegate, a single vote in the general assembly and so on. If you want to say that in the sovereign state of France “the state” monitors its citizens’ incomes for the sake of levying an income tax and that since Chad, too, is a state, then “the state” in Chad too must be capable of keeping track of its citizens’ income and levying an income tax, then no, this is not an analytically useful application of the term. There is an infinite spectrum of intermediate cases between these two examples. When applied in a limited and defined way, “Empire” can be a useful analytical term. In the current discussion is is not, nor was Chris interested in using it in a useful analytic sense in the beginning.

97

Ronzoni Rigatoni 12.28.05 at 9:36 pm

“A statement that can only be explicable in terms of some kind of odd mental comparmentalization according to which the whole experience of the “frontier” doesn’t count as conquest or the seizure of territory from other peoples.” (Chris #59)
Our plains Injuns would have been mightily puzzled over your claim that we seized territory from them. Ignorant savages, they could not conceive of the idea that anyone could “own” the land, and therefore they never made any ownership claim to it. Our culture, of course, saw it differently, and when the noble savages objected to our fences, we merely rounded ‘em up and put ‘em in concentration camps–er-uh–reservations, whatever. Imperialist? Naah. We saw it as claiming heretofore unclaimed and nearly empty lands occasionally traversed by simple nomads intent on stealing our cattle, horses and corn.

98

George Colpitts 12.28.05 at 9:41 pm

I’m surprised there is not more discussion of Niall’s Ferguson books: “Empire” about the British Empire and “Colossus” his corresponding books about the American (in his view) Empire . Much of the above assumes that empires are homogenous and uniformly bad. One of the points of his books is to argue against that: there have been many empires and some are much better than others. One of the striking features of both US and British history is the contemporary outcry raised in response to ignominious actions. Ferguson does not shy away from describing these ignominious actions and provides much material to argue against his conclusions. He feels that the world benefited from the British Empire and that the US should, for the world’s benefit, act more like an Empire. His conclusions are definitely iconoclastic but his history is worth reading if only to challenge long held assumptions which will be perhaps revitalized or perhaps changed by the exercise. So I guess I’m with contradictory ben on all of this. Ferguson’s books are well-written, entertaining, clear, informative and worth your time to read.

99

jlw 12.28.05 at 10:12 pm

To be honest, Ken, I read the original post on Chris’s part as quite the opposite–Colley was trying to construe China as a present-day empire (and thus tarring it with all the negative connotations of empire) and Chris was taking a piss at her by showing how difficult it is to call an nationalist power expanding across contiguous landmasses an “empire” without ensnaring the United States in the definition.

From then on, I don’t know. But I certainly saw a lot agreement initially with your and Sebastian’s and my (#71 and 74) points than either of you two do.

100

ken 12.28.05 at 10:30 pm

jlw,
Yes, on reading over some of the many posts I skimmed before, I have to admit there is a lot more nuance in the discussion than I realized. Your post #74 says all I have to say on the topic. I shouldn’t have been so rude to you all or to Chris, though I can’t say I agree with your reading of his original post. Apologies to all in any case.

101

Randy Paul 12.28.05 at 10:31 pm

Scott Martens,

You need to include Brazil in that group with Argentina and Uruguay. The ethnic makeup of Brazil includes a large portion of descendants of involuntary immigrants from Africa as well as, especially in the south, European immigrants from Poland, Ukraine, Italy, Germany, and Spain in addition to a substantial Japanese population.

Also, what is now Costa Rica, upon the arrival of the Spaniards had a small indigenous population. It’s nothing like Guatemala, Southern Mexico or Honduras.

102

rilkefan 12.29.05 at 12:02 am

Chiming in to agree with SH (and the other “this is humptydumptyism” commenter) having done the opposite on a recent cb thread.

103

Carter 12.29.05 at 12:53 am

American empire is to real empire as American cheese is to real cheese.

104

Z 12.29.05 at 3:05 am

I just wanted to reassure Chris: some of us perfectly understand your point.

To Hektor. I admit I don’t know the history of imperial Russia very well, but I doubt it was significantly more brutal than that of imperial USA (and by that I mean of course the conquest of the american land mass, not the conquest of Puerto Rico, Cuba…). Indeed, the almost total annihiliation of the native population (from at least 4 millions to 250.000 in 1900) was a constant source of emulation for Hitler. According to Toland’s and Fest’s biograhpies, Hitler modeled his conquest of eastern Europe to the american conquest of western America, explicitly praising the efficiency of american settlers. Like Chris pointed out, if Americans today are not faced with the same kind of resistance the Russians and Chineese face, it is largely because the former managed to wipe out the indigenous population, while the later did not (or maybe did not even try, I don’t know my history well enough).

105

Geoff R 12.29.05 at 3:30 am

Didn’t Ike tell Soviet commanders when they met in 1945 that they would get on fine because unlike the nasty Brits neither of them had ever had an empire?

106

bad Jim 12.29.05 at 4:23 am

As empires go, America’s been reasonably reasonable. After 1865 or so, when we had the world’s most fearome army, we could easily have taken over Canada and Mexico, but didn’t. Mexico may have been more trouble than it was worth, and annexing Canada was simply unnecessary.

Our more egregious takings, like Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines or Iraq, excited considerable domestic dissent and may have been more trouble than they were worth, which probably discouraged further such adventures.

The U.S. empire was sufficiently compact to be efficiently integrated. The Russian/Soviet empire was similarly contiguous, and it might have survived had it been competently managed, but its survival might also have required the extermination of the original inhabitants of its acquired territories, as in the continental U.S. and Brazil.

107

Chris Bertram 12.29.05 at 4:27 am

Nothing to add to what I’ve said already, except to note that Jane Galt’s absurd “no one that I have ever met has tried to justify it” now has counterexamples both on this thread in the form of the racist and historically ignorant “Ronzoni Rigatoni” and on the thread at her own blog.

108

Hektor Bim 12.29.05 at 9:10 am

Z,

My point is not that imperial Russian expansion was significantly more brutal than American expansion. My point is that it is significantly more brutal today. The Russian and Chinese imperial actions (e.g. in Chechnya and Tibet, among others) have no comparison in current American practices.

Look at the history of Siberian tribes or the Caucasus to get a sense of the gentle hand of Russian imperialism.

109

Steve 12.29.05 at 9:32 am

“Steve,

First, I didn’t say anything about anyone being evil.”

“Sebastian H.:

It is misleading because it is attempting to apply the imperial label to situations where the US is clearly not attempting to expand its territorial boundaries, nor is it attempting to gain colony-like control.

Then. 13 colonies.

Now. 50 States.

clearly not attempting to expand its territorial boundaries

Sometimes I worry about you Sebastian.”

Chris-
Your two quotes, above, clarify your original position (your original post) quite a bit. But is it what you really intended? To take the two above quotes seriously, the original post then states, essentially, that
1) America is an ‘empire’ similar to the Russian and Chinese empire, because it was expansionist. But this form of expansion took place in roughly 1810-1890 (before 1810, America was largely restricted to the Eastern seaboard, and in the 20th Century, Alaska and Hawaii were added. If you want to quibble by a decade or so on either end, feel free). and,
2) there isn’t necessarily anything ‘evil,’ or wrong, with this type of empire. You are making an observation, not a moral critique.

Really? The point of the original post is to say that America was an empire in the 19th Century, and that there’s nothing wrong with being that kind of empire?

Alot of the language in the post suggests otherwise (even the title: The American Empire, not the Former American Empire), and obviously, much of the discussion here concerns America’s present self-image, not its 19th-Century self-image. But if the post is really as banal as an observation of US behavior 100 years ago, I suppose it may or may not be right, but its really not terribly relevant or enlightening.

(The whole question of Time is really interesting, too. Because America in the 19th Century behaved similarly to Russia in the 17th-19th Centuries, and China over several centuries in the past, we are supposed to conclude; what?).

Note: by defining ‘empire’ traditionally, (say, similar to the British, Roman, or French empires of the past), it would be more appropriate to say that America was an empire (with its peak in 1945) that has been in decline ever since. In 1945, the US economy was equal to the rest of the world combined (i.e. was 1/2 the total world economy), US military force spanned the globe (far far more than today), the US military represented an enormous part of the US economy and manpower (a military of 10 million out of 150 million citizens, compared to today a military of about 2 million out of 300 million citizens. I don’t recall the military budget size, but I’m thinking it was 1/3 of GDP?). Nobody wants to conclude that FDR was an emperor far more than GWB is, though, so I can see why you would want to redefine ‘empire’ to suit your purposes.

Steve

110

brendan 12.29.05 at 9:33 am

‘The Russian … imperial actions (e.g. in Chechnya)….have no comparison in current American practices.’

Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?

Take a long look at this . I mean a looooong look.

What this article is saying (and there are numerous others on the bbc which are also worth looking out) is that Putin, in a quest to defeat Islamo-fascism and promote democracy invaded Chechnya. He then held elections for a democratically elected caucus to create a constitution, a referendum on the constitution, and then, according to him, free and fair elections on the basis of this constitution, in order to create a free and democratic state, free of ‘Islamists’ and other ‘extremists’.

Perhaps in Russia, opponents of this policy are termed ‘on the other side’ or ‘fellow travellers’ or ‘useful idiots’. Perhaps they are asked why they think the Chechnyans ‘do not want democracy’.

Do you sorta see where I am going with this……..?

111

Uncle Kvetch 12.29.05 at 10:00 am

the racist and historically ignorant “Ronzoni Rigatoni”

I read RR’s comment as satirical.

112

Hektor Bim 12.29.05 at 10:17 am

Brendan,

First of all, something like 10 percent of Chechnya’s population has been killed in the wars there, and the number grows every day. So the scale of destruction there is far worse than in Iraq. Grozny is in many ways a ghost town.

Second, the war in Chechnya is an imperial war, considering the Chechens had de facto independence in the late 90s, and Russia reinvaded after blowing up its own citizens in apartment bombings as a pretext. There was, before the 2nd invasion, essentially zero support for the Russians.

Contrast that with Iraq, where probably the majority of the population supported the invasion – the Kurds even cooperated directly with it. Note also that America isn’t annexing Iraq, the way Russia is reannexing Chechnya.

This isn’t even including the historical actions of Russia in Chechnya, like the original brutal colonial conquest, and the total ethnic cleansing of all of the inhabitants in the 40s. A lot of them didn’t return until the 60s.

And frankly, the elections in Iraq are a lot more democratic than the ones in Chechnya. Not that that is hard. For instance, a real organization like the UN is monitoring the poll.

So there is both a difference in degree and in kind.

Life would be simpler if things were always the same, Brendan, but they aren’t. Here’s one simple comparison: is the dominant party in the elections an avowed friend of Georgia (a state hostile to Russia), like SCIRI is the avowed friend of Iran (a state hostile to the US)?

113

brendan 12.29.05 at 11:45 am

‘Grozny is a ghost town..

‘The scale of destruction is far worse than Iraq’.

‘Chechnya is an imperial war

‘The majority of the population supported the invasion’.

I stand corrected.

114

brendan 12.29.05 at 11:50 am

Sorry I nearly forgot: the democratic nature of the Iraqi elections. .

I’m going to ignore your implication that Chechnya is different because the Russians have a long term history of imperialism in the region, and assume this is an April Fool’s joke some months early. If it isn’t, may I suggest you read a history book on the history of Iraqi, and look up ‘British invasions’ (plural) in the index.

115

rilkefan 12.29.05 at 12:32 pm

brendan, if you’re going to disagree with the claim that a is worse than b, saying b is bad isn’t going to cut it.

116

Hektor Bim 12.29.05 at 1:27 pm

Brendan,

Let’s take your points one by one.

Is Baghdad a ghost town? Was the whole city leveled by carpet bombing? Because that is what would be the equivalent of Grozny.

So, that quotes 150,000 excess deaths in a population of 24 million. The population of Chechnya is something like 1 million, and the estimate of deaths there (not excess deaths, which we have no figures on) is 100,000. Seems worse to me.

I somehow missed the British annexation and incorporation of Iraq into the United Kingdom for the past fifty years. I also missed the annexation of Iraq back into the UK after the invasion.

What does a survey in November 2005 have to do with how people felt about the invasion at the time? Also note that 60% of people think things are better or about the same as they were before the invasion. This survey shows that people want the occupying troops out, but it doesn’t say anything about people supporting the invasion. We also have data based on how people voted. People seem to have voted overwhelmingly for parties who are willing to tolerate the occupying forces for at least a little while longer.

Why do you think Iraqi elections were fraudulent? The UN doesn’t seem to agree. Some Sunni and secular parties (who did badly in the voting) seem to think the voting was fraudulent, but that doesn’t mean it is true. Do you think there was widespread ballot fraud and the results should have been greatly different? The clear consensus on the Chechen elections is that they were fraudulent: “More journalists and soldiers at polling places than voters.”

Frankly, the US and UK have done a pretty poor job in Iraq if they just wanted to annex the place as another imperial holding. They haven’t managed to kill Sistani off (unlike the Russians, who spend a good deal of effort assassinating Chechen leaders, both elected and unelected) or keep the Iranians out.

I’d suggest you actually learn something about what has occurred in Chechnya in the last ten years before you try to compare it to Iraq.

117

Nell 12.29.05 at 1:50 pm

Isn’t the US something of a post-Empire state at this point?

With military bases in 125 countries and a military budget equaling the next ten countries combined? No, it is not anything of a post-Empire state.

118

nick s 12.29.05 at 2:23 pm

I’m surprised there is not more discussion of Niall’s Ferguson books: “Empire” about the British Empire and “Colossus” his corresponding books about the American (in his view) Empire .

That’s possibly because (as Ferguson himself admitted) those two books are essentially interpretative history based upon secondary sources. One of those sources being Colley’s Britons.

119

Sebastian Holsclaw 12.29.05 at 2:26 pm

“With military bases in 125 countries and a military budget equaling the next ten countries combined? No, it is not anything of a post-Empire state.”

And so we return to the somewhat more modern definition of empire that Colley and Adloyada were trying to talk about before all the confusion. I think the lots of bases=empire formulation is rather weak. But if you want to argue that Germany is a client state of the US, could would please just say so explicitly? Then we could deal with the odd contradictions of that kind of statement head on instead of beating around the bush.

120

cm 12.29.05 at 2:30 pm

hektor: You are engaging in bodycount, and the familiar “we don’t torture … OK, but our torture is not as bad as theirs” argument. In simpler terms, stabbing somebody in the chest twice is probably worse than only once, but cannot plausibly be used apologetically (“but Johnny threw two stones”).

While degree always matters, there is the concept of a “phase transition” from good to bad, acceptable to unacceptable, etc. which admittedly is a value judgement.

Brendan’s (and others’) implied point is that when you aspire to hold somebody to a higher qualitative standard, merely arguing that their abuses are of lesser degree does not go very far.

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Hogan 12.29.05 at 2:38 pm

And so we return to the somewhat more modern definition of empire that Colley and Adloyada were trying to talk about before all the confusion. I think the lots of bases=empire formulation is rather weak.

How about the “we get to overthrow governments in Central America and the Caribbean and maybe elsewhere = empire” formulation?

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rilkefan 12.29.05 at 2:49 pm

SH, is there a convenient term intermediate between “client” and “independent” state? Because Germany was for a long time post-war not really fully independent of the US and the rest of Europe (i.e., France), and I suspect it still has more strings attached than a purely independent state. Even the UK under Blair might be considered something of a client state, wouldn’t you say?

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lurker 12.29.05 at 3:00 pm

This entire disagreement has resulted from conflating a general definition of “empire”, the 18th & 19th century mercantilist variety, and whatever it is that Marxists’ think it means today.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.29.05 at 3:10 pm

I don’t know of convenient intermediate term, but I agree it could be interesting to talk about the implications of Europe as a pseudo-client (or a group of psuedo-clients) of the United States. But in doing so I think we reveal the weakness of the US as empire analogy. If the states of Europe in general (and very powerful states like the UK and Germany in particular) are under the power of the US in some substantial way, that way clearly isn’t imperial. Using the term doesn’t help explain what is going on. In fact it tends to obscure analysis about what is really going on. Whatever the relationship between the US and Germany actually is, it certainly is not that of an imperial power and client state. There may be no good word (as yet) to describe that relationship. Chris’ definition of imperial seems to shed almost zero light on current affairs and can be approached as a nation-state consolidation history artifact. Colley’s definition attempts to approach an interesting subject, but probably obscures as much as it reveals by overdrawing imperial parallels.

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Chris Bertram 12.29.05 at 3:29 pm

can be approached as a nation-state consolidation history artifact.

Huh?

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.29.05 at 3:45 pm

You are right, that sentence is ugly–both in formation and in lack of clarity.

Your definition of empire as applied to the United States (and probably China) is about state consolidation in the past. It has almost nothing to say about the state of national or international affairs in the present. It is completely irrelevant to discussions of bases in Germany or invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq. It may be that even the modern term of art “empire” does not cover those cases. But if that is true, it has nothing to with your definition which is simply not what they were discussing.

Under your definition the US was an empire. Its aims do not currently include and have not for quite some time included those that fall under your definition.

I’m not sure if Colley’s definition really works the way she wants it to. But we aren’t much closer to finding out because you don’t seem to realize that her failure to use your definition was most certainly not an oversight on her part.

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jlw 12.29.05 at 3:53 pm

Sebastian:

There is a perfectly good term for the relationship of the U.S. to Western Europe since World War II–hegemony. (the predominant influence of one state over others sez the AHC 3rd.)

I mean, for anyone to say that Germany, Greece, Italy and most other NATO states were completely independent actors during that period would be to willfully misunderstand the historical record. But there (usually) wasn’t direct control either, as a suzerainty (or indeed, an empire a la Britain) would imply. The U.S. used its wealth, its military might, considerable personal ties among the elites, and the fear of a common enemy to make things happen to its liking. There were defeats, so obviously this did not amount to absolute power, but it is certainly fair to say that the ability for most Western European countries to act in whatever they decided was their individual self interest was constrained.

And the clearest sign that this was not some alliance of equals is that no American president weighed the reaction of Belgian or Norwegian leaders before making a decision. American leaders had essentially unlimited freedom of action.

Does this make for an empire? No. And this was certainly a different breed from the control that Soviets had on the Warsaw Pact nations.

I think what disconcerts many who are aligned against the neo-conservatives, however, is that we fear that they are actively trying to move toward an imperial relationship toward other nations, rather than a simply imperious one.

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Hektor Bim 12.29.05 at 4:09 pm

cm,

Maybe I am not being clear here. Russia, at this very moment, is engaging in a classic imperialist gambit. That is, it is conquering a ethnically distinct people and forcibly integrating them into their empire. The US invasion and occupation of Iraq, while horrible in many ways, is not a classic imperialist gambit. Now, you can say that the actions and motivations of the US remind you of imperialist practices of the past, but the point remains that the US is encouraging basically free elections in Iraq that are bringing to power people likely to be inimical to US interests on many topics, ie Iran. That is not at all what is happening in Chechnya.

This is exactly the confusion about imperialism that this whole thread is about. Russia and China right now are engaging in imperialism. There is no other way to describe the treatment of the Chechens and e.g. the Tibetans. Now, you may also classify US/UK actions in Iraq as imperialism, but it would be helpful to describe exactly what you mean by that.

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Hogan 12.29.05 at 4:28 pm

Now, you may also classify US/UK actions in Iraq as imperialism, but it would be helpful to describe exactly what you mean by that.

Perhaps it’s of a piece with claiming the right to decide who may or may not govern other countries? And the fear is not that the US will start doing that, because we’ve been doing it for decades, but that we’re now dramatically and not very intelligently expanding the list of countries where we claim that right? And that claiming that right is, to say the least, consistent with earlier imperial practice, from Rome to Great Britain to the USSR?

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rilkefan 12.29.05 at 4:29 pm

according to Gramsci, hegemony consists of political power that flows from intellectual and moral leadership, authority or consensus, as distinguished from mere armed force.”

I was going to say “hegemony” was much too strong to describe our relationship with Italy (to say nothing of France), but the above seems sufficiently vague to apply.

jw: “no American president weighed the reaction of Belgian or Norwegian leaders”

This example is poor. American presidents are indifferent to the opinion of Luxembourg but they do care what the UK PM thinks.

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Noel 12.29.05 at 4:55 pm

I am hesitant to get into this debate, since most of it seems to be over definitions. Definitions are never right or wrong; merely useful or not useful.

A definition of “client state” which includes the United Kingdom in regards to the United States is not useful. Since no state has an economy as large as the U.S. or a military as powerful as the U.S., such a definition would make any American ally into a “client state.”

A useful definition of “client state” is a state whose ability to make sovereign decisions is restricted by the deliberate ability of a foreign government to impose military or economic sanctions. An obvious corrollary is that the foreign government in question must be able to wield its coercive tools at an acceptably low cost. (What those “costs” are, of course, varies wildly with the domestic and international context within which the foreign government operates.)

This definition can be used to analyze the meaning of U.S. bases on foreign territory. Can a sovereign state remove said U.S. bases with no fear of coercive punishment? If so, then said country is not an American “client” in any serious way. A ally, or an ally of convenience (with the “convenience” for the country involved being lease payments or foreign aid or whatever), but not an indicator of an American “empire” over the country in which said bases are located. A recent example in Central Asia comes immediately to mind.

In 1956, the U.S. clearly punished the U.K. when it undertook a policy against American desires. Then again, the policy in question was the invasion of another sovereign state — was the U.S. willing or able to use its coercive force to dictate British domestic policy or other, less confrontational bits of its foreign policy? I’m not sure, and therefore I’m not sure if I’d call Britain a “client,” even at a time when the relationship was clearly more asymmetrical than it is today.

Did the U.K. ally itself with the U.S. in 2003 out of fear of American coercion? If not, then I don’t think that Britain can be called a “client” of the United States. That, of course, begs the question of why London so often allies itself with Washington, but I doubt American coercion is at the root.

On the other hand, the Republic of Panama is quite clearly a client of the United States. Mexico, not so much. Venezuela, not at all, unless we define “client” to mean “if Venezuela invades Guyana, then the U.S. will use its coercive power to punish Venezuela quite badly.” That, of course, is a very bad definition of client, since on the one hand it so broad as to apply to any sovereign state that lacks the military power to oppose the U.S. in a conventional war, and on the other hand is so narrow as to apply only to the very specific “policy” of invading another state.

Of course, I may be overlooking something in this analysis with regards to specific cases. I would prefer, however, that we don’t debate definitions. The definition I have given of a “client state” seems a good one, if the purpose is to define the scale and scope of the current American empire, should such a beast exist.

This, of course, defines “empire” as a “relationship of political control imposed by some political societies over the effective sovereignty of other political societies,” and implicitly defines the American political society as consisting of citizens and legal residents of the U.S. who enjoy the full protection of the U.S. constitution. (What this says about Guam or Puerto Rico, whose citizens are full Americans but where the U.S. constitution does not fully apply, I leave up to others to debate.)

Anyway, I hope that the above definition is clear enough to allow some coherence to be imposed on the discussion, without making too many arbitrary political judgments.

P.S. Sebastian is on to something important which does lack a good name. Gaddis calls it “empire by invitation,” and Mandelbaum calls it “government,” but neither term quite captures the concept. “Hegemony” perhaps? No, that doesn’t sounds right. The German term “ordnungsmacht” seems to capture what Sebastian is getting at, but has the drawback of not being in either Spanish or English, and just being a word I can’t pronounce correctly. Either which way, the U.S.-European relationship isn’t empire, at least not as of 2005, as Sebastian points out.

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jlw 12.29.05 at 5:01 pm

Rilkefan:

I’d say that the United Kingdom is a special case. Look at the list of NATO members–or other Cold War-era alliances such as SEATO and ANZUS: How many of those countries could influence policy in the U.S.? I mean, Pakistan, with which we had several treaty obligations, couldn’t get us to enter its wars with India. Indeed, short of an outright coup, there seemed little most nations could do to affect the nature of their relationship with the U.S. (And often in the case of a coup, we would just change sides, as we did with . . . was it Somalia and Ethiopia?)

Anyway, at post number 131 or so, I think its fair to say that “empire” is a pretty shitty term all the way around. Expansionist nationalism–19th Century U.S., Czarist Russia, etc. Suzerainty–Victorian Britain, Soviet Russia. Hegemony–Cold War U.S.

Missing anything?

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jlw 12.29.05 at 5:03 pm

Aw, crap. My comment is awaiting moderation.

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rilkefan 12.29.05 at 6:44 pm

Yes, come to think of it, as I understand things (from reading spy novels I suppose) the UK thought even post-war of the US as a client of sorts, the smart dwarf on the blind giant’s shoulders.

Anyway, there are whole fields of study of these questions so I’ll shut up now.

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brendan 12.29.05 at 6:55 pm

It’s very late at night here, and I won’t have time to answer all the points raised above: but, briefly, to answer Rilkefan’s: my point is NOT that ‘a’ is worse or ‘better’ then ‘b’: my point is that the behaviour of ‘a’ and ‘b’ is the same kind of thing : which is a rather different point. My point, in other words is not that the behaviour of Russia is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the US’/UK’s in Iraq. It is that it is the same kind of thing. The fact is that the pretext (or, if you are Russian, reason) for the invasion of Chechnya was a defence of ‘democratic’ values against ‘Islamofascism’. It is also the case that, according to the Russians, what has happened is not a neo-imperialist power grab, but instead a bringing of democracy to a state at risk of falling to ‘Islamo-fascists’: an action that Putin has been pretty quick to claim is indeed part of George Bush’s war on terror.

My key point is very simple. WE do not argue about whether or not this is true, because WE (being outside the ‘reach’ of Russian propaganda, and not being part of the Russian cultural framework) see the concept that Russia invaded Chechnya to bring democracy not as a serious point for debate, but simply as a joke.

Ipso facto, as opinion polls show, other cultures and nations, who have not been the ‘victim’ (if I can put it that way) of Bush and Blair’s propaganda war, and who have not had the ‘benefit’ of an education system that systematically ignores the horrors of British imperialism whilst ramming home (for the millionth time) that, yes, Hitler was a very bad man and that we did a Good Thing in stopping him, these people, to repeat (in South America, and the Middle East, and Africa) do not see Bush’s protestations about Democracy and the War on Terror as being serious points, but instead as being self-evidently cover for other motives.

More details tomorrow if anyone still cares.

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Tom Doyle 12.29.05 at 7:19 pm

With all due respect, before you can have an argument about, say, whether the US is an empire, don’t you have to agree on what an empire is? I’m sure I read or heard this stated as a general rule or principle many times. I don’t remember what it’s called, but I got the impression it was pretty basic, not controversial, similar to the principle that if something happens, and then something else happens later, the earlier happening didn’t necessarily cause the later happening. An argument that attempts to prove that X caused Y solely by the fact that Y came after X is an example of the post hoc, propter hoc fallacy. I’m not sure whether the rule/principle about agreeing on definitions is stated in a fallacy, but I think it’s similarly authoritative and uncontroversial.

All the best,

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almostinfamous 12.29.05 at 8:11 pm

an empire you say?

you can ask monroe

or for people that have been dead for a slightly shorter period of time, try asking the hawaiians, the filipinos, the grenadians, haitians, colombians and maybe even the somali while you are at it.

not to mention dudes like allende and noriega or for a slightly better chance at getting someone to talk to you instead of talking to a patch of land, you could try asking castro or chavez, though they may be a teensy bit biased.

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almostinfamous 12.29.05 at 8:18 pm

while my comment simmers in moderation i realize that i forgot to mention the iranians(and the nicaraguans too i might add in that fabled story of how crime can pay big time if your boss is the POTUS), the afghans and yes, our purple-fingered friends the iraqis.

as for someone upthread who mentioned viceroys, i present to you the big daddy of them all, paul bremer. boy how quickly he fell out of the spotlight, didn’t he?
i hope his medal keeps him warm at night.

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Bro. Bartleby 12.29.05 at 9:23 pm

“I should like you to make out what he is and bring him to light in a discussion; for at present we are only agreed about the name, but of the thing to which we both apply the name possibly you have one notion and I another; whereas we ought always to come to an understanding about the thing itself in terms of a definition, and not merely about the name minus the definition.”
–Plato (Sophist)

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Anarch 12.30.05 at 12:58 am

It is obvious that she isn’t using “empire” in that sense when she talks about US influence over countries like Taiwan because the US is uninterested in making citizens of those who inhabit Taiwan, nor is it interested in changing the borders of the US to include Taiwan.

Nor, so far as I know, did the British Empire wish to make citizens of the Raj or change the borders of Britain to incorporate the Raj by direct annexation. That’s a very bad comparison to be drawing there since — as I think rilkefan has pointed out subsequently — one of the common ends of (classically-defined 19th century) imperialism was neither annexation nor incorporation but rather subjugation, which is a much slipperier proposition… and one to which the US could legitimately be regarded as culpable (cf the Philippines, etc).

[And yes, your notion of the end of US imperialism is off by at least a decade, seeing as how you've neglected both the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War in your chronology.]

And if one regards “subjugation” as a characterizing end of empire — and I’m not necessarily saying that it is, just following this down the garden path — then the American ventures in Iraq could well be the first steps towards a new imperialism. Depends on whether you think our rhetoric has any credibility; or maybe, whose rhetoric you think has more credibility (Bush now v. PNAC then, in its simplest form).

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T. Paine 12.30.05 at 2:59 am

Tietjens said:

My only responsibility is to support fair treatment now and to champion the truthful teaching of our history as a people. If a family was killed and their house stolen 100 years ago, you cannot lay guilt on the house’s current occupants who were transferred from out of town.

This is incorrect, at least in nation-states that utilize the English common law: Recipients of stolen property must either return that property, or compensate the true owner(s) for it. It doesn’t matter if one’s family arrived here one hundred years ago or yesterday. This isn’t a matter of “guilt” (although people who benefit from property acquired through genocide are welcome to feel guilty) as it is a simple matter of property law.

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Chris Bertram 12.30.05 at 6:11 am

SH:

Your definition of empire as applied to the United States (and probably China) is about state consolidation in the past. It has almost nothing to say about the state of national or international affairs in the present.

Contra many commenters above this isn’t really about definitions, and it does say plenty about the present.

The reason it says plenty about the present is because present-day Americans are enamoured of the idea that their country is special, different, exeptional on a particular dimension. And that dimension concerns the fact that whereas Britain, France etc have an imperialist past, the US allegedly doesn’t.

But it is a _commonplace_ to assert that whereas British and French imperialism took one form, Russian imperialism took another, that of expanding far beyond existing borders, subjugating native peoples, establishing continental dominance. If Russian imperialism is a bona fide case of imperialism, then it looks like we ought to consider the United States as a historically imperialistic power.

If that is right, then this particular basis of the claim that the US is exceptional is shown to be what it is: patriotic cant devoid of real substance. To the extent to which that patriotic cant is still in-play today, contemporary relevance is established.

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Alex 12.30.05 at 6:30 am

Struggling to stave off this thread’s impending decline into whataboutery, I’ll raise a classic issue from the historiography. Does “empire” necessarily mean territory? It was traditionally held that Britain transited from a less-imperialist state to a “high imperialism” in the late 1800s and that this was analogous to the move away from Free Trade at the same time; suddenly, rather than seeking open markets, the Victorians plunged into a Scramble for Africa driven by the hope of walling off resources and markets behind tariff barriers.

In the 1950s, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson threw this upside down with a famous article called The Imperialism of Free Trade, in which they evolved the idea of informal empire and pointed out that a) the economically important bits of the British empire were acquired long before the “scramble”, b) that the actual control or influence exerted by the “scramblers” over their new territories was very limited, particularly by the Treasury’s power of the purse, and c) that the UK had arguably more real power over, and economic interest in, states outside the *formal* limits of the empire, for example South America or even the US, than in the new colonies.

Gallagher and Robinson went on to argue that the “official mind” had a structural preference for informal power over formal imperial rule – after all, it cost enormously less and involved fewer complications with other great powers – which was mirrored in the actual forms of government implemented in the new colonies (rule through local chiefs), and that formal imperial government was usually the result of a local crisis (the “crumbling frontier”) tipping the balance of power between the “man on the spot” and the “official mind”. Sometimes, this meant that the same territory would be annexed, then de-annexed, such as happened in the 1840s with British Kaffraria and the Sand River Convention.

The classic statement of all this is their Africa and the Victorians (note the order), in which they present an explanation of the colonisation of Africa as the result of a reactive, game-theoretic working out of European politics.

I think there’s a strong argument that much of the world is more or less part of the American informal empire..

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soru 12.30.05 at 8:40 am

It is rather strange that there are something like half a million words in English, but still two of them, ‘empire’ and ‘war’, get used for such a variety of different things, all of which are surely of as much importance as snow is to the anecdotal eskimo.

soru

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 9:34 am

Good catch, Sebastian. But…

“because the US is uninterested in making citizens of those who inhabit Taiwan”

Is this really how you understand the difference between “empire” and non-empire? Because you’ve just eliminated many of the “big” historical empires from the former category…

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 9:46 am

Noel’s analysis is, on the main, excellent. It highlights, in particular, that the question shouldn’t be (vis-a-vis the contemporary period) ‘is the US an empire?’ but ‘where, and to what extent, do American international relations have imperial characteristics as opposed to other forms of leadership and asymmetric influence?’. One point of contention, though: I agree on the merits about Uzebkistan, but inferring the absence of imperial relations from the decision by a core to relinquish control falls pray to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (as Tom points out in his post).

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BigMacAttack 12.30.05 at 11:20 am

Actually, given both the classic example, Rome, and the Webster’s definition, it is quite apparent that one of the main, perhaps the main, determinants of empire is the internal make up the political unit. An empire is ruled by an emperor or maybe an autocrat.

See the change from Roman Republic to Roman Empire.

The second determinant is territory. Vastness is part of it but what is left unsaid is that empires rule of over disparate peoples(the more the better the definition) who would prefer to be ruled by their own political units.

Given that, it makes some sense to say China was an empire that has re-positioned itself as a nation state.

It also makes a bit of sense to say that Russia/Soviet Union was an empire.

It also makes a bit of sense to say that Great Britain was an empire. (No autocrat or emperor but 1/4 of the globe and quite a few disparate peoples who would have preferred to been ruled by their own political units.)

It makes much less sense to say that the US was or is an empire. Sure Native Americans and Southerners etc but it really fits a good deal less. Military and cultural annihilation and displacement and secession are different from being ruled by an empire.

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Hektor Bim 12.30.05 at 12:48 pm

Chris Bertram,

You are correct about the patriotic cant and American exceptionalism in that form.

I would be interested to see how people react to other kinds of patriotic cant: “The British Empire was, in the main, beneficial.” “The problems in Northern Ireland are not an imperial problem.” “Sectarianism is indigenous to Ireland and Scotland and has no origins in merry olde England.” “France has been a beacon of liberty to the world.” “French involvement in Africa is a civlizing mission.”

Every nation has its patriotic cant, and a lot of them are about empire.

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 1:00 pm

Bigmacattack – reread what you’ve written vis-a-vis Native Americans and then say again, with a straight face, that US westward expansion was not colonial imperialism.

As for forms of rule, well, most scholars would argue that Athens had an empire, that the Roman Republic had an empire (before and after Augustus), as did France and other non-autocratic entities… so I hardly see how having aspects of democratic rule eliminate the possibility of also having an empire.

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BigMacAttack 12.30.05 at 1:38 pm

Dan Nexon,

Combining the Webster’s definition of empire and common usage I have endeavored to define the term empire. I think I have done a fine job. If you don’t think so please explain why.

The US has not(maybe a little tiny bit with the Phillipines) and does not fit that definition very well. The same cannot be said for China, Great Britain, and Russia/Soviet Union.

Was slaughtering native americans and stealing ‘their’ land naughty? Yes very naughty and evil. In some ways worse than imperial conquest. Bad USA. Was the result an empire? No.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.30.05 at 2:18 pm

“because the US is uninterested in making citizens of those who inhabit Taiwan”

Is this really how you understand the difference between “empire” and non-empire? Because you’ve just eliminated many of the “big” historical empires from the former category…

No it is not. But it is a huge part of how Chris defines it in his initial post, and there is not the slightest hint that he has changed his mind since. He makes exceptions for colonies, but I don’t think he would argue that Germany is a colony of the United States.

And his approach on empire now suggests that he apparently still thinks that Colley was being misleading by using empire in a way that was not at issue in her discussion.

The reason it says plenty about the present is because present-day Americans are enamoured of the idea that their country is special, different, exeptional on a particular dimension. And that dimension concerns the fact that whereas Britain, France etc have an imperialist past, the US allegedly doesn’t.

Your repeated failure to discern a difference between the border-consolidating past and the history beyond that is a huge blind spot for you. Was the United States forced out of Germany as France was forced out of Algeria? Was the United States forced out of West Germany even so much as the USSR was in East Germany. No it was not. Why? Because the United States was not acting as an empire vis-a-vis Germany. That makes for a rather interesting difference in more recent history. That might suggest to some, but apparently not to you, that even the border-consolidating definition of ‘empire’ might mean vastly different things later. This would make logical sense because nearly every major country would be counted as an empire at one point in their history under your definition, rendering it a rather non-helpful definition in discriminating between those historical empires which might leave Germany a functional country after crushing it in war (the US) and those which would not (Russian).

There are very few historical empires which would have allowed, nay HELPED, Japan and Germany become economic superpowers after defeating them in battle. We know for a fact that the USSR was not such an empire. We know that the British and French did not do so for Germany after World War I. The experience of South Korea (not a colony, not part of the borders of the United States, quite successful by any local comparison) suggests that the North Koreans would have been noticeably better off if we had won in that war.

The US is exceptional in the fact that we have had a number of opportunities in the last hundred years to act as an empire. We are not Russia in Chechenya. We are not China in Tibet. When we have won in the wars with other ‘empires’ we have left behind Japan, Germany and South Korea. When other ‘empires’ won they left Vietnam, North Korea, East Germany, Rumania. The worst outcomes in recent history have tended to come where the fighting was less ‘hot’ and had less decicive outcomes. But even Chile, a very bad case to be sure, is far better off than North Korea (or to be more fair by not picking the worst case, compare the result of being led by murderous thugs in Chile GDP per cap. $10,700 to Romania , $7,700. Even then you can look at what it took to remove Pinochet vs. Ceauşescu as indicative of some important difference. Pinochet is one of the uglier fruits of American reach. Ceauşescu was for decades much more warmly embraced by those in Western Europe than Pinochet ever was and was considered one of the ‘better’ Communist leaders almost until his fall.)

The US has had many recent chances at empire under your more strict definition, and has had very many chances at very nasty forms of control that wouldn’t be ‘imperial’ under that definition. In any historical look at a very strong power, the US has been exceptional in a postive way. Your definition of empire doesn’t speak to the idea of American exceptionalism nearly as much as you think.

I would never say that the US is always, or nearly always wonderfully benevolent. But for a world power, it is now and very often in the past has been in fact exceptionally good.

All of which, by the way, is more of an argument along the lines of Colley and Adloyada (in that it talks about the issues they raise, not that they would necessarily agree with my viewpoint) than it is about your definition of empire. Funny how even on your very most current terms (attacking American exceptionalism) their discussion of empire might be more revealing.

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Uncle Kvetch 12.30.05 at 3:32 pm

I think I have done a fine job. If you don’t think so please explain why.

I won’t presume to speak for Mr. Nexon, but I’m still struggling with “An empire is ruled by an emperor or maybe an autocrat [except when it isn't].”

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Hogan 12.30.05 at 3:42 pm

Sebastian,

You keep concentrating on US behavior in Europe, as if US behavior in non-European regions has no bearing on the question of imperialism. There is a long and continuing pattern of US intervention, military and para-military, in countries in Central and South America (and, less consistently, elsewhere, like Iran and Indonesia) who select for themselves governments that we find unacceptable, a pattern that pre- and post-dates the Cold War. We’ve never denied it and we’ve never resolved to give it up. (If we haven’t gotten rid of Chavez, it’s for pragmatic reasons, not because “that would be wrong.”) The fact that we’re nice to other white people is to our credit, but it’s hardly the end of the story.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 12.30.05 at 3:58 pm

I had no idea that the Japanese and Koreans counted as white.

I talk about Chile, did you have a worse Latin American examples in mind? Do you think that our interventions in Latin America count as ‘imperial’ under Chris’ definition? America does not equal all things good and sweet with no things bad. But it is and has been an exceptional world power.

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 5:02 pm

I’ve blogged at length on the subject of how to define empires. In my view, we have to be very careful about how we proceed with this sort of discussion.

• “Empire”, like “nation-state”, “republic”, and other political forms are ideal types. Real political communities seldom, if ever, approach the ideal form specified in whatever definition we choose for such categories. In fact, most real political communities combine aspects of one or more forms.

• “Empire” and “imperialism” are distinctive concepts.

• “Empire” describes a form of political control involving (in my view) (a) heterogeneous subordinate political communities, (b) rule through intermediaries who enjoy significant-but not unlimited-lattitude over rule-making and enforcement within a subordinate political community, and (c) a core-periphery structure characterized by limited political ties between peripheries.

• “Imperialism” is a strategy of expansion involving the subordination of previously independent political communities for the purpose of extracting resources from those communities (land, raw materials, tax revenue, military manpower, strategic position, and so forth). Colonialism, for that matter, is a form of imperialism that involves settling populations from the core (or inner periphery, e.g., Scotland and Ireland) in peripheries.

• The political structure of relations-both domestic and international-may have emergent qualities. This is particularly salient in the context of putative informal empires, where a state may never engage in “imperialism” but nonetheless ultimately wind up in a relationship which has imperial elements. A state may engage in imperial expansion but ultimately form a political order that looks, on balance, more federal, confederal, or nation-state in character.

• Informal empires, as international-relations scholars such as David Lake, Alex Wendt and Daniel Friedhiem, and myself, argue, are extremely difficult to detect. This is particularly true when we ask whether a relationship is hegemonic or informal-imperial, since these are very similar forms of rule. Often, we only know an informal empire when we see “off-the-path” behavior, i.e., when a subordinate polity departs from implicit rules and suffers from highly asymmetric coercive sanction. Lake uses the example of US intervention in the Carribean Basin, which is a rather good one.

All of this has a number of implications. For one, successful imperialism always leads to imperial forms of rule, but the “empire” it creates may be transitional. Empires may voluntarily or involuntarily cede control of a periphery; empires may transition into confederal or federal arrangements in the long-term, or even to nation-states. Every major European state, for example, passed through a stage that we can indentify as broadly imperial as it expanded within Europe. In the end, this process sometimes culminated in reasonably successful consolidation of a nation-state (e.g., France and Burgundy, Provence, and Aquitaine, for example) or tendentious quasi-confederacies/quasi-nation-states (e.g., Spain and Catalonia, Valencia, and Basque country). This is why US westward expansion ought to be characterized as imperial (and colonial), even though the relationship is now more federal than imperial (at least when we exclude Native American reservations, which combine elements of imperial and federal control).

Similarly, the US did opt for empire after the Spanish American War in a number of places, e.g., the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and even for empire in some Pacific islands after World War II. It nevertheless abandoned-in the main-imperial control in almost all of those territories.

Similarly, as long as it occupied Germany and Japan it had a clearly imperial relationship with those polities. It was not, however, imperialist vis-a-vis these polities (in any formal sense) because it did not seek permanent empire.

Now, we can have a very interesting argument about whether this is a function of the “exceptional” character of the United States (an avowedly anti-imperialist polity) or simply a fact of adaptive response. Some people who argue the latter point out that the US: (i) didn’t need to establish formal imperial control over Western Europe because it wasn’t that worried about defection from the US security architecture, (ii) the the US simply realized before a lot of other polities did that imperial control wasn’t worth the candle in its formal empire-nationalism, the Cold War, and other factors made it too “costly”, and (iii) that the US domestic political arrangement and distribution of interest groups made abandonment of formal empire more politically expedient than it was in states such as Belgium and the Netherlands. I suspect political culture was important, but not determinative.

Furthermore, this all bears on the question of US informal empire. Relations with Europe are a terrible place, as other posters have noted, to look for anything more than traces of imperial relations. Relations with Iraq and Afghanistan are another matter. Even though US aims aren’t easily described as imperialist (leftist argument aside), it is pretty hard to argue that the relationship as it currently stands doesn’t involve imperial elements. Somewhere inbetween we find relations with states such as Pakistan and those in Central America. I don’t have an answer to how to characterize those relationship (which might account for some of the difficulty I’ve had with the scholarly version of these arguments), but I think there’s at least an interesting debate to be had about these issues.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long.

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 5:16 pm

One other note: the notion that the US was an “empire” (albeit a different kind from the European ones) wouldn’t have been at all strange to many of the “Founders” (e.g., Hamilton) or to the advocates of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century. There’s some additional historical amnesia going on here beyond the type that Chris identifies.

Oh, another one: I once heard a senior scholar of Russian history explain aspects of Russian expansion into Central Asia quite effectively by comparing it to US westward expansion in the same period of the 19th century.

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BigMacAttack 12.30.05 at 8:02 pm

Dan Nexon,

Ok so we don’t really disagree all that much on the definition just on the application.

I just don’t see America’s westard expansion really resulting in empire at any point or time.

Mass displacement and ghettoization are different from empire.

As I noted for a brief period with the Phillipines I can see the definition fitting. But that is pretty narrow empire for a pretty small scope in time.

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Dan Nexon 12.30.05 at 8:31 pm

BMA – so how would you describe the period between the Louisiana purchase and the first quarter of this century, if not one of colonialism and imperial rule? Ethnic cleansing and “ghettoization” into peripheries administered by cores sounds fairly familiar in the annals of imperial history.

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rollo 12.31.05 at 1:19 am

Slavery and empire are linked all through the historical record.
How nice for everyone that we’ve developed ways to implement the beneficial aspects of both while avoiding the strict definitions of either.
All-volunteer slavery – providing folks who would otherwise starve sub-subsistence employment that they’re free to reject anytime they want – isn’t slavery.
The imperium is as shadowy and indefinite in its way. All roads don’t lead to anywhere in particular – at least for now they don’t.

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Brendan 12.31.05 at 8:46 am

‘We are not Russia in Chechenya.’

Well actually I raised a number of points (still unanswered so far as I can tell) in which I argued that ‘we’ are indeed (like) Russia in Chechnya, and I am still waiting for someone to demonstrate to the differences between the two situations (i.e. Chechnya and Iraq).

And by differences, I mean serious differences. I know, for example, the Chechnya borders Russia in a way that Iraq does not border the US or the UK. What I do not understand is what this has to do with anything, or why it was felt that this was a point worth raising.

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Don Quijote 12.31.05 at 3:21 pm

There are very few historical empires which would have allowed, nay HELPED, Japan and Germany become economic superpowers after defeating them in battle. We know for a fact that the USSR was not such an empire. We know that the British and French did not do so for Germany after World War I. The experience of South Korea (not a colony, not part of the borders of the United States, quite successful by any local comparison) suggests that the North Koreans would have been noticeably better off if we had won in that war.

We helped Western Europe & Japan/Korea/Taiwan because we thought we needed all the help we could get to contain COMMUNISM, if you look at the way we have behaved when communist containment (Latin America, Philipines, Indonesia, Iran, etc…) was not a priority, you will notice that we have not behaved any differently than any other imperial power.

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MikeN 01.01.06 at 8:45 am

Jane Galt’s “no one that I have ever met has tried to justify it”- I guess she never met her pseudo-pseudonym’s creator,Ayn Rand, or any of her followers.

Dan Nexon re #152- from your definitions, would you classify Athens as imperialist but not an Empire?

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soru 01.01.06 at 9:24 am

What I do not understand is what this has to do with anything, or why it was felt that this was a point worth raising.

As Vietnam showed, the US could ultimately accept defeat in Iraq, and just leave, no matter what kind of situation it would leave behind (multi-million casualty civil war, mass-murdering dictator, whatever: ‘far away country of which we know nothing’). Everyone would just collectively turn off the TV every time a news report came up, which means pretty soon mainstream news reports would all but dry up.

Pretty massive economic impact, of the type that kills millions of africans, but the US is rich and could ultimately shrug off the impact by changes at the level of driving smaller cars and hiring fewer lawyers.

If Iraq was where Mexico is, that would not be an option – it would pose an existential threat to the US, a fight it would simply have to win, whatever the cost. With an unpolicable border, bombs would be going off by the dozen in midwestern states, there would be no shortage of volunteers, and few scruples of tactics.

The only existing example of the occupation of an entirely unconsenting populace by a democracy is that of Israel and Palestine, and that is unimaginable if the countries did not share a border.

soru

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MikeN 01.01.06 at 9:27 am

Just a few thoughts on China

The PRC (and the ROC) is a successor state to the Qing Dynasty, which was actually a Manchu Empire.

The Manchus, though Sinicised, were careful to maintain an ethnic/cultural distance from the Han Chinese, and officially regarded them as just one of the five peoples who made up the Empire- Han, Manchus, Tibetans, Mongolians and Hui (Muslims,all lumped together whether Han, Uighur or other ethnic groups).

The “Five Peoples” idea was also adopted by the new Republic of China, which originally used a five-striped flag.

The Miao, Dai and all of the other “minority groups” were not recognised as distinct nationalities- it was assumed that they would gradually be assimilated by the Han.

If you look at maps of China before the Manchu conquests, parts of Mongolia and Xinjiang were at various times under Chinese control, though Tibet never was, and during the Ming Dynasty directly preceding the Qing none of the three were.

It’s as if Canadians conquered the US, proclaimed themselves heirs to George Washington, went on to take over Mexico and Cuba, and ended up in an American-run dictatorship which tried to claim historical justification for ruling all of North America

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Bro. Bartleby 01.01.06 at 5:11 pm

This, “If Iraq was where Mexico is, that would not be an option – it would pose an existential threat to the US, a fight it would simply have to win, whatever the cost.” and other such statements belie the reality.
If Iraq was where Mexico is, Iraqis would have a huge population in California, many of their relative who became US citizen could be found holding elected offices, such as the mayor of Los Angeles, and the flow of Iraqis across the border would go unimpeded (except for a feeble effort to close the borders). For again, America is an idea, not a tribe or race. You might even say that the landmass of America is the conquerored land of all the foreign imperialist, in other words, conquerored by the peoples of every country on earth. Even the Native Americans can trace their ancestors to Asia, making them the vanguard of the landmass of Americas conquest.

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Brendan 01.01.06 at 6:14 pm

Actually (and obviously) the British Empire held large chunks of (for example) India and Africa for decades, even when Britain was a democracy in the modern sense (of course, Britain was always a democracy in SOME sense throughout the 19th century, even when it was grabbing large chunks of Africa. The British Empire, we should never forget, EXPANDED as Britain democratised (at least in the short term)….the Empire, of course, reached its largest extent after WW1).

In the long term, of course, it would seem to be difficult to maintain a democratic culture and an Empire. Famously, the attempt to combine the two failed in ancient Rome. And the UK was eventually forced to lose its colonies (mainly by the colonies themselves). So it may well be that eventually the US will be forced out of Iraq (finding the conflict between neo-colonialism and keeping a democratic culture too difficult to resolve), but the extent to which the US can continue to hold onto Iraq (and Afghanistan) is precisely the issue, is it not?

Incidentally, Iraq is now, so we are told, a democracy, and yet there are no signs of a UK or US withdrawal yet….(nor in Afghanistan either)…strange, don’t you think?

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.01.06 at 9:46 pm

“Incidentally, Iraq is now, so we are told, a democracy, and yet there are no signs of a UK or US withdrawal yet….(nor in Afghanistan either)…strange, don’t you think?”

Do you think Germany is a democracy?

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Brendan 01.02.06 at 7:16 am

‘Do you think Germany is a democracy?’

Ah, yes, I forgot the pro-invasion quick step. First: ‘no of course we have no intentions of having a long term military presence in Iraq, idea never crossed our mind, what, PERMANENT? Never, you must be a conspiracy theorist/communist/islamo-fascist.’

And then: ‘But what’s wrong with having a long term military presence in Iraq anyway? We did it in Germany…..’

Then: ‘But of course we have no intention of having a long term….’ etc. etc. etc.

Repeat until dead.

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Dan Nexon 01.02.06 at 9:20 am

Milken (#162)

Don’t know enough about the actual history, so I’ll just do what everyone else does and side with Thucydides :-). Imperialist and empire.

1) Some of the colonies.
2) The transformation of the Delian League.

Change the timeframe and your mileage will vary on both issues.

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abb1 01.02.06 at 11:21 am

But the number of military bases and military forces stationed in foreign countries in general – isn’t it a really good indicator? The Soviets moving their military from their Eastern-European satellites certainly signified the end of their imperial project there; their military bases in Georgia are now perceived as a sign of their imperial ambitions there; Syrian forces in Lebanon and so on.

Everybody can understand every one of these and million other examples – until the military in question is the US military. Then for some reason everyone finds a million caveats: what about Germany? yeah, but what about all those (alleged) good intentions?

C’mon people, you can’t be serious. Bases=Empire, simple as that.

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Noel Maurer 01.02.06 at 12:20 pm

Abb1, your last paragraph is inane. I agreed with you completely until you suddenly defined hosting foreign bases as the equivalent of being an imperial satrapy. Not as an indicator, not as a contributing factor, but the actual definition of being an imperial satrapy. That is entirely inane.

The “you can’t be serious” part didn’t help.

So, yes, Abb1, I am serious. A useful definition of empire is: “(1) heterogeneous subordinate political communities, (2) rule through intermediaries who enjoy significant-but not unlimited-lattitude over rule-making and enforcement within a subordinate political community, and (3) a core-periphery structure characterized by limited political ties between peripheries.”

Sometimes the presence of military forces indicates an imperial relationship; sometimes it just indicates an alliance. As in the case of Germany and the United States. Of course, if you can convince me that the U.S. restricts German foreign and domestic policies, and that the threat of using the military forces stationed in Germany provides the force behind those restrictions, then I’ll say that you’ve indeed found a case where bases indicate empire. On the other hand, if you have no evidence that such is the case, then I’ll have to conclude that you’re not being serious.

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Dan Nexon 01.02.06 at 12:31 pm

Do “bases=empire”? There are interesting arguments on both sides, but you seem to be suggesting that bases are a proxy for empire. This is not necessarily the case. We can, I think, agree that the USSR had an “inner empire” (the USSR itself) and an outer, informal empire (e.g., the Warsaw Pact). We know this because the Soviets imposed various forms of indirect and direct rule over subordinate polities; part of the package was a troop presence that served both to keep the “local systems in line” and was part of the “goods” the Soviets got from their imperium. On the other hand, the US has bases in the UK, yet does not exercise much in the way of “indirect rule” over British politics–at least now.

One argument is that the basing agreements themselves create elements of empire (e.g., Chalmers Johnson’s claim in Blowback). Countries like Japan and the ROK clearly give up elements of sovereignty with respect to those bases, a fact that the people of Okinawa understand too well. In that sense, America does have a “Leasehold Empire” (to use C.T. Sander’s phrase).

On the other hand, if this is the extent of the exercise of “indirect rule” than we aren’t looking at much of an empire. Sanders argues that the “Leasehold Empire” is qualitatively different, in that the relationship is largely voluntary and that the US generally shows a willingness to renegotiate basing arrangements in favorable terms.

So, in the end, I would say that basing agreements do suggest some dimensions of empire, but I’m not convinced that, in the absence of further investigation into the nature and implications of overseas bases, “empire” is the best analytic category to understand these relationships.

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abb1 01.02.06 at 1:00 pm

On the other hand, if this is the extent of the exercise of “indirect rule” than we aren’t looking at much of an empire.

How is this the extent? The Soviet military stationed in Eastern Europe had to actually come out and kill some Hungarians and Czechs only a couple times in 45 years. 99.9% of the time having military there was enough to keep the locals in check. So, why should we assume that the purpose of the basing agreements is just to have basing agreements? That’s not logical. The purpose is to subjugate, to maintain hegemony, to project power. Is it not obvious?

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abb1 01.02.06 at 1:14 pm

Here’s, for example, what the CIA website says about Japan:

…After its defeat in World War II, Japan recovered to become an economic power and a staunch ally of the US. While the emperor retains his throne as a symbol of national unity, actual power rests in networks of powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and business executives.

The same political party has been in power in Japan since 1958.

Does this all look like something that happens naturally? If so, then who’s to say that Honecker’s regime in East Germany wasn’t a natural expression of the will of the East-German people?

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Dan Nexon 01.02.06 at 2:52 pm

abb1: I think the question you pose is important, but that it can’t be resolved simply by saying “there’s a base, there’s an empire.”

Reread my initial post (#155) or take a look at my extended version on my group blog. Informal empires operate in a kind of gray zone between hegemony and formal empire. Influence isn’t sufficient for informal empire, but will lead to results in countries that would be different in the absence of such influence. Indirect rule – which does take us into the domain of informal empire – also produces changes in a periphery from its “natural course” (if there is such a thing).

We know, I think, that Soviet control over Eastern Europe was imperial because we have evidence from “off the path” behavior. When the Hungarians or Czechs deviated too much, they got punished with overwhelming coercive force. When Gorbachev decided to abandon the regimes, they fell apart. We can infer from such events decent answers to the counterfactual questions raised by the question “hegemony or informal empire”?

I agree, moreover, that the US once did exert imperial control over Japan (I illustrated this point on my blog post with the first page of the US policy of occupation), but I’m very skeptical of claiming that such a relationship exists now. I guess we’d have our best evidence if the Japanese tried to do something that ran totally against the “bargain,” and the US reacted with some sort of very costly stick. The problem, though, as I think you isolate well, is that an informal empire that ran very well would (1) generate consent from the governed and (2) involve far more subtle uses of power. So I default back to the need for careful analysis using a variety of different metrics.

One thing I will add, however, is that there’s an implicit issue here: does it matter whether the US is more like an informal empire or a hegemon vis-a-vis a particular lesser power? Very little of the existing literature convinces me that it makes any difference for questions of grand strategy or policy, although I’ve been trying to argue that there is a great deal at stake in my own work. In this respect, what matters is what dynamics we think flow from the distinction, and whether those dynamics help us to understand contemporary politics.

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Dan Nexon 01.02.06 at 3:57 pm

FYI, it is not entirely true that the same political part has been in power in Japan since 1958. The LDP, in its internal politics, is also intensively competitive–its membership runs a wide variety of political spectrums that, under a different electoral system, might give rise to more competitive parties. An expert on Japan should feel free to correct me on these points, of course.

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Bro. Bartleby 01.02.06 at 4:43 pm

Seems that ‘interdependence’ has been left out of the equation. What was absent in the former USSR, PRC, and all others that repute ‘Western style’ modernity, was interdependence of the corporate world. Between 1995 and 2005 over 8,000 U.S. companies were sold to foreign owners for $1.3 trillion USD. When the UK owns Amoco, when Germany owns Chrysler, when France owns Mack Trucks, when Japan owns Firestone, and perhaps most importantly of all, when the UK owns Miller Brewing …
… and with immigration levels now at about the same levels as when some of our grandparents or great-grandparents arrived (1901-1910), the U.S. is now so intermixed, interdependent, and interlocked, that we need to come up with new terms to describe this new elephant composed of all the tribes on earth that is now occupying each of our living spaces.

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Martin James 01.03.06 at 1:15 am

Chris Bertram

I concede that the USA is an empire. Not just HAS and empire but IS an empire to the core. I mean the people who won our colonial revolution certainly weren’t indigenous, right?

But you have only a rudimentary understanding of what makes American exceptionalism tick.

For example, unlike China and Russia and all the other empires you mention, we don’t have a “core” territory. All we have is what we “settled”.

And what settles things like losing a war?

Doesn’t this make the USA “exceptional”. What other countries claim nothing but a “voluntary” history?

No pretense of ancient history and ties to the land or blood.

Also, American exceptionalism is much more tied to not having an emperor than not being an empire.

Take Iraq. We’re concerned about Bush exceeding his authority than that we invaded.

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Bill 01.03.06 at 3:23 am

May I just make one point that struck me immediately and that no-one seems to have made? If China and Russia were and are “empires” this does not show that America (or, the US) is one, because contrary to Chris Bertram’s point their historical “expansions” are quite different. The Chinese expanded their rule, so that now they rule over many different minorities, eg the Uighars in the northwest, Mongolians in the north, Tibetans and about 50 other less well-known ones. Note: the Han Chinese expanded their rule, but they did not displace these peoples and drive them out of their homelands, let alone to extinction or near-extinction. The Tibetans and the rest still, by and large, live where they have always lived, but they are ruled over by the Han Chinese (although of course the minorities have the same political rights as Han people so it is not like ancient Rome either). In the US (and to a lesser extent south America) the situation is quite different: here the ruling people of European extraction came as settlers and drove out the indigenous peoples. Now, the latter process may be worse or more culpable than what the Chinese (or the Russians) did, or it may not, but it is not the same. If China, in other words, is an empire, this does not show that the US is one too – though if it is not, it may be something worse than an empire. Likewise Australia. Today, to a considerable extent it would be possible for Russia to renounce what remains of its empire and for the peoples it rules – Chechnians etc – to rule themselves independently. To a lesser extent this might be conceivable for China. But it is not conceivable that America could withdraw in the same way and leave the Cherokee, Apache and all the other tribes to rule themselves in their ancient territories once again. For a start, this would entail the white Americans all departing and returning back to Europe – not to mention the black ones to Africa and so on; even then it is utterly inconceivable the old native cultures could be reformed as they or where they were.
So Chris Bertram’s point, or case, was, I submit, based on a false analogy.

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