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:

bq. 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”:,2763,1669433,00.html :

bq. 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.