The United States - An Exceptional Empire?

by Julian Go, Alex Doherty

In Barack Obama's inauguration speech for his second term in office the usual assertions of American exceptionalism were made. In his book  Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present, Professor Julian Go argues that, far from being exceptional, the United States is closely emulating the behaviour of previous empires. He discussed his ideas with NLP's Alex Doherty...

You have argued that it is typical for a global hegemon to engage in more overt imperialist behaviour during the rise and decline of the imperial power, but for the hegemon to place more reliance on "soft power" during the height of its dominance. Why do empires conform to this pattern and how well does the history of the United States fit with this trajectory?

This is a great question and gets at one of the key issues in my book. It has to do with how we view imperialism in the first place. I view it as a tactic of last resort. The costs of direct imperialism (such as colonial annexation, temporary military occupation, or overt military intervention) are high; I don’t think states prefer to use imperialism. So you have to be fairly desperate to resort to it. When states are already economically dominant, they’re not as desperate. And since they already exert sufficient control of the world, they don’t need imperialism. An analogy is a big corporation. Big corporations prefer free markets: they already have the capital and resources to beat out smaller competitors on a so-called “fair” playing field (which of course is not really fair, which is why big corporations prefer them). When they don’t already have the advantage, they’re more likely to cheat in order to secure profit and market share. I think of states and imperialism similarly. If a state already dominates the world, it prefers the status quo, and it doesn’t want to shake things up by being overtly imperialistic. Alternatively, when that state is declining, imperialism makes more sense as a way to retain dominance. As states lose their advantage, imperialism becomes a recourse.

I think Britain went through this in the nineteenth century and the US has done the same in the twentieth. The evidence for this is that the US has engaged in more overt military actions (invasions and occupations) during its period of economic decline (roughly the 1970s through the 1990s until the present) than when it was economically hegemonic (after World War II through the early 1970s). Vietnam is the exception that proves the rule.

What are the most important commonalities you see between the American empire and the British Empire?

The key commonalities are three-fold: (1) both empires followed the same pattern of becoming more imperialistic when they were weak rather than when they were strong; (2) both empires denied they were empires, and (3) both empires were shaped by the actions of subject populations while proclaiming agency for themselves. Let me briefly clarify:

First, if we look at the data we can see that both the US and British empires become more imperialistic as they declined economically. We know that Britain began to lose its relative economic position in the late nineteenth century and as it did so, it turned to imperialism as a tactic for warding off the decline. The US since the late 1970s has gone through something similar economically: relative to other countries, it has lost its unqualified economic dominance. Renewed US aggression is one outcome.

Second, there were times when both the British and US empires made pains to not be known as empires. We know this for the US case of course: there’s long been a denial of American empire in popular and even scholarly discourse. But as I discuss more in my book, and as historians like Bernard Porter have shown, there was a counterpart in England in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, most Britons from the early to mid-nineteenth century were either ignorant of their ‘empire’ or rejected the notion of it. Instead, terms like “imperialism” and “empire” in the mid-nineteenth century were most often used to refer to Napoleonic France, not Victorian England. And even when those terms were used to refer to Victorian England, they did not mean empire as we might think of it today. They rather referred to the United Kingdom of the British Isles. The term “empire” was less often used to discuss foreign affairs; and it did not have at all the same connotation of a tyrannical power that we use today. Only later, in the late decades of the nineteenth century, did more Britons became cognizant of the “British Empire” and come to freely name it.

Third, both the American and British empires were shaped by the actions of subject populations more than they were willing to acknowledge. To take an example from more recent events, since World War II through today the US has temporarily occupied countries while refusing to proclaim direct colonial rule over them. Why? The rhetoric is that the US refuses to directly rule foreign countries because it believes in and values democracy and liberty. But as I show in more detail in my book, the answer is much more complex, and one key part is simply that the peoples of the world would simply not allow it. Imagine if the US had declared that it would annex Iraq, as the British contemplating doing in the early twentieth century: nationalist anti-colonial revolution among nearly all sectors of Iraqi society would erupt, and probably other peoples in the Global South would react too. One example of this came in the early stages of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As the US military was racing furiously across the desert towards the Baghdad, it hoisted the US flag on the ground in every town it passed. But the military was soon instructed to stop. Why? Because officials knew that planting the US flag on Iraqi soil would look like we were interested in colonizing it, and this would be bad for public relations – not to mention invoking the ire of Iraqi nationalists.

So imperial rulers are well aware of the possible reaction of subject populations, and that’s one of the reasons why the US refuses to colonize in the old nineteenth century mode. Yet the US still declares that the reason why it refuses to colonize is because of America’s values. This is what I mean by declaring agency for itself.

As the relative power of the United States continues to decline, how serious is the danger of greater violence due to the United States placing greater reliance on its coercive power as its economic preeminence erodes?

I think the danger remains high. It’s hard to see that now, because as the US emerges from 8 years of war in Iraq and as Obama has already planned the withdrawal of Afghanistan, the idea that the US could stomach more imperialism sounds sort of ridiculous. But I think there’s a long-term story to consider: yes, for the next few years the US might shy away from imperialism, but (a) Americans, like all imperial subjects, have very short memory spans, and (b) as the economy continues to decline and America’s relative position continues to falter relative to rival states, the rhetoric of “threat” to the US (either economic or political or both) continues to proliferate. And imperialism is most often justified on the grounds of threat. Besides, the US, despite its shortcomings in Iraq and Afghanistan, still has the most powerful military in the world - probably - as the historian Paul Kennedy has pointed out, in the history of the world.

This is scary: you have the strongest power in the world militarily which is economically weaker and weaker. So in a sense, military power becomes all the US has. All the more reason to fear that it will use it to prevent itself from falling further. It’s like the biggest, strongest, most feckless bully on the block who has lost all his candy to the other weaker kids. What would we expect might happen next?

I know that analogy is sort of silly. But in some ways it’s not unlike what’s going on. And it’s scary because one of the things that would follow is not just continued American aggression but also, as a result, a global escalation of conflict between rival powers. Then we have world war.

Defenders of the claim that America is not an empire in the traditional sense point to the US fostering of democratic institutions in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Why do you believe that these examples fail to demonstrate American "exceptionalism"?

One key part of the American exceptionalist idea is that the US has been a special type of empire, one that reflects America’s national character. Pro-exceptionalists often refer to what the US did in the Philippines and Puerto Rico to make their case. Why? They point out that in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the US – unlike, presumably, the British in their colonies – embarked upon a project of “democratic tutelage”: using colonialism only to democratize the two countries and implant modern political institutions (like elections). This was an early form of nation-building. Why did the US do that? According to the exceptionalism narrative, it’s because the US has unique democratic and anti-colonial values. America’s implantation of democratic institutions in foreign lands merely reflects America’s own exceptional political culture.

But this is a misleading narrative. It’s true that the US made efforts to implant so-called “democratic” institutions in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. But even bracketing the irony of trying to impose democracy through non-democratic means (i.e. through colonial rule) this does not amount to exceptionalism. First, exceptionalism assumes uniqueness, but the British embarked  upon their own similar brand of “democratic tutelage” in India. Second, according to the exceptionalism thesis, the US should have embarked upon “democratic tutelage” projects in all of its overseas colonies. But it did not. In Guam and Samoa, which were ruled by the US around the same time as Puerto Rico and the Philippines, US colonial rule was modeled after British rule in Fiji; a type of “indirect” rule through local chiefs which made no effort to implant modern democratic institutions. US colonialism reflected British colonialism rather than US values.

The question is why the US (and hence the British) enacted tutelary colonialism where it did. The answer is simple: legitimation. In Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the US faced a local elite who were already educated in democratic ideas, and the US needed them as collaborators. So to win them over, American colonial officials espoused a rhetoric of democratic tutelage. They didn’t try to do that in Guam and Samoa because the local elite there were perceived to be more like “noble savages” uninterested in modern democracy. So America’s so-called "exceptional" colonialism in Puerto Rico and the Philippines was only a reflection of local elite interests, not America’s democratic values. As I argue in the book, the British enacted a sort of tutelary colonialism in India for similar reasons.

The British Empire moved toward direct colonial control over much of the globe as its economic preeminence declined - given that post-"decolonization" direct rule has been thoroughly discredited - how will the US seek to maintain its own dominance if the option of direct colonialism is not open to it?

As direct colonial rule as we think of it (in its nineteenth century version) is no longer tenable, imperial powers like the US have cultivated other mechanisms of rule, in part copying what the British did in some parts of the world in the nineteenth century. “Informal” rule in one way: cultivating local clients or allies in countries where the US seeks influence. The more aggressive route is straight out military aggression and/or temporary military occupation. This is the route taken when clientelism breaks down. Clients get unruly or go against their patron’s interests, and so the patron has to step in and force them out or force them to do what they want. Saddam Hussein was of course a US client; then he got too recalcitrant and had to be put in his place. So usually it’s first some kind of economic threat like cutting off aid and embargoes. Then, failing that, it’s military invasion and straight out military occupation. This is what we see in the past decades as the US has become more of a desperate declining hegemon; more and  more military invasions and occupations. And I would suggest we will see more of it in the coming decade, at least once we all begin to forget about Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States has defined itself as a world leader in terms of the values it espouses: democracy, free trade, the "American dream" and so on. You point out that the British and Dutch empires also portrayed themselves as being at the forefront of enlightened progress during their periods of dominance. What were the British and Dutch counterparts to America's espoused ideals?

I’d draw from Immanuel Wallerstein’s thinking here. He points out that each hegemon tries to legitimate itself by espousing universal values. For all three hegemons, the Dutch, the British and the US, some ideal of free or open trade was upheld. This makes sense: hegemons would benefit the most from open trade due to their comparative advantage. But there were more specific values too. For the Dutch it was religious tolerance and the ideal of Westphalian sovereignty (basically the ideal of national state sovereignty, however restricted to European rulers). For the British it was the idea of “civilization” (with a somewhat different inflection than the French ideal of civilization), which included the idea of “civilizing the natives” through commerce; and a circumscribed ideal of liberty and freedom (i.e. anti-slave trade and against the tyranny of monarchs). In a sense, the American ideological apparatus builds upon these earlier values, with the American version of “civilizing” figuring as “modernization” or “development.” It will be interesting to see how, say, China tries to articulate some version of universal values as it rises to global power – and what exactly those values might be.

Julian Go is Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University. He is the author of 'Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present' and 'American Empire and The Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in the Philippines and Puerto Rico'.

Alex Doherty is co-editor of New Left Project and is currently pursuing a masters in war studies at King's College London.

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First published: 22 January, 2013

Category: History, Terror/War

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12 Comments on "The United States - An Exceptional Empire?"

By Bryan Hemming, on 22 January 2013 - 12:08 |

Whereas I can’t disagree with the main thrust of the article I disagree witht he statement: both empires denied they were empires. From 1876 Quenn Victoria added the title Empress of India to her list. And please can you make your comments box a little more legible.

By Michael, on 22 January 2013 - 14:03 |

Empires appear almost to follow a bloody bell-curve. They use violence to carve out the empire, then a kind of plateau is reached and the empire imagines it’s forever and universal, then on the downside of the empire violence returns with a vengence as one desparately attempts to hold things together which, for numerous reasons, are falling apart.

The real challenge, for not just the United States, but all of us living under the shadow of the empire, is how will they deal witht the rise of China. Will the US go down the British Empire’s disasterous course of confronting Germany, or will it come to an accomodation instead, rather than choosing war?

By Neil, on 22 January 2013 - 22:43 |

It is taken for granted in this article - and popular and educated discourse generally - that a global hegemon exerting control through some sort of imperial system is an inevitable fact of life (or, more appropriately, death). Although undoubtedly imperial systems have been deeply interwoven with the history of state systems I don’t think it is correct or useful to treat a repetition of the pattern in the 21st century as inevitable; that I consider to be a normative position rather than a genuine substantive one.  

I am inclined to think that concentrating on the global super-power and main potential challenger/s encourages in effect a conservative perspective that sees only eternal, recurrent patterns.  Personally I would be more interested to see attempts to conceptualise a transition to a world system not predicated on global and regional empires and, from historians of empire, would like to know whether history provides any pointers how such a contra-movement might be developed and how an interconnected world society might be expected to function in the absence of imperial power. 

By Alex Doherty, on 23 January 2013 - 23:33 |

“It is taken for granted in this article - and popular and educated discourse generally - that a global hegemon exerting control through some sort of imperial system is an inevitable fact of life”

There’s no such assumption in the interview or Professor Go’s work more generally. Julian is describing the commonalities between the most dominant economic and military power of today and its historical predecessors - there’s no implication that imperialism is a future inevitability. 

“I would be more interested to see attempts to conceptualise a transition to a world system not predicated on global and regional empires”

A fine topic, but nothing to do with Julian’s work or this interview. 

By Neil, on 23 January 2013 - 23:49 |

“There’s no such assumption in the interview or Professor Go’s work more generally.”

If that’s the case then I would be interested to know what the following statement means or implies?: “It will be interesting to see how, say, China tries to articulate some version of universal values as it rises to global power – and what exactly those values might be.”

On the other point - are you suggesting that there’s something wrong with a comment about what one would would like to see written about , prompted by a piece, instead of solely commenting on what is?

By Alex, on 24 January 2013 - 00:17 |

Describing China as presently being on the trajectory of an embryonic global power does not imply that the dominance of an imperial power is, as you put it, “an inevitable fact of life”.

“are you suggesting that there’s something wrong with a comment about what one would would like to see written about”

Couched as a criticism of the present interview it seems at least a bit odd - as did your description of it as “academic waffle” over on the medialens message board. 

By Neil , on 24 January 2013 - 00:54 |

Alex my dear - it wasn’t me who wrote the comment you quote on the medialens message board - in fact I’ve hardly ever commented on medialens and haven’t for well over 6 months (I have an ambivalent to negative attitude towards it). If that comment was written by ‘Neil’ then it may surprise you but it’s not that rare a name. Maybe I should change mine so I don’t get unfairly blamed in future. 

As to the adjective ‘embryonic’ I’m struggling to find it. I don’t really wish to get in an argument though - I admire NLP a great deal (as I have said on at least two occasions in the last month or so and on occasions last year).  You would find if you investigated that I am generally positive and polite towards those articles and interviews which I comment on, and when I believe that I have been wrong I admit it and apologise.  I am sorry if you feel that I was being negative in my comments which had more to do with the  apparent framing of the subject which I think might have precluded asking some radical questions, rather than the content itself, but I think your views might have been coloured by what you thought regarding medialens. Cheers though and keep up the good work.

By Alex, on 24 January 2013 - 01:05 |

my bad Neil… the writing style struck me as rather similar and the two comments popped up at about the same time. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the site. As for “radical questions” - Julian’s work attacks the notion that the American empire is in some sense exceptional (the description of it as such is of course used to propagate the notion that the United States acts in a disinterested manner, in contrast to the avaricious European imperial powers). That seems like a worthwhile project to me. ‘Embryonic’ was my term - not Julian’s. But the point stands - it cannot be extrapolated from his brief comment on China that he views imperialism as “an inevitable fact of life”. 

By Julian Go, on 24 January 2013 - 02:28 |

Dear Alex and Neil: I am honored by your comments (and thanks Alex, for writing this piece!). And I am glad that the piece sparked some productive discussion. My own thought is that I do agree with you Neil that understanding how imperialism might be avoided in the future is a necessary project; and that, generally, if I take your comments correctly, it is a necessary project to imagine a world without empires. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not capable of that sort of analysis at this stage. I’ve done what I can to first investigate past and present patterns so as to better understand what we’re dealing with. Hopefully others can use that information to better envision how the historical tendencies I detect in my book (and I do mean “tendencies”, not iron laws of history) might be redirected and changed. In short, I work from the assumption that it’s difficult to change history if one doesn’t understand it fully or lay out the possible directions history will go based upon that understanding. And I’ll be the first to admit that I do not do much by way of laying out the more optimistic possibilities. Arguably I’ve taken Gramsci’s dictum too far in one direction: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!”. In any case thanks again for your discussion.

By mike, on 01 March 2013 - 19:15 |

‘...or will it come to an accommodation instead, rather than choosing war?’

Not to say the US would couch suppression of the Chinese with claims of human rights intervention? To what cause would it serve the US, except to perhaps stop coal burning and threats to sea lanes?

By Michael, on 04 March 2013 - 07:32 |

Mike. Sorry, I don’t really fully understand your points. I tihnk the US will use the situation in Tibet as an excuse, if it’s necessary, to confront China. Or it will use Japan as a proxy and let them start the conflict. I think we’re moving towards WW3, there is a clear and definite momentum, and Iran, Russia, and China are firmly within the ‘imperialist crosshairs’.

By jon, on 28 September 2013 - 15:53 |

I found this artistic expression of the demise of the usa empire -

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