Empire, Hegemony, and the U.S. Policy Mess

post to History News Network, 21 May 2007

The deepening plight of the Bush administration fits into a puzzlingly persistent pattern. The Vietnam-induced collapse of the Johnson presidency was followed by Nixon’s disgrace, dramatic reversals under Carter and then Reagan, and a dizzying search for a post-Cold War conceptual foundation under Bush senior and Clinton. … A more global and comparative perspective on empire and hegemony is needed to help deepen our analysis of this disarray. This approach can also help us move beyond commentary filled with vague references to a U.S. “superpower,” emotive invocations of empire, and casual conflation of empire and hegemony.

The notion of an American empire is now fashionable – and usefully employed if well grounded. Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) is used to subjugate a territorially delimited area. Once created, empires acquire other structural features. Maintaining control depends on collaboration between metropolitan and colonial elites (with each exercising disproportionate influence within their own societies) supplemented by a variety of other mechanisms from proximate military bases to a class of imperial administrators to ideological orthodoxies that rationalize dominance at home as well as abroad. Skeptics may want to argue that informal control, so prominent a feature of the U.S. case, does not qualify as empire. This objection does not withstand scrutiny. Rome’s eastern frontier and China’s subordination of lands beyond the line of direct imperial authority leap to mind.

Rather than focus on distinctions between formal and informal control, we might more fruitfully think instead about how control is exercised – within the limits imposed by imperial resources, by the technologies of the time, and by the tolerance of subject peoples. Even formal control has recurrently depended on enlisting subordinated groups in the imperial enterprise by making concessions that make dominance more manageable and cost effective. Rather than make the test formal or informal control, why not ask who ultimately decides whether local rulers stay or go, who makes the ultimate decision on alliances and foreign military bases, and from what direction the indigenous military takes it cues?

This definition would suggest that the United States has been an empire for a long time and in several guises. It began as a continental empire (a form of settler colonialism already at the time of national independence); it turned to formal overseas empire at the end of the nineteenth century; and it thereafter practiced informal empire in large hunks of Central America and the Caribbean, a broad swath of maritime East Asia, western Asia amongst a loose assemblage of clients, and arguably even western Europe in the early Cold War. In each of its imperial phases Washington has mustered the obligatory justification for extending frontiers (whether Manifest Destiny, the Monroe doctrine, the containment doctrine, or the war on terrorism), has sought accommodation with amenable local elites, raised to prominence U.S.-sponsored armies, created a formidable network of military bases and alliances, dispatched proconsuls to sustain and direct client regimes, and in extremis launched U.S. military forces and covert operations to change governments. This long and varied record suggests empire is imprinted in the national genetic code.

The peculiar aspect of this empire is that time and again significant parts of the citizenry have responded with aversion and even outright opposition. The oldest source of hostility is the conviction on the part of classically-trained American leaders that empire is a fundamental threat to republican survival. Their conviction gave rise to sharp disputes in the 1840s and again after 1898. Fear for fragile republican institutions persisted through the twentieth century and is still evident in such current authors as Patrick Buchanan and Chalmers Johnson.

A second source of anti-imperial sentiment is the consumer republic that arose during the twentieth century. Consumer-citizens don’t rank imperial glory among their top priorities, and have made clear at the ballot box their reluctance to make personal sacrifices for distant, dirty wars. Finally, American doubts about empire have flowed from a fundamental national principle given sharpest articulation in wartime propaganda. Beginning with World War I and continuing with World War II and the Cold War, Washington has sought to draw a clear line between its commitment to national liberation and its foes’ record of imperial subjugation.

This combination of lingering republican anxieties, an inward-turning consumerist ethic, and rhetorical support for self determination makes Americans not just odd imperialists but arguably in various measures self-deceived, ineffectual, and frustrated ones. Compounding the muddle, U.S. backing for self-determination and decolonization has created expectations abroad subversive of the very control American leaders have sought to exercise. Seen from overseas, Americans have placed themselves in the contradictory position of celebrating self determination while violating it in multiple ways in many places and not just in the present but over several centuries. An anti-imperial people trying to justify and manage an “empire of liberty” in a post-imperial era creates some of the problems afflicting U.S. policy.

No less important than empire, hegemony is more difficult to pin down. The comparative literature offers less help, and the historical cases from which to generalize are more limited. While there are lots of empires, there are fewer hegemonies, and no hegemons wielding the kind of multi-layered influence on a global scale like the United States. The most obvious close comparison, Britain, operated within decided limits imposed by a substantial field of near equal competitors, by relatively rudimentary communications and transport technologies, and by a comparatively minor league economy.

A starting point in defining hegemony is to highlight the ways in which it is not an empire. One of its leading features is the broad and subtle penetration of economic and cultural practices and products across entire regions rather than the focused exercise of political and military power. Another is the self-conscious promotion of trans-national norms and institutions rather then the creation of specific subordinate colonial or client regimes. Perhaps the most important attribute is legitimacy. Hegemony involves more than reaping material rewards and psychic gratification; integral to any claims to international leadership on such a broad scale are heavy obligations. In its lack of coercion, in its defuse sources of support, and in its amorphous territorial range, hegemony has to be seen as distinct from empire.

If in the U.S. case empire is genetic, hegemony is an acquired characteristic. Hegemony was made possible by a rate of economic growth over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that had no precedent in human history. This achievement created the preconditions for a U.S.-inspired, designed, and regulated international system that took shape during the first two thirds of the twentieth century. American economic and cultural clout remade societies and reshaped the practices of daily life around the world.

But since the 1970s Washington has neglected the duties of the hegemon and at times has shown open hostility to the very international institutions and norms earlier put in place. This negligent if not defiant stance has depleted U.S. legitimacy in foreign eyes. Whether Americans can rescue legitimacy may depend on their response to looming global problems – from growing income inequalities, to environmental degradation, to nuclear proliferation, to the persistence of pervasive hunger and disease. Washington’s anemic, distinctly corporate understanding of hegemony as a commitment to global free markets makes an effective response unlikely.

U.S. hegemony, while distinct from empire, has become entangled with it in ways that compound the crisis of legitimacy. Empire pursued too enthusiastically can eat away at legitimacy abroad. International polls reveal a widespread revulsion against U.S. policy dragging down favorable attitudes toward U.S. society and culture. Nowhere is this dysfunctional tangle more striking than in the Middle East. After World War II U.S. policymakers carved out an informal empire. Faced with sharp regional resistance in recent decades, American leaders have tried to justify the imperial presence in terms of hegemonic goals – in various combinations democracy, stability, free markets, counter terrorism, and human rights. In the process they have deepened the doubts in the region while confusing themselves and perplexing their own public.

As with empire, thinking about a history of hegemony can help illuminate the options before us. What are the possible costs as well as benefits of revitalizing the commitment to hegemony or abandoning that role altogether? If abandonment is the choice, then how should the United States relate to the rest of the world? Without considering what might follow a discarded hegemony, Americans run the risk of perpetuating the very disorientation now afflicting them.

Introducing empire and hegemony into the lexicon of the foreign policy establishment and even work-a-day political discourse may seem like a tall order. But some serious historical perspective grounded in global and comparative insights may offer one of the few ways to break out of our current malaise in which empire is practiced but not widely accepted, in which hegemony is claimed as a prerogative without corresponding obligations, and in which as a consequence disorientation becomes a congenital feature of U.S. foreign relations. History cannot solve our problems, but it can help us think about them more clearly.

[Acknowlegment:] Thanks to Peter Filene, A. G. Hopkins, Steven Levine, and Richard Talbert for their help. This essay builds in part on my H-Diplo review of Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its PredecessorsPDF of the longer draft version of this essay.

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.