The Lie that Empire Tells Itself

Eric Foner

  • The Dominion of War: Empire and conflict in North America 1500-2000 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton
    Atlantic, 520 pp, £19.99, July 2005, ISBN 1 903809 73 8

Is the United States an empire? Only in the US could such a question even be asked. To the rest of the world, the answer is obvious: the US is perhaps the most powerful empire the world has known. Empire means dominion, the desire and ability to determine the fate of peoples near and far. And in every index of power – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, military, economic and cultural – the US far exceeds all other nations. It accounts for one-third of the world’s gross domestic product and military spending. Even before the Iraq war, it had more than 700 military installations overseas. It is not surprising that in such circumstances, many Americans feel that the country can impose its will on the rest of the world, establishing rules of conduct for others while acting as it sees fit.

In recent times, it has mainly been critics of the country’s foreign policy who have spoken of an American empire. Empire has seemed distasteful, a relic of a less enlightened era of international relations. America, George W. Bush insisted during the 2000 election campaign, had ‘never been an empire’ and had no intention of becoming one. Politicians still shy away from the term. But since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the term ‘empire’ has been used without embarrassment by political commentators in the US. The need to shoulder the burdens of empire is now a common theme in discussions among the foreign policy elite. Conservative writers such as Charles Krauthammer forthrightly defend American empire as an exercise of raw power, while traditional liberals like Michael Ignatieff promote it as a way of protecting human rights against tyrannical regimes.

Perhaps the leading current populariser of the idea is Niall Ferguson. Only an American empire, he insists, can secure order in a dangerous, unruly world. He does not deny that the US is and always has been an empire. The only question for him is whether it possesses the means to continue to act as one. His recent book, Colossus, is a how-to manual for Americans ambivalent about the financial and psychological costs of empire.[*]

The idea that the US is and should be an empire has a long history, one linked to the belief that by example, force or a combination of the two, the country should try to remake the world in its own image. Our empire, however, was to be different from all others. Jefferson spoke of America as an ‘empire of liberty’. When the nation stepped onto the world stage as an imperial power in the Spanish-American War of 1898, President William McKinley insisted that ours was a ‘benevolent’ imperialism, that the conquest of Puerto Rico and the Philippines ought not to be compared to the despotic actions of European powers. Woodrow Wilson insisted that only the US possessed the combination of military power and moral righteousness to make the world safe for democracy.

Like Ferguson, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton begin with the premise that the US has always been an empire. But in contrast to Ferguson’s brief, sanitised account of US history, which leaves the impression that the country’s territorial expansion on the North American continent took place largely through peaceful settlement and the purchase of land, Anderson and Cayton emphasise the centrality of military conquest.

They are nothing if not ambitious. Their aim in The Dominion of War is to dismantle what they call the traditional ‘grand narrative’ that portrays American history as the emergence and triumph of freedom in one nation, its spread across the continent, and its mission to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world. Long since abandoned, or at least severely modified, by professional historians, this vision remains alive and well in the popular imagination, in our public monuments and in political rhetoric. ‘Ours,’ President Bush declared in 2002, ‘is a history of freedom; freedom for everyone.’

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[*] Penguin, 400 pp., £8.99, June, 0 14 101700 7.