An American Empire?

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According to the German economist Moritz Julius Bonn, "the United States have been the cradle of modern Anti-Imperialism, and at the same time the founding of a mighty empire."1 Those words written two years after the Second Word War capture tensions in American policy and public discourse that define the country’s uneasy position in the twenty-first century. America’s role as guarantor of global stability raises the question whether an empire can operate effectively under anti-imperial premises. Unmatched by peer competitors since the Cold War’s end, the United States now faces a very different challenge from great power rivalry that derives from disorder along the periphery of the developed world. Where Edward Gibbon could argue by the eighteenth century that distance and technology provided the West security unknown even to the Romans, globalization now projects distant conflicts and grievances into the heart of Europe and the United States.2 The debate sparked by this new dynamic has revived interest in empire as a way to analyze the problem of international order and America’s role in solving it.

Niall Ferguson’s recently published Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (Penguin, 2004) offers an important contribution to understanding the United States’ role as a global power and the consequent tensions. Building on earlier studies of international finance and the First World War, Ferguson locates the war on terrorism and American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq within a broad historical framework. Indeed, as both polemic and analysis, Colossus expands upon themes he raised last year in a study of the British Empire and its lessons for global power. Britain led efforts to police the global commons in the nineteenth century, stamping out slavery and piracy while joining its European rivals and the United States to impose governmental control over private companies and autonomous tribes whose activities often generated violence. The decline of the Pax Britannica in the mid-twentieth century brought a brief power vacuum that the United States filled as instability threatened American interests, but the Cold War masked the nature of this gradual transition to a Pax Americana. Globalization, the catch phrase of the 1990s, provided a shorthand description of an American world order defined by the Washington consensus of free markets, rule of law, and representative government. Ferguson in his book notes the growing calls from writers including Max Boot and Michael Ignatieff for nation building as a means to address failed states and human rights.3 The September 11 terrorist attacks made these questions more acute and brought an open debate on whether the United States is an empire.

The phenomenon of "failed states" and the conflicts they engendered during the 1990s revived interest in liberal imperialism, and the war on terrorism provided a rationale. Like Arnold Toynbee in the 1940s, Ferguson sees the United States as Britain’s natural heir in exercising benevolent imperial rule, and he urges Americans consciously to underwrite the liberal empire necessary to sustain globalization. Nonetheless, he poses the fundamental question whether an empire can operate effectively while denying the scale of its responsibilities and trying to avoid long-term commitments of the time and money nation building requires. As an "an empire in denial," the United States aims to shift or share burdens more than take up new ones and focuses on exit strategies rather than permanence. History and public culture impose constraints on American power that advocates of empire must address to present an effective case.

Perhaps Ferguson’s most valuable contribution lies in his efforts to define empire in a historically sophisticated manner. The word "empire" has been used carelessly as a way to describe the post-Cold War system ever since Michael Hardt and Toni Negri introduced it in their eponymous polemic that has been more cited than read...
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