The Duck of Minerva

Rome on the Potomac

7 June 2007

Gary Kamiya reviews Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome?. This seems like a good excuse for me to post, for your consideration, four “lessons” on how (not) to think about American Empire that form the core of a piece I’m working on for a forum on “American Empire”:

According to Deepak Lal (2004: 63), the “United States is indubitably an empire. It is more than a hegemon, as it seeks control over not only foreign but also aspects of domestic policy in other countries. But it is an informal and indirect empire.” Proponents of the existence of American Empire justify their claim on a number of grounds:

• The enormous—if diminishing—gap between its capabilities and those of its nearest rivals. Some argue that the only comparable examples of asymmetric power and influence involve imperial orders.

• The breadth and depth of American military basing and access agreements with other states. Many of these agreements involve significant transfers of sovereignty rights from host countries to the United States, and they create an American network of empire-like garrisons across the globe.

• The scope of American influence—albeit sometimes exercised through institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank—over the internal fiscal and economic policies of other states.

• The many instances in which the United States has intervened—either diplomatically or militarily—to remove ruling regimes in other states or significantly alter their internal policies, and the existence of many American “clients” such as Israel, South Korea, and Pakistan.

Such arguments amount to a relatively compelling brief for American informal empire. But we should consider some important pitfalls before we declare the United States an empire and developing a list of relevant “lessons” for American policymakers.

First, beware of false analogies. The aforementioned evidence suggests important parallels between the position of the United States and specific historical empires. Many of those who affirm the imperial character of the United States, in fact, compare the scope of its power and influence to that of Rome and nineteenth-century Britain. Rome and Britain, however, both controlled empires and, at various times and in various places, also operated as hegemonic and unipolar powers. We should, therefore, exercise a great deal of caution lest we declare the United States an empire through a comparison with Roman and British preeminence (e.g., Lefever, 1999: 4-5).

This conflation operates in a more subtle, but more dangerous way, when it comes to discussions of American “informal empire.” One of the major arguments against the existence of an American Empire pivots on the United States’ current lack of territorial ambitions (see Ignatieff, 2003b: 22; Kagan, 2002: 16; Schmitt and Landler, 2004: 10). Others respond that “America, consonant with its republican ideology and preponderant air-naval power, favors informal imperial arrangements” (O’Reilly and Renfro, 2007: 139). Analysts often draw parallels with Rome and Britain, both of which controlled informal empires at various times and in various places (e.g., Freedland, 2002; Kurth, 1997: 5). As Michael Cox (2005: 22-23) notes, “British imperialism entertained both formal and informal domination, direct political rule and indirect economic control.” The British, he argues, cared less about “the means they employed to secure the outcomes they wanted” than “the outcomes themselves.”

Descriptions of British informal imperialism, in fact, resonate with aspects of contemporary American foreign relations. Informal imperialism, argues John Darwin (1997: 614): “relied upon the links created by trade, investment or diplomacy, often supplanted by unequal treaties and periodic armed intervention, to draw new regions into the world-system of an imperial power.” But such accounts also sound a great deal like standard international-relations descriptions of hegemonic control. Even if a hegemon aims only to control aspects of the political and economic relations among subordinate polities, it will almost invariably exercise influence over their internal economic and fiscal policies; forge relations designed to establish and maintain its ability to project power within the boundaries of its order; and sometimes even engage in military, diplomatic and economic intervention into the “domestic” affairs of subordinate states.

None of these concerns render comparisons between the United States and past empires irrelevant for scholars and policy analysts. Nor do they imply that “informal empire” amounts to another way of saying “hegemony.” But we need to be careful about not allowing, either implicitly or explicitly, the unipolar and hegemonic characteristics of past imperial polities to provide evidence for the existence of an American Empire (e.g., Grygiel, 2006: 210, fn 1). Dominic Lievan (1995: 608) once remarked that “an empire has to be a great power.” Empire, properly understood, describes a form of political control exercised by such minor powers as Belgium and the Netherlands. The concept enjoys no intrinsic relationship with the distribution of power.

Second, remember that designating the United States as an “empire” only matters if it leads us to think differently about its political dynamics. The concerns discussed above help account for a troubling dimension of the American Empire literature: it seldom provides much in the way of “value added” for analysis of American foreign-policy challenges. In fact, many of the “lessons” found in even the best work on American Empire amount to restatements of claims advanced in hegemonic-order theory, balance-of-power theory, and debates about the relative costs and benefits of American unilateralism.

Elliott Cohen (2004: 58-59), for example, notes that Rome “picked its fights… and took care not to take on the great powers of the world all at once or to allow unified powers to rise against it—a piece of wisdom that, two millennia later, imperial Germany failed to learn.” Empires, many argue, work best when subordinate polities view them as legitimate, when they balance military coercion with the judicious use of soft power, and when they provide demonstrable public goods to their members. Analysts therefore warn against the United States engaging in excessively brusque unilateralism lest it alienate it allies and exacerbate tensions with it enemies, caution American policymakers against assuming that they enjoy unlimited power and influence, express concern about American strategic overextension, and often argue against a retreat from robust internationalism (Cohen, 2004: 58-59; Cox, 2005: 26-30; Snyder, 2003).

These recommendations have a solid foundation in imperial history. They provide an important rejoinder against to who, at least a few years ago, conflated “American Empire” with omnipotence. But they apply equally well to hegemonic and unipolar powers. They serve, in fact, as potentially useful recommendations for any great power seeking to minimize its chances of confronting counterbalancing coalitions, to avoid risky foreign-policy adventures, and otherwise come out on the losing side of international competition for influence. Whether or not we attach the appellation “imperial” to Wilhelmite and Nazi Germany, for example, matters little to Cohen’s sound advice for great-power political conduct. Such “lessons” fail to pass Alexander Motyl’s (2006: 193) important test: “Imagine, then, that policy analysts and scholars stopped applying the label to the United States. Would it make any difference?” If the “lessons of empire” amount to what we find in balance-of-power theory or hegemonic-order theory, then the answer is “no.”

Third, avoid the “empire box” fallacy. The diversity of imperial polities presents another challenge to deriving lessons of empire. Even if we decide, for instance, that the geostrategic position of the United States involves imperial characteristics, it does not follow that any and every experience of historical empires, or a particular historical empire, provides lessons for American policymakers.

The Renaissance diplomat and historian, Francesco Guicciardini (1972: 69), once remarked (in an apparent swipe at Niccolò Machiavelli):

How wrong it is to cite the Romans at every turn. For any comparison to be valid, , it would be necessary to have a city with conditions like theirs, and then to govern it according to their example. In the case of a city with different qualities, the comparison is as much out of order as it would be to expect a jackass to race like a horse.

Guicciardini, in my view, pushes this point too far. His argument does serve, however, as a reminder that contextual variation in forms of imperial control, legitimating frameworks, domestic politics, economic relations, and a host of other factors caution against hasty generalizations from the experiences of past empires.

Jakub Grygiel (2006: 220-221), for example, concludes an otherwise provocative article on “imperial allies” with the following lesson from the Roman experience: “A powerful, and timeless, reminder of the consequences of a defeat—and withdrawal, albeit temporary, from international commitments—is the immediate aftermath of the battle of Cannae (216 BCE), where the Roman army was thoroughly beaten by Hannibal’s Carthaginian invading force.” The defeat led “several Italian allies of Rome” to defect “to Hannibal’s side.” The “United States,” he notes, “may want to heed this lesson when it deals with its current allies” and thereby not expect “retreat” to “lead to an increase in friendly feelings abroad, as some hope.”

The plausibility of this comparison derives largely from the label “imperial allies” rather than any profound similarities between Rome’s struggle with Carthage for dominance over the Mediterranean and contemporary American involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem here stems not from Grygiel’s important reminder that imperial relations involve bilateral alliances—and that these asymmetric bargains sometimes operate differently from those found in robust multilateral arrangements. Instead, it derives from the way that Grygiel identifies very specific lessons from a particular imperial experience and elevates them to “timeless” principles.

Fourth, consistently think about empire in relational terms. Recall the difficulty of differentiating hegemony from informal empire. I argued that even polities we designate as “hegemons” engage in practices we associate with informal empire. This presents a problem if we phrase the question as whether or not the United States is an empire. Putting the question in these terms, however, is somewhat like asking me “are you a father, a son, a teacher, a researcher, a writer, a consultant, a friend or an enemy?” The appropriate, if mismatched, answer, is “yes.” We tend to treat these aspects of identity as non-exclusive categorical attributes. They do, of course, have significance as categorical attributes in a great deal of legal, political, economic, and social life. But, in a more fundamental sense, they aren’t categorical attributes at all. “Father,” “son,” “teacher,” “researcher,” “writer,” “consultant,” “friend,” and “enemy” describe particular relationships or modes of interaction. I may interact with a particular person or people, in particular settings, through one or more of these relational forms.

Thus, we should neither declare, as Lal does, that the United States is “indubitably an empire” nor, as Kimberly Kagan (2002: 16) does, “the United States is not an empire at all….” Many of the participants in the debate realize this, of course, yet still succumb to the temptation of phrasing the issue in aggregate terms (e.g., Cox, 2004). G. John Ikenberry (2004: 611), for example, notes that “the United States has a long history of pursuing crude imperial policies, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East,” but then argues that the American order is “built on ‘liberal hegemonic bargains…. This is not an empire—it is an American-led open-democratic political order that has no name or historical antecedent.” And, of course, it may very well be the case that if we unpacked some of these bargains we will find relationships with informal imperial qualities, even if only in specific policy domains.


It strikes me that many of the parallels Muprhy draws, and which Kamiya endorses, fall prey to these problems. Thoughts? Comments I can use for redrafting this section?