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American empires: past and present*.

OF COURSE, MANY AMERICANS DENY THEY ever had an empire. But this is not unique. So did many nineteenth-century Brits, for whom the term also possessed negative connotations. They said they were only spreading freedom around the world. Since British history textbooks of the time had as their main theme the growth of freedom, most of them took the American side in the War of Independence (Porter 2005:66-72). Of course, British actions often differed from rhetoric. Prime Minister Gladstone was a noted anti-imperialist, an upholder of "the rights of the savage," but under his administrations the Empire expanded more than under his supposedly proimperial predecessor Disraeli. So to equate empire with freedom, or to avoid the word while doing empire, is nothing new.


The frequency of empire denial makes it essential to define what we mean by empire. The word derives from the Latin imperium, the power wielded by a general commanding an army and a magistrate armed with law--a combination of political and military power. Modern usage adds a geographical element--power exercised over a peripheral by a core power. Thus my definition is
 an empire is a centralized, hierarchical system of rule acquired
 and maintained by coercion through which a core territory dominates
 peripheral territories, serves as the intermediary for their main
 interactions, and channels resources from and between the

As Motyl says (2001:4), an empire is like a rimless wheel: the peripheries communicate to and through the core but not directly to each other, so that the core controls the flow of all major resources. All roads led to Rome, all gold flowed to Cadiz, all 5-year plans were made in Moscow, while today imperial authority flows from two capital cities, Washington (the political/ military capital) and New York (the capital of capital).

Empires initially grow mainly through military power, deployed or threatened, and repeated if rebellions occur. Empires often claim to be charities, selflessly bringing good to the world. They may indeed bring benefits to those they rule. But this is not the point of acquiring empire in the first place. If you want to help others, you do not march into their homes, kill young men, rape young women, steal their possessions, and then impose an authoritarian political regime from which some benefit may later flow. You do not more modestly even dictate the terms of trade. The initial point of empire is to plunder the land, possessions, and souls of others precisely because you have the military power to do so. Of course, then an empire may dominate by wielding other sources of power--political, economic, and ideological--and benefits may perhaps flow. Modern empires have contained an unusual degree of economic imperialism, because capitalism can better integrate the economies of core and periphery than did previous modes of production. This has been prominent in the British and especially the American empires.

Obviously, empires have been very varied. I distinguish several types and subtypes of empire.

(1) Direct empire occurs where territories are conquered and then politically incorporated into the realm of the core. Historic examples were the Roman and Chinese empires in their maturity. In direct empire, the sovereign of the core also becomes the sovereign over the periphery. Once institutionalized, a fairly uniform set of political institutions radiates outward from the center to the periphery. The logo SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus--the Senate and People of Rome) was emblazoned on the standards of all the legions and on drainpipes throughout the Roman territories. Roman law came to govern all. Provincial economies also became fairly integrated, and finally the empire completed a peaceful "disappearing act" when the conquered peoples became ideologically incorporated, acquiring a "Roman" or "Han Chinese" identity. Power had thus moved successively through military to political to economic to ideological forms. But modern empires have been unable to perform this disappearing act. They have been racist, preventing conquered peoples from identifying themselves as British or French or Japanese, while nationalism presented a barrier to cultural assimilation from below. Without large numbers of settlers, direct rule has been difficult to accomplish and expensive to maintain, especially overseas. So modern empires have turned more to:

(2) Indirect empire involves a claim of political sovereignty by the imperial core, but the rulers of the periphery retain autonomy and in practice negotiate the rules of the game with the imperial authorities. As British Pro-Consul Lord Cromer said, "We do not govern Egypt, we only govern the governors of Egypt" (Al-Sayyid 1968:68). Locals staff most of the army and administration, and dominate provincial and local governments. This was the real practice on the ground in most modern colonies and protectorates. The British would retain some central power through a "Resident" or "advisers" wielding substantial military power in the background, so that they could repress any revolts, but rule required collaboration between them and native elites.

These first two types involve colonies, unlike those that follow.

(3) Informal empire occurs where peripheral rulers retain sovereignty but with autonomy constrained by intimidation from the imperial core. This became the predominant modern form, because it centered on capitalist coercion) Gallagher and Robinson (1953:2-3) developed the concept, saying that in the nineteenth century British policy was "trade with informal control if possible; trade with rule when necessary." Robinson (1984:48) later summarized its policies: "Coercion or diplomacy exerted for purposes of imposing free trading conditions on a weaker society against its will; foreign loans, diplomatic, and military support to weak states in return for economic concessions or political alliance; direct intervention or influence from the export-import sector in the domestic politics of weak states on behalf of foreign trading and strategic interests; and lastly, the case of foreign bankers and merchants annexing sectors of the domestic economy of a weak state." The concept has been criticized for imprecision about coercion, and so I distinguish subtypes involving differing degrees of military or economic coercion.

(a) Gunboats. Here military force is flourished threateningly and occasionally deployed in the form of short, sharp military interventions. The gunboat cannot conquer or rule, but it can administer pain by shelling ports and landing marines who may force a change of policy on the local regime. The European Empires, the United States, and Japan all jointly administered such pain for China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through "unequal treaties," supervised by controlling Chinese customs revenues and budgets reinforced by intermittent military interventions where necessary. The United States followed on in its own hemisphere at the beginning of the twentieth century with "Dollar Diplomacy." This is direct military intimidation, but without colonies.

(b) Proxies. In the 1930s, U.S. subcontracted coercion to sovereign local despots backed by a local comprador class who supported U.S. foreign policy in return for a promise of nonintervention plus limited economic and military aid. They were dictators because the local population had to be coerced to follow the policies desired by the United States. Then in the post-World War II period, the United States added more covert, deniable military operations of its own, including through the newly formed CIA. These are both less direct forms of military intimidation.

(c) Structural adjustment. Here military is replaced by economic coercion. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain tired of the cost of launching gunboats across the globe and turned toward more purely economic coercion. Take Argentina. Its trade with Britain was more crucial to it, since it contributed only about 10% of Britain's trade, while Britain received over 50% of Argentina's. Britain also provided the vast bulk of its investment capital. Argentina tried to raise more capital in New York, Paris, and Berlin, but failed. So Britain could say to the Argentine government, "You adopt this policy, or we will strangle your economy." Britain actually did apply devastating sanctions on Peru in 1876, which helped persuade Argentina to become something of a client state in matters of concern to Britain. Today comparable policies are called "structural adjustment," purely economic interventions in peripheral economies by international banks in which the United States has the predominant power. But if such policies are applied routinely, they may become institutionalized and begin to blur into my fourth type of domination.

(4) Hegemony is used here in the Gramscian sense of routinized leadership by the core over peripheral sovereign states, which is regarded by them as "legitimate" or at least "normal." (2) Because hegemony is built into peripheral everyday social practices, if needs little coercion. Whereas indirect and informal empire both depend upon local clients feeling constrained to serve the imperial master, they see themselves as deferring voluntarily to a hegemon, accepting its rules of the game as normal, natural. Hegemony involves more than Joseph Nye's notion of "soft power." He defines this purely in terms of ideological power, as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies" (2004:x). This seems naive. I doubt whether the United States could command other states merely by offering attractive values and policies. Sweden or Canada cannot. The United States differs because some of its practices are built into the everyday lives of others, compelling them to act in certain ways, as those of Sweden or Canada are not.

The British wielded for a time a degree of economic hegemony (though hot a more general hegemony). The imposition of free trade, sterling and "sound finances" on Argentina was initially experienced as coercion, because it trimmed the powers of the Argentine government and harmed locals in sectors needing tariff protection. Yet since most Argentine political elites were not drawn from these sectors, and they were desperate for foreign investment, they came to see British terms as being in their own interests. Thus they eventually adhered fairly unthinkingly to them (though there was discontent among their compatriots) and they self-regulated along British lines (Cain and Hopkins 2002:244-73). Today, the rule of the dollar results in foreigners investing in the United States at extremely low rates of interest, benefiting Americans disproportionately. Yet most foreigners see this as simply what one does with one's export surpluses. The Cold War period gives an example of political and ideological hegemony: the Western part of "the free world" accepted U.S. leadership as legitimate because it needed the United States to defend it against communism. But hegemony will do a "disappearing act" if its benefits allow peripheral states to become autonomous of the hegemon. The British brought economic benefit to their white settler colonies and to European states, and they became fully autonomous of and equal to Britain. By 1900 sterling was being maintained as the reserve currency of the world only with the help of the German and Russian central banks. British hegemony transmuted into mutual interdependence, which means no domination at all. There have also been American tendencies in this direction.

My typology involves descending levels of military and ascending levels of political, economic, and ideological power as we move from direct to indirect empire, through the subtypes of informal empire, to hegemony, and finally to mutual interdependence. Overall, this lightens empire. Of course, since these are "ideal-types," no real-world empire has fitted neatly within any single category. In fact, they generally contain bits of all of them--as have American Empires. My first task is to place the American Empire amid this typology.

I will also attempt some explanation. Doyle's (1986: esp 22-6) overall model of empire makes much sense. He says explaining it must include three main elements: forces from within the core, from within the periphery, and from the overall international relations system. He says we must go beyond "metrocentric" explanations based on the core, like the Hobson/Lenin theory of imperialism, the "gentlemanly capitalism" thesis of Cain and Hopkins (1986), or an exceptionalism located in distinctive American traditions. Ditto with "pericentric" explanations focused on the periphery, like Gallagher and Robinson's (1953) explanation of informal empire in terms of instability in the periphery luring imperial expansion forward. Ditto with "structural realist" theories reducing empires to the systemic properties of international relations. Doyle uses this model to analyze the so-called New Imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century. In a single paper I cannot do likewise across the whole of the American Empire, though I will make a few suggestions as to why empires are desired and why they grow.

At one level, the answer is easy. All motives for empires presuppose a perceived preponderance of military power, enabling seizure of desired things by force (Waltz 1979:26). Only if that exists will there be imperial expansion; and when it does, the temptation to expand may be irresistible. But perception may be inaccurate. Military power has a delusional simplicity, luring would-be empires forward toward hubris. Battlefield victory may be easier than sustained pacification or rule. Disaster may follow if past expansion has brought great success but the world has changed, or because the success was due to unrecognized reasons which no longer apply. Military hubris is not uncommon, as we shall see. But at the level of motives, confidence in military success has been primary in determining expansion.

Historians of most empires then tend to identify two further main motives, economic gain and strategic security--and then they vigorously debate their relative strength. Economic motives are obvious: one may gain wealth by seizing it from others by force. "Security," as the word implies, often portrays itself as "defensive," against a potential threat to the core state or against the new threats that expansion itself may bring. All expansion brings new potential rivals and new frontier anxieties. The bigger and more rapidly acquired the empire, the more diffuse the sense of threat. If rival empires are expanding at the same time, then they may seek to "defensively" preempt each other--as in the "Scramble for Africa" at the end of the nineteenth century. Today the United States is preempting the actions of peripheral actors. It is often difficult to distinguish economic and strategic motives from each other, because they are so often bound together in what is generally called "realist" policies.

Historians also identify a fourth, usually subsidiary motive, an ideological and ideal sense of Mission to the world. The Romans said they brought order and justice, the Spanish the Word of God, the British civilization and free trade, the French la mission civilisatrice. The American Mission has been to bring freedom in the sense of democracy, free enterprise, and free markets. Mission statements typically strengthen after an expansion has begun, for they offer more elevated motives than mere profit or security, they deflect attention from the underlying militarism of the project, and they are useful in giving moral uplift, to the imperialists themselves as well as to the public back home. Of course, once elevated, a Mission may take on a life of its own, and drive on further expansion. Some have seen U.S. expansion as being especially driven by missionary "Wilsonian" values, usually liberal, though today perceived as conservative (e.g., Ninkovich 1999, 2001; Mead 2001). Is this claim to American exceptionalism valid? There are also ideological influences on motives that make them less commendable or less rational. Racism dominated early modern empires, though more recent enemies have been demonized as "communists" or "terrorists." It is difficult to deal rationally with such "demons," as Americans have shown. A sensed imperial "dignity" also makes empires reluctant to "lose face" or accept "humiliation" at setbacks inflicted by lesser powers. The lives of imperial soldiers and civilians become "sacred." Such sentiments may lead to a ferocity of retaliation which is appalling and perhaps counter-productive. Nor is it easy for empires to accept their own decline. The French Empire fought to the bitter end in Algeria and Vietnam, though the British chose a wiser course, pretending to become instead a "Commonwealth of Nations." Which choice will Americans make?

Of course, we should not reify "the Empire" as a single, rational actor. Imperial expansion seems often somewhat accidental, while the expansionists on the ground may be settlers, missionaries, trading companies or armed adventurers, all with some autonomy. They may provoke native resistance, making the core state feel compelled to intervene to protect them, sometimes against its better judgment. Domestic pressure groups are also important. Yet since such actors are beyond my scope here, I will engage in stylistic reification, crediting action to "the United States" or "the administration," though the actors and pressure groups involved were always plural and varied.


In its first phase of imperialism (white) Americans conquered and settled what is now known as the continental United States. This was the most colonial phase of American imperialism. It was also the most lethal, causing the deaths of about 97% of the 4-9 million natives living there. Little was distinctively American about this. The early settlers were mainly British. True, the pace of settlement and of ethnocide/genocide quickened when the United States attained independence from Britain and when California and the Southwest were wrested from Spain and Mexico. But this quickening also happened in Australia, and to a lesser extent in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, when the white settlers achieved self-government. Settlers were usually more ferocious in their imperialism than were colonial or church authorities. The more the de facto self-government, the greater the killing. I have documented this in The Darkside of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (2005, chap. 4). This phase was normal settler colonialism, whose main motive was economic, to seize the land and its resources (usually without native laborers). If it involved more settlers and more deaths than elsewhere, this was merely due to its being in the most fertile of the temperate zones where Europeans could comfortably settle. There was no liberalism and little uniqueness in this phase.

More distinctive (though to the Americas as a whole) was to replace native labor with slaves imported from Africa. The Portuguese reinvented modern slavery, and the British became the main carriers, but after slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the United States became the main home of slavery (apart from Africa itself). Thus this first phase of U.S. imperialism also generated a racial hierarchy: "civilized" whites on top, above "decadent" Latinos below, then "primitive," unfree African Americans, with the natives seen as incapable of "improvement" on the margins of society altogether. This had consequences for phase 2 of U.S. imperialism, where the same racial groups were involved in the hemisphere.


During this period U.S. imperialism was largely confined to Central America and the Caribbean, plus a few islands in the Pacific. I focus here on the American "backyard" plus the Philippines. This imperialism built up slowly. Though the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 made an early claim for hemispheric dominance, it could only become a reality when Britain and its navy turned away to focus on expansion in Asia and Africa, when the United States filled up its own continent, when the second industrial revolution made the United States a major economic power, and when the United States acquired a substantial navy. All this was well under way by the 1890s, meaning that now the United States could seek profit and security by military power exerted in its neighborhood--and of course imperial expansion was already an American tradition.

Nonetheless the desirability of overseas expansion remained bitterly contested, right up until the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898. This war involved very mixed motives. There was a strategic opportunity to finally remove the Spanish Empire from the hemisphere, and imperialists were encouraged by the global surge in colonialism new occurring. Defensively, the United States sought te prevent other empires from moving into the colonies of declining Spain. The depression and class conflict of the 1890s within the United States encouraged distinctively capitalist imperialism. It was believed that expanding overseas markets could remedy sagging domestic demand (though expansion need net be by military force), while "social imperialists" argued that expansion abroad could deflect domestic class and ethnic conflicts into a common patriotism. (3) But though American business interests in the Spanish colonies were expanding, most probusiness Senators and Congressmen still favored securing business stability by propping up the Spanish Empire. The debate on how te expand had net been settled.

A trigger was needed te produce a resolution, and this was supplied by a peripheral country, Cuba. A bloody insurrection began there in 1895. Spain responded with repression including the invention of the concentration camp. In the United States this provoked an unusual degree of public mobilization around rival Mission statements. Imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge urged the United States te kick Spain out of the hemisphere and take on Britain's imperial civilizing mission. On the same side in the debate was a very different "humanitarian interventionist" camp, advocates of "Cuba Libre," urging that American constitutional traditions involved assisting neighbors find freedom too. They were bolstered by a more general popular outrage at the devastation Spanish repression was wreaking on the Cubans--which was being exaggerated by the new "yellow press." These very different arguments for war were countered by their opposites--military intervention abroad was a betrayal either of the white race or of American constitutional liberties. The motley interventionists only finally overcame the motley isolationists when the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk in Havana harbor (popularly attributed te the Spanish, but probably an accident). Responding te pressure, Congress then pressured President McKinley te declare war in April 1898. He feared losing the next election if he did net de this, he probably favored intervention anyway for economic and strategic reasons, the military assured him of victory, and indigenous allies seemed abundant in Cuba and in the Philippines too. The war was overdetermined, from forces in the core and the periphery (Offner 1992:ix and 225, says it was finally inevitable). But few had much idea of what it would result in.

The war, unexpectedly for most Americans, brought the United States its first overseas colonies--Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, plus a clutch of small Pacific islands. But they were only "virtual" colonies, because the word "colony" was net acceptable. The Supreme Court declared them to be "nonincorporated territories." The Court had earlier established that constitutional freedoms must follow the flag, yet few Americans wanted to absorb so many peoples of "lower races," and so these territories could not fly the Stars and Stripes. The American fear of race pollution seems greater than that of other contemporary imperialists. The British and French were used to ruling through native elites, and they freely mixed with them in the public sphere (though not in the private sphere, where racism was their Achilles' heel). McKinley said he did not want to admit into "a share in this government of a motley million and a half of Spaniards, Cubans, and Negroes, to whom our religion, manners, political traditions and habits, and modes of thought are, to tell the honest truth, about as familiar as they are to the King of Dahomey." Ironically, racism did not aid; it hindered U.S. colonialism. The Democratic Party platform of 1900 expressed perfectly the "bipolar" anti-imperialism: "the Filipinos cannot be citizens without endangering our civilization; they cannot be subjects without emperiling our form of government" (Schoultz 1998:142). Racism and constitutionalism both prevented full colonialism. Mission statements had mattered in this imperial surge, but in a contradictory way.

American ambivalence about colonialism was enhanced by subsequent events in Cuba and the Philippines. The Americans showed the arrogance of inexperienced conquerors, generating hubris. Their decision to form their own government without even consulting the local rebels provoked the latter to move from being allies to rebels. A 3-year colonial war killed anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 Filipinos, many in concentration camps adapted from the Spanish. Over 4,000 American soldiers died. Had McKinley known all this in advance, he might not have claimed the islands. It generated the first serious anti-imperialist movement in the United States, the Anti-Imperial League, with Mark Twain its most famous spokesman. But the best case was made by a Professor of Sociology at Yale University, William Graham Sumner. He declared in the striking title of a famous essay that the concentration camps of the Philippines and Cuba represented "The Conquest of the United States by Spain" (Sumner 1899). He meant that in acquiring colonies the United States had been conquered by Spanish imperialist values.

So the Americans learned what British and French imperialists had earlier learned. Repression would work when harnessed to a deal struck with local elites--indirect empire. Filipino elites then helped quell the revolt, and afterwards the United States could lighten its rule. It researched British imperial practices in Asia, especially in Malaya and Fiji--but with a difference. The "colonies" were only conceived of as temporary, until the "childlike" natives could be brought to "maturity." It was the duty of the white race to "uplift the darker races," who were like women or children, "emotional, irrational, irresponsible, unbusinesslike, unstable, childlike," "lacking manliness, effeminate." Latinos and Filipinos came below whites but above Negroes in the race hierarchy, and "savages" lived in remoter islands. All had been "debased" by Spanish rule, but with tutelage all except savages (and Muslims) might govern themselves. Cubans and Filipinos were "little brown brothers" in need of guidance and protection (Hunt 1987: chap. 3; Rosenberg 1999:31-5; Smith 2000:48-9; Go 2005). Popular cartoons showed a very large Columbia or Uncle Sam or a GI giving a helping hand or showing a light or a path to small, childlike Filipinos or Latinos or Chinamen. Some depicted parental chastisement, like forcible bathing of a bawling black Cuban by General Wood, or Columbia cutting off a Chinaman's pigtail (symbol of a reactionary society) with scissors whose blades were labeled "twentieth century progress." Yet children and little brothers eventually become adults. This was a patriarchal and racial yet optimistic and progressive Mission. Races were not permanently inferior. The 1904 St. Louis World Fair imitated the British Empire's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 in including a live colonial exhibit of villages complete with natives, flora, and fauna. The Philippine Exhibit included 1,000 "savages" and "non-Christian tribes," arranged by degree of civilization. The savage Igorots, head-hunters, dog-eaters, nearly naked, were the biggest crowd-pullers. The most civilized were U.S.-trained Filipino soldiers, demonstrating the American ability to civilize.

Though American notions were borrowed from the British claim to a "Trusteeship" over conquered peoples, the British (some Liberals excepted) saw it lasting indefinitely, at least until after World War I. Yet by 1912 native Filipinos controlled their government except for defense and education. The United States had rapidly moved from direct to indirect rule to substantial self-government, and by the mid-1930s independence was being planned. This was more advanced than in any other colony of the time. From about 1900 the United States only envisaged temporary colonies, acquired again in 1945 and in 2001 to 2003. We must consider the original causes of this enduring American aversion to longer-term colonies.

Many have emphasized the contradictory American values of racism and constitutionalism. Though these "metrocentric" factors did play a role, they could be resolved by the constitutional fictions devised by the Supreme Court, and we must also explain why the Americans first sought to impose virtual colonial rule, but then abandoned it. More decisive were the relations between domestic power resources, the nature of the periphery and the imperial system as a whole (Go 2005, also makes some of these points).

(1) The United States sent out virtually no settlers. In Africa at this time the British Empire was being prodded, often reluctantly, into acquiring new colonies by the provocative actions of British settlers and adventurers on the ground. But settlers were still entering, not leaving, the United States. The exception proving the rule was Hawaii where an incoming population of American planters ensured that Hawaii did become an American colony, controlled by them. After World War II, of course, it became assimilated as a State of the Union. But in general there was no big settler constituency in the United States itself, and no settlers abroad provoking colonialism, unlike all the other imperial Powers, including Japan.

(2) At this moment in world-historical time the Europeans were midway through the "Scramble for Africa," caused by interimperial rivalry in the core plus their decisive military superiority over the natives given by the Maxim gun, steamships, and quinine. For a time, Germany supported French activity in Africa against Britain. But when the British heard that French expeditions were setting out for the headwaters of the Nile, they hastily sent one out too. There was a difficult moment when their rival expeditions actually reached Fashoda, on the Nile, at the same time, but since the British had a gunboat and the French did not, the French backed off, and settled for territories to the west. Then when Bismarck changed tack and suddenly went for colonies, landing forces in present-day Tanzania, the British "defensively" grabbed neighboring Uganda and Kenya to protect their lines of communication. So Africa was colonized substantially for "defensive" strategic reasons, to prevent one's rivals from grabbing it. Though Americans like Roosevelt and Lodge were influenced by this more global "civilizing Mission," of which 1898 was obviously a part, the Americas were different. No one else was scrambling for it--though Germany or Japan might be tempted into the Philippines (and so the British encouraged the United States to stay there). The maximum threat in the American hemisphere was a foreign gunboat or two, and the United States could scare them away without colonies and exercise control by cheaper informal means-which, as Gallagher and Robinson observed, the British also preferred.

(3) This moment came after three centuries of European expansion. Britain and France already had colonizing institutions in place--colonial civil service, settlers, trading companies with monopoly licenses, colonial armies, and navies. These carried on doing what they had become proficient at. Late-coming Germany and Japan had militarism and state-assisted companies--and Japan also sent out settlers. The late-coming United States did not have such institutions, except for a navy that was more suited to informal empire than colonies. The United States improvised for Cuba and the Philippines, but there was always a shortage of Americans willing to go there. Compared with the other empires the United States lacked colonial institutions, expertise, and personnel.

(4) This moment saw the beginning of the age of nationalism, when educated propertied elites on the periphery were beginning to articulate anti-imperial ideologies making it more difficult to establish colonies, except in backward areas. European empires had conquered societies comparable to the Philippines or Cuba rather earlier, before modern nationalist movements had arisen, and all the empires were now conquering more backward regions where nationalism had not yet appeared. There were three exceptions. Also in 1898 an Italian army was defeated at the battle of Adowa by an Ethiopian monarch mobilizing a Christian nationalism nurtured by long struggles against Muslim neighbors. From 1899 to 1902 the British in South Africa were shocked by a rebellion of the Boers, settlers of Dutch stock and with their own "national" culture. Third, over exactly the same years came the rebellions against the United States, by rebels whose nationalism had already just developed in their struggles against the Spanish Empire. Italy was kicked out of Ethiopia. But, like the British in South Africa, the Americans yielded more self-government to the locals. The Americans did it by adopting the imperial strategy of persuading these privileged groups to assist them to rule over the masses below. This was a "cacique democracy," as Anderson (1988) says, borrowed (like the term itself) from metropolitan Spain of this time, with elections controlled by the patron-client networks of the major landowning families, the caciques, though in the Philippines called illustrados--indicating their education and sophistication. They were willing to share power with the United States if this would help preserve their property rights. But the United States failed to achieve anything comparable elsewhere and so sought less colonial modes of control.

(5) This moment saw the rise of corporate capitalism, where large agro-business and banking trusts were seeking to buy property and extract monopoly concessions abroad. The provinces and then the successor states of the Spanish Empire, unlike many parts of the world, already had Western-style states guaranteeing established property rights and issuing enforceable monopoly licenses. Many regimes were corrupt and conflict-ridden, but coercively reforming rather than destroying them was the simpler tactic for foreign corporations. The way to greater profit in the hemisphere was not to colonize but to coerce existing states with gunboats. That is what the British were already doing in the hemisphere and that form of imperialism was now taken over by the Americans.

Thus the United States had the military power to intervene abroad, but its resources (including the absence of settlers), the peripheral places and the imperial system of the time favored gunboat informal empire more than colonies. Indeed, between 1899 and 1930 the United States launched 31 punitive military interventions, one a year. Twenty-eight of them were in Central America and the Caribbean. U.S. forces overthrew governments or suppressed rebels to obtain friendly client regimes. The United States would then take over the countries' customs houses and control their state budgets to ensure "sound finances." The marines stayed for anything between 3 months and 25 years (in Nicaragua) without the United States claiming sovereignty--with Panama as a half-exception because of the unique economic-strategic importance of the canal. The interventions would also be followed by an expansion in the country of U.S. agro-business trusts, intensifying capitalist production relations, as Ayala (1999) for example shows happened in the Caribbean sugar industry. Interventions only began to diminish in frequency in the 1920s. The supposed liberal Woodrow Wilson sent the marines in more than the self-proclaimed imperialist Theodore Roosevelt (just like Gladstone and Disraeli!). Nor was Taft correct in claiming that his own version of this "Dollar Diplomacy" was more peaceful than Roosevelt's Imperialism.

From 1900 until the mid-1930s American Mission statements were subordinate to profit taking (Brands 1999; Rosenberg 1999). U.S. administrations did intermittently claim that their interventions were to restore "democracy," by which they meant rule by propertied white elites under male property franchises, and some rule of law. But whenever liberal or populist governments or movements appeared to threaten U.S. business interests in these countries, or if they appeared to be encouraging European investment or trade, the United States overthrew them with short, sharp intervention (Leonard 1991:79-81; Schoonover 1991:173; Whitney 2001:138-9). Profit and strategic security were the dominant motives. The United States used all necessary military force so that American corporations could control the most profitable export and the financial sectors. Rather unusually, virtual colonies Puerto Rico and the Philippines did rather better economically than those under gunboat empire, at least during the periods when they enjoyed free trade with the United States. But in general the empire was there to benefit Americans, not the natives. The American public showed relatively little interest in such informal imperialism. Not until after World War I did anti-imperialism revive. Until then, this was essentially private diplomacy, costing relatively little, since for enforcement the United States also relied on the local propertied classes and their clients, the comprador class of the hemisphere. Class undercut nation and defused nationalism, which during the twentieth century was steadily becoming imperialism's greatest enemy.

But gunboat empire worked progressively less well. The marines went in and usually soon left, leaving Wall Street "money doctors" in charge of the country's finances. But the supposedly "client" regimes often subverted their prescriptions, whether out of nationalism or corruption. Opposition and even guerilla warfare against U.S. forces became more persistent as anti-imperialism spread (LaFeber 1984:16-8, 302, 361; Leonard 1991:60-8). There were no dramatic moments of hubris, but the United States was growing weary. In the 1920s even U.S. bankers decided that gunboat diplomacy was not yielding results. In 1928 Herbert Hoover and his defeated Democrat challenger Al Smith both campaigned on a softer foreign policy, out of pragmatism rather than liberalism.

The United States had already found a new tactic, training indigenous paramilitaries to suppress opposition. From the paramilitaries' ranks came client dictators who would keep order themselves, with only indirect American military and economic assistance. The downside of this was that the United States had to abandon the last shreds of any democratizing mission. "He may be a son-of-a-bitch but he's our son-of-a-bitch" may be apocryphal, though it is conventionally attributed to Cordell Hull, FDR's Secretary of State, describing Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic. But it was also apposite for other repressive U.S. allies of the period--Anastasio

Somoza Garcia in Nicaragua, Juan Vicente Gomez followed by Marcos Perez Jimenez in Venezuela, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, and Francois ("Papa Doc") Duvalier in Haiti. There have been many more sons-of-bitches (and a few bitches) since then. A long period of proxy informal imperialism began.

The United States had been burned by its first colonies and then by gunboat diplomacy. Since there were no longer serious imperial rivals in the hemisphere, the United States did not need to preempt other empires. By the late 1930s there was a concern to keep Nazi Germany out of the hemisphere. But the client dictators, despite the lure of fascism, knew on which side their bread was buttered. During World War II only Argentina failed to support the United States. Indirect coercion through proxies did not unduly strain finances or manpower or alarm the public. American corporations made profits, and so did the local comprador class. The United States got its Panama Canal at low cost. Means appeared to be roughly calculated in relation to goals, with only one brief period from 1898 when ideological notions of imperial Mission had disturbed them.

Roosevelt named this his "Good Neighbor Policy," but it was neither liberal nor "Wilsonian," only a change of means. The United States conceded advantages that had become obsolete while retaining those necessary to its economic and strategic interests (Wood 1961; Gellman 1979, 1995; Roorda 1998:22-30). Yet the policy did give the dictators breathing space to pursue their own interests, and some of them engaged in national development projects, which had been earlier discouraged by Dollar Diplomacy (they later developed into ISI programs). Moreover, during the New Deal the United States seemed to be developing a more benign form of capitalism, encouraging Latin Americans to believe the United States might soon encourage economic reform in the hemisphere. Unfortunately, World War II interrupted such a prospect, and then the moment was gone.

This proxy or comprador class version of informal empire began long before the Cold War, and its origins predated the Bolshevik Revolution. American policy toward the hemisphere remained fairly constant over a hundred years. The appearance and dominance of the Soviet Union made surprisingly little difference. There were two reasons. First, U.S. policy always supported American businesses holding monopoly licenses to make profits in local enclave economies and the financial sector. It ruthlessly suppressed attempts by leftists, workers, and peasants to introduce social reforms, and also attempts by Latin American Liberals at more balanced national economic development. Second, the policy remained irrational, though the sources of irrationality shifted. It was irrational because U.S. business interests as a whole would have been better served through national development projects with reformist tinges. Costa Rica was the local proof of that, while the more independence a Latin American country had from the United States, the more economic growth it achieved. This had also been the case in the British Empire: the lighter the British rule, the better off were the natives, and the more they contributed to the imperial economy (with India as the exception to the latter). But irrationality was contributed by a shifting mixture of racism and fear of revolution. Though FDR likened "the brown people" to "minor children.., who need trustees" and Truman had derogatory racial terms for most of the world's peoples, racism declined through the period (it virtually disappeared in the late 1950s). But increasing fear of communism compensated. The fear was less that leftists could achieve revolution, more that they could not rule stably. Chaos was the fear--undesirable not only for American business but also for the population of the region itself (Hunt 1987, chaps. 3 and 4). Leftists were feared because they were chaos, liberals because they would open the floodgates to chaos. The tragic irrationality of U.S. policy was that it made chaos more likely, since it deepened inequality, corruption, dictatorship--and so conflict. This was not a period of benevolent imperialism, even though its techniques had lightened from virtual colonies and then through the first two types of informal empire, and they were also lighter than the average rule in other empires of the time, which had inherited more colonialism from the past. But the reasons for this lay in relative efficiency of means rather than in distinctive ends.

PHASE 3: GLOBAL EMPIRE, 1945 to 2005

The true uniqueness of American Empire was revealed during the two stages, from 1945 and from 1991, when it became the only global empire ever. 1945 came after two world wars which the United States had not started but from which it was the main beneficiary. Thus expansion had a substantially unintended character--though not entirely so. The administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt also saw the wars' ends as an opportunity to downsize all other empires. Wilson's liberal internationalism--his 14 points, his sponsorship of the League of Nations--was no naive idealism but an attempt to undermine the colonial Powers. It mostly failed. Then in World War II Roosevelt linked giving wartime aid to Britain to gaining economic controls over its Empire. From 1945, finding themselves in military occupation of much of the world, and with half the world's GDP, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations consciously strove to consolidate this into dominion across the "free world." Again, the underlying motive of empire was revealed: the (accurate) perception of U.S. military, and also economic, dominance. It was to be an empire of free trade, plus democracy (where possible), backed by collective security institutions dominated by the United States, emanating outwards from a global network of military bases, though focused especially on Europe and East Asia (Hearden 2002). In the Cold War period it is almost impossible to disentangle the further motives of profit and strategic security. They were important and entwined, for this was the capitalist versus the communist empire. But they were now joined by an important Mission statement.

But what kind of empire was this? Americans said they were anti-imperial, which was true if we realize that by this they meant anticolonial. The United States again only had strictly temporary colonies. Occupation was quickly accepted as legitimate by most Germans and Japanese--making them unique colonies in the history of imperialism. Indeed, most governments were pleased to be in the American "free world." They welcomed U.S. bases as part of their own defenses, they accepted the rule of the dollar, they welcomed U.S. investment and multinational corporations, they watched Hollywood movies, and a few even played baseball. So was this American hegemony, rather than empire: leadership accepted as legitimate or normal, built into the practices of everyday life? Did it lack the military coercion present even in informal empire? To answer, we must distinguish between different macroregions of the world and also take account of two later imperial intensifications, one occurring from 1970, the other from 1990. I will briefly deal with four macroregions.

(1) The West consisted of allies being defended by the United States against Soviet communism. It had taken the United States a year or two to go wholeheartedly for this alliance. Some U.S. policy makers had favored destroying German power with punitive measures; others wanted to keep the Europeans divided. But this gave way to recognizing the interdependence of the American and European economies and militaries, followed by U.S. encouragement of plans for European cooperation. A strong European economy and a politically united Europe was considered good for America, to better contain the Soviets and tie Germany peacefully into Europe. The United States required only that Europe not seek to become an independent Third Force, and that European rearmament fit into "the larger Atlantic framework," the code for American domination. Conversely, the Europeans understood that they paid for their defense by subsidizing the dollar.

In the Bretton Woods negotiations the British were overruled, while the others were allowed almost no contribution. They were all aware of the coercive element in the new international regime. But overall they believed that American hegemony was the necessary price for economic growth and military protection. Even more so did Australians and New Zealanders, who had been protected from the Japanese only by the United States. Lundestad (1998) calls this "Empire by Invitation" a nice contradiction in terms. In my terms this macroregion was hegemony, not empire.

But we should not exaggerate the power of the United States over its allies (as do Maier 1987a, 1987b, and Hogan 1987). Even in the immediate aftermath of war, the United States had to be sensitive to European views of their own reconstruction. Along with its British junior partner, the United States sought to repress fascists and especially communists. But parties and unions calling themselves socialists--that is, social democrats--were too powerful to suppress. Though the United States preferred them to focus on productivity not redistribution, economic growth allowed both. The center-right--mainly Christian Democrats--needed to be cultivated against fascists, the center-left against communists. The United States accepted plans for German codetermination--unions playing a role in the management of German corporations. It accepted greater government intervention in the economy through nationalizations of industry, Keynesian planning to maintain full employment, growth and stability, and the application of these principles to pan-European projects. This was the great Christian--Socialist compromise that had eluded the continent in the first half of the century, jointly accepting that Europe required a more "social" blend of capitalism and democracy than was by now favored within the United States itself. Their unity meant the United States had to accept what would have been anathema to Congress if suggested as a recipe for the American economy.

In the United States the New Deal had collapsed as wartime and postwar economic growth seemed to bring general prosperity through apparently market forces. Further reforms were considered unnecessary by most political elites. Labor union growth peaked in 1945. American communists and leftists were purged as the Cold War set in, by the union leaders themselves as well as by the resurgent political right. Liberalism later became centered more on the politics of identity than of class. Social democracy became anathema to the United States at home, and remained so in its policies toward Latin America and most other poorer countries of the world. American economic imperialism again became fairly reactionary--more so than British or French imperialism was during its last decades. Only in the West in this period was a social, nota purely liberal, conception of citizenship accepted by the United States.

Most planners in Europe (and some Americans too) justified social democracy as a way of avoiding the social and political polarization in Europe which had followed the post-World War I settlement. Some of the Americans were New Dealers who would have ideally wished such plans on the United States too. More pragmatically, some perceived by 1947 that more piecemeal programs had not worked. There was also a "civilizational" solidarity. Because Europeans were as civilized as Americans and were from the same racial "stock," they could be relied on to produce sound and responsible government, and they seemed united in their views as to what would work locally. These were not irresponsible natives (Katzenstein 2005:57-8). But Congress only finally supported the Marshall Plan because of its perception of a Soviet threat, made real by the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia (Bonds 2002).The United States also needed Europe. The Marshall Plan only assisted a European economic growth which was already underway, but if provided a flexible stabilizing mechanism, fostering national solutions based on bargaining between local political and economic forces that provided capitalism with a more social and human face, redefining the historic competition between capitalism and socialism (Cronin 2001). The uses to which national government put the funds were their own. In fact the French used them to finance their colonial wars! But the result was cumulatively phenomenal economic growth throughout western Europe over the next two decades, coupled with political stability and increasing social equality and civility (Aldcroft 2001:128-62). The United States had helped create a serious economic rival, but seemed not to mind. It had even supported the creation of pan-European institutions, collective organization on the periphery (normally banned by imperialists) for purposes of strategic defense and economic growth. This was hegemony, nothing more. The Europeans ruled themselves, and in some respects hegemony was giving way to mutual interdependence. A Mission Statement also bound the West together. The struggle against communism emerged almost seamlessly from the struggle against fascism, both seen as the defense of freedom and democracy. This Mission was important, popular and broadly true (Brands 1999). It had a slightly different meaning in the United States and Europe. Whereas the United States continued rhetorically to justify its realm in terms of freedom as the combination of democracy, free enterprise, and free markets, the Europeans saw it in more social terms. Both versions remained fairly defensive. The Mission was primarily to defend democracy at home, not extend it abroad--containment of communism more than a Mission to the world. The latter only became resurgent in the last days of the Cold War.

(2) East and Southeast Asia. Here the main issue was quite different--decolonization, which across the world was generating a rival form of political and ideological hegemony, of nation-states and nationalism. Nationalist movements finished off the colonial empires and weakened the chances for foreign rule based on ethnic and religious divide-and-rule. Rule through comprador classes was not easy in this region, for the war had undermined traditional ruling classes (especially landlords) who had tended to ally with the defeated European and Japanese empires. This region saw the greatest conflicts during the early Cold War period, entwining domestic class struggles with imperial rivalry. The United States lost civil wars in China and Vietnam, fought a draw in Korea, but kept communism at bay elsewhere with the help of right-wing authoritarian nationalists. The United States ran temporary (indirect) colonies in Korea and Vietnam. In Korea (unlike Vietnam) it favored progressive land reform, but though it talked about democracy it did not practice it. Needing the support of Britain and France, the United States had also stopped denouncing their empires. Any Mission was here subordinated to strategic defense, especially of the Japanese economy (McMahon 1999).

In time, American-aided capitalist development plus slow political reforms achieved with little help from the United States contrasted with more stagnant authoritarianism in the communist zone. East Asian development changed the "West" into the "North" and America became in rime hegemonic here too. As in Europe, the "development states" of the region became autonomous. Again, the unity of local elites meant that the United States had to tolerate the distinctive social planning styles of the East Asian countries. In this macroregion, American imperialism had gone through a transition from virtual colonialism to hegemony, which was then partially disappearing into mutuality and autonomy. However, the 1990s were to bring more attempted imperialism.

(3) The American Hemisphere. Here American informal empire remained largely unchanged, though it was now creeping farther southward. This region was seen as being of relatively low strategic and economic value, receiving less economic or military attention from the United States than the other regions I discuss. The bigger states of the hemisphere pursued their own development path of ISI, while the United States was generally content to influence the smaller states of its own backyard through comprador regimes sharing the U.S. preference for conservative forms of capitalism. However, these regimes were confronted by populist forces wanting social reform. If these reached power, they tried to drive hard bargains with American corporations and financial interests. Alternatively, where local class conflict intensified, the United States perceived a danger of escalation to "chaos" and then perhaps to "communism." Both outcomes were believed to threaten U.S. interests. Only in one country was there a real Soviet strategic threat. Fidel Castro was stupid to believe that an alliance with the Soviets 80 miles from the United States would buy him anything except political isolation and economic strangulation. The Soviet Union was initially astonished at its good luck, in contrast to its almost complete lack of influence elsewhere in the hemisphere (Miller 1989). There were some communist, though not Soviet, influences on Allende in Chile in 1973 and even on Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. But the overthrow of Bosch in the Dominican Republic, Goulart in Brazil, Jagan in Guyana, and many others revealed varying degrees of paranoia about chaos or fear of social democrats, not reasoned fear of communists. Intervention was now spread right through the hemisphere, not merely in the backyard, and in states big and small. There were brief indications of a more progressive policy--in the State Department (though not the Pentagon) in 1946, in the beginnings of Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, and in Carter's early years. None of these lasted long, and the Cold War period ended with the United States sponsoring the terrible Contra proxies in Nicaragua, causing mayhem, undermining the country's economy, and destabilizing its neighbors.

During this 45-year period, the United States launched a few open military interventions but far more covert or proxy ones. So this third macroregion continued to contrast with the first two. It saw an informal Empire, mixing gunboats with proxies, but without colonies. It was sometimes justified as the spread of democracy, because communism everywhere was seen as democracy's enemy. But this Mission statement was undercut by the U.S. preference for authoritarian allies. In the 1980s the United States adapted to the spread of democracy across the hemisphere, conducting a policy of "democracy by applause" from the sidelines, as Latin Americans made their own democratic gains (Carrothers 1991). Hardly a Mission, but at least a decline in paranoia. And through the period this was usually milder imperialism than the Soviet version in its zone of control.

(4) The Middle East. This was the most difficult macroregion for the United States. It had become of major strategic and economic significance, close to the Soviet bloc and with most of the world's oil. It was swept first by leftist nationalism and then by rightist Islamism, both equally hostile to imperialism (American and Soviet), and the United States failed to establish allies who were loyal, useful, and enduring. After overthrowing Mossadeq in Iran in 1952, the United States tried the Shah of Iran, who was loyal but endured only until 1979. Nor was Iran especially useful, because it was neither an Arab nor a Sunni country and so had little influence over other oil countries. Israel has been loyal and enduring but not useful, for its actions only enrage Arabs and oil producers. The United States was stuck with propping up the Gulf sheikdoms and Saudi Arabia, useful in guaranteeing oil supplies but unwilling to openly assist the United States. Obviously, they had nothing to do with freedom or democracy. This region saw a form of informal gunboat empire. Israel and the Sheikhs were sovereign states being propped up by massive American military might, but acting rather autonomously. The oil kept flowing, but U.S. administrations were uneasy about how long its more reactionary oil allies could survive. This was unfinished imperial business.

Overall, the U.S. role in the postwar world was very varied. East Asia converged on Europe to enlarge the zone of American hegemony, but elsewhere informal empire predominated, embodying varying degrees of coercion. Thus it is possible to depict a very benign hegemon, on the basis of the U.S. role in the West and (later) East Asia. It is equally possible to depict a more malign empire based on American policy in Latin America and the Middle East. As with the British Empire, few generalizations will apply across all of it. Yet the American Empire was almost everywhere a much lighter form of rule than what was by the 1970s the only rival, the Soviet Empire. The United States remained, as it had been since about 1902, the lightest empire.

But in the 1970s the United States seemed to be in relative decline. Instead of having half the world's GDP, as in 1950, this had gone down to about a quarter. Europe and Japan were beginning to challenge the United States, it was widely said. The beginnings of economic crisis around 1970 also persuaded some, including world-systems theorists, that American hegemony was ending, presaging more turbulent Hobbesian times with an uncertain outcome (e.g., Chase-Dunn and Podobnik 1995). Yet the next three decades actually intensified American imperialism. The economic crisis of the 1970s resulted in an intensification of economic imperialism, while the collapse of the Soviet Union heightened American military power and the temptation to engage in more military imperialism. Yet these two intensifications were somewhat disconnected from each other, not part of a coordinated offensive.


The world had benefited from American hegemonic regulation of the postwar economy. Its economy boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, boosted first by the growth of the United States, then Europe, then Japan. This was a lower tariff regime than during the interwar period and so it boosted trade. All continents shared to some extent in growth. Though the Bretton Woods system had given the U.S. privileges, it was administered by agreements between states, giving them leeway to implement their own development plans and repress international flows of capital. But then came crisis. A slowdown at the end of the 1960s took the form of "stagflation" which Keynesian counter-cyclical policies seemed only to worsen. The prices of export commodities on which poorer countries depended were falling, creating balance of payments difficulties which their ISI programs could not resolve. The sharp hike in oil prices in 1973 worsened their problems.

The Bretton Woods financial system collapsed between 1968 and 1971. The slowdown, plus U.S. deficits compounded by spending in Vietnam, and increasing financial volatility all meant that financial repression was faltering. This forced a shiff from pegged to floating exchange rates, with the dollar being taken off the gold standard. The United States was importing and spending abroad much more than it was exporting, resulting in big American deficits. Because the dollar was at first still on the gold standard, this resulted at the end of the 1960s in a run on its gold. The French and German central banks led the rush to cash in their surplus dollars for gold. Fort Knox was being emptied. This seemed at the time to be a threat to American power. The United States might conceivably have gone the way of Britain in the 1940s: after the gold disappeared, the United States might have been forced to sell off its investments abroad to pay for its military activity abroad. Foreigners might have also used their surplus dollars to buy up American industries, as Americans had done in Britain. But after some arm-twisting by U.S. diplomats, the major central banks agreed as a stopgap measure to stop converting their dollars into gold, thereby sacrificing their immediate economic interest to the common good produced by American global responsibilities. At this point neither they nor the U.S. administration realized how costly this would become. This informal mutual restraint held the line until August 1971 when President Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard--to save his war, his expansionary economic policies and his reelection chances (Kunz 1997:192-222).

The dollar remained the reserve currency. The only use for surplus U.S. dollars held abroad was now to invest them in the United States. Most were held by central banks, which rarely undertake risky ventures like buying up foreign corporations (Congress could also make foreign buyouts difficult). So they bought U.S. Treasury notes in hulk, which lowered their interest rate. U.S. adventures abroad could now be financed by foreigners, despite American current account deficits, and at a very low interest rate. The alternative, the foreigners felt, was worse: disruption of the world's monetary system, weakening U.S. resolve to defend them, and a fall in the value of the dollar, making U.S. exports cheaper than their own. Hudson (2003:20) concludes: "This unique ability of the U.S. government to borrow from foreign central banks rather than from its own citizens is one of the economic miracles of modern times." This miracle of economic imperialism meant that U.S. governments were now free of the balance of payments constraints faced by other states. Americans could spend more on social services, fight in Vietnam, and consume more, all at the same time. This held off the current European challenge in the "real economy," as it was later to hold off the Japanese and then the Chinese challenge. American officials had hit on this only as a short-term solution to what they saw as a crisis. But with hindsight, for the United States it was not a crisis at all, but an opportunity to enhance its "seigniorage" over the world economy. As in previous history, the most successful empires are those that can seize unexpected, even accidental, opportunities that come their way.

This intensification of imperialism was entwined with a shift of power toward private, transnational finance capital. The sharp rise in oil prices in the autumn of 1973 generated an increase in the dollar earnings of oil states too big to be absorbed into their own economies. These "petro-dollars" had to be recycled into productive investment in the rest of the world economy. The Europeans and the Japanese favored doing this through central banks and the IMF. But the United States, backed by Britain, insisted that it be done mainly by private banks. The United States had more influence with the oil sheikhs and abolished all restrictions on funds flowing in and out of the United States. The French socialist government of the early 1980s tried to hold onto its Keynesian control of capital accumulation but the Reagan administration defeated it through high dollar and interest rates. Europe caved in. As its states adopted floating exchange rates and free movement of capital, they surrendered control of monetary policy to Europe's private financial markets. Though Japan held on, preserving its arcane statism while expanding its influence over East Asia, the Bretton Woods system of financial repression was effectively ended.

So though this was American economic imperialism, it was not that alone. It also shifted power from interstate to transnational-market relations. A state's credit now depended less on agreements between central banks and the IMF than on private international financial markets run on neo-liberal principles. In 1981 the Reagan administration gave Wall Street the same offshore unregulated status enjoyed by the City of London. Gowan (1999, chap. 3; cf. Soederberg 2004) calls this "the Dollar-Wall Street Regime," because it gave both the U.S. government and American financiers far more power over the world's monetary and financial relations than had the Bretton Woods regime. But it was at the expense of global stability. The end of financial repression has made for wilder swings in the value of the dollar, which has reinforced unprecedented levels of volatility in the world economy, forcing other states to hold larger reserves in dollars. But though other states, including the main allies of the United States, perceive coercion in all this, until they are willing to shift to an untested system of multiple reserve currencies, they will accept dollar seigniorage as the way the world economy works. Though many emphasize the inherent instability and risks of such arrangements, the alternatives seem riskier. It remains American hegemony, though it is not felt to be entirely legitimate.

But the global South experienced more coercion. The OPEC oil price rise made European and especially American banks awash with petro-dollars, because the oil producers could not absorb all their increased profits. U.S. banks, newly freed from investing in Treasury notes, were awash with funds. This generated an "overaccumulation" crisis, a mass of liquid wealth unable to find sufficient avenues of productive investment (a belated realization of the Hobson/Lenin thesis). Now the banks became much more interested in the South, offering low (sometimes effectively negative) interest rates to Southern countries, which borrowed massively to finance their sagging economies. Then in 1979 the United States suddenly tripled its interest rates, for domestic reasons. Others had to follow U.S. rates upward. A Southern debt crisis ensued.

The "Unholy Trinity" (Peet 2003) of the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank now became a key part of the new economic imperialism. The two international banks shifted their main focus from the North to the South, and their core activity became "structural adjustment programs." These were the cutting edge of an economic imperialism all the more effective because its practitioners sincerely believed it was merely rational economics, a reflection of economic reality, and therefore good for everyone concerned. Indeed it did reflect more market-, inflation-, debt, and finance-driven economic realities.

Led by the U.S. Treasury, the banks exemplified what became known as the "Washington Consensus" (though it also represented the wisdom of Wall Street in New York, the City in London, and finance capitals everywhere). These banks would ball out the indebted countries, agreeing to "restructure" their loans in return for deep economic reforms--an austerity program of cutting central and local government spending, imposing high interest rates, stabilizing the currency, privatizing state-owned enterprises, abolishing tariffs, freeing labor markets from union restrictions, and opening up local capital markets and business ownership to foreign business. This was backed by a rhetorical neoliberalism declaring that morality and efficiency alike required reducing the power of governments, communal land ownership, and labor unions. The freedom of markets and private property rights must rule. It exemplified Karl Polanyi's thesis that the triumph of capitalist markets would require the destruction of community around the world. As Mrs. Thatcher famously declared, "there is no such thing as society."

However, the full dosage was administered only to the natives of the periphery, for this was imperialism. Though neoliberalism also imposed austerity on workers in the North, U.S. administrations would never dare impose the full radical program on Americans, though their debts dwarfed those of all other countries. An IMF program applied in the United States to reduce the level of debt would have been electoral suicide for any administration. Note that the European representatives in the international banks were also endorsing policies abroad which they would never impose on their own countries. It would have even more grossly flouted the norms of their more community-oriented Christian and Social democracies. Of course, these decision makers were also bankers, conservative economists, and corporate lawyers. Austerity was in the interests of their friends and relations, because it would get their loans repaid and they could acquire foreign assets at bargain prices. But because they made the common human error of equating their own interests with the good of humanity, they genuinely believed in the ability of structural adjustment to bring wealth and freedom to all--the economist as missionary.

This was imperialism because strict enforcement of the loan terms exacted by the core would restructure peripheral economy, weaken its government and increase its dependence on the states and businesses of the core. But it was not merely state imperialism. Though led by American power, it was more diffuse collective domination by "Northern" transnational and financial capital. Coercion was strictly economic--no gunboats. The peripheral state remained sovereign and could in principle reject the loan offer, though the consequence might be bankruptcy, future higher interest rates and even possible exclusion from the international economy. It was an offer which most Third World governments felt they could not refuse. In any case, most governments rather like getting money.

As in all informal imperialism, structural adjustment required cooperation from local elites. They often welcomed "conditionality" because it enabled them to introduce reforms they wanted while deflecting local criticism onto external "villains" (Vreeland 2003:126, 153). The programs were usually unpopular, with the core opposition coming from organized labor and those dependent on the state. Democratic governments were more reluctant to sign up and most programs were introduced by authoritarian regimes, which made the IMF appear to favor dictatorships over democracies, just as the United States did politically and militarily in this period (Biersteker 1992:114-6; Vreeland 2003:90-102). Some even see the demise of ISI as driven by politics on the periphery, not in the core. They say ISI had so empowered workers that military coups needed buttressing by the new economics. General Pinochet in Chile, a fervent class warrior, introduced the most rigorous reforms, followed by the military regimes of Uruguay, Argentina, and Turkey, all repressing protest by unions and NGOs against dismantling ISI policies (Weaver 2000:141-4). As experienced, structural adjustment did not seem like freedom.

IMF and World Bank programs contained diverse elements with varying effects, applied to varied local conditions. So the results differed. But overall, they did enable debt repayment--the main goal of the creditors-and they tended to further countries' integration into the global economy, shrink budget deficits and end hyperinflation. These are all broadly beneficial effects. If the state in question had been thoroughly incompetent or corrupt (and many were), cutting it back might also do some good, though perhaps only if the incompetent or corrupt were not in charge of the program! But the programs tended also to redistribute from the poor to the rich, from labor to capital, and from local to foreign capital. Overall, they widened inequality. The financial reforms that began to be prominent from the 1980s also increased inflows of short-term foreign capital, which tended to destabilize the economy while allowing Northern businesses and banks, especially American ones, to buy up local economic assets at bargain prices. The bottom line was supposed to be economic growth, which might in the long run justify what neoliberals themselves admitted were short-terre side effects. Unfortunately, growth rarely materialized. Vreeland provides the most rigorous analysis. He examined 135 countries which in total between 1952 and 1990, were subjected to 1,000 years under IMF programs. He also controlled for many intervening variables. The more assistance they received, the worse they did. The cost of tutelage was on average 1.6% less economic growth per annum, a sizable amount. When he repeated the analysis on a different (and perhaps less reliable) data set for the 1990s, he got 1.4% less growth (2003:123-30).

Given such a poor record, why would states persist with the programs? Countries with strong states and cohesive civil societies might be able to take decisive macroeconomic action themselves, which would avoid the need to go to the banks. Vreeland (2003:134-51) notes that most loan-recipient states were dominated by oligarchies who benefited from redistribution from labor to capital. He calculates that because the share of labor in national income dropped an average of 7%, capital made a net gain, despite the overall GDP slowdown. IMF programs benefited the rich, and harmed the masses. They seemed deliberately designed that way (says Hutchinson 2001). This was also happening under neoliberal programs within the United States and Britain. Market forces unrestrained by states typically favor those who can bring more resources to markets--though inequality may also be widened by predatory states. As in the past, economic imperialism also benefited the comprador class. But now it also benefited the private financiers who usually supplement IMF loans. Because the IMF sees their loans as crucial to its packages, it defers to "bank-friendly conditions," to get loans repaid and to gain control over foreign financial sectors (Gould 2003). IMF and World Bank loans are more likely to be given to, and the loan conditions are less likely to be enforced on, states that are heavily indebted to U.S. banks, receiving official U.S. aid, or voting at the UN with the United States--or indeed France (Oatley and Yackee 2004; Stone 2004). The two banks represent overlapping but not identical interests, and Northern capitalist and American state imperialisms sometimes tug in conflicting directions, making for a sometimes incoherent informal imperialism through structural adjustment.

East Asia was at first spared this. But as a consequence of the "Asian crisis" of 1997, its economies became more vulnerable. The U.S. Treasury, pressured by American financial firms, pressured the IMF to pressure the South Korean authorities to open up the country's financial sector to foreigners. The United States prevailed, and foreigners were allowed to establish bank subsidiaries and brokerage houses in Korea in 1998. Though the IMF believed this was the right thing to do, United States motives had been more self-interested. "Lobbying by American financial services firms, which wanted to crack the Korean market, was the driving force behind the Treasury's pressure on Korea," says Blustein. IMF officials had become cynical about such "ulterior motives," "focussed more on serving U.S. interests than Korea's, in particular ... greater opportunities for foreign brokerage firms." One said, "The U.S. saw this as an opportunity, as they did in many countries, to crack open all these things that for years have bothered them." In most IMF crisis negotiations, the United States pursued the toughest neoliberal line. It also shot down a Japanese attempt to lead a rival East Asian financial consortium to solve the crisis (Blustein 2001:1435; 164-70). An imperial power does not like collective organization on the periphery. What was permitted in Europe remained banned in Asia. Here the U.S. government and American financial corporations were pursuing identical informal imperialism through structural adjustment. Yet this offensive may have ground to a halt, as the East Asian economies have resumed earlier policies of financial repression, somewhat amended.

The banks' offensive was matched by one by GATT. In the 1970s it too was turning away from an exclusive concern with Northern economies toward opening up the markets of the South. Its reach was widening, extending freer trade beyond agriculture and manufacturing into services, especially financial services, and intellectual property rights. But its grasp was also deepening, as its rulings became backed by a growing body of international law restraining the North as well as the South. By the twentyfirst century the WTO (the successor body to GATT since 1995) was punishing forms of ad hoc protection like Bush the Younger's steel tariffs, while the Europeans' ban on GM-modified crops is also likely to be punished. This reflected and reinforced the power shift occurring within Northern capitalism, including American capitalism, diminishing the power of sectors favoring protection and increasing those favoring liberalization, especially finance.

But the impact of the WTO has been more dramatic on the South. Its main responsibility is to press for free trade. The interest of all countries is to free up the markets of others but not their own. This is especially so for poor countries who know that the rich countries (including the United States) became rich by initially protecting their infant industries, repressing finance, subsidizing exports, etc. The poor would benefit most by retaining such powers while gaining access to rich countries' markets (if the American Empire were a charity with a Mission to develop the world, it would agree to this, but obviously this is not the case). The second-best solution for the poor countries would be free trade for all, since their lowercost agriculture and low-end manufacturing could enable them to export more. But the WTO pressures them to open up their markets while the rich countries protect their agriculture, which is almost the worst possible regime for them, and the most imperialistic. Despite an ostensibly democratic constitution (unlike the two banks), the WTO has been dominated by the rich countries, the so-called "Quad"--the United States, the EU, Japan, and Canada. Thus the gain in relative economic strength by Europe and Japan against the United States resulted in this arena less in rivalry than a degree of collaborative Northern imperialism. Poorer countries complained about lack of transparency, closed-door, late-night sessions, late release of meeting transcripts, and being excluded from the decisive "green room" meetings. Countries refusing to support Quad initiatives were placed on a blacklist of unfriendly states and some had their preferential trade agreements suspended. Jawara and Kwa (2003) say:
 Favorite instruments are the promise of benefits under the African
 Growth and Opportunity Act (by the US.... ), limited concessions
 on trade restrictions directed toward individual countries (notably
 on textiles), debt reduction (e.g., the sudden completion of
 Tanzania's long-overdue debt reduction under the HIPC initiative
 soon after Doha) and aid (offered to Pakistan, for example). Many
 of the promises were fulfilled; others either were quietly
 forgotten or turned out to be worthless.

This coercion was strictly economic--no gunboats sail under the WTO flag--confined to offering or withdrawing economic benefits.

The greatest achievement of this Northern offensive was the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Retated Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This fine-sounding agreement protected the patent rights of inventors and the copyrights of writers, musicians, and artists--obviously useful to struggling and creative individuals. But the most important impact of TRIPS was to shift control of the most commercially viable creativity and public knowledge into the realm of transnational corporations (Drahos and Braithwaite 2002). Its biggest beneficiaries are big pharmaceutical companies, mostly American but some European. Their malign influence on AIDS has been widely noted. Their patented drugs against AIDS are too highly priced to be used widely in poor countries--they are often soldat higher prices there than in the corporation's home country. Thus thousands, perhaps millions, die. "Generic" drugs costing a fraction of the price can be produced by poorer countries--and India produces many of them. But TRIPS prevented their sale. TRIPS kept a Northern lock on creativity in cutting-edge technologies making it harder for others to move into these high-profit fields, reinforcing the economic power of the North, which registers over 90% of the world's patents. TRIPS had largely resulted from corporate lobbying. Sell ( 2002:171-2; cf. Drahos and Braithwaite 2002: 72-3, 114-9) says TRIPS was "a significant instance of global rule-making by a small handful of well-connected corporate players and their governments." The chief executives of "powerful American-based multinational companies" with "superb access to the top levels of policy-making both at domestic and multilateral levels" became the founding members of an "Intellectual Property Committee" which lobbied for TRIPS within GATT. Governments must support the interests of their own citizens, but in practice this means those who are well connected. So this was a triumph for the Quad states and their big corporations, working in concert.

But they had exceeded their power. When most of the 120 countries who had signed up to TRIPS realized the consequences, they revolted. Resentment over this and other issues boiled over at the Seattle Ministerial Meetings in 1999, and they broke up in disarray. After bitter, lengthy negotiations, some breaches of TRIPS were allowed. In 2003 an agreement allowed developing countries to import generic drugs for the treatment of diseases that are "public health threats," though the verification procedures are long and costly. The United States had also suffered reverses within the OECD through the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. The United States had not been able to end members' controls over capital accounts and financial services movements, or to permit complete freedom of foreign corporations to set up foreign branches and buy up local companies to the point where they could dominate local product markets. In 1998 France, followed by others, refused to sign. The United States then turned to the WTO and secured a provisional commitment at Singapore in 2003 to pursue more open investment, financial competition, transparency, and government procurement. This would include an agreement to liberalize financial services to the point where foreign financiers would have identical rights to locals. But this also provoked opposition, because it was informal imperialism.

The disputes continue. The "Doha Development Round" of WTO negotiations has been blocked for 7 years. The United States, Japan, and the EU have taken turns to block progress on agriculture, the item of greatest concern to poor countries. The entry of China (pushed by the United States) has added a large ally to India, Brazil, and the other members of the G-20 organization formed at the Cancfin meeting in 2003. Such collective organization by the peripheral South is a direct challenge to American/Northern imperialism. There are also allies in the Northern streets, a motley but quite effective alliance of protectionists and anti--or alternative globalists, environmentalists, feminists, indigenous peoples, and others--for the new imperialism affects them too. Their power to disrupt and to command media attention at the beginning of the twenty-first century has forced the WTO and the World Bank to make big rhetorical shifts and smaller shifts in actual policy (Aaronson 2001; Rabinovitch 2004). It is not good news that the WTO is stalled, because poor countries would benefit from freer trade. But it is a sign of collective resistance on the periphery to economic imperialism.

The United States and the EU have sought to counter this by making more bilateral and regional agreements with poorer countries. This is the traditional imperial tactic: peripheral countries will communicate with the core but not with each other (Smith 2000:333). But recently resurgent Latin American leftists have stalled the U.S. plan for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Though it is too early to be sure, the balance of power may have shifted a little against American and Northern capitalist imperialism, so that at the least the intensification of economic imperialism seems to have ceased. The new economic imperialism did reverse the relative economic decline of the United States: by 2000 it had 28% of the world's GDP, a slight increase since 1970. But add the continued rise of China and India, and perhaps predictions of relative American decline were merely premature. Finance capital and the dollar (now supported by the Chinese economy), may ensure that a lesser hegemony survives.

Yet it is economic hegemony of a very peculiar debt-dominated kind. The United States continues to operate as the hub of the world's financial markets. In 2003 83% of the $3 trillion daily foreign exchange dealing involved the U.S. dollar, 59% of world foreign exchange reserves were held in U.S. dollars, and U.S. government bonds comprised over half of all world bonds. The United States needs this to continue in order to finance its everincreasing trade and budget deficits. Americans' debts to foreigners probably totalled over $2.7 trillion, over a quarter of its GDP, and so the United States requires an inflow of about $2 billion per day to pay for it. Thus the United States depends on two things. First, it must keep capital markets open and prevent any return elsewhere to policies of "national development" involving capital controls. Second, the foreigners must continue to want to invest in the United States, rather than elsewhere. The first explains why it continues to push financial neoliberalism so strongly: it may be bad for the world, but it is absolutely vital to maintain present American economic and fiscal policies (Soederberg 2004:125). But it is beginning to resemble British financial hegemony of a century ago, actually kept going by a multilateral collaborative effort among the biggest national economies, aided by transnational Western (then) and Northern (now) capitalism (Eichengreen 1996). This would mean slow American relative economic decline, cushioned by a successor consortium of capitalist Powers. This could be graceful decline. But the rise and fall of new militarism was anything but graceful.


The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to most Americans to be the triumph of freedom over dictatorship, that is of American ideological power (Nye's "soft Power"). Now democratic capitalism could be expanded as a global Mission without incurring the risk of world war. It also left enormous American military preponderance in the world, with half the entire world's military budget---obviously uniquely American since no other empire had ever approached such superiority. This was a great imperial opportunity. Yet the customary imperial paradox also showed up: the more the United States expanded across the world, the more strategically vulnerable it felt, because threats might come from anywhere. Because global empire brings global anxieties, military preponderance brought the temptation of "preemptive strikes" against two sources of anxiety.

(a) U.S. policy makers feared the global proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, which are indeed potentially great levelers. Poorer states can acquire them, and only a few weapons are needed to deter the mighty United States from punitive interventions. Some "rogue states," mostly Muslim ones, seemed to be nearing them.

(b) The U.S. presence in the Middle East remained precarious. The network of U.S. bases had been geographically unbalanced by the postwar defense of Europe and East Asia. By 1988 there were only seven bases across the whole of the Middle East and Africa, and from only four bases (two in Greece and two in Turkey) could U.S. forces directly strike at the Middle East. The Pentagon remained dependent in the region on potentially vulnerable carriers and long-range bombers. Politically, the United States was propping up authoritarian regimes increasingly beset by the new populist Islamist jihadis arising after the American-assisted collapse of socialist and nationalist Arab alternatives. The alliance of the United States with Saudi Arabia and Israel eventually brought Islamist terrorists into action against American troops and civilians, culminating in 9-11. Both weapons of mass destructions and terrorists are global threats. The homeland feels threatened from many places across the world, though with the Middle East heading the threats.

These two perceived vulnerabilities combined with perceived military preponderance to generate a new military imperialism. The administrations of Bush the Elder and Clinton gradually extended the range of U.S. military interventions against enemies called "rogue states," who represented unfreedom just as the Soviets had done. The invasion of Panama in 1989 had a big impact on American military strategy, success seen as resulting from launching overwhelming force. It was followed by a much bigger intervention in Iraq in 1991, and then by major airstrikes in Yugoslavia. The results were encouraging (though not the Somalian intervention), and military bases were acquired in Saudi Arabia and the Balkans. The United Nations seemed compliant, willing to accept American leadership. Russia and China barely demurred, and showed no interest in allying to "balance" U.S. power. That seemed to them a pointless venture, as it did to the Europeans. Madeleine Albright called her emerging policy "aggressive multilateralism," while other Clinton staffers coined the phrase "multilateralism if we can, unilateralism if we must," and American generals chafed at the "crippling" restraints placed on them by the multilateral NATO command structure in the Yugoslav campaign (e.g., Clark 2001:203). But Clinton was focused on trade and countering relative economic decline, not on the military. In foreign policy, his administration drifted, split between "realists" and "globalists," who saw the expansion of democracy across the globe as replacing the containment of communism (Hyland 1999).

Madeleine Albright had asked a pertinent question of Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell in 1995: "What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can't use it?" (Albright 2003). The question was also asked by out-of-office Republicans. Their response was based on their reading of past successes and failures. In the words of Donald Kagan, when adversaries "read strength and a strong will, they tend to retreat and subside. When they read weakness and timidity, they take risks." The first half of this referred to the Cold War, the second to the 1990s. What neoconservatives saw as feeble recent policies--not marching on Baghdad in 1991, appeasing North Korea, allowing Iraq to manipulate sanctions, ignoring China's human rights violations--must be reversed. They did reverse Clinton's priorities, being uninterested in economic issues but obsessed by military strength. As Jim Mann says, "reflecting on what they saw as a thirty rive year rise in American military capabilities ... as America's principal tool in dealing with the world," they arrived at the doctrine of preemptive strikes by a greatly enlarged military capable of carrying a Mission of freedom and forestalling strategic threats all around the globe (all these opinions, plus silence on economic issues, pervade Kagan and Kristol 2000). Mann suggests that these "Vulcans" (Condoleeza Rice's term for the new hawks) represented the views of most of their generation, for Republicans had won six out of nine Presidential elections held from 1968 onward, with foreign policy often looming quite large in them (2004:222-3, 371-2). Led by the firm military/ideological stand of President Reagan, the view was that Americans had caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, not Soviet citizens themselves. This dwarfed memories of hubris in Vietnam (in which only Powell and his deputy Armitage among the leading policy makers had fought). All this also tended to elevate the Pentagon over both State and Treasury in the conduct of foreign policy, and to generate a novel kind of "isolationism," with faith in American power overriding any knowledge of the world outside--I will call it the "isolationism of ignorance."

The Pentagon itself had developed a military machine without much local knowledge. Instead it relied on a universal blueprint for victory, regardless of terrain or adversary. It had been geared to fight a defensive, hitech, and possibly nuclear war against the Soviets. It relied heavily on bombing and in intensive tire power on the ground, and it did not much matter what the ground was. But it did not have an enormous number of ground troops and these were mostly slow and heavily armored. During the 1990s control of the Pentagon remained contested between the heavyarmor and the high-tech brigades, and little was done to remedy this weakness. By the year 2000 fewer than 200,000 of the 1.4 million-strong U.S. armed forces could be placed on the ground to fight, with a serious shortage of light forces suitable to fight guerilla movements armed with Kalashnikovs and IEDs. The United States retains a military better geared to World War II-style battles against organized armies than to imperial pacification. One reason for this is not merely technical. Because the lives of U.S, soldiers are considered sacred, light troops must not be left with insufficient "force protection." Thus more of the troops are assigned to protect each other than is consonant with fighting guerillas. The overall result is a wilful ignorance of the enemy.

The new military imperialism was at first an escalation of previous trends, though there was a jump forward with the foreign policy of Bush the Younger, overwhelmingly staffed by people variously described as "neo-conservatives," "conservative Wilsonians," "democratic imperialists," or "Vulcans" (Bacevich 2002; Daalder and Lindsay 2003; Mann 2004, Packer 2005). There seem to have been two main strands among them, a more ideological neoconservatism with a Mission of taking liberal democracy and freemarket capitalism to the world (which appealed additionally to America's religious right), and a nationalism dedicated more simply to preserving and extending American domination of the world. The leading neoconservatives were men like Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle, the leading nationalists were Cheney and Rumsfeld. In public, however, both coupled the Mission statement to the gigantic military existing since the 1940s, while explicitly abandoning the traditional defensive posture of both. Now the Mission statement would be carried aggressively and preemptively to the world. Though their policy closely entwined realist strategic interests and mission statements, they either ignored or concealed economic interests--for it is always difficult to interpret silence. In particular, they rarely mentioned off, though this was clearly a necessary precondition of their Middle Eastern policy.

They were both provoked and liberated by 9-11. Twice in 3 years, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they sent the U.S. military to invade, conquer, and restructure large countries. When initially these ventures seemed to be going well, they also threatened Syria, Iran, and North Korea. This seemed to neoconservatives to be merely repeating the successes of 1898 and 1945: temporary colonies creating friendly and democratic client regimes (Boot 2002). There was some payback from Afghanistan. It and its neighbors now house new U.S. bases strategically located between China, Russia, and the new as well as the old oil and gas fields of the Caucasus and the Middle East. But Iraq was the high-value target--a large, fairly secular, oil-rich Arab country with an unpopular dictator. Here surely was the possibility to finally acquire a compliant and useful client state in the Middle East, the first since the Shah. Strategic and economic reasons probably came together again in the thinking of the Bush administration, though the Mission statement was also important for some of its members and was essential for legitimacy.

The threats of terrorism and weapons of destruction were more than pretexts but less than being the main motives for the invasion of Iraq. (4) Their main role after 9-11 was to mobilize mass support for the invasion. Oil was a more important motive, though within the context of the traditional strategic goal of asserting U.S. control over the region, and this also comprised defense of Israel as a significant motive among some neoconservatives and the religious right (with the bonus of an electoral payoff from America's Jews). The argument (made in Incoherent Empire) that a better way of securing oil would be to leave it to market forces had little appeal in an imperial America, for no U.S. administration, Republican or Democrat, had done this in the past. Indeed, markets alone would not work without multilateral agreements among the oil consumers, for Japan and China have been trying to secure their own oil supplies by buying up oilfields. The United States had grown accustomed to countering potential threats in the region with the threat of military violence, and the Gulf War of 1991 had openly justified maximum force in terms of oil. The then National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft later wrote in his memoir: the "core of our argument" was "preserving the balance of power in the Gulf, opposing unprovoked international aggression, and ensuring that no hostile regional power could hold hostage much of the world's oil supply." As usual, once the intervention got underway, a Mission statement began to dominate American rhetoric. Bush the Elder says he himself experienced this shift. After initially seeing Saddam as a "dangerous strategic threat," he shifted as the invasion loomed to seeing it as a "moral crusade," repeatedly comparing Saddam's incursion into Kuwait to Hitler's aggression, and Saddam's repression to the Holocaust (Bush and Scowcroft 1998:340,374-5, 388, 399).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the light of the interventions of the 1990s, administrations grew confident that the military, if used wholeheartedly, could overcome all enemies. If it was not used to secure something as important as oil, when would it ever be used? The notion of dismantling or substantially downsizing it was almost unthinkable in imperial America, especially in Congress, dominated by pork-barrel politics. The military had to be used from time to time. Had the invasion worked, and the United States had secured a less repressive client state guaranteeing oil supplies, exercising a moderating influence across the region, with the invasion scaring other rogue states into negotiations--then who would be complaining? Of course, deluded by a deceptive military preponderance, they believed it would work.

Before the invasion the Mission statement was proclaimed less stridently than the threat of either WMDs or terrorists, and it was then aimed more at removing an evil dictator than bringing democracy. The American "Plan A" was actually to provoke a revolt by Iraqi generals, installing a new military regime. Afterwards it was the Grand Ayatollah Sistani who first pressed elections on the United States (Diamond 2005). But later, as is customary, the Mission statement loomed larger. By 2005 it was deafening, extended to bringing democracy to the whole region, even to the detriment of U.S. economic and strategic interests (as some establishment critics began to perceive). Under Bush the Younger the Mission is now probably more important than at any time in the American past or indeed in any empire since the early Spanish one. Is this because the intervention has been uniquely ineffective in achieving more tangible goals? The United States did eventually accept elections in Iraq but, as the Shia' and Kurdish parties had intended, elections became the means for them to dominate Iraq. This is less democracy than ethnocracy. In elections only about 10% vote across ethnic lines or for cross-ethnic parties. Afterwards, there is rule by majority ethnic groups, as elections in Northern Ireland and Israel have long brought.

I have written about the disaster that is the Bush foreign policy elsewhere (Mann 2003). I repeat in amended form my argument there that this is no longer the age of empires but of nationalism and the nation-state. In the mid-twentieth century the European empires were expelled by self-styled "nationalist" movements. In Asia some movements did genuinely represent widespread sentiments of national identity (as in Vietnam or India). In Africa most comprised small groups of civil servants, teachers, and union organizers able to mobilize mainly urban support without much shared sense of "national" (i.e., colony-wide) sentiment. "African nationalism" meant what its title indicated: a racial struggle, Africans against whites. But all these movements could mobilize hatred of the alien oppressor--that is, anti-imperialism. The world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) reinforced anti-imperialism more than nationalism because they are transnational (less Hinduism). But since freedom from the imperialists involved struggling politically at the level of the colony, these anti-imperialists movements were gradually "naturalized," coming to see themselves as "nationalists." The nation-state and nationalism thus came to be "officially" hegemonic politically and ideologically across the world, even though real identities on the ground were often more localized. We have seen glimpses of this anti-imperialist trajectory in the history of the American Empire, though it was much more evident in the decline and fall of the European Empires.

American imperialism after World War II had countered the growth of anti-imperialism in two ways. One, mainly in Asia, had involved using conservative nationalists to act as clients against more radical ones--like the Indonesian military against communists. The other, dominant in Latin America, was to use class to undermine nation, allying with comprador classes against subordinate ones. Both strategies enjoyed some success, though they led toward informal empire or hegemony not colonies. It is doubtful today whether a large-scale American invasion would win popularity in any large invaded country, because it would offend nationalism and anti-imperialism almost everywhere.

But Islam, especially in the Middle East, present even greater difficulties. No European Empire had been able to penetrate Muslim civil society. They had resorted to divide and rule, supporting some emirs, sheikhs, and religious brotherhoods against others. On the ground, Muslim notables ruled, not the British or the French. The origins of Sunni dominance over Iraq lay in British dependence on a Sunni monarch and Sunni tribes after a failed attempt at brutal repression in the 1920s, including substantial bombing. After decolonization, in relatively self-standing Muslim countries like Indonesia or Malaysia or Iran, Islam boosted national consciousness, making foreign intervention there extremely difficult. Though American support for the Shah had increased his ability to repress and even to bring some economic development to his country, it always undercut his popularity among the masses. Elsewhere Islam, and often also the Arabic language, cut across national borders and weakened nationalism. Arab nationalism never acquired popular roots, and all Ba'athist parties had to compromise more with clerical and tribal leaders and repress more. The radicalization of Islam in the 1990s, with its pronounced anti-imperial tendencies, only increased the difficulties. The United States could now find "safe" clients only among reactionary Arab monarchs like the Saudis (though repressive Egypt or Jordan would consent to be "arms-length" allies if sufficiently rewarded). In the Middle East the Gulf sheikhs might be a comprador class, but they can only rule through extreme repression. Whoever represents the future of Muslim states, the sheikhs do not.

The United States invaded Iraq without significant allies on the ground except Kurdish nationalists. That was a major error, a product of the new "isolationism of ignorance"--overweening military confidence, sidelining the State Department, relying for local knowledge on Iraqi exiles with their own agenda. But it was not a "mistake" in the sense of being an oversight. There were no such allies available, and nor could there be elsewhere in the Middle East (except perhaps the Lebanon, though its Christians are only a minority). The American invaders were perceived as imperialist aliens, however much Iraqis might want rid of Saddam Hussein. The United States cannot put back together the Iraqi nation-state, having first destroyed its precarious infrastructures. All it can do is divide-and-rule between ethnic/ religious groups, encouraging regional nationalisms which might break up this country into three. Nor could either the Shi'a or the Sunni leaders become pliable allies (though Kurds might, since they might continue to need American help to preserve their autonomy). The mess in Iraq is further strengthening the dominance of Iran over the Gulf.

The United States has acquired more bases in Iraq, enabling it to withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern and Caucasian oil and natural gas resources are now surrounded by U.S. bases. But what purpose do these bases serve? They have not influenced President Karimov of Uzbekistan to moderate his repression. In response to such pressure, he asked U.S. troops to leave. The U.S. bases cannot pacify Iraq nor can they even extract as much Iraqi oil as Saddam did. The bases are without local purpose. They grew up as part of a global strategy of defense against the rival Soviet/Chinese empire. Then they seemed to promise a gunboat empire, capable of delivering sharp punishment to "rogue states," or perhaps even to Russia or China. Yet Iran and North Korea have already shown this to be partly bluff and are acquiring nuclear weapons while the United States is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. More locally, the intervention in Iraq continues to strengthen the regional power of Iran, a bizarre outcome, because the United States had successfully used Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a counterweight to Iran.

As the United States failed, it resorted to state terrorism, which drew more blowback. It bombed cities which it had supposedly pacified and which its clients supposedly ruled. Perhaps 200,000 Iraqis have died. The United States resorted to concentration camps, torture, and rendition, from Guantanamo Bay to Bagram to Abu Ghraib. I paraphrase William Graham Sumner: this reveals the conquest of the United States by Saddam Hussein. Such atrocities have happened many times before in other empires. Comparable ones were committed by the British against the Mau Mau in Kenya, the French in Algeria, and the Soviets in Eastern Europe--all as late as the 1950s. These were all losing ventures, of course. But in the twenty-first century, there are no other comparable imperial atrocities (unless we count China in Tibet, or minor regional empires, like the Indonesian). The United States uniquely gets denounced for imperialism.

Could the United States escalate further, to become a brutally effective colonial empire? Niall Ferguson (2004) urges the United States to emulate Britain, though his is a sanitized version of the British Empire. For Iraq, more appropriate would be the Roman model described by the Gaulish chief quoted by Tacitus "They make a desert and call it peace"--massive coercion lasting over a decade, bouts of exemplary repression--Fallujahs all over Sunni areas, the execution of Muqtada al-Sadr and all other Shi'a "trouble-makers," etc. It would cost many more dollars and American lives, and lose the remaining allies. I doubt Americans could stomach this (Ferguson doubts they could stomach even his sanitized empire). Global opinion has turned steadily against empires over the last century. Empires are no longer normal. The United States has the military power to conquer, but not to pacify; the economic power to finance both, but not the economic will; and it lacks the political or ideological power to woo Iraqis or bring outside support for this latter-day imperial venture.

The best strategy might be to cut and run, now, leave Iraq and probably Afghanistan too. Leave these countries to sort out their own problems--or not. Muslim countries can more easily deal with their jihadis if unencumbered by American leadership (they did in the early 1990s). Arabs need to sell their oil, the Japanese and Europeans are desperate for it, and Americans need a little of it. Let the market rule, supplemented by multilateral regulation. If the Iranians are not to acquire nuclear weapons and the North Koreans are not to acquire more of them, the United States should probably stop threatening them and instead buy out their weapons programs. The United States would still retain its disproportionate military power, which could be used in more legitimate, multilateral (and probably UN-backed) interventions. It would also retain a degree of global economic hegemony mixed with structural adjustment, though as I have indicated, this may be slightly declining. Solidarity with either the UN against rogue states or with the North against the South are the possible rearguard actions for American Empire, diffusing empire onto broader configurations of power.

But the United States will probably not cut and run, at least not soon. Curiously, whenever this possibility is raised by "Realists," the answer is couched in terms of the interests not of the United States but of Iraq--"civil war would break out," it is said (it already has). This is part of the domination of American public discourse by the Mission statement. In 1941 Henry Luce famously urged the United States to carry to the world greater freedom, equality, independence, justice, humanity, and truth to create the first great "American Century" (the essay is reprinted in Hogan 1999). Slightly more than halfway through the Century, the same Mission statement is undermining American power. But to abandon the ideal of making Iraq (the world) better would be worse imperial humiliation than experienced in Vietnam. This time locals cannot be found to rescue the American Empire by signing a face-saving peace agreement. The insurgents probably cannot be bombed to the negotiating table as the North Vietnamese were by Nixon. The security situation in Iraq is also far worse than it was in Vietnam or Korea--or perhaps than in any American intervention. Afghanistan may be the second worst situation. Moreover, since 9-11 was real, and the "war against terror" has become a self-fulfilling prophecy involving Iraqis, U.S. administrations can still mobilize popular support to keep some of intervention going for a while yet. Most Americans seem not to accept that it was U.S. foreign policy over a long period of time that alienated many (perhaps most) Muslims in the Middle East. Just getting rid of the Bush administration might make rather little difference. It needs substantial reduction of U.S. imperialism in this region, yet few politicians seem to accept this. The American Empire seems trapped, unable to overcome the enemy, unable to save itself by retreat. Europeans are also trapped between the Americans and the jihadis, and they are more vulnerable to the latter. The principal justification for empire throughout the ages has not been democracy but order, and this one cannot provide it, at least in this region of increasing significance for the world.

The United States has overreached itself through military hubris coupled with an aggressive sense of Mission, generating a isolationism of ignorance. The Bush administration has not accepted that even temporary colonialism may be dead, that the overall trajectory of the American Empire, like the British, was toward lighter forms of rule. It neglects America's greatest asset, hegemony, essentially a routinized and only marginally imperial resource, which is gradually shading off into mutual interdependence. This burst of militarism and temporary colonialism has been, quite simply, a mistake. The Bay of Pigs is perhaps the most comparable American misadventure, in that those knowledgeable of the local situation within the administration knew it would likely fail (Vietnam was not like that). It was the same mistake: no local allies on the ground. But the Bay of Pigs was a trivial fiasco. The U.S. invasion of Iraq may rank closer to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union or Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor as decisions that still bewilder scholars. The three share common attributes: imperial arrogance fueled by recent military successes resonating amid an aggressive sense of Mission to the world, producing overconfidence in one's own material and moral military power, while sidelining more pragmatic diplomatic and military advice. These three big mistakes demonstrate the limited role of reason in human affairs. The first two changed the world, and the third one also has such potentiality.


The United States has always been imperial, though in very different ways in different times and places. Its first continental phase was direct and highly repressive empire--curiously the most romanticized period in American history. It was followed by a short burst of overseas colonialism from 1898, though this quickly lightened into informal empire. This was due less because of any uniqueness of American domestic institutions or character than because of America's distinctive implantation in the world at that time. Its informal empire further lightened from gunboats to proxies during the 1920s and 1930s. During this period, American imperialism was most geared to economic and strategic interests, though racism and fear of revolution reduced the realism of policy. After World War II the United States acquired a uniquely global empire, using gunboats, proxies or hegemony, according to region. It still blended economic and strategic interests, though now adding a defensive Mission statement which was more significant than any prior sense of Mission. Through the twentieth century until the 1970s U.S. imperialism also continued to lighten, and was also usually lighter than the imperialism of its rivals.

But lightening ended in the 1970s as informal empire by structural adjustment intensified, though folded into a more transnational, financial and Northern capitalist imperialism. This provoked some collective resistance by the periphery in the late 1990s, whose outcome remains unclear. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire came intensification of military imperialism, seeking to repeat the temporary colonialism of 1898 and 1945, transforming the postwar Mission statement from defense to offense. But this quickly bogged down, generating damaging blowback. I have distinguished four main motives of empire. Two of them, a perception of military predominance, which is false, allied to an aggressive sense of Mission are now undermining the other two, American economic and strategic interests. American exceptionalism, in the guise of conservative Wilsonianism, is finally dominant and has led to failure. There were good realist reasons why American imperialism has not generally been ideologically exceptional!

This reinforces my argument that the two imperial intensifications were not closely related to each other. It is unlikely the U.S. chose military aggression to reverse relative economic decline, which is the argument of world-systems theorists (Harvey 2003; Wallerstein 2003). The two seem unconnected within recent administrations: Clinton focused on international trade and finance, uninterested and pushed into militarism. Bush the Younger had the reverse priorities and his militarism-cum-idealism has obstructed economic-cum-strategic. Nor had there been relative decline in American economic power between 1970 and 2000.

But these two American intensifications were by now the only significant imperial expansions in the world, and they were occurring after a century of growing anti-imperialism. Much of the world now knows nothing worse than the American form of imperialism (it has forgotten the British, Japanese, Nazi, and Soviet empires), and this brings substantial legitimacy loss. I doubt empire can still be accomplished, especially by military power. There will probably be no new global empire or hegemon. American power, other than military, is declining relative to its main rivals, but neither Europe, Russia, China, or India could singly supplant it. The world is again acquiring a number of Great Powers, but they are probably unable to exert more than a hegemonic influence over their own regional peripheries, while any more enlarged sphere hegemony will likely be multilateral, thus shading off into mutual interdependence. Expressed more simply, empires are dying. Yet the United States can make the death a prolonged and unpleasant experience for the world if it so chooses.

In 1945 British conservatives still expected the Empire to last for many years. Though others knew the game was up in India, African developments were a surprise to all. Twenty years later the British Empire was gone. American power has been much greater than British power. But Muslims now may play the role of Africans then. It is not possible to predict the future of American Empire, since human behavior is not rational. But things are not looking good.


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Michael Mann, Department of Sociology, UCLA, 234 Haines Hall, Box 951551, Los Angeles, CA 900951551, U.S.A. E-mail:

MICHAEL MANN University of California-Los Angeles

* An earlier version of this paper was presented February 23, 2006 as the 37th Annual Sorokin Lecture, Department of Sociology, University of Saskatchewan, Canada. I would like to thank the Department for giving me the honor of presenting this lecture.

(1) It is worth noting here how utterly wrong Schumpeter's well-known theory of imperialism was. He saw capitalism and imperialism as completely unrelated, the latter being only an atavistic hangover from earlier more militaristic times (1955:88-9). Yet of course early global capitalism relied on the combination of free labor in the core and militm-ily coerced labor in the colonial periphery, as Wallerstein noted. Then, though unfree labor gradually declined within capitalism, informal empire became the principal capitalist contributor to imperialism

(2) So I am hot using it in the political science/International Relations Theory senses of either domination more generally or global or regional domination by a single power, nor in Doyle's (1986:40} sense of a dominance exercised only over foreign and not domestic policy.

(3) But the Hobson/Lenin theory of imperialism could net be applied te the United States in this period, since it was still a net importer of capital (as was Japan in its expansionist phase).

(4.) It is difficult to assess the relative con tributions of lies and self-delusion in the minds of the perpetrators. Lies may have predominated in the terrorism rhetoric. However, even if they knew (as I and much of the CIA did) that Saddam Hussein had virtually no effective WMDs (of course, he actually had none), they believed that attacking him would be a deterrent signal to other regimes that were trying to acquire them. So this was a genuine motive (though expressed falsely) when considered in a wider context.
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