The aftermath of the terrorist attacks has
revived imperialist ideology in the United States,
rather than caused it to query its world role.
Writers do not hesitate to draw parallels between
their nation and ancient Rome, which they hold to be
a model for world domination in the 21st century.
by PHILIP S GOLUB
A WHILE before 11 September the American historian,
Arthur Schlesinger Jr, suggested that despite the
"absence of international checks and balances" in
the modern unipolar world, the United States would
not "stroll too far down the perilous highway to
hubris . . . No one nation is going to be able to
assume the role of world arbitrator and policeman"
(1). Like many American intellectuals, he remained
confident about US democracy and the rationality of
decision making. And Charles William Maynes, an
influential voice in US foreign policy, asserted:
"America is a country with imperial capabilities but
without an imperial mind" (2).
But now we must face facts: a new imperial doctrine
is taking shape under George Bush. Now is
reminiscent of the late 19th century, when the US
began its colonial expansion into the Caribbean,
Asia and the Pacific, the first steps to world
power. Then the US was seized by great imperialist
fervour. Journalists, businessmen, bankers and
politicians vied to promote policies of world
"American economic leaders were fixing their eyes on
the industrial supremacy of the world" (3) and
political leaders were dreaming of a "splendid
little war", as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to
justify international expansion. "We have a record
of conquest, colonisation and expansion unequalled
by any people in the 19th century. We are not about
to be curbed now," said Henry Cabot Lodge, the
leading ideologue of the imperial camp, in 1895 (4).
Roosevelt, an admirer of the British imperialist
poet Rudyard Kipling, believed the national destiny
was clear: "I wish to see the US the dominant power
on the Pacific Ocean. Our people are neither cravens
nor weaklings and we face the future high of heart
and confident of soul, eager to do the great work of
a great world power" (5).
Summing up the imperialist fashion of the era, the
journalist Marse Henry Watterson wrote in 1896: "We
are a great imperial Republic, destined to exercise
a controlling influence upon the actions of mankind
and to affect the future of the world as the world
was never affected, even by the Roman Empire" (6).
Haughty but premonitory words.
US historians have generally considered the late
19th century imperialist urge as an aberration in an
otherwise smooth democratic trajectory. The US had
emerged from a war of independence to cast off
British colonial domination, and had played its part
in the Enlightenment project against absolutist
continental European monarchies. Surely this
experience inoculated it once and for all against
the virus of imperialism?
Yet a century later, as the US empire engages in a
new period of global expansion, Rome is once more a
distant but essential mirror for American elites. In
1991 the US found itself the only remaining great
power. Now, with military mobilisation on an
exceptional scale after September 2001, the US is
openly affirming and parading its imperial power.
For the first time since the 1890s, the naked
display of force is backed by explicitly imperialist
"The fact is," writes Charles Krauthammer, a
Washington Post columnist and a spokesman of the
neo-conservative right, "no country has been as
dominant culturally, economically, technologically
and militarily in the history of the world since the
late Roman Empire" (7). According to Robert Kaplan,
a conservative essayist and an international policy
mentor to Bush, "Rome's victory in the Second Punic
War, like America's in World War II, made it a
universal power" (8).
Even writers closer to the political centre feel
obliged to refer to Rome. Joseph S Nye Jr, dean of
the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University and Assistant Secretary of State for
Defence under the Clinton administration, began his
latest book: "Not since Rome has one nation loomed
so large above the others" (9) (see box 'Don't go it
The historian Paul Kennedy, who made his name in the
1980s with his premature prediction of US imperial
overstretch, goes further: "Nothing has ever existed
like the disparity of power [in the present world
system]. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap.
Napoleon's France and Philip II's Spain had powerful
foes and were part of a multipolar system.
Charlemagne's empire was merely western European in
stretch. The Roman empire stretched further afield,
but there was another great empire in Persia and a
larger one in China. There is no comparison" (10).
In inner and outer circles of US power all agree -
"the US is enjoying a pre-eminence unrivalled by
even the greatest empires of the past" (11).
The recurrence of comparisons with Rome and the
omnipresence of the word empire in the US press are
not just descriptive; they reflect the emergence of
a new imperial ideology. In an article by Max Boot,
a Wall Street Journal columnist, under the title
"The Case for American Empire", he writes: "It is
striking - and no coincidence - that America now
faces the prospect of military action in many of the
same lands where generations of British colonial
soldiers went on campaigns. These are all places
where Western armies had to quell disorder.
Afghanistan and other troubled foreign lands cry out
for the sort of enlightened foreign administration
once provided by self-confident Englishmen in
jodhpurs and pith helmets" (12).
Dinesh D'Souza is a far right ideologue and
researcher at the Hoover Institution, who caught the
public attention with theories on the "natural"
inferiority of Afro-Americans. In a recent article,
"In praise of American empire", he argued that
Americans must finally recognise that the US "has
become an empire, the most magnanimous imperial
power ever" (13).
These apologists of empire are not confined to the
far right. Imperial thinking has also infiltrated
academia. Stephen Peter Rosen, head of the Olin
Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard
University, maintains with scientific detachment
that: "A political unit that has overwhelming
military power, and uses that power to influence the
internal behaviour of other states, is called an
empire. Our goal is not combating a rival, but
maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining
imperial order" (14). An order, as a more critical
Harvard professor emphasises, entirely "crafted to
suit American imperial objectives. The empire signs
on to those pieces of the transnational legal order
that suit its purposes (the WTO), while ignoring or
even sabotaging those parts (the International
Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, the ABM Treaty)
that do not" (15).
The idea of empire is a radical departure from the
image, as articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, that
Americans have of themselves and their country, as a
democratic exception among nations. This
contradiction is no longer a cause of great concern.
Those who still have any scruples, and they are
increasingly few, qualify the words empire and
hegemony with adjectives such as benevolent or
gentle. Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment
writes: "And the truth is that the benevolent
hegemony exercised by the US is good for a vast
portion of the world's population. It is certainly a
better international arrangement than all realistic
A century ago Theodore Roosevelt used almost exactly
the same words. Rejecting any comparison between the
US and Europe's colonial predators, he wrote: "The
simple truth is there is nothing even remotely
resembling imperialism in the development of the
policy of expansion which has been part of the
history of America since the day she became a
nation. There is not an imperialist in the country
that I have met yet" (17).
Sebastian Mallaby writes for the Washington Post,
which, despite its reputation after Watergate and
its belated opposition to the Vietnam war, has
become more jingoistic since last September. Mallaby
calls himself a "reluctant imperialist". Writing in
the review Foreign Affairs in April 2002, he
suggests that the current world disorder obliges the
US to pursue imperialist policies. He
apocalyptically pictures the third world, its
bankrupt states, uncontrolled population growth,
endemic violence and social decay. He maintains that
the only rational choice is a return to imperial
rule. Third world states threatening Western
security should be placed under direct control. He
concludes that: "Non-imperialist options, notably,
foreign aid and various nation building efforts, are
not altogether reliable. The logic of
neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush
administration to resist" (18).
Bush does not seem to be trying too hard to resist.
He is reluctant to invest in nation building or
commit the US to humanitarian interventions. But he
is quick to deploy US armed forces all over the
world to crush the enemies of civilisation and
forces of evil. His vocabulary, with its constant
references to civilisation, barbarians and
pacification, betrays classical imperial thinking.
There is no knowing quite what Bush learned at Yale
and Harvard, but since 11 September he has become
the unlikely Caesar of the new imperial camp in the
US. According to Cicero, Caesar "fought with the
greatest success against those most valiant and
powerful nations and the other nations he alarmed
and drove back and defeated, and accustomed to yield
to the supremacy of the Roman people" (19). In much
the same way Bush and the new US right now plan to
secure the US empire through war, subjugating
fractious third world peoples, overthrowing rogue
states and perhaps even taking direct control of
bankrupt post-colonial states.
Under Bush, the US hopes to achieve greater security
and prosperity through the force of arms, rather
than international co-operation. It is prepared to
act alone or in temporary coalitions, unilaterally
and in defence of narrowly-defined national
interests. Instead of dealing with the economic and
social causes that nurture recurrent violence in the
South, the US is fuelling instability. That its
objective is not territorial gain but control makes
little difference. Benevolent or reluctant
imperialists are imperialists all the same.
In the new US worldview, third world countries must
submit to a new period of colonisation or
semi-sovereignty. Europe would have to make do with
a subordinate role in the imperial system. Far from
being an autonomous power Europe is seen as a
dependent zone, lacking the willpower and resources
to defend itself, and subservient to US decisions to
wage war. It would have to find its place in a new
imperial division of labour in which "America does
the bombing and fighting, the French, British and
Germans serve as police in the border zones, and the
Dutch, Swiss and Scandinavians provide humanitarian
As Michael Ignatieff notes, apart from the British,
the US trusts its allies so little that it excludes
them from any but the most menial peacekeeping
tasks. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who initiated the
anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, formulated the
idea, now widely shared in Washington, arguing that
the US should seek to "prevent collusion and
maintain dependence among the vassals, keep
tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the
barbarians from coming together" (21).
Charles Krauthammer puts it even more bluntly:
"America won the cold war, pocketed Poland and
Hungary and the Czech Republic as door prizes, then
proceeded to pulverise Serbia and Afghanistan and,
en passant, highlighted Europe's irrelevance with a
display of vast military superiority" (22). This
contempt goes a long way to explain the tension that
has affected transatlantic relations since 11
Pursuing this hard imperial option will condemn
the US to building walls around the West. To borrow
a powerful phrase from the South African writer,
John Michael Coetzee, the US, like all previous
empires, will spend its remaining period of power,
however long it lasts, haunted by a single thought:
"How not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its
Journalist and lecturer
at the Institute of European Studies, University of
Paris VIII - Saint-Denis. back to top
(1) Arthur Schlesinger Jr, "Unilateralism in
Historic Perspective", in Understanding
Unilateralism in US foreign Policy, RIIA, London,
(2) Charles William Maynes, "Two blasts against
unilateralism", in Understanding Unilateralism in US
foreign Policy, op cit.
(3) Quoted by William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy
of American Diplomacy, Dell, New York, 1962.
(5) Quoted by Howard K Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and
the Rise of America to World Power, Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore and London, 1989.
(6) Quoted by David Healy in US Expansionism, the
Imperialist Urge in the 1980s, University of
Wisconsin Press, Madison (Wisconsin), 1970.
(7) Quoted in "It takes an empire say several US
thinkers", The New York Times, 1 April 2002. See
also C Krauthammer, "The Unipolar Moment", Foreign
Affairs, New York, 1990.
(8) Quoted in "It takes an empire say several US
thinkers", op cit.
(9) Joseph S Nye Jr, The Paradox of American Power,
Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.
(10) Paul Kennedy, "The Greatest Superpower Ever",
New Perspectives Quarterly, Washington, winter 2002.
(11) Henry Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign
Policy, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
(12) Max Boot, "The Case for American Empire",
Weekly Standard, Washington, 15 October 2001, vol 7,
(13) Christian Science Monitor, Boston, 26 April
(14) "The Future of War and the American Military",
Harvard Review, May-June 2002, vol 104, no 5.
(15) Michael Ignatieff, "Barbarians at the Gate?",
New York Review of Books, 28 February 2002. See also
Pierre Conesa and Olivier Lepick "The new world
disorder", Le Monde diplomatique English language
edition, July 2002.
(16) Robert Kagan, "The Benevolent Empire", Foreign
Policy, Washington, summer 1998.
(17) Howard K Beale, op cit.
(18) Sebastian Mallaby, "The Reluctant Imperialist,
Terrorism, Failed States, and the Case for American
Empire", Foreign Affairs, New York, March-April
(19) Cicero, On the consular provinces, XIII, 32-35
(20) Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness, Why Europe
and the US see the world differently", Policy
Review, Washington, June-July 2002, no 113.
(21) Quoted by Charles William Maynes, op cit.
(22) Washington Post, 20 February 2002.
(23) John Michael Coetzee, Waiting for the
Barbarians, Secker & Warburg, London, 1980.
Translated by Harry Forster
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