AMERICAN EMPIRE: REALITIES AND UNCERTAINTIES

A.G. HOPKINS

Tony Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History in the University of Cambridge, Emeritus Fellow of Pembroke College, and Emeritus Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History in the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of London, Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Stirling and Birmingham, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. He has written extensively on African history, imperial history, and globalization. His most recent books are Globalisation in World History (2001), Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local (2006), British Imperialism,1688-2015 (with P. J. Cain, 3rded. 2016), and American Empire: A Global History (2018). You can here him discuss the book further here and here.

My book has unexpected origins. I had spent the greater part of my career working on the history of subjects far removed from the United States. But it so happened that, after opting for early retirement from Cambridge University, I arrived in the United States to take up a permanent university position in 2001, a few hours before the events of 9/11. The animated debate over the role of the United States as a global power that followed caught my attention because it raised the issue of whether the US was an empire, a new Great Britain or even a new Rome. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, I found myself compelled to put aside my work on African history and become involved in an unplanned commitment to understand the prime movers of US foreign policy. To put it as I saw it at the time, I needed to grasp why an accountable, democratic government should invest lives and treasure in a venture that seemed guaranteed to produce a major catastrophe.

Iraq was the starting point, but the destination turned out to be both different and distant. I had to undertake so much preparatory work in what, for me, was a new field of study that it was not until about 2012 that I was ready to produce a manuscript. By then, the United States had withdrawn from Iraq and attention had shifted elsewhere. By that time, too, my reading had followed a trail that led in two directions: one took me back through the twentieth and nineteenth centuries to the history of colonial America; the other led me to place the evolution of the United States in a wider, non-national setting.

There was no point in an outsider trying to rewrite the history of the United States: that task had long been in the hands of many fine historians who had spent their careers studying the subject. The only prospect I had of contributing to such a well-established area of research was by looking at it from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, while also trying to absorb elements of the national story that fitted my purpose. The resulting study has brought together several decades of accumulated knowledge from three diverse fields of history. My interest in globalization supplied the broad analytical context; my work on Western empires suggested how imperial expansion transmitted globalizing impulses; my research on the indigenous history of former colonial states, especially those in Africa, gave me an awareness of how different the world looks when viewed from the other side of the frontier.

The argument, put simply, is that the history of the United States, from colonial times to the present day, conforms to three phases of globalization. Each phase can be understood by relating it to the history of Western empires, which were the principal agents of globalisation from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. One phase culminated in the great crises of the military-fiscal state in late eighteenth century, which produced the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the implosion of the Spanish Empire. A second phase, which was bound up with the rise of nation states and industrialisation, fuelled the dramatic partition of the world at the close of the nineteenth century. A third phase, which developed after World War II, ushered in decolonisation and the post-colonial world order we know today.

This approach places a fresh emphasis on some familiar themes. The Revolution, for example, can be seen as part of a wider fiscal crisis that engulfed much of the Western world. The familiar national story that dominates the period after 1783 can be recast to present the United States as a newly decolonised state struggling to secure effective independence from continuing foreign, and especially British, influences. Similarly, the Civil War is an example of a familiar episode in the history of ex-colonial states that fail when their fragile unity succumbs to centrifugal influences. The period after 1865 was one of reconstruction and nation-building in the United States, as it was in Western Europe. The era of high imperialism that followed also included the United States, though its contribution rarely appears in standard texts on empire-building. Yet, the war with Spain that led the United States to establish a formal, insular empire in 1898 represented forces that impelled imperial powers elsewhere.

After 1898, the existing literature changes and so does the emphasis of my argument. The literature on the period before the war with Spain is voluminous beyond measure. I needed to be familiar with it to develop my argument that the United States continued to be dependent on outside influences after 1783. By 1898, however, the US had clearly attained effective independence and I could leave the national story to take its own course. Instead, I had to turn to the history of the principal islands in the new insular empire: Hawai’i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico (and Cuba, as an example of a protectorate). The big problem here is that, after the Treaty of Paris in 1898, historians return to the national story and ignore the empire the war had created. The last comprehensive study of the management of the colonial empire was published in 1962. Work of high quality has been completed on individual islands since then but has yet to be pulled together. The omission of half a century of U.S. colonial rule is one of the largest anomalies in the literature on modern imperialism. It invites a new generation of research students to draw the subject into the mainstream of studies of Western expansion overseas.

It is at this point that some knowledge of colonial history from other parts of the world became helpful in providing a perspective that differed from the view seen from Washington. I made a deliberate choice to begin and end my chapters on the insular possessions with extracts from indigenous songs and poems precisely to place local reactions and ambitions at the forefront of the discussion. Nor was this just window-dressing. We are now aware of the many senses in which what the books refer to as the ‘colonial era’ was jointly produced. This was true of the American empire as it was of the European empires. An imperial standpoint from outside the US is also valuable because it suggests how the history of the US empire fits that of the other Western empires. The ideology of racial supremacy expressed in in a ‘civilising mission’ was the same; so were the principles and techniques of colonial rule. The trajectory of the US Empire also followed a similar course between 1898 and the demission of empire in the 1950s. The insular empire rose and fell in harmony with the other imperial states.

We now come to a particularly difficult problem. Many commentators claim that the United States created an empire after 1945 at the point when the insular possessions were being decolonised. The Philippines became independent in 1946; Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth in 1952; Hawai’i was incorporated as a state in 1959; Cuba opted for a revolutionary exit in the same year. The claim that the U.S. was or became an empire after the 1950s rests on a very general definition of ‘empire’ that makes it synonymous with powerful states. After 1945, the United Sates was indeed a great power, but it was not an empire. Comparisons with Rome and Britain, accordingly, are anachronistic. The empires that characterised the Western powers during the two centuries before World War II commanded territory because it was essential to the type of integration that suited the needs of the time. Under conditions of post-colonial globalization that followed, however, territorial empires were neither necessary nor feasible. The U.S. has a multiplicity of bases, but these were, and remained, enclaves, not bridgeheads into the interior. After 1945, the world economy began to change; concepts of human rights grew in influence; a ‘green uprising’ expanded the scope and power of nationalist movements. To the extent that the invasion of Iraq was intended to remake the Middle East, it was a colonial venture that was destined to fail. The age of great Western empires had passed.

I hope the book will appeal to U.S. historians, who are becoming increasingly responsive to global perspectives. It should also attract historians of other Western empires, who have left the study of the US empire to historians of the United States, who in turn have bypassed it. Beyond these two groups, the argument should interest specialists in international relations and policy-makers who recognise that knowledge of the past is vital to an understanding of the present. Ibn Khaldun put it well more than six centuries ago, when he argued that history was a practical art needed for the “acquisition of excellence in ruling.”

Image: cartoon from Judge magazine regarding America’s imperial ambitions following a quick victory in the Spanish–American War of 1898. The American flag flies from the Philippines and Hawaii in the Pacific to Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Via Wikimedia commons

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