TCS Daily

Imperium Americanum? Hardly.

By Max Borders - September 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Imperialism. The word has become so thinly stretched its meaning is now gossamer. A Google News search of the word reveals a sorry list of headlines, most of which refer to the United States and the current Administration. If nothing else, we can conclude from these that the term is hackneyed:

"World Festival of Youth & Students challenges US imperialism" reads one headline.


"Fight US Imperialism" says AIDWA, the All India Democratic Women's Association (Odd this: hasn't it been fewer than sixty years since India was under an actual empire?).


"US-British oil imperialism" declares a headline from


But the word is not just bandied about by communists and jihadi journalists. It has become the term favored by anyone against open markets and the war in Iraq:


"Chavez's TV to fight 'cultural imperialism'"


"He died to expand American imperialism in the Middle East," howls media darling Cindy Sheehan. "There, I used the 'I' word imperialism."


The problem is, Cindy isn't using the 'I' word correctly. As we can see from the list above, she's not alone. But let us not forget the neo-secessionist paleocons like Pat Buchanan and Lew Rockwell who seem as fond of applying the term "imperialism" to the US as they are of giving their foreigners-are-ruining-America shtick. Even one of my all-time favorite journalists, Robert D. Kaplan , sometimes uses the term imperium when writing about the United States' military dominance (though probably not without irony).


Now, I've never been all that pedantic when it comes to word usage. After all, language evolves and single words can have multiple meanings. But sometimes when people overuse a word -- especially for the sake of cheap polemics -- its meaning becomes diluted, blurred, or utterly confused.


So what does it mean to be an empire?


Let's start with the lexical definition (Webster's Online): "a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially : one having an emperor as chief of state (2) : the territory of such a political unit." Unfortunately, this definition doesn't tell us very much. While the core may lie in the phrase "a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign," we need something more. So let's go deeper.


To get a better idea of what should count as an empire (and thus evaluate accusations of imperialism), maybe we should look at some of history's widely accepted examples, and then we can determine whether there are commonalities among them:


  • Alexander's Greece -- Having inherited a number of Greek city-states unified under his father Phillip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great drives his army eastward through Persia. Eventually he crushes the armies of Darius (332 BCE). He appoints a number of Persian noblemen as provincial governors, but takes Babylon into the breast of the wider Hellenistic state. At its height, Alexander's territory reached as far as India. (Alexander was recently memorialized in a poorly received film by Oliver Stone and is even mentioned in the Koran as "Dhul-Qarnain.")


  • Augustus's Rome -- With the death of Julius Caesar and the eventual reign of Augustus, Rome is transformed from a republic into an empire. The fact of rule under a single sovereign -- coupled with continued territorial expansion as far as Great Britain (to the north and west), as well as Egypt and the Persian Gulf (to the south and east) -- made the Roman Empire an unprecedented power at its zenith. But even early on, the republic had begun to outgrow its city-states as it defeated the armies of Carthage during the Punic Wars, for example, and annexed the territories of Hannibal. Two hundred years on, Jesus of Nazareth was instructing his followers to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." Rome would dominate for another 300 to 500 years after Jesus.

  • Napoleon's France -- With a hand tucked beneath his coat, the great Corsican marches his armies to Germany and eventually occupies Vienna and Berlin by roundly defeating the Prussians. By 1812 most of Europe is under his control. And while Napoleon did not discard many of the rights and freedoms the French had gained in the Revolution, his powers were virtually absolute. Indeed, while Napoleon is known for preserving the French civil laws by uniting them under a single code (Code Civil), he had the power to do away with them especially once he had taken the Imperial crown from Pope Pius the VII in 1804. (Note: Napoleon's armies killed millions in the service of his ends.)

  • Victoria's Britain -- "The Empire on which the sun never sets" they said of Britannia when her rule was at its greatest breadth and depth. While the phrase was originally applied to the Spanish Empire (ca. 1588 at its height), it is truly apt for a series of controlled British territories that included Egypt, India, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. All of the colonies' inhabitants were "subjects" and all had to pay the Crownwhether in taxes or resources. (Hong Kong was returned to China at the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997. Great Britain still controls the Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina.)


The Empirical Empire Test


If we consider some of the characteristics found -- implicitly or explicitly -- in the examples above, we can arrive at a list that would include at least all of the following:

  • ambitions for permanent annexation of territory,
  • territorial governors at a sovereign's behest,
  • centralized command-and-control,
  • tax and/or resource extraction,
  • enforced cultural/linguistic norms,
  • and use of military force to achieve these objectives.


From these, we can thus derive a set of criteria that make up our Empirical Empire Test:


1. Does the state have ambitions for permanent territorial expansion?

2. Does the state install a subsidiary bureaucratic infrastructure (e.g. its own governors, laws)?

3. Does the state have a highly centralized sovereign authority?

4. Does the state extract taxes and/or resources from its territories?

5. Does the state force its territories to adopt linguistic, cultural or social practices?
6. Does the state use coercive and/or military means to arriving at 1-5?


Suppose we ask these questions about the Soviet Union during the Cold War? The answer to all would undeniably be "yes." If we ask the questions about the US during the same period (and up to the present time), the answers to each of these questions is "no."


More specifically, has the United States shown ambitions for permanent territorial expansion during the last 100 years? One might try to argue that Hawaii became a US state in 1959. But the islands were actually annexed in 1898. Another might try to argue that the US bases peppered around Europe and Asia during the Cold War were a form of empire, but these outposts scarcely pass the litmus tests of numbers 1-5, especially given that it was in the interests of Western European states to have US protection at virtually no cost, and since the US has voluntarily abandoned many of those bases now that the Cold War is over (demonstrating, again, a want of territorial "ambitions").


Finally, one might argue that the occupation of Iraq is a territorial expansion (number 1) or that it has a subsidiary bureaucratic infrastructure (number 2). But the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has already been replaced by an elected Iraqi Governing Council that is currently in the process of drafting Iraq's Constitution. While the US military is still in Iraq for security's sake, one can hardly argue that the US has either "permanent" much less "territorial" ambitions. Numbers 3-5 are self-evidently not true of the US in Iraq, and number 6 depends on the truth of numbers 1-5. Thus, the United States fails to pass the Empirical Empire Test.


Now, even if for some reason you don't buy the Empirical Empire Test, the US wouldn't qualify as an empire under Webster's vaguer definition (unless one learned his skills of interpretation from the late Derrida). The only example that might even come close to the Webster criteria might be the case of the Native Americans. But today's Native Americans only satisfy the "peoples under a sovereign" part, but not the " single sovereign" part (nor really the "sovereign" part at all). Native Americans currently enjoy a status as a partially self-governing people (under the BIA), exempt from many of the laws and strictures of most American citizens. And while Native Americans are still bound to the Constitution, such is not a sovereign -- but rather a document that provides the basis for the rule of law and the separation of powers in the US. In short, the case of the US with respect to Native Americans might have passed the Empirical Empire Test at some stage in history, but it doesn't any more.


Finally, what about globalization? Isn't that a form of imperialism? Since globalization is another term that has been perverted for political gain, it is difficult even to address this question without doing some semantic patchwork. By the lights of many, globalization is defined roughly as 'governments and multi-national corporations colluding for the sake of riches, and at the expense of the poor.' Whether in venal corruption or corporate welfare, this is the image of globalization painted by much of the Left. However, if we define the term simply as the free movement of goods, services, people, capital and information across national borders, then it becomes fairly clear globalization has nothing to do with empires. Exchange, by definition, is a phenomenon of mutual benefit that transcends nation-states. And thus it is categorically unlike imperialism, which requires all manner of government coercion for its existence.


You can bet that any variant of the Empirical Empire Test won't do a thing to stop anti-war, anti-trade, anti-globalization factions from continuing to distort the term beyond recognition. We can expect the word imperialism to experience a fate similar to that of "progressive," "liberal," and even "democratic" -- all of which have probably been damaged beyond repair, as well. Luckily, even though words are born and then die, language as a system is adaptive. And while we may never get the term "imperialism" back from its linguistic hall of mirrors, hopefully overuse will dilute the loadedness of the term as much as it has its meaning.


Still. Any way you look at it, the US is not an empire.


Max Borders is an unemployed writer in the Washington DC area. He "will write for food."


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