Any realistic discussion of U.S. foreign policy must begin with the recognition that, notwithstanding Americans ’ views and preferences, most of the world sees the United States as a nascent imperial power. Some nations support the United States precisely because of this, viewing it as a benign liberal empire that can protect them against ambitious regional powers. Others resent it because it stands in the way of their goals. Still others acquiesce to U.S. imperial predominance as a fact of life that cannot be changed and must be accepted.
It is understandable why supporters of the Bush administration’s foreign policy balk at any mention of the “e ” word. Many past empires were given a bad name not just by their opponents, from national liberation movements to Marxists, but also by their conduct; Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were the ugliest manifestations. The United States, on the other hand, is said to seek benign influence rather than domination. Its political culture and even its institutional design mitigate against its acting as an effective imperial power. These arguments are not without merit. Still, they reflect more a reluctance to associate American foreign policy with negative imperial stereotypes than a reasoned appreciation of how earlier empires emerged and functioned.
Although empires, like democracies, have taken vastly different forms through history, they have several features in common. First, empires exercise great authority over large and varied territories populated by diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and religions. They rely on a broad range of tools and incentives to maintain this dominance: political persuasion, economic advantage, and cultural influence where possible; coercion and force when necessary. Empires generally expect neighboring states and dependencies to accept their power and accommodate to it. This often contributes to a sense that the imperial power itself need not play by the same rules as ordinary states and that it has unique responsibilities and rights.
Second, empires, more often than not, have emerged spontaneously rather than through a master plan. They frequently evolve as if following the laws of physics; an initial success generates momentum, which is subsequently maintained by inertia. Each new advance creates opportunities and challenges that extend the empire ’s definition of its interests far beyond its original form. Ancient Athens, for example, began as the leader of a victorious alliance that defeated the Persians. But it quickly evolved into an empire, against the will of many of its former partners. Thucydides, one of the fathers of realism, describes the Athenian perspective thus: “We did not gain this empire by force....It was the actual course of events which first compelled us to increase our power to its present extent: fear of Persia was our chief motive, though afterwards we thought, too, of our own honor and our own interest.”
Third, empires do not always have sovereignty over their domains. This was certainly the case with Athens. It was also the case in the early period of the Roman Empire, when Rome sought domination rather than direct control over its dependencies. Although some continental European empires, such as Austria-Hungary and tsarist Russia, did establish sovereignty within their territories, other modern empires were less formal, comfortable with enough preponderance to accomplish their political and economic objectives. The Soviet empire, for example, attempted to dominate rather than directly control territories outside of its borders after Stalin’s death.
Finally, despite the unpleasant present-day connotations, the imperial experience has not been uniformly negative. Some former empires were agents of change and progress and had generally good intentions vis-à-vis their subjects. The United Kingdom was a prime example of this type, approaching its empire not only with a desire to promote development, but with a self-sacrificing willingness to spend its resources toward that end.
Whether or not the United States now views itself as an empire, for many foreigners it increasingly looks, walks, and talks like one, and they respond to Washington accordingly. There is certainly no reason for American policymakers to refer to the United States as such in public pronouncements, but an understanding of America as an evolving, if reluctant, modern empire is an important analytic tool with profound consequences that American leaders should understand.
Empires cannot escape the laws of history. One of the most salient of these laws is that empires generate opposition to their rule, ranging from strategic realignment among states to terrorism within them. Another is that empires have never been cost free and that the level of opposition to them depends on the costs that the imperial power is willing to shoulder. Both imperial Britain and imperial Rome spent a good deal of time and money quelling unrest and promoting loyalty within their territories. Finally, imperial powers often alter their preimperial forms of government and ways of life. Rome, for example, lost its republican government when it chose to don the imperial mantle. And although the United Kingdom chose democracy over the demands of maintaining its empire, it accumulated substantial immigrant populations from its former colonies, with significant political and economic consequences.