American As Global Hegemon

July 23, 2003

American As Global Hegemon

The United States is neither an empire nor should it become one.


The United States is neither an empire nor should it become one. Rather-this is no simple semantic distinction-it is the most successful global hegemon, the most successful global power in history.

Niall Ferguson and I share enormous common ground in looking at America's role in the world. America does have the critical role to play in maintaining world order, both for its own interests and those of humanity. The United States is, and has been for quite some time, the sole pillar upholding a liberal world order that is conducive to the principles we believe in, as well as our own basic interests.


On the other hand, I am acutely aware of the problems that the United States has had in playing that role, the inconstancy of our foreign policy, our short attention span, and the inefficiency of the way we have conducted our foreign policy. My adversaries are the same as those of Mr. Ferguson: those Americans who would shirk or deny the existence of this responsibility; those who are, in fact, hostile to American power and suspicious of American influence; those on both left and
right, who still cling to a myth about America at the Founding. This is the notion that the United States had no interest in foreign involvement, that America was a country that was essentially

In truth, Americans have an imperial past. Americans were very enthusiastic imperialists before they became Americans. As members of the British Empire, the leading men and women of the colonies were advocates of the British Empire. Benjamin Franklin, for example, hoped
that the seat of the empire would eventually move from Great Britain to the American continent.

Now, the Revolution itself was an anti-imperial act, but if you look at the behavior of the United States in its early years, I would say that the best case for America having been an empire occurs in those years, in the tremendous acquisition of territory, some by purchase, mostly by force or persuasion or blackmail. America moved across the continent in fairly classic imperial fashion. Here you have a similarity with Rome, which also made those whom it conquered citizens.

The United States, when it was a slave republic, when it was in fact dominated, to a very large extent by slave interests, very much acted as an imperial power. It was the goal of the slave states to expand in imperial fashion so that they might enslave other peoples in other
territories. The phrase "manifest destiny" arises in this context. It was a declaration by the slave-owning part of the nation that the manifest destiny was, in fact, to create a Western Empire that would be dominated by slavery.

As the United States moved through the 19th century and into to the 20th, it became less imperialist, not more imperialist. Here the key event seems to be the Civil War, which had as a foreign policy consequence the turning away from the imperialist idea.

1898 was not an imperialist upsurge. The acquisition of the Philippines was incidental to what was then believed to be the liberation of Cuba. The men who are commonly called imperialists today were not, in fact, imperialists. What they were were classic Americans believing that the
expansion of American power was a good thing for America and for the world. Then as now, this remains the essence of American foreign policy.

The irony is that as American imperialism diminished, American power grew. There is, of course, enormous common ground between a very powerful country and an imperial country. But the fact that America has garrisons overseas, that it exercises enormous influence in the world,
that it exports its culture-none of this makes it an imperial power.  There is a difference between a great power-even the world's greatest power-and a country that seeks to exercise dominion over others, which is what the true definition of empire is.

The expansion of the free market does not constitute imperialism-unless you're a Marxist. America is not an empire even though it has exercised more influence, in some respects, than has any empire. Certainly, it has always been the American tendency to say that anyplace where the
United States intervened was soon to be departed. In many cases, this has led to great difficulties and failures. But, ultimately, if one examines the great successes of American foreign policy, the fact that it has always been known that America did not intend to exercise
imperial control was the reason that America's rising hegemony in the world was so widely accepted and so little feared. The rest of the world knows, even today, that America is not a grasping and ambitious country in the way that empires have been.

It is the genius of American power, of our foreign policy and our economic policy, that we have been able to follow what I call the Hyman Roth principle, who was a character in the Godfather movies. He always made money for his partners-as has America. It did not turn countries
that it got involved, intervened and associated with into deserts. Rather, it enriched them. America's relationship with even the weak nations that it is involved with is one of continuing voluntary association. Voluntary association, not empire, has been and will
continue to be the basis for what is, on balance, a very successful foreign policy.

I believe that Mr. Ferguson and other friends who use the term "empire" are hopeful that by using this term they can get Americans to understand and accept their responsibilities more effectively.

But in any real sense, does that seem to be plausible? Does anyone think that the American people would rally behind the banner of empire? You might as well tell the Americans that they should be the Middle Kingdom as to tell them that they should be an empire. And if you add
to that the effect on the rest of the world of declaring the United States wrongly an empire, I think it would be catastrophic, in addition to being wrong.

The age of empire is past. Neither the American people nor the rest of the world accept empire as the purpose of foreign policy. And this evasion-this use of "empire"-this effort to find an easy answer to the problems that we face needs to be avoided. The truth is we must
continue to engage in the difficult task of constantly arguing the case for why the United States must remain engaged in the world, why it must have more constancy.

We cannot simply declare that we are an empire and therefore it flows mechanically. We must all continue to work to make our fellow Americans understand the important role that the United States has to play. And we also have the task of convincing the rest of the world that America's actions are not purely selfish but are in the interests of many others who share its views.

Robert Kagan is Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His most recent book is Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf, 2003). This essay is adapted from remarks given at the American Enterprise Institute on 17
July 2003, sponsored by the New Atlantic Initiative.