Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Migration and the Dynamics of Empire

Mini Teaser: Do all roads lead to the new (American) Rome? The imperial task has always been affected by the movement of peoples. It still is.

by Author(s): James Kurth

The first decade of the 21st century, like the first decade of the 20th, is an age of empire. A hundred years ago, however, there were many empires. They included both the overseas empires of the national states of western Europe--particularly those of Britain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands--and the overland empires of the multinational states ruled by the Habsburg, Romanov and Ottoman dynasties. Today, there is only one empire--the global empire of the United States, a state which is neither national nor multinational in the traditional sense, but which is more accurately described as multicultural and transnational. This new and historically strange American empire is the context and the arena in which all the great and global events of our time are taking place.

The first decade of the 21st century, like the first decade of the 20th, is also an age of immigration. A hundred years ago, large numbers of people were leaving the national states and imperial metropoles of western Europe to emigrate to their colonies or to the United States. At the same time, many people were leaving the rural hinterlands of the multinational states of central and eastern Europe to migrate to their metropolitan centers, or, again, to the United States. Today, however, the direction of imperial migration is largely the reverse of the western pattern, while reminiscent of the former central and eastern one. Large numbers of people have left the former colonies of the west European empires to emigrate to their once-imperial metropoles. At the same time, many people have left the current dominions of the American empire to emigrate to the United States. A century ago, the United States was receiving many immigrants from Europe, but not from its recently-acquired empire in the Caribbean and the Philippines. Today, the United States is receiving many immigrants from its long-established empire in Latin America and East Asia, but not from Europe.

The Double Dynamic

The former age of empire re-invented the national states of western Europe into imperial states, but the imperial metropole remained a national state in the classical meaning. It still made sense to talk of the national interest of Britain, France, Portugal or the Netherlands, and it still made sense to talk of international politics. Our own age of empire is reinventing the United States into an imperial state. Because of the impact of imperial immigration, however, the United States is no longer a national state in the classical sense, or even in the traditional American sense as understood during much of the 20th century. The conjunction of American empire (America expanding into the world) and American immigration (the world coming into America) has made the very idea of the American national interest problematic. There is a causal connection between empire and immigration, and the two are now coming together as a dynamic duo to utterly transform our world. Empire and immigration are reinventing the traditional ideas of national interest and international politics and perhaps will even displace them with the new ideas of transnational interests and global politics.

While empire and immigration are interesting enough topics for professional analysts of American foreign policy and international (or global) politics, they would probably seem rather theoretical and abstract to others but for one fact: these two features of the first decade of the 21st century have intersected with the first war of the 21st century, the war between the United States and Islamist terrorists. It has been often observed that Al-Qaeda and other transnational networks of Islamist terrorists with global reach are another version--part of the dark side, so to speak--of the globalization process that the United States has so vigorously promoted, and which has become a central feature of the American empire. And, of course, central components in these transnational terrorist networks are some of the Muslim immigrants who reside within Europe and the United States. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the most pronounced symbols of, respectively, the economic and the military power of the American empire. The attacks upon them were planned and prepared by Muslim immigrants living within Europe and the United States. The continuing threat of new terrorist attacks emanating from Muslim immigrants has pushed the issue of immigration to the top of the agenda of what was once called national security, but what is now more accurately seen as imperial security. The conjunction of empire, migration and terrorism now lies at the very heart of the U.S. national security predicament. It would be wise, therefore, to start devoting some systematic attention to it.

Versions of Empire

At first glance, it would seem that the European experience with empire and immigration has little relevance to Americans. For one thing, the Europeans explicitly and officially referred to their imperial systems with the term "empire", and referred to their subordinate territories as "colonies" and "dependencies." In contrast, Americans have rarely used these terms to refer to their own imperial relationships. The closest American counterparts to European-style colonies and dependencies were the territories that the United States acquired after its victory in the Spanish-American War, particularly the Philippines and Puerto Rico. However, each of these countries was soon designated a "commonwealth", and there was a common understanding that each could eventually achieve independence if it wished to do so. At any rate, these and several smaller formal dependencies of the United States (American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Panama Canal Zone), when taken all together, never approached the levels of importance that the European dependencies held for the metropolitan nations of Europe.

A narrow focus on explicit and official dependencies alone would be misleading, however. Some European empires included vast areas in which imperial rule was informal or indirect. Local leaders could even be given the title of king, prince, sultan or sheik, and retain many elements of sovereignty. This was the case with much of the British Empire (e.g., the Indian princely states, the Federated Malay States and the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf) and even the French Empire (e.g., Morocco, Tunisia, Laos, Cambodia and Annam). These forms of imperial rule were not that different from the kind of hegemony the United States exercised at the same time over the countries of the Caribbean and Central America (backed up in the 1910s-20s by ongoing U.S. military occupations in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua, and thereafter by the clear potential for further U.S. military intervention).

Beginning in the 1920s, the European nations themselves started to replace the term "empire" with words that connoted more equality between the various territories in the imperial system. This development was partly due to the example and influence of the United States after World War I. It was also accentuated by the rhetoric of freedom and democracy that the Western Allies used so frequently during World War II. At the end of 1945, Europeans could reasonably think that there was not that much difference between the three great imperial systems of Britain, France and the United States--by then officially designated as the British Commonwealth, the French Union and the Inter-American System.

Of course, each of the European overseas empires soon went through a painful and often violent period of decolonization. The British fought and more or less won wars in Malaya and Kenya; the French fought and lost wars in Indochina and Algeria; the Dutch much the same in Indonesia. (The Portuguese Empire remained somehow frozen in amber for another decade and a half.) Surely, it might be said, the United States never experienced anything like this violent decolonization, which might seem to be proof that it never really had colonies to begin with.

From a European perspective, however, the long series of abortive Marxist governments or movements in the Caribbean and Central America--Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Grenada and El Salvador--represented attempts by local populations to achieve decolonization. These efforts failed because American power (and military intervention) was still overwhelming, whereas European power had been drastically weakened during World War II. Furthermore, Castro's revolution in Cuba represented a successful (if Pyrrhic) effort at decolonization, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis it might have issued in the greatest violence imaginable.

The American experience with empire in the 20th century, therefore, did have much in common with the European one. Americans today argue that their global role--and rule--in the 21st century is something new and unique. If there is now an American empire, it is best defined by the "soft power" of information networks and popular culture rather than by the hard power of economic exploitation and military force. It is an empire representative of the information age rather than the industrial age. Whatever they may think about their empire, however, Americans should not be surprised if Europeans and almost all other peoples around the world persist in perceiving the new American empire to be similar enough for their purposes to the earlier empires of their own historical experience. We can tell them they're wrong, but it won't do us any good.

Essay Types: Essay