The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

The Adolescent Empire: America and the Imperial Idea

Mini Teaser: A look at the New Atlantic Initiative.

by Author(s): James Kurth

The principal foreign policy initiative of the second Clinton
administration is the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization to include the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.
These old and much-abused nations, having been historically a part of
Mitteleuropa or Central Europe and having passed through a forty-year
confinement within Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, now seek to
become part of Western Europe or even of the North Atlantic
community. In support of this undertaking, there has formed a group
of foreign policy leaders and specialists from different NATO
countries whose name is, appropriately, the New Atlantic Initiative.
In May 1996 they gathered for a conference, the Congress of Prague,
in that most ancient and beautiful of Central European capitals.

I had attended and enjoyed the Congress of Prague, both the Congress
and the Prague parts, and I was now sitting in the late afternoon of
a fine spring day on a bench in the main square of another ancient
and beautiful Bohemian town, Kutna Hora, some fifty kilometers east
of the Czech capital.

Kutna Hora is now small, but it still has within it a splendid
ensemble of Renaissance and baroque buildings, monuments to the time
when its vast silver mines provided the financial basis, not only for
magnificent churches, monasteries, palaces, and the town square in
which I was sitting, but for an entire empire, that of the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs were the first to believe that the master of Bohemia
was the master of Europe, and the silver mines of Kutna Hora were a
big part of the reason. The Habsburg Empire fought and won many
battles to keep the town and its mines in its domain, and it
succeeded in doing so right down until 1918.

But in the twentieth century, Kutna Hora experienced the rule of two
other empires, that of Nazi Germany, when the town found itself in
the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia, and that of the Soviet
Union, when it found itself in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
Needless to say, these empires left no architectural legacies
comparable to that of the Habsburgs.

Now, it seemed, a fourth empire, that of America, was about to extend
its protection over Kutna Hora and over the Czech Republic in which
it now found itself. Indeed, in a sense, the American empire had
already extended its "soft power" there with its popular culture. For
as the sun dipped beneath the lofty spires and gabled roofs above the
old square, I heard the sound of rap music coming from the boom boxes
carried by adolescent boys wearing baseball caps and baggy pants.

A Tale of Two Tales

Thus, in the twentieth century, three great empires have been the
masters of Bohemia, and now a fourth great power, also perhaps an
empire in its own way, is preparing to extend its power--and
promising to extend its peace and prosperity--over Bohemia and the
other ancient lands of Central Europe. But unlike the earlier
empires, the United States is extending its realm with the full
concurrence and even urging of the Central European peoples
themselves, of whom perhaps the most welcoming are the people of
Bohemia. From the perspective of the Central Europeans at this
historical moment, and from the perspective of the Americans
themselves, American power has nothing in common with empire. There
is much to be said for this view, and Americans never cease to say it.

From the perspective of other Europeans on other occasions, however,
American power has been the last in a grand parade of empires that
have marched through the past half-millennium that constitutes the
modern age. This age could be said to have begun with Columbus'
discovery of the New World, and it has culminated five centuries
later with a New World country--the United States of America--as the
world's hegemonic and imperial power. As we will see, there is much
to be said for this view too.

The story of American power in international affairs, then, is really
a tale of two tales: an American tale, the story of a democratic
republic and the steady spread of its universal values; and a
European tale, the story of an American empire and the steady spread
of its imperial idea.

Americans, of course, have rarely been comfortable with the notion
that their role in international affairs might be an imperial one.
The United States was born in a war of independence by the American
colonies against the British Empire, the greatest empire of the time.
It fought a second war of independence, the War of 1812, against that
imperial power, and throughout the nineteenth century it thought of
itself as the American republic standing up to the European empires,
with the British one continuing as the principal threat. Americans
saw their successive expansions during the nineteenth century as
territorial annexations that were clearly natural--even "manifest
destiny"--rather than imperial acquisitions, which made subjects of
foreign peoples in far-flung lands. The acquisition of the
Philippines (and other Pacific territories) and of Puerto Rico (and
other Caribbean territories) during the 1890s was in fact very
similar to the overseas acquisitions of the European empires at the
time. Most Americans were so uncomfortable with this reality,
however, that they soon began to call it something else (the
Commonwealth of the Philippines, later followed by the Commonwealth
of Puerto Rico; the quick granting of formal independence to Cuba and

The rhetoric and even policies of President Woodrow Wilson in the
First World War and President Franklin Roosevelt in the Second World
War were explicitly anti-colonial in their visions of what the shape
of the postwar world should be. This led to ongoing tensions with the
allies, Britain and France, who possessed the two largest overseas
empires in the world. And although the United States itself acquired
more overseas territories in the course of these wars (the Danish
West Indies, which became the U.S. Virgin Islands, in the First World
War; Micronesia and other Pacific islands in the Second World War),
Americans never thought of these acquisitions as part of an empire.
Indeed, since these acquisitions cannot fit into any American
self-concept, they have almost never thought about them at all.

Finally, in the aftermath of the Second World War and with the advent
of the Cold War, American power and presence extended throughout the
Free World (especially Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and Latin
America), if not the entire globe. That power and presence has
extended even farther in the aftermath of the Cold War. Yet at no
time during these five decades have either the public officials or
the common public in the United States ever referred to their country
as an empire or to their role as an imperial one. Even terms that are
softer (and more precise), such as hegemony and sphere of influence,
have been applied to the United States only by academic specialists
in international affairs. The American terms for its international
role have been "collective security", "treaty organizations" or
alliances, "international institutions", "trade associations", and
"the advancement of human rights." If America is an empire, it has to
be the least explicit one in history.

It is simple, however, to compose an account of the U.S. role in
international affairs that shows its similarity with various European
empires. In the past many Europeans, Latin Americans, and East Asians
have often done so. At the present time, it is true, many Europeans
want the United States to extend its military and economic role into
Central and Eastern Europe (the enlargement of NATO and the
investment of capital), and discussion about an American empire is
impolitic and subdued. Similarly, many Latin American elites
currently want the United States to expand its economic role in their
region in particular ways (the enlargement of NAFTA and, again, the
investment of capital). Here, too, it is currently impolitic to
indulge in discussions of "American imperialism" that came so
naturally to so many generations of Latin Americans up until about a
decade ago.

All this will change with time. There are bound to be disappointments
with this or that aspect of the expanded American role in Europe and
in Latin America, and this will inevitably generate a revival of
discussions about an American empire in those places. While the
Chinese, too, are sure to develop their own analyses of the United
States in imperial perspective, for the sake of brevity we shall
refer to accounts that stress the similarities between the United
States and the European empires simply as the European tale.

In this version of the tale, the American experience is not just
compared with the overseas and formal empires of Britain, France, and
Spain. Comparisons are also made with the informal versions of these
overseas empires and with the overland empires of Prussia and Russia.
Distinctions and differences that are important in the American tale
are far less prominent in the European one. This is the case with the
difference between overseas and overland expansion, and between
formal and informal rule.

Essay Types: Essay