The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

3.2 American imperialism?

The fact that the USA has exerted such influence – through attraction and imitation as well as through military dominance and the ‘tools of control’ – has led to a long-standing debate as to whether, and in what ways, the USA is an imperial power. This remains a crucial issue. As you will see, in a context of relative economic decline, different understandings of imperialism and inter-imperialist relations carry very different prognoses for the future of US power. So let us start by setting out some ideas about what ‘imperialism’ means.

What does the term imperialismor empiremean?

Perhaps the most general way in which the term ‘empire’ has been used is an idea, originally derived from the Roman Empire and from the impact of Greek and Christian cultures, of empire as a hierarchy of polities that produces a universal order based on shared identities, values and interests, in which one power – the imperial or hegemonic power – is raised above the others. This is a notion of empire as ‘first and foremost, a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of its era’ (Lieven, 2003, p.xiv). It is empire as a form of rule (not necessarily direct rule) over many territories and peoples, usually associated with an economic and cultural order that proclaims itself the basis for a universal civilisation. No such empire has ever been truly universal. Nevertheless, this is one way of thinking about the American empire at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A key question for this idea of an American empire is: ‘How does the USA leave its mark on the international relations of its era?’

In the modern era, attempts to define empire have been informed by both radical liberal and Marxist thinkers who have tried to understand the character of the European colonial empires. These focused on the nature of the competitive relationship between the rival national imperialisms that, in combination, dominated the non-European world until decolonisation. ‘Empire’ can be used in the ‘narrow’ sense of the formal political subordination of one polity to another, the clearest example being the discussion of colonialism. And indeed, for John Hobson, the radical liberal critic and analyst of the British Empire, this alludes to one aspect of empire. But Hobson drew a distinction between what he called ‘Imperialism’ by which he meant political relations among states, and ‘Informal Empire’. Giovanni Arrighi explains this distinction as follows:

At least in principle … two quite distinct types of rivalry were involved. In the case of Imperialism, rivalry affected political relations among states and was expressed in the arms race and the drive to territorial expansion; whereas in the case of Informal Empire, it concerned economic relations among individuals of different nationality and was expressed in the international division of labour. Thus Imperialism signified political conflict among nations, Informal Empire economic interdependence between them.

(Arrighi, 1983, p.41)

Note the distinction drawn between the political and economic aspects of empire in Hobson’s formulation. The narrow view of empire as formal political control could only encompass Hobson’s Imperialism, while some of the economic dimensions of hegemony could here be interpreted as Informal Empire.


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