Is America an Empire?

Last fall, Hugo Chavez stood before the United Nations and accused America of being an empire and charged President Bush with being the Devil incarnate (source). Many Americans wrote off Chavez’s rant as the raving of a crackpot dictator. What many people don’t know is that Chavez’s tirade against “American imperialism” reflects a mainstream view among many people both within and outside of the United States.

The rhetoric of “empire” is a fixture among those who have an antipathy towards American hegemony in the world affairs, and Chavez brought this rhetoric out into the popular consciousness. Chavez merely gave a glimpse of the kinds of things that American academics like Noam Chomsky have been saying for a very long time (see Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance).

I’m interested to know what my readers think about the popular use of the word “empire” to refer to the way the United States conducts its foreign policy. I have noticed more and more commentators throwing the word “empire” around as if it’s apt description of the United States’ place in the world. I do not believe that the United States or its foreign policy is inerrant. Nevertheless, I’m extremely skeptical toward the claim that it is an empire.

Historically speaking, empires (such as Rome or Great Britain) annex territory. Once the territory is acquired, it is governed by a single supreme authority (e.g., for Rome it was the emperors in Rome, at least until Diocletian). Without question, the United States is the single greatest military power in the world. Furthermore, American culture has a pervasive influence around the world. Yet the United States does not annex territory. Nor does it govern the areas into which it inserts itself militarily. For instance, the U.S. military has an imposing force in Iraq right now, yet Iraq is governed by its own democratically elected parliament (that by the way, often says and does things that the U.S. doesn’t like!).

So I’m wondering what you think. Do you believe that America can be fairly labeled an “empire” in the historical sense?


  • Matthew

    I believe that if we were an empire in the historical sense, we would be far more destructive. We have the ability to destroy much more life and property than we do. But we attempt to use technology to save lives. We make choices that sometimes risk US lives in order to save other lives. Empires, it seems to me, did not limit their destructive abilities out of humane impulses. What empire would try its own soldiers for murder?

    Further, we rebuild and allow rebuilding. An historical empire would re-write Iraqi text books and coerce them to exchange their culture for ours. We didn’t do so in Japan and we aren’t doing so in Iraq.

    I have an uneasy sense that we have made some real mistakes in this war. For example, I don’t understand what the exit plan is. But mistakes and faults don’t equal “empire.”

    Finally, many who accuse the US of being an empire seem to wave off her humanitarian efforts. Yet the US is consistently active world-wide in using technology and both military and volunteer efforts to save lives. Katrina certainly isn’t our shining point in history, but I ask: where were all the other nations of the world when we needed help? How many other nations lined up and offered volunteer forces and technology? We give without getting back.

    In spite of our faults, I believe it is dishonest and unfair to call the USA an empire.

  • Luke Britt

    Maybe America is a new kind of empire that does not expand its power by overthrowing rulers in other countries, but by networking with the right people in order to grow its cause so that ultimately its cause is their cause.

  • Scott

    I wonder about the usefulness of taking loaded terms like “imperial” or “empire” and then running them through so called distinctions between contemporary U.S. foreign policy and more classical empires. This would be like defending the death penalty by saying, “Well, we used to use the chair, but now it’s a much cleaner process of lethal injection.” Such an argument, like Denny’s about the American empire, quibbles over the definition of cause (the means of execution), while overlooking effect (the dead convict).

    We do business, communicate, travel–just as a few examples–in ways never before seen in history. So if we were to compare our forms of “business,” “communication,” and “travel,” to the Roman empire, we would find that such terms have effectively changed their meanings over time, but we wouldn’t have learned much of anything. Would it be accurate or productive to say that the average Roman didn’t “travel” because he or she only rode on horseback and never crossed an ocean by plane? It sounds silly, but this seems to be the game we’re playing by assuming that “empire” can only mean today what it meant hundreds or thousands of years ago.

    But that’s not even what bothers me the most. What bothers me is that the editorial from the NY Times discusses Bush’s “imperial presidency,” not his or the country’s foreign policy. The author of the piece makes substantive points to backup his claim that Bush’s administration has purposefully sought to expand the power of the executive well beyond the founder’s intentions. Is this not a topic worth discussing? Or is it simply easier to debate, and quickly dismiss, some trumped up, “Some people say . . . America is an empire.”

    We spend way to much time in the public sphere dealing with “Some people say . . .” issues, while overlooking, as in the case of this NYT piece, what someone has actually said.

  • Bryan L

    You said, “What bothers me is that the editorial from the NY Times discusses Bush’s “imperial presidency,” not his or the country’s foreign policy.

    I too would be interested in discussing what the NYT piece is actually saying. I didn’t read the article until you brought it up and I found the charges he was making about Bush being an imperial president very interesting and am wondering if this is a appropriate description of him?

    Bryan L

  • Paul

    from Matthew’s post:

    “Katrina certainly isn’t our shining point in history, but I ask: where were all the other nations of the world when we needed help? How many other nations lined up and offered volunteer forces and technology? We give without getting back.”

    A whole bunch of nations offered help, and Bush rebuffed them all, saying that we can take care of it ourselves. Yeah, we did a great job there, didn’t we?

  • Ben

    An “imperial presidency” without an historic context in which to apply those “imperial” ideas is meaningless. Use an electric chair, a needle, or any other means of ending a life without an appropriate application of said instrument (ie. an individual with life blood flowing through his body), and all you have is said instrument. Meaningless! Who cares?
    Thus, to view Adam Cohen’s article in such a simplistic way, as if his use of the term “imperial presidency” only applies to a group of people who make up an administration without understanding it in an historical context misses the point. Nobody would care that Bush and his administration were ‘imperalistic’ if all they did were sit around all day and do nothing.
    However, when we see Bush’s administration applying those ‘imperalistic’ desires around the world (ie. Foreign Policy), then asking such questions as Denny does makes perfect sence. Great question! Is America the ‘New (and improved) Empire’?

  • dennyrburk

    Dear All,

    In light of my embarrassing blunder of misunderstanding the meaning of “imperial presidency,” I have revised the title and the first paragraph of this post. Yes, I must confess that I do not have perfect knowledge. But I’m convinced that I won’t have trouble convincing you all of that one! 🙂

    For a proper definition of “imperial Presidency,” you can see the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which defines it as follows: “A U.S. presidency that is characterized by greater power than the Constitution allows.” Also, Wikipedia has a helpful short article on the history of the term.

    Okay, now we can get back to what I wanted to talk about in the first place. Is America aptly labelled an “empire”?

    Denny Burk

  • Bryan L

    Don’t feel bad Denny. I didn’t really understand the term “imperial presidency” either, until I read the article. I still don’t understand the whole issue that well but still would be interested in listening in on a discussion from those who are more informed on it.

    Bryan L

  • Tony Trivison


    I don’t know if you have checked out Colossians Remixed by Walsh and Keesmat, but they explore the America as Empire theme in detail. They cover some of the same ground as N.T. Wright.

  • Ian Clary

    Interesting post. I would refer you to Niall Ferguson’s excellent book Colossus. Ferguson argues that America is an empire and that ultimately that’s not a bad thing. What is bad, however, is that America is ashamed to admit it, and that could be their downfall.
    He provides bewildering statistics of American “soft” power. As an empire, they are more powerful than Britain ever was, even at her zenith under Victoria.

  • dennyrburk

    Tony (#9),

    Yes, I have Walsh and Keesmaat’s book, and I interact with it in a paper I’m writing on this topic.

    Ian (#10),

    I think I saw that one, but I have forgotten what it was about. I’ll have to take a look at it again. I don’t agree that America has unprecedented “Soft Power.” America may be an “empire” in that sense, but that is different than the various militaristic empires of the past. Those empires invaded, conquered, pacified, annexed, and governed lands outside of their own national boundaries. In that sense, America is not an empire.


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