Is the United States an empire, and how can this be demonstrated?

The twentieth century to the present has witnessed the rise of the United States from being a former colony to a leading superpower, rising from the ashes of wars where its European forefathers lost their imperial prestige. It superseded the luxuries once enjoyed by these nations in the nineteenth century of imperialism for it to enjoy the same fruits in the ‘American Century’ that subsequently followed. But despite its republican foundations, it, whether out of praise or as opprobrium against it, has been likened to that of an empire itself in its apotheosis. It has indeed enjoyed immense power that has never been witnessed previously. But whether ‘empire’ as a term is best to describe America’s phenomenal capabilities may be inappropriate, especially when considering its own epoch of liberal internationalism, or whether it has been the prodigal son of its former imperial masters all along.

It is important to understand the concept of empire not solely being outlined official territories led by a metropole or, in the case of Britain’s, areas “coloured red on the map” in the form of a “formal empire”, but rather as a expediency through economic prestige and gunboat diplomacy that defined the “informal empire” (Gallagher and Robinson 1953, p. 1). If one solely defined through the lenses of the former, America would have little relation to imperialism; the closest example being its territorial gains from the Spanish-American War. The latter method, on the other hand, opens a whole new perspective on how far America expressed itself with imperial compulsions, especially when one considers an empire as “multiethnic conglomerates held together by transnational organizational and cultural ties” that America increasingly possessed through Pax Americana (Cain and Hopkins 2002, p. 664).

Despite its independence from monarchism and its founding as a republic, George Washington regarded the nascent United States as an “infant empire” (Hanson 1993, p. 55). Both his contemporaries and subsequent American generations would feel the compulsion to use such language. But as Young (2005, p. 32) notes, the “language of empire”, contrary to that of “imperialism”, is “benign, nurturing, polysyllabic” rather than “immediate, direct,” and “monosyllabic.” Thus, when those who had spread Manifest Destiny through its “four freedoms” as the “mission” of the American “nation of human progress”, it was merely to set itself as an example of freedom through its ‘empire of liberty’ (Schlesinger 1947, p. 427). John Quincy Adams (1821, p. 29) reasserted this doctrine of America’s position as the “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all”. Empire, in America’s dictionary, was a means of spreading a universal image, rather than as an arbitrary method of aggrandisement.

But despite this, commentators are recalcitrant towards the term, mainly as a result of the historical negativity that is synonymous with it and its use as a device for America’s critics (Grondin 2006). Not alone this, but those of the liberal school such as G. John Ikenberry see the US as “hegemonic rather than an imperial power” because of its “less intrusive mode of control” (Hurrell 2005, p. 153). But Ferguson (2005, p. viii) disregards such claims as an “empire in denial”. Considering its international obligations that maintains its world leadership, such “self-consciousness” of possible imperial behaviour is more unlikely due to its global “financial, human, and cultural constraints,” especially when it itself is so conscientious of its democratic foundations that is concomitant with its existence (Ferguson 2005, p. viii). To admit such a status would be anathema for liberals and strategically unwise for realists.

This nevertheless doesn’t make America ‘exceptional’ from not possessing such a categorisation when one considers its international morality as an imperial export itself. When Woodrow Wilson posited his ‘Fourteen Points’ to the League of Nations, it appeared to be for the good of international society rather than for the US’s self-interest alone, liberalism triumphing over realism. But to the likes of realists such as E.H. Carr (2016, p. 69), it was to “cloak the interests” of the US and the western states in the “language of universal justice.” In reference to Machiavelli, Carr (2016, p. 63) notes how “morality is the product of power.” Before Wilson through Theodore Roosevelt was the US to utilise this asset with his doctrine of l’état, c’est moi, stating that “when I do a thing, I do it so as to do substantial justice. I mean just that” (Pringle 1931, p. 446). Much like the Ottomans perceiving their “political mission as universal” and the British wishing to spread “commerce, civilisation and Christianity”, the US was engaging with its own imperialist narrative of ‘substantial justice’ and ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ that would define American exceptionalism (Kissinger 2015, p. 107; Ferguson 2004, p. 131.).

By preaching “the doctrine of the harmony of interests”, one could disguise its own interests and inveigle its fellow nations for “the purpose of imposing it on the rest of the world” (Carr 2016, p. 71). When considering the more enthusiastic behaviour of the US’s participation on the world stage post-WWII, especially with the UN and the products of Bretton Woods being mostly based in the US, such a theory proposed by Carr is likely to be true. Bacevich (2003, p. 8) believes as much, as America’s propensity for representing “the noblest purposes” is what dominates the “master narrative” of its “exercise of global power.” By mimicking itself as the harbinger of the liberal community, America was spearheading its imperial ambitions without the fullest extent of accountability by its fellow nations.

The lack of question over its methods would therefore allow America to pursue a parochial foreign policy in the name of universal justice. Because “power confuses itself with virtue” it often assumes “itself for omnipotence” (Fulbright 1967, pp. 3-4). It is to the belief of Fulbright (1967, p. 106) that America had conducted the twisted irony of “inadvertently” assuming “the role of the old European colonial powers” when it intervened in Vietnam. The imperial presidency that took to this stage of intervention by President Johnson was thanks to such power he possessed. As Schlesinger (1974, p. 178) shows, by quoting Johnson’s obstinacy to congressional accountability, that whilst there was those who could “recommend” and “advise” the president, only he “has been chosen by the American people to decide”. Johnson had previously displayed such powers by sending 22,000 American troops into the Dominican Republic in 1965 without congressional approval (Schlesinger 1974, p. 178). Like the prince envisioned by Machiavelli (2011, p. 94), the president could listen to his subordinates’ advice, “but only when he wants it, not when others want to give it to him”. America’s leader could be akin to an emperor, albeit one that is elected.

But the limitations of America’s capabilities for imperial crusades are exhibited when one considers their sustainability in how far they are to extend its budget for the role as the global policeman and how willing domestic opinion is to tolerate such ambitions. Paul Kennedy (2017, p. 666) noted that the US risks “imperial overstretch” by failing to balance its military realm requirements and possessing the means to do so. When the US intervened in Vietnam and Iraq respectively, it was tolerated by the American public for their legitimate raison d’étres, the former to halt the Communist domino effect and the latter to embark on the ‘War on Terror’ against Iraq’s assumed possession of WMDs. But an ‘overstretch’ of American public opinion accepting both conflicts had become apparent.  After the Tet Offensive, the CIA (1968, p. 2) reported that the “decline somewhat in the military sphere” would result in a “increase” within “the political sphere” of what determined both America and its enemies’ victories and defeats. It is thus why, when America started its program of withdrawal, congress had asserted public dissatisfaction when voting to restrict aid to South Vietnam in 1973, reducing it to nil by 1975 (Kissinger 2015). The nebulous nature of America’s power and commitments, whether imperialist or not, was ever more apparent when confronting its innenpolitik.

The invasion of Iraq would only exacerbate such ambivalence. When it emerged after Saddam Hussein’s disposal that he possessed no WMDs, greater insecurities of how American power should be spent were visible. Between April and October of 2003 alone, there was a 29% drop of popularity towards America’s involvement in Iraq (Ferguson 2005, p. 214). Such involvement proved too irresistible for Bush’s speech on the matter to be compared to Britain’s General Maude’s own address towards his country’s occupation of Mesopotamia nearly one hundred years prior (Ferguson 2005). When one considers that America at this time had “announced that it would ignore the UN Security Council over Iraq,” and that “Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell and their associates” would use a “reliance on force where necessary” to preserve America’s status, it seems too hard to ignore referring to it as a “imperial grand strategy” (Chomsky 2004, pp. 13-16). If this is the case, then America could claim itself as “the world’s largest transoceanic empire” (Stephanson 2005, p. 253)

However, such temptations do not make the term ‘American empire’ necessarily imperial in the conventional sense. Whilst there had been “widespread approval in Britain of the advent of the United States as a major world – and imperialist – Power” at the end of the imperial century, along with being “the same blood as the British”, America’s own insecurity to inherit such a destiny prevents it from fulfilling such obligations (Seed 1958, p. 255; Chang 1930, p. 278). If one defines it as an empire nevertheless, “it is a peculiarly incoherent and increasingly hollow one” (Agnew 2005, p. 11). As argued earlier with American accountability through its domestic sphere, Agnew’s statement makes sense when considering the inherent discontinuity of what its public kernel demands. It would be willing to support foreign intervention if exogenous threats were apparent and would only volte face such support if, for example, the “perception of a Soviet threat was exaggerated” (Chomsky 1992, p. 9). Unlike previous empires where increasing one’s rule at any cost was an overall benefit, Americans are far more sensitive in that all they “want to do”, in the case of Iraq, “is give the Iraqi people democracy and then go home” (Ferguson 2005, p. 214). What is mistaken for reckless imperial campaigns of grandeur may have simply been miscalculations that leads to “over-balancing” one’s power, threats, and interests that neorealists such as Waltz, Walt, and Schweller (2004, p. 167) put so much emphasis on.

By correcting such errors and re-evaluating its foreign policy, America had to disembark from a narrative of universalism, which promoted a liberal world order that it saw fit only for its own purposes, towards a neorealism that took the realpolitik of America’s capabilities before its international obligations as a “reluctant superpower” (Bacevich 2003, p. 8). This however did not mean a forfeit of itself as a global hegemon. With the policies pursued by Nixon and Kissinger, the US had identified that “universalism” had “at no point been seen as consistent with either national capabilities or national ideals” (Gaddis 2005, p. 274). It was therefore essential for America to pursue “mutual restraint” to preserve itself within the global equilibrium for the sake of “survival, security,” and “a congenial international environment” (Gaddis 2005, p. 277). Kissinger had therefore recognised “the changing nature of power” that “had made the international balance more stable than in the past” (Gaddis 2005, p. 276). Realising the constraints of achieving unipolarity through offensive realism, or arguably through liberalism, had made the US put its perception as a hegemon before that as an empire through defensive realist means.

But even when pursing this renewed strategy, the US was inadvertently exporting its influence through its soft power. The “primary service that the hegemon performs”, to Schweller (2014, p. 146), is as the source of global goods and structures in the form of “issue-areas, such as trade, monetary, security, technology, and energy”. Power that the American hegemon possessed was thus encompassed through “both the Gramscian concept of consensus and persuasion” (Grondin 2006, pp. 1-2). By using such abilities can the US through “the influence of ideas, of institutions” does it achieve cultural hegemony “not through domination but by what Gramsci calls consent” (Said 2003, p. 7).

Whilst Said (2003, p. 11) compares the US to Britain and France as “imperial powers” through this use of consent, its method of exportation is not wholly like its European counterparts. Where those such as the British had attempted to control India through educating English as the lingua franca as a means of forced consent, America would instead showcase its economic success, deliberately or not, to those in a less fortunate position. As Fukuyama (2012, p. 41) argues, the success of “the East Asian economic miracle was carefully observed around the world, nowhere more than in the communist bloc” which had failed to equalise its economic power to the US that served as the model for such miracles. The cultural influence attached to even the most innocent of products such as jeans had become conduits for the American hegemony, proliferated by the Soviet Union’s resistance to them as “jean crimes” within its bloc (Ferguson 2012, p. 244). To regard this as a concentrated effort by American imperialism to usurp its Communist rival may fall into the realms of conspiracy, especially when considering “its problems are probably nowhere near as great as those of its Soviet rival” (Kennedy 2017, p. 665).

But regardless of whether it has ever been an empire, or merely a global hegemon with unprecedented permeable influence in several facets, it still simulating such luxuries of power is a question of its own. Where Fukuyama argued that the universal adoption of the American model would result in the ‘end of history’ did Huntington (2002, p. 301) remind him that “societies that assume that their history has ended” tend to be “societies whose history is about to decline”. American hubris had exacerbated after the Soviet Union’s downfall, yet even during the latter’s decay being visible had America’s share of world power “been declining relatively faster than Russia’s over the past few decades” (Kennedy 2017, p. 665).

The absence of the Soviet Union raises problems of its own for the US for its legitimacy of world power. Without a significant enemy, the US becomes less required to safeguard the nations it represented on behalf of democratic values and being a role model for such nations to aspire to be, conducting their own course in world affairs as a result. Now becoming what Kenneth Minogue (1963, p. 1) regarded liberalism as, a ‘St George in retirement’, America has become “an ageing warrior” growing “breathless in his pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons”. By possibly risking itself as a liability, the “United States itself” has become the “only one threat to global stability” (Todd 2003, p. 191). By monopolising the system as a unipolar does the US risk dismantling the system itself has largely melded, causing a desire for revision by the lesser powers. This “revisionism” is destructive in that it advocates a “change of system, not a change within the system” (Schweller 2014, p. 150).

If the US has been an empire in any part of its history it has been during the Cold War when nations were willing to associate with it as its guardian against forces greater than themselves. But like the British in its zenith during the nineteenth century, America’s policy of imperialism has been one of continuity and discontinuity (Kennedy 1984). Empires are rarely consciously conceived as a plan for expansion, John Robert Seeley (1884, p. 10) famously stating that Britain’s empire was established “in a fit of absence of mind”. Considering the transitions America endured, from being a colony into an ‘empire of liberty’, a ‘reluctant superpower’, to the apotheosis as the world global hegemon; one cannot deny it being at some point the empire Stephanson defines it as. Whether as the liberal power to inspire all or as a realist state to force those to deter themselves away from ideologies that threaten American interests, it nevertheless has an influence no former empire has enjoyed.

But whether this was teleological for the empire and to be the final stage of international affairs is unlikely. The growing networking of nations rather than their organisation as actors within a hierarchy is becoming more prevalent. As Schweller (2014, p. 105) describes this new predicament for the US, the “hybrid-horizontal world of networks will be far more complex, random, and resistant to order and centralized authority than in the past”. Such a system makes empire unconceivable as a concept to adhere to and thus leaves America to only maximise its influence through deterrence and the allure of its values as a hegemon. “Whoever masters the network form stands to gain the advantage” (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001, p. 1). Even if the US maintains this advantage, it will never enjoy the imperial-like powers it has previously exhibited in the 20th century.

To conclude, it should be of great significance as to how the US itself has changed what we mean by empire. As early as 1953, John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson (1953, p. 1) recognised that “the imperial historian, in fact, is very much at the mercy of his own particular concept of empire” and the wide focus on different empires has led to different hypotheses to have conflicting conclusions. All empires are unique, and the US ever more so. During its own ‘century’ before the turn of our own has witnessed its unforeseen and exceptional power that transcended across the globe through its relatively young existence as a nation. Maybe this is what ‘American exceptionalism’ truly is – by defying what power traditionally meant and empire as we see it.

Featured image credit: “Uncle Sam, the Selfless and Splendiferous Succorer” by Sandy Qumbayah is marked with CC PDM 1.0


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