Cumings, Is America an Imperial Power? (2003)

"That the United States would be hegemonic was inevitable from Bretton Woods onward. That it might also become an empire was not."

Who could have predicted that in the early years of the new millennium, the signature slogan of 1960s radicals, "American imperialism," would come roaring back to life? Several serious and substantial books have recently appeared in the United States with "empire" in the title, all trying to come to grips with the Brave New World created by George Bush and company. l Around the rest of the globe a debate rages over American power and "the echoes of empires past," in the words of The New York Times' Richard Bern-stem. But is this a good way to think about the nature of contemporary American power in the world?

Empire is clearly a useful concept for understanding the history of the successive bureaucratic dynasties that ruled China until 1911, or the prewar capitalist empires such as those of Great Britain, France, and Japan, which rested on exclusively held territories known as colonies. It is not a useful concept, however, if we mean it, without any redefinition, to denote the United States and its current position in the world. To do so instantly runs afoul of the classic understanding of imperialism as some form of direct or monopoly control of another nation or of regions of the world economy (such as sterling blocs and franc blocs). No one argues that the United States possesses monopoly controls in the world economy or runs a set of territorial possessions lacking any attribute of national sovereignty. Empire might be redefined with various "post-" or "ultra-" or "neo-" tags, but these also beg the question. If imperialism means direct or monopoly control and neo-imperialism does not, perhaps we need a different term. We certainly need an explication of the differences between classical and contemporary imperialism.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri dropped the term "imperialism" in their recent influential book Empire. They analyze current configurations of power in terms of "globalization," the phenomenon whose territorial realm knows no limit and whose mechanisms are driven by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations, multinational corporations, and a multitude of NGOS dedicated to causes ranging from humanitarian intervention to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. All share a common agenda: to set the rules for a new globalized world. The United States plays a critical and often determining role in this rule-setting—China's WTO application had to wait 15 years for Washington to approve it—but America is not the sole seat of this empire.

A broad-brush definition that would equate empire with globalization fails because it accumulates everybody, everything, and every organization that traces its beginnings to post-World War II arrangements, such as the Bretton Woods conference of 1944. Therefore, we cannot determine what is in and what is out of this empire. (Did the Chinese become part of it when the United States allowed them to join the WTO?) Globalization is nothing new, except to 20-something protesters around the world. In fact, it represents the outcome and ultimate fulfillment of American planning going back six decades.


In the immediate aftermath of Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, Dean Acheson first imagined the rules that would govern the postwar world. "Our vital interests do not permit us to be indifferent to the outcome" of the wars raging in Europe and Asia, the future secretary of state said in a speech at Yale. Nor could Americans remain isolated from such events—unless they wished a kind of eternal "internment on this continent." (Only an Atlanticist would liken North America to a concentration camp.) Achesen located the causes of the war and the global depression that preceded it in "the failure of some mechanisms of the Nineteenth Century world economy" that had led to "this break-up of the world into exclusive areas for armed exploitation administered along oriental lines." In its time, he said, "the economic and political system of the Nineteenth Century . . . produced an amazing increase in the production of wealth," but for many years it had been in an "obvious process of decline."

Reconstructing the foundations of peace and prosperity would require new mechanisms, Acheson asserted: new ways to make capital available for industrial production,. the rapid removal of tariffs, "a broader market for goods made under decent standards," "a stable international monetary system," and the elimination of "exclusive or preferential trade arrangements." Acheson emphasized the world economy, but in good realpolitik fashion he also called for the immediate creation of "a navy and air force adequate to secure us in both oceans simultaneously and with striking power sufficient to reach to the other side of each of them."

This lawyer and statesman later had the opportunity to implement these ideas, first at Bretton Woods, then with theMarshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine in 1947, and finally, in 1950, with NSC-68, the executive order implementing the policy of "containing" communism. Aclieson is the person who comes closest to being the singular aithitect of American strategy from 1944 to 1953—and he knew it (Present at the Creation was his memoir of the period). The captains of the American Century like Acheson were those who thought in "both/and" terms: Europe and Asia, the open door and partnership with imperial Britain, a world economy with no ultimate limit. As he later put it in reflecting back on his Yale speech, he had really sought at the time to "begin work on a new postwar world system."

The makers of the postwar order—Roosevelt, Stimson, Acheson, McCloy, Kennan, Lovett—were theorists (even if of a practical bent). They had ideas, and ideas have consequences. They were all liberal modernists, of course, but Acheson had a full appreciation of the theory of world economy while other architects of the postwar world, such as George Kennan, had almost none. British hegemony gave Acheson his model for how to run the world, conceived along the linesof Great Britain's role after 1815—not as an imperial colonizer, but as the power of last resort for keeping the world, and particularly the world economy, from spinning out of control. The name for American leadership in this sense was hegemony.

This term best captures the US role in the world, understood as a consensual leadership in which the United States ranks first among equals, and where the ultimate goal is the growth and flourishing of a unified world economy. For four decades, however, American leaders achieved only a second-best world. The Soviet Union and the militarized and exclusively held empire that it created in postwar Eastern Europe were self-sufficient and well defended; the Soviet leaders could say nyet any time they wanted, and they did so all the time in the 1940s and 1950s. That reality essentially created the two-bloc, polarized cold war world from 1947 to1991.

But the world also experienced a completely unanticipated history in the violent period of decolonization that lasted for three decades, until the Portuguese empire finally collapsed in 1975, The world witnessed bloody and disastrous wars in Korea and Vietnam, the ongoing reorientation of revolutionary China, and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet empire and Soviet Union—all experiences that would have flabbergasted a statesman seeking to chart the postwar order in 1945. Never could the Achesons and Stimsons have imagined the fierce energy of aroused colonial peoples in the 1940s, for whom classical imperialism and a recent feudal past were hated realities and the promises of liberal modernism, an utter chimera. Nor could the theory of totalitarianism that long ruled the minds of American planners conceive of the possibility that courageous people in myriad civil-society groups (beginning with Poland's Solidarity) would bring down Eastern European communism from within.


The internationalist presuppositions molded into the bones of Acheson, Henry Stimson, Robert Lovett, and many others by the experience of the 1930s explain how our world order came into being. Kennan, the anonymous "Mr. X" author of an influential Foreign Affairs article that proposed containment of communism, is often considered the behind-the-scenes architect of the postwar global order. But Acheson was the true "Mr. X" of his time—and of ours. The globalized world materialized in its full glory after the end of the cold war, and was the anticipated fulfillment, if by a tortuous path, of the plans, hopes, and dreams of American and Western internationalists. They learned the searing lessons of the Great Depression and the world war that it spawned. They took guidance from an imperial British model of hegemonic leadership—minus the colonies—to become the power of last resort. Like England but in a much more egalitarian manner, the United States also filled out its national and material interests with the classic ideas of liberalism: liberty, democracy, freedom of speech, civil rights, civil society. Honored in the breach by the racially segregated America of the first two decades after World War II, these ideas nonetheless had revolutionary implications for much of the rest of the world.

Immanuel Wallerstein, drawing on the brilliant work of Karl Polanyi in his book, The Great Transformation, aptly defined hegemony as the simultaneous and temporary "productive, commercial and financial pre-eminence of one core [or advanced-industrial] power over other core powers." The critical element here is "productive advantage," which conditions the other two (commerce and finance). This conception assumes that the world market constitutes the primary mechanism and arena of hegemony—even if the term may also encompass empire, colonies, neocolonialism, and what is sometimes called informal empire. Military advantage, conventionally considered the essence of hegemony by realists such as John Mearsheimer, merely locks in hegemony after the fact.

Notably, too, the theory includes two senses of "temporary": an abnormal first phase of enormous competitive advantage against all others, which lasts only briefly, and the normal long phase of "temporary" hegemony in which a core state is primus inter pares. In America's case, the first temporary phase lasted from 1941 to 1971, driven by the vast economic and military power of the United States and the wartime destruction of the other industrial economies. By the time Richard Nixon became president, other economies had recovered, prompting in 1971 his announcement of a "New Economic Policy" directed against allied competitors. The United States accounted for half of all industrial production in 1945, and approximately 25 percent by Nixon's presidency. That is about where the United States is today, as well. In this crucial sense America has never been in decline, in spite of much 1980s commentary to the contrary. It remains in the middle age of hegemony—the second or long temporary phase—with many more decades left of relative predominance among the industrial powers.

The realm of this hegemonic "grand area" is bounded by the reach of the world market. As Polanyi emphasized, "market" means "world market": the market continuously expands, carrying before it settled societies, national boundaries, even the formerly impervious structures of the communist bloc. Or as Marx put it in "The Communist Manifesto," the world market "knocks down all Chinese walls." The limit on the market is society: human collectivities that strive ceaselessly to subordinate the rational imperatives and the cruel up-and-down cycles of the market to human control. Society often acts through the state, which is the gatekeeper between domestic society and the backwash of the world market. Thus the fundamental global dynamic is production for profit in a world market, limited and constrained by human collectivities.


For most of the postwar era, Republican centrists like John Foster Dulles, Henry Kissinger, and George Herbert Walker Bush agreed with cold war liberals in the Democratic Party on all of this, and just about everything else beyond the water's edge. A seamless consensus prevailed inside the Washington Beltway on containment, internationalism, the NATO and US-Japan alliances, and the iron necessity to consult with American allies at the UN, IMF, or World Bank. Sometimes the result was unilateralism disguised as multilateralism (Korea, Vietnam). But everyone bespoke the internationalist mantras, and everyone knew that a consensual partnership, with the United States as first among (would-be) equals, offered the only lasting, sustainable hegemony.

The Clinton administration appeared to understand this American role better than any admintration since the Truman and Roosevelt presidencies. The Clinton years incorporated an active foreign economic policy under the leadership of Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a seemingly omniscient central bank under Alan Greenspan, and a president who consulted every ally and friend to the point of (their) exhaustion in his search for multilateral consent and first-among-equals leadership—a charismatic figure received like a rock star in places as diverse as New Delhi, Beijing, Hanoi, Berlin, and the editorial offices of The New Yorker (where editor Tina Brown swooned over him). This leadership combined to achieve the full measure of what the 1940s founding fathers had imagined for the American role in the world, before the cold war dashed their hopes.

The members of the Clinton administration also—and they would say predictably—presided over the longest economic boom in postwar American history; involving great leaps forward in productivity from 1995 to 2000 that defied the assumptions of nearly all economists (and kept Greenspan scratching his head as to whether some kind of technological revolution was upsetting his conventional expectations). The new millennium thus.appeared to catch the high tide of American hegemony We all know Clinton's flaws, including those of his diplomacy and warfare, but in 2003 his leadership shines like a beacon—as if the Enlightenment were unaccountably followed by the Dark Ages.


Is there nonetheless in some sense an "American empire?" We can begin again with the question of territorial control: What are the empire's boundaries? How do we rule one nation or area of the world in, and another out? Simply to pose this question is again to denote the differences between classical empires and the post-1945 American realm of action in the world. Empires, whether of the traditional or capitalist type, encompass territory. If the United States has run an empire since 1900 or so, it has been a nonterritorial empire. Until the recent past, the only way in which the term "empire" applied to America was in the multitude of military bases that it maintains around the world. In the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has expanded this militarized structure to its farthest extent in history.

William Appleman Williams began the 1960s discourse on American empire with his classic 1959 book that influenced a generation of young people, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. The United States had one or two colonies; like the Philippines. But what it really had since the 1890s, he thought, was an "open-door empire," merging the world economy with chunks of territorial control around the world, places where the United States dispatched the Marines (most of which were found in Central America). Is this America's empire? Pethaps, but in Joseph Schumpeter's sense and not Williams'. Schumpeter saw empire as an atavism similar to the later Roman empire—redoubling its expansive efforts after losing sight of its goals. He also saw imperialism as a policy choice,that, once implemented, created in its wake a perpetual-motion machine dedicated to the service of empire. Forces called into being for one purpose remain long after they have lost sight of the purpose. This offers a way to think about the US military-industrial complex and its contemporary role in policing a world grown far beyond the old boundaries of American power.

That the United States would be hegemonic was inevitable from Bretton Woods onward. That it might also become an empire was not. The project of hegemony offered a means to achieve the revival and flourishing of the world economy. The project of containment provided a way to draw lines in the sand against the communist adversary as well as a way to constrain capitalist allies (mainly Gennany andJapan) by keeping military bases on their territory. In the wake of the end of the cold war and the Soviet Union's collapse, the hegemonic project continued. But so did the allied containment project, even though it lost sight of any formidable adversary. Punishing Saddam Hussein; isolating Cuba, obliterating potential nuclear "power" North Korea: these are small potatoes compared to the good old days of the cold war.

But the Pentagon, if not the White House, does run an empire. How might we specify its territory? It is in the first instance an archipelago of military bases—or what one us general recently called "lily pads" around the world, useful for projecting American power. it was this vast and enduring complex that the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to render obsolete. Yet Johnny never came marching home. When you think about it, Johnny never has since 1945. Win (World War II), lose (Vietnam) or draw (Korea), American troops never come home; 78,000 remain in Germany, nearly 100,000 in Japan and Korea. (Defeat did of course evict troops from Indochina, but not from the region.)

Now President George W. Bush has sponsored a massive outward thrust in this basing system, into Central and South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines, and nearly every country in the Middle East willing to host troops. The military likes its foreign bases but does not deserve blame for the most recent expansion that has come in the wake of 9-11. Indeed, many at the heart of the matter resist this new crusade: Brigadier General Jared Kennish, who commanded troops in Kyrgyzstan, lamented: "Here I am in a nation I had never heard of, couldn't pronounce and couldn't find on a map six months ago. . . ." Vice Admiral Lyle Bien told the same reporter, "We're developing a force that makes it almost too easy to intervene. I am concerned about America pounding herself out."2

Other parts of this military territory are harder to specify. Panama and the Philippines were "in" for a long time, whether by virtue of their many American military bases, or the ease and frequency with which the Marines came ashore (the three-year war to subdue Philippine insurgents in the early 1900s, many expeditions into Panama since the turn of the past century). But today the Panama command is gone, and so are Subic Bay and Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. Does that make Panama and the Philippines independent? Perhaps not, but it puts them outside the territorial realm of the "lily pad" archipelago. The second—and third—largest economies in the world, Japan and Germany, now America's primary economic competitors, remain part of the archipelago with American bases dotting their homeland. A country like Brazil or Poland falls out of this empire, but within the realm of hegemony. Both suffered severe foreign debt burdens in the 1980s, as does Brazil today, both eventually succumbed to the zealous ministrations of the IMF, and both remain firmly ensconced in the developing world.

"Empire" in this light is the relative and contingent, historically bound term; "hegemony," the name of the realm. The liberal world system did not necessarily need an American empire of military installations. Their spread resulted from the struggle with the anti-system and, as Roosevelt imagined in the 1940s, it did not have to happen that way. (Socialist regimes could have been accommodated within the hegemonic realm.) The world system did need a hegemon, however, which was the singular testimony of a singular decade: the 1930s. What England no longer could do the United States was not ready to do; the results were depression and war and the collapse of the old order.


World War II began for Americans in the Pacific, and it remained the main theater of American warfare until the invasion of Europe in 1944. The United States was preeminent in the defeat of Japan, and proceeded to organize a unilateral occupation of Japan and a general reorganization of postwar East Asian international relations. After the Korean War, the United States maintained a permanent peacetime defense budget of between $300 billion and $500 billion in current dollars. At the same time the American military "locked in" its war gains from the defeat of Japan and the defense of South Korea and Taiwan with a series of military bases that (with the exception of Taiwan) still form the basis of American coercive power in Northeast Asia.

Since 1945 the United States has operated differently in East Asia compared with Europe, with an emphasis on unilateralism, bilateral rather than multilateral diplomacy, and the efficacy of military force. Likewise, the Republican Party has long embraced both tendencies: the free-trade multilateralism and Atlanticism of the Eastern wing, but also the expansionist, unilateralist outlook of Western Republicans, symbolized by the "Asia firsters" of the 1950s. The former was hegemonic on the British model, taking the world economy as its main arena of action. The latter was imperialist, beholden to the myths and realities of the frontier, the cowboy and the cavalry, and supporting unilateral expansion to the West, the subjugation of the Philippines, and eventually China (always, to these foreign affairs naifs, the "China" of their imagination). The reigning hero of this tendency was General Douglas MacArthur, a classic man on horseback, brutalizer of the Bonus Marchers, suzerain of the Philippines, conqueror of Japan who became its benign emperor for six years, only to suffer defeat at the hands of a Sino-Korean peasant army in 1950.

The Bush family history reflects a microcosm of ways to bring the party's Eastern and Western wings together. The father, George H. W, exemplifies a thoroughly Eastern Republican—born in Greenwich, Connecticut, combining internationalist foreign policy with great wealth and aristocmtic privilege. His Texas credentials, honed since he moved there in the 1950s, never fooled anyone: he was as persuasive at a tent revival as Dick Cheney at a labor rally. The elder Bush served in government as a charter member of the internationalist consensus. George W, on the other hand, went Texan with a vengeance. He is the first president fully to embody the Republican right's foreign policy views on a host of issues: arms eontrol, the emimnment, the United Nations, post-Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, and the presumed failings of America's traditional Eumpean allies. His preemptive doctrine post 9-11 embodies phrases and nuances that had been the stock in trade of right-wing pundits such as William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, who have long called for a new American imperialism. And in its implementation the Bush doctrine has become frankly imperialist, with the old archipelago.of relatively quiescent military bases expanded into the equivalent of distant Roman legions.


Any administration would have responded forcefully to the attacks of September 11, but Bush and his allies have vastly distended the Pentagon budget (from $265 billion In 2000 to $400 billion in 2003), added another zone of military containment (Central Asia), created an American West Bank the size of California in Iraq, and poured yet more billions into "Homeland Defense" while showing a callous disregard for civil liberties, the rights of the accused, and the views of America's traditional allies. Bush always begins his account of "the war on terrorism" with September11, as if that watershed event convinced him to give up on the tested doctrine of containment and deterrence and to move instead to a new strategy of preemptive attack. The 9-11 attacks did indeed come from an implacable and diabolical enemy: nothing will deter it, and it passionately loves suicide. Containment would not scam Osama bin Laden even if he could be found. But the United States can do little about that threat, the past year of the "war on terrorism" notwithstanding.

In March 2003 the strategy of preemption quickly gave way to a preventive war against Iraq in an attempt to stop Saddam from possessing weapons of mass destruction (weapons that have yet to be found). So far the war in Iraq has not had the worst consequences for regional security that many critics worried about, even if the occupation has turned into an unholy nightmare. But a restive world may present an unavoidable crisis—most likely in North Korea—where containment and deterrence abruptly give way to preemption and disaster.

In September 2002 George Kennan, then 98, gave a little-noticed interview to The Hill, just after the National Security Council released Bush's new doctrine. Here was "a great mistake in principle," Kennan said. Anyone who has studied history "knows that you might start a war with certain things in your mind," but you end up fighting for things "never thought of before." Launching a second war with Iraq "bears no relation to the first war against terrorism," he remarked. Moreover a decision for war "should really rest with Congress" (but not with congressional Democrats, who have been "shameful and shabby" not to mention "timid," in their reaction to Bush's war plans). Here was distilled wisdom, drawn from a lifetime of service to the country's diplomacy. At some point, astute judgment like this about the inherent limits of American power will again become obvious to the people, as it did in Viemam a generation ago, and America's leaders will return to their only hope: leading with allies; forming coalitions with them acting as first among equals.


1. Among several, see Andrew J. Bacinevich, American Empire: The Reality and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons of Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff has published two recent articles on US imperialism in The New York Times Magazine. Even presidential candidates are getting into the act: see General Wesley Clark, Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2003).

2. Greg Jaffe, "Pentagon Prepares to Scatter Soldiers in Remote Corners," The Wall Street Journal (May 27, 2003), pp. Al, A6. However, the deputy commander of the Manas Air Field near Kyrgyz, Col. James Forrest, told Jaffe that "this place is so deep into Central Asia you'd hate to lose it," a good indication that this former Soviet base is not likely to be "lost" to the Pentagon anytime soon.

(Bruce Cumings, "Is America an Imperial Power?," Current History (November 2003). The original post is at Resources for the Study of International Relations and Foreign Policy.)