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Hegemony or Empire

December 26th, 2003

This is a piece I’m working on for the Fin. Comments much appreciated

It has long been commonplace for critics of American foreign policy to describe the United States as an ‘imperialist’ power. In the last couple of years, however, the term has come to be used more favorably, notably by the British historian Niall Ferguson. The positive view, that America needs to act more like an imperial power has been accompanied by a positive reappraisal of earlier imperial powers like Britain and Rome.

Despite the increasing attention given to imperialist views like those of Ferguson the United States is more accurately described as a hegemonic rather than an imperial power. The United States does not seek to expand its territory, or even, in general, to exercise direct control over the governments of other countries.

On the other hand, particularly under the Bush Administration, the United States has sought to be more than ‘first among equals’. The Administration’s view is that, on any important global issue, the United States is entitled to determine the outcome, with the support of allies if possible, but unilaterally if necessary. This is the viewpoint of a hegemonic, rather than an imperial power.

The hegemonic approach is reflected in withdrawal from international organisations, which inevitably embody the idea that each nation is, in some sense, an equal partner. By contrast, in the bilateral agreements now being pursued, the outcomes necessarily reflect the unequal bargaining power of the parties.

The other characteristic feature of empire is that attempt to extend a single model of government and a single concept of citizenship over many different peoples. US governments have sought to promote the American model of liberal capitalist democracy. However, this has been a somewhat equivocal effort for two reasons.

First, the ease of dealing with a reliable dictator rather than a fractious democracy has, on many occasions, led US governments to follow the logic of power politics rather than the ideals of global democracy. (The US is not alone in this. For example, France backed a string of African dictatorships, and our own dealings with the Suharto regime fit the same pattern).

More importantly, though, imitations of the US model are seen as just that – imitations. A central part of the dominant American worldview is that “only in America” can the ideals of liberal democracy be fully realised. This view fits equally with isolationism and with a hegemonic role, but not so well with either imperialism or internationalism.

The only truly imperial project in the world today is that of the European Union. The EU has both a plan for territorial expansion (though only to the limits of an, as yet undefined, Europe) and a concept of citizenship with rights over and above those of national citizenship.

Admittedly the EU does not call to mind the British Empire or the grandeur that was Rome. If there is any historical model for the EU, it is the Austro-Hungarian empire, a patchwork of different nationalities tied together more by diplomacy and dynastic marriage than by military conquest. But even this precedent is not very helpful. The EU is something genuinely new, and still evolving.

The rivalry between the United States and Europe is old, but has become steadily more evident since the end of the Cold War. Most of the time, the US has appeared to be the winner in this rivalry. It has won two Gulf Wars with ease and its military superiority remains unchallenged. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has acted with determination while the Europeans were divided and largely ineffectual. And the US economy boomed throughout the 1990s while Europe struggled with the costs of monetary and economic unification.

And yet, as 2003 draws to a close, the EU is extending its boundaries up to the borders of the former Soviet Union and even, with the admission of the Baltic States, beyond. It seems increasingly likely that Turkey, which has sought entry since 1958, will finally be admitted to candidate status next year and will join the EU a few years after that.

In purely geopolitical terms, the EU rather than the US has emerged as the winner from the Cold War. Quite possibly, by 2010, the EU could have twice the population of the United States and a significantly larger aggregate income.
Australia’s relationship with the EU has been dominated by the long-standing dispute over the Common Agricultural Policy. The reforms announced this year are, typically of the EU, a messy compromise that will take years to implement. Nevertheless, they will eliminate most of the subsidies to overproduction that have harmed Australian farmers. It is time to put this history behind us, and take the EU more seriously.

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  1. December 26th, 2003 at 18:30 | #1

    The American project is not entirely new. The Aztec dominion, although usually called an empire, was a hegemony. Rebellious regions faced punitive military expeditions and the replacement of their existing ruler by another selected by Tenochtitlan. The structure was radically unstable and collapsed very quickly in the ace of the Spanish invasion.

    The conquest would never have succeeded without the help of subject peoples and the small pox germ. The critique of America as ‘empire lite’ is valid. Repeated interventions and the installation of client rulers will not lead to a stable structure.

  2. December 26th, 2003 at 21:55 | #2

    Empire or Hegemony, the end result for those who consider themselves to be more equal than other equals is always the same.

  3. December 27th, 2003 at 07:58 | #3

    I’ve got a lot to chip in on this area, so give me a day or so. Unfortunately lack of time will mean it will be something of a mind dump.

    Meanwhile, have a look at what you can find about the Beit Professors of Imperial History at Oxford, particularly Sir Lionel Curtis and Sir Reginald Coupland, and the former’s book “Civitas Dei” and associated US rejection of its invitation to help with global burdens in the early 20th century.

    On the whole I agree with Owen Harries’ Boyer Lecture description of US behaviour, and the issue will be codifying and formalising to get analytical tools.

  4. Homer Paxton
    December 27th, 2003 at 14:29 | #4

    I tend to agree with PML.

    I am astounded about the lack of comment concerning Harries’s Boyer lectures which were unusually very good for boyer lectures.

  5. December 27th, 2003 at 16:36 | #5

    Harries Boyer lectures look set to go down as the least discussed ever. But back to the question, it seems to me that, while imperialism is a good rhetorical hanger for many ideas, much care needs to be taken if a serious contribution is to be made. Although emperors and empires are ancient concepts, ‘imperialism’ only really dates from the 1870s, was still regarded as a neologism in the 1880s, and only became part of mainstream political discourse in the 1890s. The key connotation attached to the new concept was the economic dimension, which was generally taken to refer to the territorial division of the world amongst the great powers into a set of both formal and informal colonies and spheres of influence (i.e. incorporating economic hegemony), the precurser condition for WWI. In other words, the modern concepts of imperialism and imperialist have almost nothing in common with the earlier political and military aggrandizements upon which the terms are based. Needless to say, there has always been much disagreement about the concept, which had a contested status somewhat akin to that of globalisation today … until, after WWI, when imperialism gradually took on the pejorative connotations that some are now seeking to relieve it of today.

  6. Russell L. Carter
    December 29th, 2003 at 04:27 | #6

    “In purely geopolitical terms, the EU rather than the US has emerged as the winner from the Cold War. Quite possibly, by 2010, the EU could have twice the population of the United States and a significantly larger aggregate income.”

    Doesn’t the EU have a much worse structural demographics problem?

  7. December 29th, 2003 at 23:02 | #7

    JQ has some serious misunderstandings that really do need to be cleared up before we can move forward.

    First, I will give some historical background for context. It’s important to note that the British Empire was not created deliberately, rather it happened as emergent behaviour in response to conditions. Sometimes – as with pulling out of the Ionian Islands as early as the 1840s – retreat was clearly an unforced response. (The same applies to giving up Heligoland in the 1840s, though the situation is muddier since that involved a complicated three way trade off with the French getting Madagascar and the British getting Zanzibar.) There were indeed individual imperialists before the word, empire builders like Clive who came along before conscious empire builders and self-avowed imperialists like Rhodes. But the crucial point is that the early acts were framed in contrast to other imperial powers like France (though Dupleix in India didn’t have full backing from his home country, a French empire builder also acting off his own bat.) So “imperialism” was no more philosophically an ideology than conservatism is. However, consciously ideological people assume that everything that compares and contrasts with ideologies is an ideology, with an underpinning system comparable to theirs, even when it merely takes that form by contrast with the other ideologies that define it and give it its necessary means of expression. (Think of the way oil and water appear to mix only with themselves from special characteristics of each, when in fact this is driven by the self-attracting hydrophilic behaviour of water molecules – which gives similar default behaviour to oil without anything in oil driving it.) Inherently JQ falls into the trap of reading imperialism and conservatism that way, forgetting the British empiricist traditions. To the extent anybody – like the Beit Professors of Imperial History at Oxford, e.g. Sir Lionel Curtis and Sir Reginald Coupland – gave imperialism a structure later, they were merely codifying observations and suggesting consistent extensions of past practices. Of course it is true that “imperialism” now suggests deliberate and economically oriented aggrandisement to many these days, but that just means that they are using terminology that makes it impossible for them to see real empires in the making now.

    OK, now here are some misunderstandings from the draft text supplied:-

    - “Despite the increasing attention given to imperialist views like those of Ferguson the United States is more accurately described as a hegemonic rather than an imperial power.” No, it isn’t. The hegemonic techniques are entirely consistent with imperial ones – it’s a case of being deceived by changing the terminology so it doesn’t describe anything any more. Using it that way sets up a false dichotomy which makes it harder to connect to Ferguson’s insights. Similarly “The United States does not seek to expand its territory, or even, in general, to exercise direct control over the governments of other countries” is a false dichotomy. Not even the Roman Empire did that – until empire, itself, had remade Rome. You only have to look at the system of indirect rule in the Indian princely states to see that this doesn’t apply to the British Empire either – and so, it is a false description of empire. We have more false dichotomy in “a hegemonic, rather than an imperial power”. The thing is, the hegemonic techniques can be used in an imperial context and there are also other ones that can be – and on the other hand, the hegemonic ones need not necessarily mean empire. The issues are orthogonal. (But it is worth remembering that hegemony does drift into empire by destroying any separate basis for the client states the way a ground cover plant creates its own environment, creating the necessary need for empire to keep things going; this happened with the Athenians, Alexander’s successors, and even great Rome itself, all of whom supposed they were helping the freedom and autonomy of civilised states: learned helplessness, anyone? It’s what happened over Kosovo, with Americans sincerely supposing that that showed they were the necessary nation since Europeans couldn’t act without them, while the Europeans knew they could not take the initiative since ever since Suez the USA had shown that no initiative would ever be tolerated without them.)

    - “The other characteristic feature of empire is that attempt to extend a single model of government and a single concept of citizenship over many different peoples.” This is also wrong. It plain is not characteristic of empire, if anything the reverse – even the Turks systematised respecting diversity, and Rome was not fully monolithic until after the early Byzantine period when Islam had taken enough territories to leave Greeks preponderant. If anything, empire involved allowing variation, an early instance of multiculturalism. Britain drew some misleading lessons from the success of hegemonic empire in India and applied them in Africa, though with less success; northern Nigeria was handled that way under Lugard. The French, with their conscious philosophical approach to these things, did what seemed unnatural to them and applied the same techniques, mostly in West Africa just below the Sahara where they found ruling emirs – although, for them, the monolithic approach appealed and they only regarded respect for diversity as a transitional arrangement. (Yes, Britain did try to remake subject peoples – only, not in the British image but more by as it were gluing handles on them; Macaulay did not try to give British law to India but to Indianise British legal concepts. It was the French who, Moreau-like, tried to make their subjects into little Frenchmen – and then crippled the attempts of those who tried so as to keep them under, as in Algeria.) JQ’s characterisation of empire is in fact an accurate description of what would occur naturally to a post-Cartesian Frenchman who was thinking of empire (Montaigne and Rabelais are far more like the empiricist British).

    What all this means for Americans is that they really do not see that they have fallen into an imperial enterprise – because they falsely assume that imperialism is mere conscious selfish aggrandisement and they know they are not doing that. Unfortunately their prejudice leads them into shunning imperial behaviour whenever they begin to see what they are in the middle of. I will now show what is so unfortunate about this.

    Britain moved into power vacuums, and also headed off risks (usually from the French, but from others at various times). The power vacuum thing is like “moving in to restore order”, and the problem is that we’ve heard that before from hypocrites who create the situation that needs them. You can really only judge it after the fact when you see that they are not withdrawing – as when India devoured Hyderabad. (India is imperialist, only it’s not politically correct to point that out – yet Goa inspired the invasion of East Timor. Sikkim went under a while back, and Bhutan is underway now while Assam and Mizoram are being Hinduised the way West Irian is being Javanised.) Now, a mere patchwork empire is unviable, so the “logic of empire” requires further changes and occasional strategic withdrawals to leave something more manageable (not to do it compels retreat, which is the logic of disintegration like a rope fraying at the end). Bear these points in mind when looking at the American case.

    What do we find in the USA? Conscious non-imperialism led to ringbarking of the European maritime empires after 1945, leading to premature withdrawal and unworkable independent states. Yet this wasn’t even necessary to enforce British withdrawal – a slow transformation had been underway for over a century (compare and contrast how the French have maintained their presence later). We in Australia were lucky that we weren’t pushed out early, that our time came before anti-imperialism. That anti-imperialism misled the Americans into making messes and walking away from them, or condoning them and not sorting them out (just look at their track record in the Caribbean, if you want to see this outworking over a longer span of time). Power without responsibility. They truly didn’t see that facing up to things did sometimes require going in for the long haul, which is what imperialism is – though, to repeat, not as an agenda but as an outworking. Thus they have left the whole world with the spillover costs of failed states, by backing away from stopping the logic of disintegration. Suez led quite foreseeably to much of the Middle East problems of today; we see this because commentators did foresee it. They made Saddam Hussein, and Eden knew they would. Even supporting dictators was only a bad idea from the way it didn’t work with something in the countries – they should have been working with something that they wouldn’t have had to prop up but which would have been largely self sustaining (they almost got it right with the Shah of Iran on the stopped clock principle, since he was actually functioning on a basis of popular respect for the position he had seized).

    So what Ferguson is showing us is more the right way to deal with empire than whether to seek to create or to perpetuate one in the first place; we see this since the need for empire, and an imperial solution, are two quite different things. “Happy the land that has no need for heroes” – and unhappy the one that has the need but nobody fills the need. The Americans are morally more culpable than the British, since they both displaced effective British processes and also refused to face up to responsibilities. The British did not make the messes they fixed (going into Zanzibar to end the Arab slave trade, for instance), but the Americans largely did and yet are reluctant either to fix them or to provide long term support until a natural recovery. And the Beit professors both helped with the wind down of empire and also wanted the USA to join in the project that would have left a true grouping of mutually supporting and friendly countries… (this is what republicans miss, that they don’t see that there is a something from the imperial idea that, if it cannot be revived, should at least be replaced – foolishly fancying that values we now only have by momentum are somehow self sustaining without something to do it).

    And, of course, the “imperial” constructs JQ is bringing out do actually fit the European Union case rather better, but only because there the mindset is much like what he describes. For that very reason its perpetrators just do not understand resistance in Britain and Scandinavia, not realising that post-Cartesian insights are colour blind to some things that are still living in the very different traditions there.

  8. Brian Bahnisch
    December 30th, 2003 at 14:49 | #8

    John, I’ve been thinking about the issues raised, but have not had time to get to the computer. Here goes, with my usual caveat of lack of expertise etc.

    Your purpose is not totally clear to me. There is a difference between talking about the real world, the concepts that might give meaning and structure to what’s happening out there, or the language used to describe either the real world or the concepts that might…

    Then there is the issue of whether style/purpose is a journalistic comment or academic. Are the words/concepts “hegemony” and “empire” hooks, for example, to make some remarks about power relativities in the world today?

    One way or another, the concepts/words could probably do with some clarification, however you then use them. They do seem to overlap somewhat.

    I like to get my bearings from the common usage of terms as revealed in dictionaries, in this case the Australian Oxford (1999) and the Webster’s Collegiate (1959).

    “Hegemon” seems pretty straightforward. The meaning revolves around leadership, predominance, domination, “dominance or undue influence, esp. by a strong country over its weaker neighbour(s)”, remembering that neighbours is obviously too restrictive.

    Clearly hegemons can exist within nation states, as in cities over their hinterlands, Sydney over the rest. In Brisbane we often think about the Sydney/Melbourne/Canberra axis of power and influence.

    With “empire” you have three related terms – emperor, empire and imperialism.

    The “emperor” is easy. He is the single, supreme authority.

    The “empire” is also straightforward. It is “an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, esp. an emperor”. Clearly the emperor is no longer strictly necessary.

    “Imperialism” seems to have two meanings. First it is the practice or policy of “acquiring dependent territories”. This is the straightforward business of constructing empires.

    Secondly it is the practice or policy of “extending a country’s influence through trade, diplomacy etc”. In this sense, outlined by cs above, imperialism probably started as a metaphor, but hung around in usage to become a substantive descriptor, now recognised by the dictionary. In my dictionary it has the annotation “usu derog”. In this second meaning, imperialism seems to blur with hegemony. Hence you can have imperialism in this sense, without the intent or reality of an empire.

    I think an empire is best conceived of as an extension of a nation state, which to me has three essential elements. First there must be sufficient concentrated power to secure the borders and to put down uprisings. Second, there must be a form of administration, whether to simply extract taxes to fund armies etc or to provide infrastructure and services.

    Third, there should be (not absolutely necessary, but highly desirable) stability of the arrangements, whether through a common identity, sense of purpose, trust, mutual dependence or plain fear.

    Power may be concentrated in parliament through the will of the people, or it may be absolute, stemming from a tyrant, the divine right of kings or the traditional authority of a tribal leader. In empires power would be typically, maybe always, hegemonically exercised, that is through dominance.

    For an actual empire to exist the administrative component must always be present, whereas hegemony does not necessarily imply an administrative element.

    With stability, there is surely a tendency in empires for power to be authoritarian or at least hierarchical rather than democratic, as in the creation of an empire power would be normally imposed from without. Hence power in empires is essentially hegemonic. It is important to note that, short of tyrannical terror, both empires and hegemons seek to attain a state of legitimacy of their power. That is, power arrangements are desirably seen as necessary or natural. Natural, that is, in the sense that the power relationships are seen as representing the way nature or god intended.

    I’ve laid this out as clearly as I can so that Pr Q can see the logic, plus my errors, in a flash. Now I’ll be a little braver and venture a few comments on the real world.

    It seems to me that the US is essentially and almost entirely hegemonic in its methodologies and purposes. They are not usually interested in the administrative component, and where interested are peculiarly unable.

    Their biggest problem is that whatever they do they struggle for stability of the power arrangements. They may seek cooperation and persuasion, but increasingly not in a respectful way. Threats, bullying, blackmail and the use of fear generally are never far away. They seek legitimacy and believe they deserve it because of their special (divine?) mission as a nation, their superior way of life, or simply that they are the good guys with the biggest stick in an essentially dangerous world. Increasingly their legitimacy is being questioned.

    They prosecute their hegemon in three main ways, through military power, through economics (trade, investment, reserve currency policy etc) and through culture. Diplomacy may be considered a fourth or in the service of the other three, I’m not sure.

    Their disposition of military power gives rise to some conceptual confusion. First because of the many bases in other countries it has the look of empire, but lacks the administrative role. Secondly the military proconsuls have taken over some of the diplomatic roles more properly attributed to the State Department, again giving the look of empire.

    The prime purpose of the hegemon IMHO is the protection of the American way of life. This may have begun with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for Caucasian, property owning males. Now it does not extend to everyone, but only the deserving. The deserving must be now not just wage earning consumers, but increasingly must be entrepreneurial as well.

    The EU also has the look of empire about it, but is different in several ways. First it will always lack the single source of military power to protect its borders, or discipline its members. One can’t imagine a central source of power that could take on France or the UK for example. This may not matter much as it is conceived of a zone of peace, human rights and democracy.

    The other main contradiction is in the way power is and can be articulated. Although espousing democratic principles there are clear hegemonic internal forces, essentially between the core and the periphery. One imagines the special relationship between France and Germany, and their place in the EU will always cause problems.

    For a democracy there needs to be a polity and the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe is against it, perhaps fatally so.

    The main game, however, is no doubt in the economic arena. Here, it seems to me, American dominance probably reached its zenith in the 1960s. Some commentators say that paying for the Vietnam War by selling gold reserves was the tuning point. Since then the Bretton Woods arrangements, the WTO etc can be seen as advantaging the American economic hegemony. Meanwhile Europe, China, India, East Asia (not sure about Japan) have been steadily gaining strength and critical mass.

    That’s more than enough from me. Hope it helps. From the most excellent comments of PML and others, 800 well chosen words or so for the AFR should be a cinch!

  9. December 30th, 2003 at 15:34 | #9

    I think it might be questionable as to whether you can have imperialism when there is only one empire, and significant areas lie outside its purview. At the least, this describes imperialism-plus-something-else. The late 19th century qualifies as the classic era of imperialism, because it was through rival empires that the entire world was run. For the present to qualify as an era of imperialism, the outside-the-US areas would also have to be somehow attached to the logic, at the least, if not actually attached to alternate, rival empires. Perhaps it’s just globalisation-in-extremis, with the US as the global hegemon.

  10. John
    December 30th, 2003 at 17:40 | #10

    Thanks everybody for these comments. I’ll probably run with what I originally wrote, but this will give me plenty to think about before I write again.

    One point that comes clearly through in what PML writes is that in relation to empire, practice precedes theory. The British were said to have acquired an empire “in a fit of absence of mind” and PML argues the same, not quite so convincingly, in relation to Rome.

    To try to clarify this a bit further if a major power has a propensity to intervene in the affairs of other countries, on the basis of motives such as restoring order or forestalling intervention by others, the fact that interventions are intended to be temporary is not crucial. As long as the rate of intervention exceeds the rate of withdrawal, the span of direct rule will increase. Sooner or later this will require the development of an imperial theory.

    But in relation to the US, historically at least, rates of intervention and withdrawal have been roughly in balance. At any given time in the past century, there have been US troops in many different countries and, in at least some cases, they have exercised a degree of control over the government. But there has been no net tendency to expansion and the overseas effort has never been large and permanent enough to produce a Colonial Office or equivalent.

    The neocon idea of using Iraq as a launchpad for further force projection would certainly have pointed in the direction of empire. But this idea, while not yet dead, looks like requiring a greater commitment of blood and treasure than the US is prepared to make.

  11. December 30th, 2003 at 18:41 | #11

    Oops! A misprint of mine: Heligoland was given up in the 1890s.

    As for ” PML argues the same, not quite so convincingly, in relation to Rome”, there I wasn’t arguing the case at all but rather asserting it by way of background illustration. If you want it backed up, I can do that, but it is fairly clear from the way Rome reacted to existing Meditarranean powers (including within the Italian peninsula), and then joined the dots to form land routes (since Rome was primarily a land power). It then had to backfill into hinterlands to secure what were by then precarious but vital land routes. Without Hannibal, Rome wouldn’t necessarily have realised how important the coast of Transalpine Gaul was, and so on. (There was of course a further dynamic, working on individuals like Caesar to impel him to take the rest of Gaul for political reasons – but the reason the Roman people bought what he sold them was that it was actually important to Rome.) Even Claudius’ invasion of southern Britain was merely a case of “forward policy” before the term was invented.

    I don’t buy the theory that Rome moved as far as known sources of gold and silver, since it missed out on some (I’m not counting failed attempts there, but actual untaken opportunities).

    “But in relation to the US, historically at least, rates of intervention and withdrawal have been roughly in balance.” Incorrect. Of all Caribbean interventions, all left a mix of hegemony and permanent direct presence; the latter include Puerto Rico and the formerly Danish Virgin Islands, “sold freely” to prevent Germany violating Danish and US neutrality if you believe that (but without any withdrawal arrangements). Since 1945 hegemonic methods also apply to a wide range of nominally British and Portuguese strategic naval/air bases under effective US control – you know, the kind the USA would pull out of just like Guantanamo Bay if the nominal sovereign power only asked.

    The question isn’t whether aggrandisement occurs as a net effect. It’s whether hegemony works to destroy any separate basis for interacting and eventually becomes unstable, so requiring something more direct. After all, it took Rome literally centuries to start handling Greek areas directly, even ones it came to rely on vitally like Sicily. The crucial issue for the rest of the world is that the USA is now acting like a ground cover plant and destroying what makes other things possible; if it refrains from picking up the inadvertently generated responsibilities, that doesn’t leave the rest of us more free but even less so – since we get thrown to the modern equivalent of the barbarians. And the USA doesn’t even have the flimsy mitigation of “what have the Romans ever done for us”, that at least Britain had.

  12. January 6th, 2004 at 15:58 | #12

    Announcement: the AFR just printed my letter of reply to this piece of JQ’s. I’ll probably post it on my publications page sooner or later.

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