Economy, Foreign Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The Rise of an American Empire? An analysis of political, military, economic and ideological variables

In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed…Mission Accomplished’ (President Bush, May 1st 2003)’.

The above quote refers to former President Bush’s rather premature assertion that the conflict in Iraq had been concluded as of May 1st 2003 after only two months of combat. The reality has turned out to be rather different and has damaged America’s reputation among the global community and has generated much debate across the political spectrum as to whether the US is indeed now an empire after its unprovoked attack on the sovereign state of Iraq.

Historically, the US had for the most part until recently only faced the accusation of ‘empire’ from the political left, for example, Edward Said argued that while the British and French Empires of the early twentieth century have fallen apart, imperialism is far from dead and the US is the nation that today shoulders the burden of empire (Said,1994). Therefore, the image of an American Empire has been chiselled in condemnation of US policy and action (Kelly,2003:350).

However, it is important to state that Empire is a politically loaded concept, with many negative connotations and to describe America as such risks over-stating its power vis-à-vis other states in the international system.  Broadly speaking, it refers to the ‘direct administration of different communities from an imperial centre’ (Watson,1992:16). Michael Doyle expands upon this definition by asserting that empire ‘is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the political sovereignty of another political society’ which relies on a high degree of direct intervention in the affairs of another state or society (Doyle in Beeson,2004:3).

For the purposes of this article, the evidence for the emergence of an American Empire will be divided into four sections – political, military, economic and ideological power to explain and analyze whether the US qualifies for the status of ‘empire’ focusing on the US’s current debacle in Iraq. However, it shall be strongly argued that although the US has a number of imperial features, it is not an empire due to its own limitations and with empire now being seen as illegitimate, and ultimately unsustainable.

Nevertheless, America, although not an empire, remains the dominant actor in international relations, with the title of ‘hegemon’, which refers to the rule and regime based order created by a leading state (Ikenberry,2004:615), far better suited to its unique status in the international system, with regard to its political, military, economic and ideological power. This is distinguishable from empire as it relies primarily on coercion and consent, rather than solely coercion (Brown and Ainley,2005). Therefore, what we are currently seeing is not the emergence of an Empire, exemplified by the failure of the US to pacify Iraq but rather a misguided policy choice of the Bush administration, which would be most unwise to repeat due to its unpopularity, cost, and its resistance among the international community

Political Power

Political power can be considered the ability of the powerful actor, in this case, the US, to achieve effects that the influenced actor would not choose to have occur (Doyle,1986:34). US political power is demonstrated by its veto seat on the UN Security Council, its disproportionate voting weight in the IMF, World Bank compared to other nations, its primacy in NATO, and its strength in the WTO to set the political agenda.  This tends to largely benefit US interests relative to other countries in the international system.

Since WW2, the US has created a web of security and economic institutions to solidify its hegemony and its position (Layne,2006:42). Scholars and pundits alike have interpreted the US’s dominant position in these institutions as signs of ‘American empire’. Nevertheless, this term is misleading and misses the distinctive aspects of the global political order. Hegemony remains far better in describing America’s position at the centre of a dynamic and expanding political formation (Ikenberry,2005:630). This is because, although the US has a large amount of influence in these institutions, it cannot dictate to the rest of the world and when it tries to act unilaterally, in an imperial manner, it is rarely successful, exemplified by its inability to obtain support from a majority of nations for the ‘War in Iraq’ in 2003. Thus, there are limits to the US’s political power. Furthermore, the US has been unable to act in a traditional imperial way – after inflicting military devastation on rogue states, it cannot bring political order as both Afghanistan and Iraq reveal (Mann,2004:646), which differs from the British Empire, which was able to impose order on its colonies. It is increasingly apparent that without cooperation from friends, allies, neutrals and the UN system, America is unlikely to be able to secure its interests at all (Barber,2004:242) as can be seen with its failure to bring stability, let alone, its prevailing ideology, democracy, to Iraq.

Therefore, the accusations of an ‘American Empire’ have clearly been over-stated. It is striking to state that what separates US hegemony from US empire is the willingness to work jointly with others through multilateral institutions and the consent that is attended to them (Barnett and Duvall,2005:64). Therefore, after the US’s imperial letdown in Iraq, it is likely to preserve its political power and exercise it through multilateral forums, as the imperial alternative is ultimately unsustainable (Ikenberry,2005:136) in order to legitimately maintain US dominance.

Military Power

Military power can be defined as the ability to influence behaviour through negative sanctions (Barnett and Duvall,2005:49), in the current case, military intervention, contravening the sovereignty of another state. Scholars have pointed to the military preponderance of the US in the international system, as an example of empire. For example, Paul emphasises that the US’s wide network of overseas bases and its possession of advanced weapons systems have given it an extraordinary advantage over all other powers (Paul,2005:53). Additionally, the Bush administration’s aggressive unilateralism in Iraq has led to the accusation that it is seeking Iraq’s oil, a similarity to the British Empire which extracted resources for the benefit of its imperial capital.

However, whether or not the Bush administration had imperial pretensions, before the invasion of Iraq, the troubles that it has faced in bringing order to this country will have cast doubt on the viability of this strategy elsewhere in the world (Ikenberry,2004:626). Hence, although the US is the dominant military power, one must question how far the military power allows the US to run in a coercive way, put simply, it does not (Giddens,2004:6).

America cannot manage the world alone; it does not have the capacity required for an empire. It remains much more effective in international relations when it relies on hegemonic rather than imperial methods. Furthermore, empire, however temporary, requires mopping up operations, the quelling of rebellion and a gradual transition from military to policing roles. The US currently lacks the soldiers to do it alone; therefore, allied forces are likely to ease the strain (Mann,2004:641).  With the failure in Iraq the emergence of an Empire has been stillborn, which makes it unlikely that the Obama administration will act in an imperial manner as this is untenable in today’s world. Social norms have changed. Imperial acquisitions, unlike in the time of the British Empire are seen as illegitimate and unsustainable.

Economic Power

America has exercised what Wade (2003) terms ‘empire like power’ over the international economy (Morgan,2008:95). This can be conveyed by the enormous size of the US economy, the use of the US Dollar as the world’s reserve currency and with Wall Street remaining the heart of the international financial system. However, to label this economic power as a form of empire risks overlooking the unique, historical and social nature of the US as a modern capitalist state rather than an imperial state (Wade,2004:249). For example, although the US is arguably the single, most dominant power in the world economically, it does not constitute an empire. It has to contend with competing blocs, in the form of the EU and Japan/China, which prevents it from unilaterally setting the agenda. It must take these blocs into account through consensus and persuasion, rather than coercion, as the dominant actor, which demonstrates its hegemonic, rather than imperial qualities.

Similarly, despite the size of the US economy, it is arguably a declining hegemon, in relative terms. This can be demonstrated by the rise of the EU, which is able to speak as a unitary actor in trade negotiations and thus, if it wants to, it can disagree with the US in a way that was not possible a few decades ago. Likewise, the rise of China has brought with it danger as they continue to acquire US debt due to American consumption of Chinese goods. This uneven financial relationship is likely to aggravate further tensions that accompany China’s rise.

Thus, despite the vast size of the US economy, it cannot be dubbed imperial due to a large amount of its assets in the hands of another great power and the competition from rival blocs. Furthermore, despite the US’s huge amount of influence, it cannot control the global market in the way that a traditional empire would be able to exercise its domination on the system. Fundamentally, empires do not come cheap. Hence the rapidly deteriorating budgetary position in the US means that it simply cannot afford such foreign adventures despite the scale of the US economy (Beeson,2004:12). Thus, Iraq is likely to be the exception that proves the rule.

Ideological Power

The US’ ideological power is largely drawn from its commitment to democracy, self-determination and anti-imperialism. This commitment to democracy makes imperial rule very hard to justify and equally hard to manage (Walzer,2003). Furthermore, its ability to enforce its ideological power is questionable. For example, it was unable to impose democracy from above in Iraq in spite of the collective support of its military, political and economic power. Therefore, its ideological power remains fairly weak and certainly nothing comparative to the British imperial doctrine of ‘civilization’. This should be a lesson to the US that in order to exercise power effectively in these times, it must rely on multilateral negotiation, which gives it the legitimacy and the support to act. Therefore, due to the problems in enforcing imperialism, there will be no emergence of Empire with the neo-conservative leaders of the Bush administration having been chastened by the debacle in Iraq.


The current conflict in Iraq and the US led ‘War on Terror’ has led scholars and pundits from across the political spectrum to label the US an ‘empire’. With its large amount of political clout, unrivalled military force, its dominance in economic relations underpinned by a legitimating ideology, many have pointed to its imperial features. Nevertheless, it is important to state that we are not seeing the emergence of an ‘American Empire.’ Its political, military, economic and ideological power clearly has limitations. In reference to its political clout, it was unable to convince leading nations to support its invasion of Iraq; as to its military power, despite its unrivalled position, it has been unable to quell rebellion and bring order, showing the drawbacks of the military juggernaut. Furthermore, its ideological power has arguably been eroded as a result of this military and political unilateralism. Finally, in economic terms, it now has to contend with the EU and an increasingly assertive China, which demonstrates its relative decline. Nevertheless it remains the dominant actor in all four of these categories. Therefore, hegemony is a far better suited term than ‘empire’ to explain its unique status in the international system. Moreover, powerful evidence of the inadequacy of imperialism as a conceptual response to the modern world is provided by its failure in policy and practice (Barber,2004:238). Therefore, despite the former administration’s imperial pretensions, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will pursue such a unilateral policy, as it is ultimately not viable and viewed as illegitimate among the international community. US global power arguably rests much more on persuasion and consent over the use of force and therefore it must return to its legitimate role of hegemon, furthering US interests through multilateral mechanisms, rather than strive for the unfeasible goal of empire.

The writer holds a MA (Hons.) in Politics from the University of Edinburgh and is now studying for an MSc in Development Management at LSE.


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