Temptations of Empire

Two new studies reveal the inherent instability of imperialism.

The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall, by Timothy H. Parsons, Oxford University Press, $29.95

Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, by Stephen R. Bown, Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it became fashionable on the right, and among some hawkish liberals, to defend and even promote the idea of an American Empire to keep us safe from terrorists, hold rogue nations in check, and secure global commerce. It’s true that Pax Americana’s chief boosters believed in empire long before “everything changed”; the neoconservative historian Robert Kagan wrote a 1998 article in Foreign Policy, for example, celebrating the United States as a “benevolent empire.” But the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center provided new momentum for the imperial cause. A month after the attacks, Max Boot published “The Case for American Empire” in The Weekly Standard, arguing that 9/11 “was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.”

In the middle years of the last decade, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew steadily worse, this jingoism fell out of favor, leaving only a shrinking core of committed neoconservatives to champion the virtues of empire. Still, the questions posed by American global military dominance were far from settled in public opinion. In March, when President Barack Obama ordered the bombing of Libya and the enforcement of a no-fly zone, introducing American military hardware into a contentious Arab Spring for the first time, disputes over Washington’s proper global role were again thrust to the fore of public debate.

Relatively few Americans question the morality or utility of their country’s power, even if there is substantial disagreement about how and when that power should be used. Advocates of empire sometimes acknowledge that ruling the world through military might requires a great deal of violence, but they argue that this is the price of security and prosperity. Two recent histories of previous great empires argue instead that the imperial project is inherently unstable. 

The Rule of Empires, by the Washington University historian Timothy Parsons, explores the fundamental contradictions of imperial rule, making the case that empires have become increasingly difficult to maintain as potential subjects’ identities have become less fluid and more nationalistic. In Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, the independent historian Stephen Bown takes a less systematic approach to the study of imperial power, but his book supplements Parsons’ by filling in the biographical details of the men who built Europe’s modern commercial empires. Both books demonstrate that while empire may seem a quick route to power and wealth, in the long run the idea is a military and financial loser.

Parsons studies seven empires, searching for the features they have in common. His selections seem designed to illustrate the point that the conquerors become the conquered and vice versa. Britain was once a remote outpost of the Roman Empire, but many centuries later Britain’s might would far eclipse that of its former masters, covering a quarter of the world’s people and lands as far-flung as India and Kenya. The Umayyad Muslims controlled parts of Spain for more than 700 years, but once Spain was united as a Christian kingdom its rulers wasted little time in seizing a South American empire from the Incas. Napoleon led the French to dominate continental Europe, including the former Roman heartland of Italy, which the French treated as a backwater inhabited by savages. They were repaid in kind when the Nazi empire stormed across France in 1940, shocking and embarrassing an ostensibly formidable imperial power.

Parsons argues that empires, contrary to popular opinion, are extremely vulnerable to conquest. Invaders can turn established rulers’ subjects against them and, once in power, expropriate the centralized administrative systems already in use. When a small number of Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro attacked the Incan Empire ruled by Atawallpa, they took advantage of the civil strife that had begun after the death of Atawallpa’s father. Pizarro and his men were assisted by numerous Incans who sought a better life after Atawallpa’s tyrannical rule, including several of his brothers, who hoped to claim the throne. “In effect,” Parsons writes, “the conquistadors enlisted New World peoples in their own subjugation.” Firmly ensconced in power, the Spanish used Incan roads and detailed censuses to exploit populations long accustomed to imperial rule.

Parsons contrasts this gaping hole in the seemingly impenetrable armor of empire with the resilience of stateless societies. For example, the Nandi, an East African people who live in what is now Kenya, spent a decade successfully fighting off far more heavily armed British imperialists at a time when England was at the height of its power. Parsons does not mention them, but the Mapuche Indians illustrate the point even more dramatically: They resisted both the Incan Empire and the conquistadors, maintaining a large degree of independence well into the 19th century without any centralized political authority. 

Empires throughout history have claimed “to rule for the good of their subjects,” Parsons maintains, but this “was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard. Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue.” To keep resources flowing from subjects to rulers, empires must walk a tightrope between subjugation and assimilation. If the state imposes draconian laws and taxes, it will face rebellion, so the rulers must seek out collaborators among their subjects who will assist in the domination of their fellow citizens. In return, collaborators are frequently brought into the imperial fold and given a portion of the spoils. But this leaves the empire vulnerable to conquering from the inside out, with many masters and few servants.

Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages—or al-Andalus, as it was called—faced the latter problem more severely than any other empire Parsons examines, because it was animated by the universalistic creed of Islam. Spanish Christians and Jews were “peoples of the book” (dhimmi) and entitled to practice their religions, provided they paid a head tax known as the jizya. Pagans could be exploited further, possibly through outright enslavement. But any Muslim was theoretically free of these restrictions, and conversion was as simple as publicly declaring, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” Parsons explains the conundrum this situation created for the Andalusians: “Proselytizing religion provided a moral excuse for empire building, but it also blunted the extractive power of imperial rule. More seriously, the subject majority threatened to hijack the imperial enterprise as they became Muslims in ever larger numbers.”

Not surprisingly, Islamic imperialists resolved the conflict between spiritual duty and worldly goods by altering their faith. The Umayyad Empire conquered an area stretching from South Asia across North Africa to Spain within a few generations. Seeing the possibility of losing most of their tax revenue, the Umayyads often simply refused to recognize Jews’ and Christians’ conversion to Islam as legitimate. Parsons points out that no more than 10 percent of the Persian population converted under the Umayyads, and the majority of Egyptians remained Christians into the ninth century. 

As the Andalusians learned, Christians under Islamic rule face a powerful economic incentive to either convert or migrate. This steady erosion of the tax base, combined with the assimilation of the Muslim rulers into Iberian culture, weakened al-Andalus until it was reduced to the rump kingdom of Grenada and finally conquered by the combined kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1492—the same year Christopher Columbus set sail on a voyage that would allow Christian Spain to dominate the Americas for the next century.

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  • Richard ||

    The world's last major empire was the USSR. People don't seem to understand that when they're talking about "American Empire," they're speaking metaphorically. The US doesn't anex territory, outlaw the former nation's currency, ban their religion or language, stamp out their culture, etc. (Ok, it hasn't done that in a long time. Last time was probably Hawaii.) The US is not establishing an "Empire" in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else. Comparing American foreign policy today to Rome or the calliphate or the British doesn't work very well.

  • DJF||

    Agreed, the US empire is not the same at all, it is much more incompetently run then other empires in that it pays our enormous sums of money and receives very little in return. At least the other empires have brief periods of increased wealth, the American empire is a true money pit.

    Though in common with other empires the US one does have a significant number of hangers on, camp followers, whores and con men who make a nice living off the empire.

  • Almanian||

    *GODWIN ALERT*

    I made this obseervation the other day, watching a Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on HI - "This made me realize just how fucking stupid and incompetent the present US pols are. Yeah, the Nazis (drink) were evil, disturbing, frightening and so on. But they were REALLY GOOD at politics and delivering the mail! They got a whole nation to go along with the program!"

    Team Red and Team Blue are bumbling morons in comparison, which makes me think the end is nearer than I thought initially....

  • gypsiez, jewz, gayz ||

    nazis good at politics?

  • ||

    Well, yes, considering those groups were in the minority, so blaming the undesirables for the woes of the majority was a pretty easy thing to do. It's pretty comparable to the "rich aren't doing their part" bullshit we see today.

  • OO||

    godwin collary FAIL! the rich cannot be compared to gypsies, jews, und gays in nazi germany. arbeit mach frei babieee

  • ||

    You're such a dumbass, it's unbelievable, Urine.

  • ||

    The Nazis were NOT good at running their little empire. They had an incredibly inefficient economy, they turned the liberated natives against them, had some pretty ferocious infighting, and in general were incompetent at running even their little 12 year Reich.

  • That is right....||

    ....other empires damanded tribute and gold flowing in. The idiotic American empire, now more than ever under the Emperors BushPig and ObamaSlime, is the picture of reverse empire with that loud sucking sound of the treasury wealth flowing out and down into the foreign ratholes, banks, toilets, deserts, and the Greek Metro worker's busted pension fund. All the while demonstrating a staggering fiscal incompetence on the domestic front.

  • Veridical Driver||

    The point of U.S. "Empire" isn't bringing in resources from abroad, it is allocating resources domestically.

    Our current "Empire" isn't really an Empire in the traditional sense, it is more corporate-welfare for the military industrial complex. It has more in common with the Tennessee Valley Authority than it does Imperial Rome.

  • ||

    Bullshit.

    The US uses its power - military and commercial - to advance the interests of favored corporations and industries.

  • Stretchy||

    Good point, the point of the article is that empire exists to benefit the few at the expense of everyone and everything else, including the empire itself.

  • Less Anti-Capitalist||

    The US uses its power - military and commercial - to advance the interests of favored corporations and industries free enterprise.

  • Trespassers W||

    Excuse me? It doesn't even do that at home, let alone abroad.

  • ||

    Lord, I wish we did.

  • Zuo||

    Correction: Hawaii was a fully Christian country at the time of annexation, and all the native Hawaiians spoke English as a first language (imported plantation labor was another story). And Hawaiian culture is hardly stamped out, in fact it is disproportionally large, especially during the 1960s, when aloha shirts, tiki nonsense, and SURFING took the world by storm. And what American doesn't know what hula, luaus, or leis are? Would most Americans be able to tell you a dance, feast, and fashion decoration specifically identified with any other US state, or with a European country?

    And the "Russian Federation" remains an [EMPIRE]. Japan officially refers to itself as an [EMPIRE]. China is an [EMPIRE] if ever there was one.

  • Almanian||

    dance, feast, and fashion decoration specifically identified with any other US state, or with a European country

    Highland Fling, Sean Triubhas, Sword Dance/Hogmanay/Kilt - Scotland (esp. highlands)

    Tarantella/those weird white skort things and the poof-ball shoes (don't know a "feast") - Greece

    Polka/Oktoberfest (c'mon, feast of delicious cold barley soup)/Lederhosen - Germany

    Waltz/also Oktoberfest/snappy military uniforms - Austria

    Eightsome reel/Yule/ill-fitted, rumpled wool suit (alt. - a nice zoot suit) - England

    Square/Pig Roast/overalls/TRAKTUR PULL - Georgia, Texas, the Carolinas...

  • Zuo||

    RAVE fulfills all three for England. Check ya basebins!

  • Almanian||

    and lol!

  • Well, Utah has polygamy.||

  • ||

    Yeah, don't EVER try arguing that with a full-blooded Hawaiian.

  • Zuo||

    Yeah, don't EVER try arguing that with a 1/16 blooded Hawaiian.

    Fixed

  • ||

    There's plenty of full-bloods left.

  • Zuo||

    1. There's some, but not that many. Most of the 'sovernittty!!11' crew are actually more haole than they are Hawaiian. 2. Everything I said is a historical fact, its easily checked as there is a shitload of documentation about Hawaii in 1898 and the preceeding decades. 3. What's your point? STFU about factual history because it subverts somebody's bullshit victimhood narrative? 4. Who the fuck cares about race and blood anyway?

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Phillipines. The war of conquest ended in 1902.

  • ||

    The world's last major empire was the USSR.

    Nope, China is.

  • ||

    Richard--you talk of nonsense. USA has over 1000 military bases and roams the world as the bigshot. Have you forgotten it controls UN and EU (NATO) and USA dollar is the world's reserve? If that is not Empire-then what is it?

  • Richard ||

    A wasteful military budget--that is all. How many empires only station troops on a client state's territory with its consent? Who's forcing any other country to use the US dollar?

  • ||

    The US is not establishing an "Empire" in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else. Comparing American foreign policy today to Rome or the calliphate or the British doesn't work very well.

    No two empires in history have ever had the same structure.

    The US is a financial empire, broadly speaking the US creates and enforces a stable international environment and makes the world pay for that "service" by exporting inflation.

    The winners are otherwise obsolete financial institutions in NYC; politicians in DC, their dependents in state governments, corporate cronies and parasitic voters (enablers).

  • ||

    Oh and as far as imposing US-politico culture what do you think the whole obsession with democracy promotion is all about, or forcing everyone to embrace the insane war on drug users.
    Not to mention their version of IP or synchronizing bank capitalization standards.

  • Bradley||

    Best comment in the thread.

  • ||

    I see your point, Richard, but beg to disagree; because the US (I prefer Washington) Empire is primarily what is now "mainland USA", since the original thirteen states set out to expand into Indian and Mexican territories, so as to form contiguous states, in similar fashion to Czarist Russia, relative to what eventually became the USSR.

    It persists today as the Russian Federation in shrunken form; as might become the case if sundry states of the USA decide to declare independence from Washington ... which is quite possible.

    A minor (or maybe major difference) between the Moscow and Washington empires, is that Moscow never got really serious (even in Soviet times) about expanding beyond the contiguous empire.

    Know your history! Moscow could not be bothered to maintain influence in Hawaii and sol Alaska to Washington (shades of the Louisiana purchase from France).

    Sorry Richard, but your basic premis is flawed and so are your conclusions.

    Other empires have made the same mistake of "over-stretch", i.e. going into territories they do not necessarily want to include in an empire, but which they hope to have some influence on.

    The classic case is Afghanistan ... the graveyard of empires from Alexander to the present day.

    John Payne makes an excellent point, if you actually bother to read him.

    I am not sure if he would agree with my reduction: but he seems to reduce to saying that it is impossible to defeat people who are still essentially tribal and who have never really given way to nationalism, a la "Western-style".

    To re-inforce this I actually lived in Libya for a few months and know why - despite MSM propaganda - Qadafi has very popular support.

    I maybe could write a book on this, but what diffence would it make?

    None.

    How many have studied anthropology?

    Virtually no one.

    How many have studied history?

    Virtually no one.

    How many have studied ancient Greek and Roman counterparts to what is going on today?

    Virtually none.

    The great majority are mired in the bog of imagining that the events of today are novel.

    They are not!

    The only difference is that technology has 'advanced' to the point at which we can trigger mass suicide; whether via nuclear war, or Fuckushima-like events.

    If Alexander had had nuclear weapons, he would have used them.

    Psychopaths - throughout our species existence - have never changed, nor ceased dragging along most of the rest of our species.

  • Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, ||

  • S. Korea, Japan, ||

  • other Asian protectorates,||

  • most of Europe||

  • ||

    We are not, of course, an empire. However, we show some curious parallels to the proto-empire of the Middle Roman Republic.

    I'm reading a book on the subject (though it's on hold for a while as I re-read the million-page The Count of Monte Cristo) called Empires of Trust, which I got after hearing the same topic covered in a Modern Scholar audiocourse called "The Tiber and the Potomac: Rome, America, and Empires of Trust."

    Very good stuff, and the argument that huge swaths of the world are, in effect, trusting us to police everything (to the point that Europe has small, shrinking militaries), which could lead to us having hegemony over much of the world, is one that should be taken seriously. If the economic woes of the U.S. continue, along with a continued increase in the power and scope of government, I wouldn't be surprised to see us move in that direction.

  • ||

    One of the parallels between us and the Middle Republic is that we, like the Romans, go to war, then leave. While we may engage in occupation, we don't annex or retain control of such countries. Even though we still have military presences in Japan, Germany, and South Korea (to name a few) only a lunatic would assert we control those countries.

    In addition, there's no rational person who expects us to annex Iraq or Afghanistan. We'll leave, and if the governments fall and become anti-American, we likely will do nothing if they don't do anything directly to us.

    Not an empire.

  • Jim||

    To be an empire, does it have to be ever-expanding at a constant rate?

    I'd say that we became an empire roughly in the 1880s, when the last natives were really put down and we extended effective control over the entire continent (minus a frozen north and poor south portion).

    Not to mention the fact that this is essentially getting hung up on an out-dated definition. You say that only a lunatic would assert that we control those countries...I would say that only a lunatic doesn't believe that we actually wield vastly more influence on them than any other random foreign nation, which makes them something more akin to strong satellite states more than anything else.

  • Zuo||

    Strong satellite states? You'd assume that such pseudo-imperial lackeys would gladly follow us into any and every ill-conceived war.

    So like, why did the Gerrys tell us to go fuck ourselves on Iraq and Libya? South Korea? They won't even let us send our big bad imperial beef into their country. Likewise the Japs and a number of goods. Could ANY client state of any legit [EMPIRE] have gotten away with such behavior?

  • Almanian||

    That's "Jerrys", with a "J", and that is anachronistic - the modern term is "Kraut" or "Schnitzel-eatin' motherfuckers"

    "Japs" is correct, but "Nips" is also OK

  • SIV||

    I prefer the less offensive "lemon-colored characters"*.

    *John Wayne said it in The Fighting Seabees

  • Jim||

    Choosing not to use power does not mean the power does not exist.

    If we felt like it, we could have compelled compliance from all of those nations.

    "Fine, you don't want to play ball. That's cool. We'll just pack up our military now and catch you on the flip-side."

    They make a lot of noise about wanting us out of their countries, but I've been stationed in a few of them, and trust me, it's political theater. They make so much goddamn money off of our presence, they never want to really see us go (SK and Germany, at least, which are the only two I have first-hand knowledge of).

  • ||

    If we started misbehaving, they'd militarize. It's because we are trusted to not go off on wars of conquest that they've allowed this massive military gap to occur. It's really this that allowed Europe to go off on a socialist binge for so long.

  • Jim||

    It's a matter of opinion at this point, but no, I don't think they'd militarize. They don't have the money for it, and the people wouldn't stand the cuts to their welfare state that it would take. They'd bitch and grumble, but that's about it.

    They are client states now, whether they know it yet or not.

  • Zuo||

    Souf Korea has a massive and well funded military.

    And Europe has more than enough military to defend itself, they just suck at projection. They only need a skeleton military to deter the hungry Russians. The US has no need for a standing military period. We have missiles and none of our neighbors would be able to send military forces more than 10 miles across the border before being wiped out by eager rednecks pouring in from all over the country.

  • Jim||

    Sorry I should have been more specific, I was thinking of Europe when talking about the skeletal military. SK does have a large one...and yet they want us to stay, and we want to stay.

    We'll just disagree about Europe. I think there are plenty of actors who would take advantage of a very militarily weak Europe, and I don't think they have the money or the will to change that.

    In short, to me, world-wide chain of military presence used to force-project into areas where we aren't wanted = empire. It's not the dictionary definition, but I think the dictionary, which only has a short space to work with, is behind the times on this.

  • Otto||

    Well, it's that and the new political reality of Europe: no nation really threatens any other.

    That might change with Russia if we left. Given their issues, though, probably not. Even now, they might mess with a Georgia or Chechnya, but they aren't so aggressive when they have problems with Ukraine.

  • Jim||

    With Russia, they just turn the gas off. Which may be a different form of imperialism; do what we say, or we cut off the electricity.

  • ||

    Hydraulic empire?

  • ||

    What we have with some nations of Europe is less than a full on protectrote but more than an alliance. Even though many of our allies ostensioubly told us to fuck off when it came to Iraq this one simple fact needs to be obseved. They took no action to oppose us, no cutting off of trade, no threat of removal of diplomatic relations, not even a threat of censure by the UN. Why? Because those nations, while not wholly dominated by us, no that they are not entirely sovereign as well. They rely on us far too much for their defense subsidization. Pro-Libertate was very apt to link us to middle rome.

  • Jim||

    Oh, and I forgot to add, the absolutely ridiculous number of US military bases overseas, which essentially act like a "tripwire" so that we're never out-right lying when we claim we need to lob some missles somewhere, or intervene in some conflict, because US citizens are at risk.

  • ||

    I think it's hard to equate influence and even military action with "empire." We're not really a commercial empire, which traditionally means taking control over key countries (e.g., the British and India), and we're obviously not an empire of conquest. Even countries that are firmly within our circle are highly independent in most respects. They just defer to us to handle military matters and trust us not to start conquering territories that we occupy.

  • Google, Your Ruler||

    We're not a commercial empire "yet" - give us time.

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    So long as they keep not being evil and delivering the goods for cheap and still turn themselves a profit, I'm fine with Google. Hell, if Google ran for president, I'd vote for her.

    Oh, and www.churchofgoogle.org

  • America Last||

    We suck!

  • Fuck Yeah!||

  • ||

    We could eventually fall into the roll of a true empire if things continue as they are. The defense agreements and such that we have now are costly to maintain and offer little immediate tangible reward, if the burden becomes too great we might go for the low hanging fruit of a true empire and the riches it would bring us, at least temporarily.

  • ||

    Take Canada--when Uncle Sam needs a hired thug it calls on PM HarperSeal:^/
    Maybe you can explain why Petro Canada oil Libya contracts and Canadass military is bombing the crap out of Libya or in Afghastan. All USA has to do is use American dollar aid for Militaary and controls 100's of countries. Learn some history and figure it out : USA during 1930;s for 5 years was funding Russian's military in the billion$ for 5 years and same time ally Germany. In secret was funding France/UK's military build up and pushed them to declare war on Germany--need I say more--- Sleazie Empire :^/

  • cynical||

    We are not, of course, an empire.

    Tell that to any number of pacific islands, or for that matter, the former states of the CSA.

  • Richard ||

    the former states of the CSA.
    Oy.

  • Brett L||

    How could we not meet the definition of a hegemony. We station military, police our interests abroad, and negotiate favorable trade for ourselves.

  • etc.||

    and yet we can hardly tell the difference. How interesting!

  • Almanian||

    HERCULE TRIATHLON SAIVINEN, do you have any thoughts on [EMPIRE]?

  • HERCXULE PENTATHALON||

    EMPERITORES BUSHSLIME AND OBAMASWINE [swords raised in true leadership fashion] SEEK TO EXTEND AMURICAAN IDEALS OF PEACE AND WAR TO THE UNFORTUNATES OF AFRIKA AND ASIA>>>CHINA PAKISTAN INDIA SYRIA ARE NEW TARGETS OF KILLER-DRONE DIPLOMACY>>>INVEST NOW!! IN DRONE-TECHNOLOGY WAR COMPANIES>>>

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    Paging Mr. Savinien, Mr. Savinien on line two...

  • ||

    Umm, would anyone care to define the term at issue here?

    Dictionary.com sez:

    a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign or government

    The US doesn't "rule" anything but, well, the US. So I'm not buying it.

    That isn't to say that our overcommitment to interfering in countries that aren't ruled by us isn't subject to the same failures as empires. But words have meanings, right?

  • Almanian||

    Hmm - my little, shitty dictionary I keep at work says "countries under one rule"....now we need to define rule.

    OK, that didn't help...

  • goneGalt||

    Oh great, now the UN is an empire.

  • Almanian||

    BLACK HELICOPTERZZZZZz!!!onehundredeleven!!311

  • Jim||

    Yes, words have meaning, but those meanings also do change over time given changing world circumstances and culture. I think the concept of empire is evolving, with the US being something generally new on the scene.

  • sarcasmic||

    Just as here at home we're experiencing a weird blend of crony capitalism, socialism and fascism that doesn't conform to any concrete "ism" definition (Obama's not a socialist because the dictionary says this and that's now what he's doing so you can't call him a socialist you anarchist libertarian...), what our government is doing abroad is a weird blend of world policeman, conqueror, empire builder, and occupier that doesn't conform to any specific word.

    We need some new words.

  • Jim||

    You put it better than I did. Dictionaries don't create reality, they merely try to describe it in limited words. You give some perfect examples of where this fails. Going strictly by literal interpretations, Obama can't purely be called any of those things, and yet, he is all of them.

  • Linguistic Anarchist||

    Definitions are what we say they are! Fuck the Concept Cops!

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    Obamaism?

    Liberal Corporativism?

    Social Fascism?

    I'm feeling some fascism from the Third-Party Spam Filters. Third time's the charm?

  • Resto Druid FTW||

    As far as I know yes. However, and often to my chargin, the ignorant misuse and bastardize words to fit their own convuluted view(s).

  • jtuf||

    +2 to R C Dean

  • Zuo||

    The US definately has imperial potential, and was in a way a unique sort of empire in the 19th century. To claim that it's a bona fide [EMPIRE] today is insulting to the corrupt republic that it actually is, as well as to true-blue empires.

    Consider for a moment how difficult it is for Americans to actually emigrate to any of the countries allegedly under [EMPIRE] control. It's the exact opposite of what the situation would be if we were in fact an empire.

  • ||

    We're dabbling in proto-empire, because if the trend of our friends continuing to demilitarize and allow us to be their de facto military continues, it's not a giant step to becoming a more traditional empire. Though I think it would take some fundamental shifts in thinking here for us to go that direction.

  • Jim||

    I think we can draw a distinction between "traditional empire" and what we are, which really doesn't have an exact historical analogue.

    As I stated in response to RC Dean above, yes, words have meaning, but those meanings also do change over time given changing world circumstances and culture. I think the concept of empire is evolving, with the US being something generally new on the scene.

  • ||

    That is true, but I think the word empire is mainly thrown around for the alarming effect it has on our collective American psyche. Just look at Ron Paul's frequent use of the the phrase American Empire. Hegemon is a much more apt description of were we stand. But it if Mr. Paul went around saying the American Hegemony cannot be sustained then the public at large wouldn't pay attention to his warnings.

  • Almanian||

    Join the Armed Forces, "emigrate" to most any of them - perhaps several!

    Worked for my brother, my cousins and a number of my uncles anyway...

  • sarcasmic||

    You know what they say.
    Join the Army! Travel the world! Meet interesting people, and kill them!

  • Resto Druid FTW||

    "JOIN THE ARMY, SUICIDAL ROCK!"

  • Rev. Blue Moon ||

    I call dibs on being viceroy. I don't care where; I just want the title.

  • Almanian||

    That rules! (um, no pun intended)

    Do you then smoke "Viceroy" cigarettes, too?

    "Even my SMOGS are named after me, biotch!"

  • Auntie Semitic||

    Can I be the governor of Judea?

    heh, heh, heh

  • Doktor Kapitalism||

    I think an Icelandic Volcano would be the perfect place for your Barony.

  • A Serious Man||

    We're not a bona fide empire, we just practice imperialism when we, you know, have our CIA knock over left-wing governments around the world and compulsively meddle in everyone else's affairs.

    The motives are a mixture of a general public that espouses an "America, Fuck Yeah!" kind of mentality and some corporate interests that recognize that it's easier to do business with government's that are friendly to the US. It's not a oraganized conspiracy per se, simply the logical conclusion of decades of interventionist, anti-communist foreign policy.

  • jtuf||

    Today, it's Clinton, not the CIA, violating the sovereignty of other nations. She demanded that Honduras raise taxes to fight harder in the War on Drugs. The result:

    On Wednesday, the Honduran Congress passed a new tax bill designed to boost revenue for security forces in their battle against drug traffickers. The taxes target mining, telecommunications, and other industries in Honduras.

    Source: Honduras Weekly

  • ||

    I think the concept of empire is evolving, with the US being something generally new on the scene.

    Then I think we should use a different word, don't you?

    Back when the motive power for vehicles changed from horses to internal combustion, we didn't call those new thingies "horses", we called them something else.

    Calling the US's foreign policy for the last several decades an "empire" invites all kinds of misunderstandings, mis-analysis, inaccuracy, and confusion. Probably a bad idea, then, wouldn't you say?

  • ||

    New word? Humpire? Impire? Umpire? Dumbpire?

  • sarcasmic||

    Soon to be bankrupt 'a pire?

  • Trespassers W||

    "Schmempire."

  • ||

    Funpire.

  • ||

    Oh, wait, I'm an idiot: Pimpire.

  • sarcasmic||

    limpire?

  • Auntie Semitic||

    But seriously folks...

    Ampire

  • ||

    Vampire?

  • Almanian||

    Moopire?

  • jester||

    Funeralpyre.

  • Brett L||

    Hegemony (UK: /hɨˈgeməni/; US: /ˈhedʒɨmoʊni/, /həˈʤeməni/; Greek: ἡγεμονία hēgemonía, leadership, rule) is the indirect form of imperial dominance with which the hegemon (leader state) rules sub-ordinate states, by the implied means of power, rather than direct military force.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegemony

  • Fatty Bolger||

    with which the hegemon (leader state) rules sub-ordinate states

    Replace "rules" with "influences" and that's pretty close.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Come to think of it, that's not quite right, either. We mostly influence "sub-ordinate" states via the implied threat of removing military protection, rather than the use of it.

  • Hah Hah||

    "Harumph! We're leaving you at the mercy of the barbarians!"

  • sarcasmic||

    Just as Obama isn't a socialist because he does not conform to the strict dictionary definition of socialist.

    I say we meld crony capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism into a new "ism".

  • Jersey Patriot||

    The word already exists: corporatism.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Yes, European style.

  • Yes....||

    With the grotesquely-grinning, pseudo-populist, blundering, plundering Obama playing the lead role.

  • Jim||

    We didn't call them horses, but there are plenty of languages which use such words to describe trains (my wife from HK tells me their word for subway roughly translates as "underground fire dragon"). Not to mention the fact that dictionaries change some definitions in subtle ways every time a new one is released. Does that mean the old ones are all now 100% wrong, since they don't have the absolute newest wording of the definition? Dictionaries do not create reality, they merely attempt to describe it in a few words, which can and are routinely refined, so I don't think it helps to rigidly adhere to that.

    That's why I put forward the possibility of something like a "cultural" empire or perhaps an "enforcement" empire, since we already have terms like "commercial empire".

    And, as I stated above, does it have to be ever-expanding? Why was the US not considered an empire after finally defeating the last indians and establishing absolute hegemony over our current territory? Haven't we really been an empire since the 1880s, at the latest?

  • ||

    It's not about being pedantic about the word "empire." It's about the fact that we don't really exert the control necessary to justify the use of the word. The potential to do so is there, which is why I accept the label of proto-empire, but that's not enough.

    Incidentally, there was a stronger argument for American empire in North America before we conquered much of the continent.

  • Jim||

    I'm not following your logic on that last point.

    So once a land is well and truly conquered for some certain amount of time, it's no longer an empire?

  • ||

    More or less. No one complains about the Franks occupying Gaul.

    Besides, my point wasn't so much that you couldn't still call the U.S. an empire from, say, the American Indian perspective, but to say that the only place we've really acted imperial is here. And on a few islands from time to time.

  • Jim||

    Then the Russian and German Empires pre-WWI were seriously mislabled (before the Germans acquired overseas colonies).

    Even by the dictionary definition given by RC Dean above, we still rule over a diverse grouping of peoples, including the native nations.

  • ||

    Yeah, I think that's weak. We're a republic, and we extend full rights of citizenship to everyone here. We don't have subject peoples. You can call it an empire, I guess, but that weakens the meaning of the term.

    Germany was called an empire because of the unification of all of the German states, then because of its expansionist posture up to and during WWI.

    Russia, of course, was an empire in a more traditional sense--conquered subject peoples, regular attempts at expansion by conquest, etc.

  • jtuf||

    Jim, Russia expanded east during the 19th Century. I say that expansion counts as empire building. Russia subjugated many Asian people in the process.

  • ||

    We're a republic, and we extend full rights of citizenship to everyone here..

    Which give the citizens the right to pay taxes to their overlords and be subject to a couple of million pages of laws and regulations.

    Caracalla extended citizenship to all free people under roman dominion. No one thinks that was a restoration of the republic.

    We don't have subject peoples.

    We're all subjects dumb ass.

    Doubt it, don't pay your taxes and tell TSA to fuck off next time you fly.

  • jtuf||

    So once a land is well and truly conquered for some certain amount of time, it's no longer an empire?

    Exactly! That's why there's no movement to free Siberia.

  • sarcasmic||

    Separate but equal!

    Racist!

  • jtuf||

    +1 to R C Dean

  • ||

    We have a word for it. It's called Hegemony.

  • ||

    If what the US does is an empire, what about Iran? Wouldn't its meddling in Syria and Lebanon qualify? Why doesn't anyone call it an empire?

  • ||

    Because exerting influence and meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations isn't, by itself, imperial in nature.

    We simply are not an empire at this point in our history. We're just the only real military power, and much of the world is complicit in that development.

  • Jim||

    If you could use any word, what would you use to describe a nation that intervenes militarily where it isn't wanted, on a world-wide scale? I'm open to the idea that there isn't a word to describe that since it hasn't really been seen before.

  • ||

    World's policeman?

  • sarcasmic||

    Our government is expending all these resources for nothing. No return. I don't see Iraqi oil revenues paying down the national debt. It's not like Afghanistan has much to offer other than opium. The empires of the past at least had the decency to pillage instead of burdening future generations with massive debt as a reward for military exploits.

    moron + empire = mopire?

  • ||

    Hegemony.

  • jtuf||

    If what the US does is an empire, what about Iran? Wouldn't its meddling in Syria and Lebanon qualify? Why doesn't anyone call it an empire?

    Because if you apply the same standards to Iran, people call you racist.

  • Linguistic Anarchist||

    To sum up: words have no meanings, but we use them anyway to make our arguments that words have no meanings.

    I go now.

  • Jim||

    Yes, because "words have no meanings" is an exact rephrasing of "words have meaning which change over time".

    Tell you what smart guy, why don't you get a 200 year old English dictionary, and compare the definitions of the words in it to the definitions found in a current one (for words which can be found in both books). Since words have an absolute, Platonic meaning, then the definitions must still be exactly, perfectly the same. If they aren't, then ZOMG WORDS HAVE NO MEANING!?!!

  • Almanian||

    Or one hundred years. My absolute FAVE dictionary is a two-volume New Century from....mmm, 1905-ish.

    I continue to use it as my "baseline definition of words". What's more interesting to me than the changing word meanings is the words that a) didn't exist back then that we use now ("I blogged your mom") b) exist then that you rarely/never hear/see now.

    Cool shit, esp when you're stoned. Or so I'm told...

  • jtuf||

    Jim, the meaning of words do change over time, but you're not authorized to unilaterally change them. It you try to, I will shoot you with my bunny rabbit.

    Note: That last sentence is perfectly rational given a certain definition for bunny rabbit.

  • Jim||

    Really? Who on earth is "authorized" to declare what any word means? Is there some elected body?

    Words only mean what the biggest group of people take them to mean at any given time (which is why the meanings change).

    As it stands, I was trying to make arguments for why I believe the definition of "empire" could be expanded to include what the US currently is. I wasn't declaring that I have the authorization to do this or that, just trying to make the case for it.

  • ||

    Jim we have a word to describe what the US is. It is called a Hegemon. A Hegemon is the head of a system called Hegemony, where the Hegemon (United States) excerts influence on other nations within it's sphere of influnce either through direct (military) or indirect (economic or political) means. Why change a definition of a word when we already have on that works?

  • Nope||

    Words only mean what the biggest group of people take them to mean at any given time

    So if a "big group" of people think that "lead" means "poison," or "salt" means "sodium," then who are we to correct them? Several logical fallacies in your argument, the most egregious being ad populum.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    The security and prosperity allegedly offered by empire is an illusion, and those societies that pursue it—even with the best of intentions—will ultimately receive neither.

    Riigghhtttt... and an empire that lasted 700 years is a great example of how "unstable" they are, too.

    Sorry, not buying it.

  • ||

    One interesting thing about the Roman Empire is that it wasn't all crazy oppression in the provinces during the imperial period. In fact, there's a good argument that the provinces were less oppressive under the Empire than under the later Republic.

    Now Rome itself was another story.

  • Jewish Rebels||

    Oh yeah, well what have the Romans ever done for us?!

  • ||

    What's funny is the book I referenced way upthread noted that a Jewish writer had commented on how awesomely great and reliable the Roman Republic was as a player in international relations. Obviously, this was before the occupation and before the Empire.

  • Sandi||

    I took a shit in the [EMPIRE] St[at]e Build[ing] once.

  • ||

  • jtuf||

    Parsons argues that the spread of nationalism and of sprawling transnational identities such as Pan-Arabism have made it next to impossible to establish and maintain a modern-day empire.

    Pan-Arabism is an example of how empires can keep subjects loyal. Arabic is not the indigenous language in most of the Middle East. Arab conquerors subjugated the people so thoroughly that even the languages of the conquered people got replaced by Arabic. Today, most of the descendants of those conquered people point to their common language as a reason for them to unit.

    Moderate levels of subjugation result in a backlash. Both an alliance based on mutual respect and a complete conquest are routes to a stable empire. We don't have the stomach for the latter, so we should stick to the former.

  • ||

    History has seriously failed us when educating us about the Roman "empire". In fact for much of its existance many places that our history books show us as being apart of the empire where in fact nations or tribes that where either protectorates or ruled their domestic affairs but deferred to Rome when it came to military matters. Even after Octavian took the purple the Roman Empire wasn't a true empire as we think of empires. It did eventually evolve into one and that heralded the eventual demise of their society

  • ||

    Indeed, once a nation starts going down the road of Empire building it always ends up oppressing it's own people, and steam rolls over other nations, who cares if those nations are bought instead of conquered via military might, subjugation is still subjugation, and will always ferment hatred towards the subjugate-er... We had the right idea when we were more of an isolationist nation not looking to set of franchises, we did fair trade and minded our own business.

  • ||

    It occured to me that the election of Rand Paul may be a message from the Republican establishment.

    Basically, I think the message is this "as far as they are concerned the entire libertarian platform is on the table with the exception of the military."

    It seems we may have some soul searching to do.

  • ||

    Eh, if they actually supported his bid before he won the nomination, then I could agree with you. But since they didn't, and since Senator Paul has remained relatively close to his father's views on National Security and Foreign Policy, then I think you maybe mis-reading them.

  • jacob||

    Very True. Dick Cheney, Giuliani, and the rest of the GOP with any name recognition (except I think Sarah Palin) stood behind Rand Paul's competition in the primary.

    What was his name again?

  • ||

    The essence of Payne's argument is that empires fall because they inspire no real loyalty in the vast majority of their subjects. Where empires have some sort of consent or loyalty from their subjects, they can last a long time indeed. Cf. the Roman Empire (Roughly 250 B.C. to 476 A.D.) or the Byzantine Empire (Roughly 476 A.D. to 1453 A.D.) Until about 250 A.D., most of the people living in the Western Empire thought of themselves as Romans, and while they didn't have much input into the central government, they were largely governed by their own elites (Jews and Egyptians were a different matter, but they were a minority). Almost to the very end, inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire thought of themselves as "Romanoi," although after the overthrow of Frankish rule, the Empire might have been more of a Greek nation state than an empire. But since no once can seriously argue that those areas affected by American rule are not largely self-governing, what ought to count on Payne's reckoning is not whether the U.S. should be considered an empire, but whether the U.S. is the sort of entity which is vulnerable to the sort of dissolution to which his imperial examples have been subject. His own analysis would suggest that it is not.

  • KipEsquire||

    Unable to feed themselves and the EIC's insatiable appetite for riches, around 3 million people starved to death.


    Exact same story with the Potato Famine - which, contrary to myth, did not wipe out the entire harvest, but only enough not to be able to feed both Ireland and England. In the end, Britain got the potatoes but lost the island.

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