The United States Is, and Should Be, an Empire
A New Atlantic Initiative Debate
About This Event

America is not just the most powerful nation on earth but, arguably, the most powerful nation in history. To protect the global trade routes of democratic capitalism and its own security interests, the United States can intervene anytime, anyplace. Although America’s domain is more sea-borne and space-based than territorial, some are beginning to refer to this Pax Americana as the American empire. Is the United States an empire? Should we call it that? Please join the New Atlantic Initiative for this debate with two renowned scholars.

PROPOSING: Niall Ferguson, Author of Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power

and

OPPOSING: Robert Kagan, Author of Of Paradise And Power: America and Europe in the New World Order

Agenda

4:45 p.m.

Registration

5:00

Welcome:

Radek Sikorski, NAI

Debaters:

Niall Ferguson, New York University

Robert Kagan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Moderator:

Radek Sikorski, NAI

6:30

Adjournment

Event Summary

July 2003
The United States Is, and Should Be, an Empire

 
Niall Ferguson and
Robert Kagan
 

America is not just the most powerful nation on earth but, arguably, the most powerful nation in history. To protect the global trade routes of democratic capitalism and its own security interests, the United States can intervene anytime, anyplace. Although America’s domain is more seaborne, airborne, and space-based than territorial, some are beginning to refer to this Pax Americana as the American empire. Is the United States an empire? Should we call it that? On July 17, 2003, the New Atlantic Initiative organized a debate on this topic between two renowned authors-Niall Ferguson and Robert Kagan.

To watch the debate on video or to read the transcript click on The United States Is, and Should Be, an Empire.

PROPOSING: Niall Ferguson, New York University

The United States fails to acknowledge that it is an empire. Americans are hostile to that word because they had to defeat the British Empire in order to achieve their freedom. If the United States behaves as an empire militarily, economically, and culturally, then it must be an empire. What quacks like a duck and looks like a duck must be a duck. The United States has 750 military bases in 130 countries, covering two-thirds of the world, and American military spending amounts to two-fifths of all military expenditures in the world. Economically, 31 percent of the world’s output is attributed to America. This figure is three times larger than Great Britain’s at the height of its empire. Finally, Americans have the ability to export their culture widely; non-Americans around the world voluntarily follow the trends and fads of American cinema and television.

Americans use euphemisms such as "great power" and "hegemony" to avoid the word "empire," while the United States is simultaneously in transition from indirect to direct rule over its territories. Americans realized that they could not trust local rulers to do the job right. The United States cannot invade Iraq and occupy Baghdad without being considered an empire. Americans argue that they come as liberators to the territories they occupy, but that is also exactly what the British did before them.

Three factors hurt the American empire. First, the United States quickly leaves the countries it occupies. Consequently, why would anyone in those countries collaborate with the Americans? Second, the United States follows the Wal-Mart principle of offering the cheapest possible price-the takeovers are done at the lowest cost, which obviously ensures poor quality of the occupation. Lastly, Americans work unilaterally, and the United States needs allied support and a helping hand from the European Union.

OPPOSING: Robert Kagan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

It would be easier to debate those who deny American power and oppose American influence. These people are fooled by the myth of Edenic innocence-the supposedly isolationist American past, when in fact the United States used to be an imperial power. As citizens of British colonies, early Americans were advocates of the empire; Benjamin Franklin hoped that the empire’s headquarters would eventually shift to America. Under the banner of manifest destiny, the United States expanded by means of purchase, swindle, and conquest. The Southern states behaved in a similar fashion: They sought to establish an empire of slavery stretching to the Caribbean. Over the years, America has become less and not more imperial, although it has gained power.

There is a vital distinction between being powerful-even most powerful in the world-and being an empire. Economic expansion does not equal imperialism, and there is no such thing as "cultural imperialism." If America is an empire, then why was it unable to mobilize its subjects to support the war against Saddam Hussein? America is not an empire, and its power stems from voluntary associations and alliances. American hegemony is relatively well accepted because people all over the world know that U.S. forces will eventually withdraw from the occupied territories.

The effect of declaring that the United States is an empire would not only be factually wrong, but strategically catastrophic. Contrary to the exploitative purposes of the British, the American intentions of spreading democracy and individual rights are incompatible with the notion of an empire. The genius of American power is expressed in the movie The Godfather II, where, like Hyman Roth, the United States has always made money for its partners. America has not turned countries in which it intervened into deserts; it enriched them. Even the Russians knew they could surrender after the Cold War without being subjected to occupation.

We are beyond the age of the empires, and most Americans reject the idea outright. Americans must continue to be engaged in the world, but that involvement will not make them emperors.

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