Emily Rosenberg: Bursting America's Imperial Bubble

Roundup: Talking About History

[Emily S. Rosenberg is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. Among her books is Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy, 1900-1930 (Harvard University Press, 1999).]

During the 1990s, a broad array of public commentators and scholars began to argue that America's "empire" could transform the world. Augmented by sophisticated new weapons and global military bases, extension of American reach could, they suggested, spread freedom and democracy, uplift women, energize markets, and stimulate economic prosperity. Was not a universalist American empire another name for the impending, inevitable globalization of progress and peace?

"Empire" remains a word of our time, judging from the flood of this year's popular and scholarly books that display some form of it on their covers. The war in Iraq, however, seems to have burst the bubble of imperial exuberance.

None of the books considered focus primarily on the conflict in Iraq. Nevertheless they are, to varying degrees, shaped within its context and seek to counter the infatuation with American empire that preceded the war. Collectively, they caution that good intentions followed by violence, corruption, instability, resentment, and ethnic division, along with the decline of democratic and egalitarian values at home, are common attributes of empire.

The United States was never so much an empire as an assortment of empires. Its highly flexible imperium included conquest and incorporation of lands in the West; overseas territories like Hawaii, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico; protectorates like Cuba and Panama; administrative dependencies like the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Liberia, and Nicaragua in the early 20th century, and the Marshall Islands after World War II; informal colonies bound by market integration and cultural penetration (much of Central America and, in various ways, other countries throughout the world); and an expansive network of military bases.

As Ann Laura Stoler, a professor of anthropology and historical studies at the New School, points out in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, an empire's flexibility does not mean its absence. Nor do the changeable forms of American empires suggest that they have been, somehow, exceptional or benign. Imperial leaders nearly always imagine their enterprises to be exceptional (and exceptionally virtuous).

Throughout the past, Americans have both embraced and rejected the word "empire." In the 19th century, nationalists spoke proudly of creating a continental empire. At the turn of the century, the generation of political leaders emblemized by Teddy Roosevelt championed an imperialistic, strong-military foreign policy. But after America acquired territory from Spain in 1898, an ugly and costly war against insurgents in the Philippines spurred a strong anti-imperialist movement and grassroots debate over the wisdom of an American empire. Within a few years, no successful politician was using the word "empire." Cuba and Panama became protectorates, not colonies....

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