American Empire – a discussion

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Thanks to everybody who contributed to the Wikipedia discussion. I was reassured by the general consensus that using Wikpiedia is not the journalistic equivalent of putting on the dunce’s hat. As for the general discussion of Web 2.0 – very useful.

For anyone wondering what happens next, let me explain how I hope to use all this stuff:

I tend to have a list of topics that I hope eventually to write newspaper articles about. The idea is that at some point something happens in the news which makes my idea seem relevant – at which point, I pounce. Alternatively, if nothing much is happening in the news, I have an excuse to delve into my bag of general themes. So I will wait for my moment with the Web 2.0 stuff. And – in the meantime – if people feel inclined to contribute further thoughts to that discussion thread, so much the better.

Among the other topics that I’ve been planning to write about for ages are American "imperialism"; democracy promotion (was it a bad idea, etc…) and my personal hatred of Bono. Over the next few weeks, I’ll start discussions on all of these themes.

But first, empire:

Generally people who talk about "American imperialism" do not mean it in a nice way. But I was struck, during the run-up to the Iraq war, by the overt flirtation with the idea of empire among certain American policymakers and intellectuals. There is Ron Suskind’s now famous quotation of an unnamed senior Bush administration official, who allegedly said: "We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Charles Krauthammer in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2004 salivated that "this American Republic has acquired the largest seeming empire in the history of the world – acquired it in a fit of absent-mindedness greater even than Britain’s".

Krauthammer did go on to say that because the US "does not hunger for territory", it is absurd to call it an empire. President Bush declared explicictly in 2004, "We are not an imperial power." But not all his neocon supporters were so coy. Max Boot of the Council for Foreign Relations published an article entitled "The Case for an American Empire"; and there were others who made the same argument, like Dinesh de Souza.

Meanwhile, in academe, the idea of empire was being rehabilitated. In 2003 Niall Ferguson published a well-received revisionist history of the British empire. (Although the book itself is far from being an unabashed apologia for empire.) A year later Ferguson produced "Colossus" arguing that – "the United States is and, indeed, always has been an empire" and that "the American empire might have positive as well as negative attributes." In fact Ferguson pronounced himself "fundamentally in favour of empire".

America’s bitter experience in Iraq seems likely to bring a swift end to this flirtation with imperialism, at least as an aspiration. But the parallels between the US and former imperial powers still fascinate. When the head of America’s GAO made a speech recently warning that the US risked going the way of the Roman empire, he provoked a big reaction – not least in the FT.

When I eventually get round to writing about the American empire, the sorts of questions I will want to answer will include – Is it analytically useful to think of America as an imperial power? How far were American policymakers consciously thinking about empire? Do America’s troubles in Iraq prove that the imperial idea is now dangerously anachronistic? Or has the US just gone about its imperial task in the wrong way?

That’s enough questions. Please, send me some answers.

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