An Emerging Imperialism

A fresh look at history calls into question conventional notions about the course of empires and gives new meaning to the concept of the United States as "hyperpower."
March 31, 2003
Roman reach: The domain of Emperor Hadrian

Roman reach: The domain of Emperor Hadrian. © Bettmann/Corbis.

It's an arresting image, a sculpture marking Imperial Rome's triumphant quashing of a Jewish rebellion during the reign of Hadrian. The emperor has his foot planted on the back of a captured youth. To Hadrian expert Mary T. Boatwright, a Duke classical studies professor, it's an ambiguous image. Is it an unvarnished celebration of conquest? Or is there a hint of angst in the expression of the conqueror? By the time Hadrian assumed the throne in 117 A.D., he was aware that imperial ambitions carried considerable costs for Rome.

Ancient Rome has an enduring resonance--especially in these saber-rattling times. In making the case to attack Iraq, for example, the editors of The New York Times argued that "the United States is, and seems likely to remain, a nation whose military might and economic power so outstrip any other country that much of the world has been comparing it to ancient Rome." Today the United States stands as the world's "hyperpower," or hyperpuissance, as the French foreign minister dubbed it. Policymakers moved to force a regime change in Iraq and talk of creating a Middle East friendlier to American interests, conjuring up the specter of a revived colonialism. After all, it was at the end of World War I that the British cobbled together the Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul to form an Iraqi state.

Emperor Hadrian

Emperor Hadrian. © Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis.

The idea of an imperial America is something entirely new, of course. Americans from an early point rejected the example of Rome in its imperial guise for good reason: Rome was a savage and barbaric empire. The British Empire, in contrast, was an example of enlightened rule. Those are all time-honored ideas, textbook givens, and deeply-embedded cultural assumptions. But according to Duke experts, the conventional wisdom surrounding empires doesn't hold up to scholarly scrutiny.

As Duke political scientist Peter Feaver observes, it was the Kennedy administration more than four decades ago that committed itself to bearing any burden, paying any price, in furthering the American notion of freedom. Even the most avid supporters of American influence have set limits on how that influence might be exercised, he says. "But maybe we have to bear heavier burdens and pay higher prices than we've been willing to in the past."

The Romans might have looked to the warring Greek states for an indication of the costs of empire. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian Thucydides offers an account of Cleon, "the most violent man in Athens." Cleon berated the citizens of Athens for greeting the violent suppression of a rebellion with repentance and reflection. Where the historian saw "the horrid cruelty of a decree which condemned a whole city to the fate merited only by the guilty," Cleon saw power wisely applied. He told an assembly, "I have often before now been convinced that a democracy is incapable of empire, and never more so than by your present change of mind."

Republican Rome was in fact an oligarchy, Duke's Boatwright points out. Conquest was certainly part of Roman thinking, even in Republican days. It was under the Republic, in 53 B.C, that the Romans invaded the territory that is now Iraq; the territory was ruled by the Parthians, who are ancestors of modern-day Iranians. Rome's legions were defeated. The head of the invading general, Crassus, was cut off and used as a grisly prop in a performance of The Bacchae at the Parthian court. Says Boatwright, "They had on the one hand a desire to be like Alexander the Great, going off and conquering the East, because of the lure of the exotic and of world conquest. On the other hand, it was a horrible place for them to be fighting. They didn't have good communications, they couldn't get food, it was hot, it was dry."

The Empire took shape under Augustus, beginning in 27 B.C. At its peak in the early third century A.D., it would comprise not only the Mediterranean region but also Europe as far north as southern Scotland, along with land by the Rhine and Danube. The Parthian debacle was hardly the only cost of Rome's imperial ambitions. Under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Romans were engaged in warfare to the east, again against the Parthians, and to the north, against the Marcomanni and other Germanic tribes. When they triumphed in 165 A.D., the legions brought back something unwelcome from the east: the plague. The campaigns required Rome to raise two new legions, some 5,000 men each. "To pay for these," says Boatwright, "Marcus Aurelius sold off the crown jewels, robes, and other luxurious goods from the imperial palace rather than raise taxes."

Boatwright says that military adventures were rooted as much in strategic and economic considerations as in a raw yearning for conquest. When the Romans subdued the tribes of the Iberian Peninsula, they were interested in tapping local mineral resources and bringing order to the area--not in taming the barbarians. For a long time Rome left Britain alone. Britain was thought to be poor in resources and to pose no serious military threat. Claudius finally annexed Britain in 43 A.D. as a distraction from a series of political embarrassments.

After Augustus, Rome generally valued consolidation and stability above expansion, Boatwright says. So Rome built a system of forts, walls, palisades, roads, and aqueducts--all of which were handy for supporting a military presence, and which also promoted civic order in chaotic places. One of the remarkable aspects of the Empire was that Rome was able to create a "Roman" identity wherever its influence was felt. (For that matter, Rome itself was pretty much an amalgamation rather than a concept of cultural purity; the Greek influence on Rome was enormous.) Tombstones from "indigenous" people in provinces along the northern border, for example, show the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Such iconography signaled how deeply the provincial populations absorbed Roman values. Conquered provinces and cities adopted Roman laws. But that was a convenience, not an imperative. As the Roman historian Tacitus noted, the Britons, while enjoying the benefits of civil society, "bear cheerfully the conscription, the taxes, and the other burdens imposed on them by the Empire, if there be no oppression."

Roman governers were basic to the administrative scene and the imperial scheme. But Rome also recruitied sympathetic local leaders. Tacitus referred to a king of the Britons who "lived down to our day a most faithful ally. So was maintained the ancient and long-recognized practice of the Roman people, which seeks to secure among the instruments of dominion even kings themselves."

The Britons, of course, eventually revolted. But nationalistic uprisings were unusual in the Roman Empire, Boatwright says, because Roman rule, if not gentle, was something less than oppressive. Rome was an Empire without elaborate imperial institutions. The Empire's limited aims of maintaining law and order and collecting taxes never demanded any sort of far-reaching bureaucracy. "In places like Carthage and Ephesus, there were communities that governed themselves by their ancestral laws, could speak whatever language they wanted, and could worship how they wished. Now, if they wanted to get political favors, then they might have celebrations of the imperial cult, which acknowledged the power of Rome and the figure of the emperor. But Rome didn't force it on people; Rome didn't have the wherewithal or even the desire to exercise military power over the world."

In the Empire, Boatwright says, no one questioned that power was a good thing. But the use of force was considered and not reflexive. Even Augustus, as part of his valedictory to the people of Rome (engraved on two bronze pillars), didn't want to portray himself as power-mad: "I undertook many civil and foreign wars by land and sea throughout the world, and as victor I spared the lives of all citizens who asked for mercy. When foreign peoples could safely be pardoned, I preferred to preserve rather than to exterminate them."

The British, as they considered their own stance toward foreign nations, may have seen themselves as enlightened imperialists. Writer V.S. Naipul has argued that the long "British Peace" of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries gave India the chance to mature as a nation.

Susan Thorne, a Duke history professor specializing in Britain, is skeptical of such assessments. For all the talk of moral duty and a civilizing mission, this was, she says, hardly a benign empire. And it was quick to embrace "historical amnesia," as she puts it, to further the imperialist embrace. "Victorian imperialism was as self-interested as its predecessors. It was distinguished, however, by the humanitarian language with which it was justified. For the Victorians, virtue and interest were not contradictory agendas. And they devoted an enormous amount of ideological labor to their conflation."

Missionaries argued that African leaders were not fit to govern because of their refusal or inability to end internal African slavery, Thorne says. "The irony here is breathtaking, considering 'Christian' Europe's centuries-old and only very recently ended involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and West Indian slavery. All the righteous passion that had been mobilized around the recently concluded campaign to free British-owned slaves was now channeled into a campaign to colonize Africa in the name of freedom."

A scramble for Africa began around the time that the Second Reform Act was passed in 1867. The act, which was sponsored by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, gave the vote to skilled working-class men. The extension of the franchise along with the extension of the empire "presents something of a paradox," Thorne says. "You had expanding democratic rights at home at the same time that you see the assertion of imperial domination over populations abroad."

Empire on parade: the British colonies show off their wares, native birds, animals, and peoples

Empire on parade: the British colonies show off their wares, native birds, animals, and peoples. The Bridgeman Art Library.

But the apparent paradox reflected pragmatic interests. By the nineteenth century, Britain was no longer the workshop of the world, and its manufacturing sector was beginning to feel the pinch of competition from the newer industrial powers. Adam Smith declared in his Wealth of Nations, "Under the present system of management, Great Britain derives nothing but loss from the dominion which she assumes over her colonies." Thorne finds that assessment self-serving. "Raw materials, cheap labor, and investment capital acquired by imperialism were a crucial boost to Britain's industrial revolution."

In addition to the material benefits to certain sectors of the British economy, imperial adventures secured political benefits for members of the elite. According to Thorne, the imperial project was deliberately advertised on the British home front to distract public attention from pressing social problems. "The gentry-dominated Conservative Party owed its political hegemony during the late nineteenth century to its successful deployment of imperialist appeals to the masses. The white poor at home were 'racialized' by Empire-empowered Social Darwinists, which no doubt retarded the advance of social reforms on their behalf--or ensured that the reforms that were passed were designed more to control than to empower. Social reformers just couldn't compete with colonial bread and circuses."

If there was a divide in British political culture, Thorne says, "it was between those who advocated a liberal--in the nineteenth-century sense of the word--civilizing mission to justify imperial expansion, and those who favored a more realpolitik, nationalist, explicitly racist, militarist rationale for imperialism." Much of the intellectual establishment embraced the more savage cultural-superiority themes. And so, in many instances, British imperial rule took on a brutal tone. Thorne mentions, as examples, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery in the West Indies, reprisals in the wake of the Indian Mutiny, and the concentration camps in which thousands of Boer women and children died between 1899 and 1902.

In 1865, a colonial governor, John Eyre, was impeached for having ordered widespread reprisals against rioting Jamaicans. Thomas Carlisle and Charles Dickens were both defenders of Eyre, hinging their arguments on the scientific racism of the time. The efforts to prosecute him, led by John Stuart Mill, failed, but he was forced to retire, albeit with his pension preserved.

" The 'humanitarians' had to use military means to help the people they wanted to help, and the militarists weren't above claiming humanitarian achievements," says Thorne. "So they would argue, but they also used each other's methods and language. Colonialism was, at its core, a military enterprise. The lie of the 'civilizing mission' is most exposed by the fact that it usually took an army to enforce, to bestow the gift--it happened at the end of a gun."

Empire on parade: the British colonies show off their wares, native birds, animals, and peoples

The last viceroy: Lord Mountbatten departed India with Lady Mountbatten in 1948. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.

Triumvirate of historians: from left, Boatwright on Hadrian, Wilson on America, and Thorne on Britain. Les Todd.

Colonial rule also depended on divide-and-conquer strategies or nation-building, Thorne says. "Much of the British Empire was administered through indirect rule, regime change, finding a faction that would rule in the way Britain wanted them to, installing them, and calling it local self-government. That is a pretty imperious way of operating. I don't think the British state on its own could have held on to its empire by exclusively military means; it required mobilizing indigenous sectors of support. This was also done by fanning, if not creating, ethnic conflicts."

" So while the British Empire might deserve credit for twentieth-century success stories, it also deserves some of the blame for twentieth-century ethnic atrocities," says Thorne. That idea is picked up in a recent Atlantic Monthly article in which Christopher Hitchens charts out the trouble spots that remain from imperial Britain's policy of "divide and quit," as he calls it. His list encompasses the feuding over Cyprus between Greece and Turkey, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Indian and Pakistani claims on Kashmir, internal strife in Sri Lanka, and even the collapses in Somalia and Eritrea.

To that list, Thorne adds: "British policies contributed to the hardening of the caste system in India and to the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims that resulted in the deaths of millions during the partition of India and Pakistan after 1947. British colonial policies are also responsible for the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The British also benefited from the divisions between Africans, 'coloreds,' and whites in South Africa. I don't mean to suggest that the British invented these divides, much less that they are solely responsible. But they manipulated them to their advantage in ways that have had horrific post-colonial consequences."

Though itself a post-colonial creation, the United States was imperialist from its beginnings, says Gerald Wilson, a professor of American history and senior associate dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. It's simplistic to argue that the American colonies were rebelling against British imperialism, he says. "We revolted against British commercial imperialism as expressed in their Trade Laws. In fact, it was not so much the Trade Laws themselves as the fact that England began enforcing them after 1763 that caused the problem. When the Revolution broke out in April 1775, we were not fighting for independence but rather for our 'rights as Englishmen.' "

From the founding of the British North American colonies until about 1890--when the Census Bureau reported that the U.S. no longer had a continuous frontier line--American policy was driven by a sense of continuing expansion. A dramatic expression of that interest came in 1804, when Lewis and Clark set out to cross the North American continent from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The mission, as conceived by President Thomas Jefferson, was to collect information covering everything from geology to Indian vocabularies; it was also meant to locate "the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."

As Wilson puts it, "We felt that we were ordained by God to move across the continent and spread democracy and Christianity. When John Winthrop came over with the first Puritans, he preached a sermon that set the pattern, 'A Model of Christian Charity,' where he said that 'we shall be as a city on a hill, a beacon to the world.' Christianity and democracy were inextricably linked."

Such language is mirrored in President George W. Bush's frequent framing of regime change in Iraq as a moral imperative: In his last State of the Union address and, repeatedly, in statements since, he has cited a litany of transgressions by Saddam Hussein, and declared, "If this isn't evil, then evil has no name." The Economist, in a report on American values, suggests a link between "America's religiosity and its tendency to see foreign policy in moral terms." In contrast to Europe--where even moral questions are sometimes treated in narrow technical terms--Americans are prone to believe that "evil exists and can be fought in their own lives and in the world." From moralism at home, then, comes a muscular stance abroad.

The explicit idea of America's "Manifest Destiny" became a pivotal issue in the 1900 presidential election. President William McKinley argued for annexation of the Philippines, which had been occupied during the Spanish-American War. His argument was that the U.S. shouldn't cede the Philippines back to Spain or give it to France or Germany. The Filipinos were unfit for self-government, he said, and "there is nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate [them], and uplift and civilize and Christianize them."

William Jennings Bryan and the Democrats argued against annexation, saying imperialism was not in accord with American principles of freedom and independence. Annexation would undermine American democracy, and such a step would be contrary to American actions in Cuba. In 1899, anti-imperialism groups came together under the American Anti-Imperialism League. Industrialist Andrew Carnegie financed the group, which drew support from union leader Samuel Gompers, Harvard president Charles Eliot, social reformer Jane Addams, and philosopher William James. The latter referred to America's quest for power as something that would cause the nation to "puke up its ancient soul."

From the other ideological direction, McClure's magazine, in February 1899, published the British poet Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden," challenging the country to assume a new role in the world: "Send forth the best ye breed/Go, bind your sons to exile/To serve your captive's need;/To wait in heavy hardness/On fluttered folk and wild--/Your new-caught sullen peoples./Half devil and half child."

The period after World War II, in Wilson's view, brought another stage of manifest destiny, which culminated in exporting American culture and products. "Watch TV in any Western European nation and see how much of the programming is U.S.-produced. I remember driving into Athens from the airport and being struck by the number of billboards in English advertising U.S.-made products. These are real examples of commercial and cultural imperialism."

If this is imperialism, it's been couched always in "humanitarian" language. The classic statement came with President Woodrow Wilson's commitment "to make the world safe for democracy." In the Caribbean and Latin America, Duke's Gerald Wilson points out, the U.S. worked to topple governments and to secure investments. In the Philippines, there was a vigorous Christian missionary effort, which gave rise to the phrase "benevolent assimilation." At the same time, the Philippines provided a handy refueling station for a growing American navy, which was trying to counter the rising empire of Japan.

During the Cold War, the U.S. operated in Europe much differently from the Soviet Union, which installed regimes in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. U.S. policy seemingly was geared to defense rather than conquest and exploitation. Wilson sees "enlightened self-interest" at work. The Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe certainly had a humanitarian side, he says. "But remember that this was [also] prompted by our fear of the spread of Communism in Western Europe."

Potsdam, 1945: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin reshape a post-war world

Potsdam, 1945: Churchill, Truman, and Stalin reshape a post-war world. © Bettmann/Corbis.

The common theme among those thinkers is "American power and the fact that American power is unrivaled--not unchallenged, but unrivaled," says Feaver. For neo-conservatives, the emerging American Empire "is not a Roman Empire of domination, but it does have an imperial dimension to it, in the sense that it's global and it has a transforming effect." So U.S. power might displace the "medieval horror" of Afghanistan or authoritarian Iraq in favor of functioning democracies. Moderate thinkers see "an empire of influence" that can also be a force for transformation, Feaver says. "It's not ultimately dependent on American military might as much as it's dependent on the perceived legitimacy of American values and interests."

In Feaver's view, any current-day American Empire is circumscribed. For one thing, the U.S. military historically has been hesitant about engaging in conflicts. And "the U.S. military is very capable, but it's not very large," meaning that it couldn't take on multiple opponents or engage in an endless series of conflicts. Civilians in the Bush administration were the hawks on Iraq, and they had to overcome significant military reluctance. "If the American Empire was the caricature people claim it is, then you would see us doing something about the war in Congo. Three million are dead in Congo, but no one is even talking about it. The point is, America is not talking about global domination. There's a much more strategic element to the choices being made."

" There has never been a country enjoying the U.S. power position that has been more multilateral than the U.S.," Feaver says. "People who argue that the U.S. is acting excessively unilaterally are comparing the U.S. to a mythical ideal, not to any historical reality." (The U.S. withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Climate Protocol may have shown bad style, but, according to Feaver, were predictable on the substance of the issues and enjoyed wide support at home.) He says the Bush administration revived the U.N., which had long been irrelevant on Iraq, and--before concluding that the Security Council wasn't prepared to enforce its resolutions--successfully garnered support for a seventeenth U.N. resolution. In attacking Iraq, "the U.S. was at pains to emphasize that it was acting within the context of a multilateral coalition. Debates over postwar Iraq follow the same pattern. In fact, the debate is over which kinds of multilateralism and with what sorts of linkages with existing institutions."

Freedom forces: U.S. troops enter Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's native town

Freedom forces: U.S. troops enter Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's native town. © Partick Robert/Corbis.

Critics of America's imperial reach have pointed to provocative language in the so-called Bush Doctrine and its use to justify the Iraq war: "anticipatory self-defense" and "pre-emptive deterrence." There's less new in the doctrine than meets the eye, says Feaver. "Maybe the only difference is that the Bush administration is more willing to actually act on these things than the Clinton administration was. But certainly the intellectual pillars for the doctrine were all there in early Clinton national-security strategies."

Feaver says it's not surprising that a hyper-powered America finds itself at odds with its allies over issues like confronting Iraq. The U.S. uniquely has a "full toolbox," as he puts it, whereas the Europeans have a limited array of tools at their disposal. So the Europeans regard every problem as requiring international law and international institutions, the only arenas where they can exert influence. The U.S., in contrast, can look to additional tools--namely military options--allowing for "a much more nuanced, flexible strategy."

An America that straddles the world also has a unique perception of, and response to, threats. "America thinks the world changed on September 11, and the world thinks only America changed," Feaver says. "Because America is what it is, it has the potential to act on its own perception in a unique way." Much of the friction among allies is "really a friction over risk management." So France, worried about terrorism at home, has a natural interest in avoiding war with Iraq. The U.S., worried about having to deal with an Iraq armed with nuclear weapons, has a natural interest in pursuing a war. "September 11 changed what this administration is willing to tolerate in terms of risk. It's not who cares more about the U.N. or who cares more about peace. It all has to do with very sound recognitions of very different national interests."

Not every political analyst is convinced of the soundness and sameness of American foreign policy. A campus forum, held just days after the U.S. military action in Iraq, brought some stinging observations from James B. Duke Professor of political science Robert Keohane. Keohane said that the policy of "unilateral, preventive war" is "full of danger for the future." The Bush Doctrine "implies a new form of imperialism, which is rule by coercion and fear," he said. And that system is unsustainable. "It implies a series of future wars and coercive actions against other countries whose governments we dislike and fear." Iran, for one, wonders if it's the next target of the U.S., which may help explain its accelerating nuclear program.

Practicing pre-emption diminishes international organizations like the U.N. and NATO that have "helped create world order for fifty years," ensures "widespread antagonism and resentment toward the U.S. in much of the rest of the world," and contributes to the "continued recruitment of terrorists dedicated to attacking the U.S. and American nationals abroad," Keohane added. "As a result, the U.S. is likely to become more of a garrison state, guarding its borders and using force to protect citizens outside its borders from these fears. In other words, the Bush Doctrine is a recipe for chaos. It will create more threats than it eliminates."

Turkey's reluctance to serve as a staging area for coalition forces should provide a useful lesson for the administration, Keohane said. "Turkey is a much more democratic country than it was ten or fifteen years ago. It has a genuinely elected government not controlled by the military. This is the government whose parliament refused, despite the governing body's expressed preference, to vote for U.S. basing rights in Turkey for the war. What this illustrates to me is that a policy of spreading democracy and a policy of empire are inconsistent."

Some statesmen as well as scholars are wary of an ever more assertive America. And the temptation is to look to earlier imperial examples. In November, as the Senate was rushing to pass a domestic-security bill, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, the eighty-five-year-old "dean" of the Senate, reminded his colleagues of a "truly great" senator--Helvidius Priscus, a Roman from the first century A.D. One day Helvidius was met outside the senate by the Emperior Vespasian, who threatened to execute him if he spoke too freely. "And so both did their parts," Byrd said. "Helvidius Priscus spoke his mind; the Emperor Vespasian killed him."