Questioning the American Empire

In Foreign Affairs, Alex Motyl looks at recent attempts to answer whether the US is an empire and if the lessons of empire have something to tell us about the US.

So does the United States qualify? It would be absurd to say that the 50 states are an empire. Does the United States have an empire? It is too soon to say whether occupied Iraq will become a U.S. colony, although from the way the war has been going, the chances are that it will not. Afghanistan is hardly a U.S. periphery. Puerto Rico’s relationship with the mainland might be “colonial,” as might Samoa’s and Guam’s, but a few minor islands make for a pretty dull empire.

The United States and its institutions, political and cultural, certainly have an overbearing influence on the world today, but why should that influence be termed “imperial,” as opposed to “hegemonic” or just “exceptionally powerful”? McDonald’s may offend people, but it is unclear how a fast-food chain sustains U.S. control of peripheral territories. U.S. military bases dot the world and may facilitate Washington’s bullying, but they would be indicative of empire only if they were imposed and maintained without the consent of local governments. Hollywood may promote Americanization — or anti-Americanism — but its cultural influence is surely no more imperial than the vaunted “soft power” of the European Union.