Is There an American Empire?

Is There an American Empire?

The war in Iraq has given new urgency to the debate about “American imperialism.” In fact, there hasn’t been anywhere near enough of a debate; the term is used routinely by critics of the war and routinely rejected by its supporters-though some of the supporters seem to believe if not in imperialism exactly, then certainly in empire. So, is Washington the new Rome? Is there an American Empire? Was Iraq an imperialist war? It seems to me that we need a better understanding of America’s role in the world than this old terminology provides. Criticizing the uses of American power is now a central political task, so we had better recognize what is going on before our eyes.

Still, the easiest answer to my questions is, “Of course!” Hasn’t the United States played the major role in constructing a global market? Don’t we control its regulatory agencies-the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization? Aren’t most countries around the world open to the profit-seeking of American corporations and entrepreneurs? But empire is a form of political domination, and it’s not at all clear that market dominance and the extraction of profits require political domination. Perhaps they did in an earlier age-so the history of European empires and of the United States in Central America suggests. But the central claim of free marketeers today is that political domination isn’t necessary, and this claim has been endorsed from the left by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their opaque but highly popular book Empire: “The guarantee that Empire offers to globalized capital does not involve a micropolitical and/or microadministrative management of populations. The apparatus of command has no access to the local spaces and the determinate temporal sequences of life where the administration functions; it does not manage to put its hands on the singularities and their activity.” This is better understood in translation: “Empire” today does not mean anything like what we have always meant by empire. It occupies no lands; it has no center (not even in Washington); it doesn’t depend on tightly controlled satellite governments; it is a postmodern entity.

Hardt and Negri’s argument might be read as a (before the fact) response to people who claim that the Iraq War was a “war for oil.” In reality, as the left has been saying for some time now, the control of natural resources does not require “access to local spaces” or the “microadministration” of territories and populations; it does not require colonies or satellites. The market operates to allow richer states to acquire and use the resources of poorer states-not independently of politics but without reliance on political domination. If it didn’t do that, we would be much less critical of the market than we are.

Some con...