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Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

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Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Senior Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy and grant-making foundation. He overseas the fund's policy programs. He was previously the Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly, Die Zeit. Close.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

Germany

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Senior Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic public policy and grant-making foundation. more »

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The Abuse of "Empire"

In the recent past, nothing has fascinated theorists more than the idea of America as an empire. If Google is the arbiter of modern intellectual races, 33,400,000 hits place "American empire" among the lead contestants. The theory of empire comes with a few standard arguments. First among them is power. There has never been anything quite like America's dominance of the world, the argument contends. While there have been other dominant powers, none has towered over other rivals quite the way the United States does. Just look at defense spending and compare it with the rest of the world. But American dominance is not just military, the theorists of empire claim. In their thinking, economic power and cultural attraction are also elements of empire.

The theorists love to compare America with great powers in history, usually to Britain in the 19th century. Ancient Rome is also popular. Now Vanity Fair editor Cullen Murphy has devoted a book to the question: "Are we Rome?" He sees parallels: the multicultural state, burdened with an expensive and overstretched military, a messianic sense of global mission, the exaggerated sense of self-importance and the tendency to belittle other countries. Murphy recognizes that there are differences. America is not the static slave state that Rome was at times. And some of the parallels are more metaphorical, others are nothing but superficial. Sure, Washington’s Union Station takes architectural cues from ancient Rome, but then again, the whole neoclassical era of building does. The comparison is nothing but an historical allusion.

If the theorists believe their own theory, America is the shortest empire in world history. While Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise and fall before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth century, America had to compress its imperial experience into 12 years, from the end of the Soviet Union to the urban war of Baghdad. That is unless you date the beginning of the American empire back to the Spanish American War of 1898, or Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory or even the displacement of Native Americans prior to the American Revolution.

Some of the theorists know that there is something wrong with the idea of empire, so they modify the term while clinging to the idea. There is the "benevolent empire" because America just doesn't annex territories. There is the "empire lite" because America lacks the appetite to permanently occupy. And then there is the "empire in denial" that British scholar Niall Ferguson prefers. According to Ferguson, everybody knows America is an empire -- except for the Americans themselves.

Never mind that America does not even fit the classical Oxford English Dictionary definition of an empire. America is not ruled by an emperor. It doesn't rule and doesn't expect others to obey. If others do not obey there is no punishment. America is neither despotic nor arbitrary. "An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it," writes Roman historian Livy. Do Americans rejoice in empire? Have they ever? Is a modern Republic with a democratic system even capable of becoming an empire? How do you control the Middle East if your military can't control one country and your people want nothing but to get out?

As Princeton's international relations scholar Fred Ikenberry writes: "The United States has pursued imperial policies, especially toward weak countries in the periphery. But U.S. relations with Europe, Japan, China, and Russia cannot be described as imperial... the use or threat of force is unthinkable. Their economies are deeply interwoven. They form a political order built on bargains, diffuse reciprocity, and an array of intergovernmental institutions and ad hoc working relationships. This is not empire; it is a U.S.-led democratic political order."

Empire is the most overused and abused term of the Google-age.

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