Hobsbawn on the American Empire
Source Sabri Oncu
Date 03/06/16/10:58

June 11, 2003

After Winning the War
The Empire Expands Wider and Still Wider

The present world situation is quite unprecedented. The great
global empires that have been seen before, such as the Spanish in
the 16th and 17th centuries, and notably the British in the 19th
and 20th centuries, bear little comparison with what we see today
in the United States empire. The present state of globalisation
is unprecedented in its integration, its technology and its

We live in a world so integrated, where ordinary operations are
so geared to each other, that there are immediate global
consequences to any interruption--SARS, for instance, which
within days became a global phenomenon, starting from an unknown
source somewhere in China. The disruption of the world transport
system, international meetings and institutions, global markets,
and even whole economies, happened with a speed unthinkable in
any previous period.

There is the enormous power of a constantly revolutionised
technology in economics and above all in military force.
Technology is more decisive in military affairs than ever before.
Political power on a global scale today requires the mastery of
this technology, combined with an extremely large state.
Previously the question of size was not relevant: the Britain
that ran the greatest empire of its day was, even by the
standards of the 18th and 19th century, only a medium-sized
state. In the 17th century, Holland, a state of the same order of
size as Switzerland, could become a global player. Today it would
be inconceivable that any state, other than a relative
giant--however rich and technologically advanced it was--could
become a global power.

There is the complex nature of today's politics. Our era is still
one of nation-states--the only aspect of globalisation in which
globalisation does not work. But it is a peculiar kind of state
wherein almost every one of the ordinary inhabitants plays an
important role. In the past the decision-makers ran states with
little reference to what the bulk of the population thought. And
during the late 19th and early 20th century governments could
rely on a mobilisation of their people which is, in retrospect,
now quite unthinkable. Nevertheless, what the population think,
or are prepared to do, is nowadays more directed for them than

A key novelty of the US imperial project is that all other great
powers and empires knew that they were not the only ones, and
none aimed at global domination. None believed themselves
invulnerable, even if they believed themselves to be central to
the world--as China did, or the Roman empire at its peak.
Regional domination was the maximum danger envisaged by the
system of international relations under which the world lived
until the end of the cold war. A global reach, which became
possible after 1492, should not be confused with global

The British empire in the 19th century was the only one that
really was global in a sense that it operated across the entire
planet, and to that extent it is a possible precedent for the
American empire. The Russians in the communist period dreamed of
a world transformed, but they knew well, even at the peak of the
power of the Soviet Union, that world domination was beyond them,
and contrary to cold war rhetoric they never seriously tried such

But the differences between today's US ambitions and those of
Britain of a century and more ago are stark. The US is a
physically vast country with one of the largest populations on
the globe, still (unlike the European Union) growing due to
almost unlimited immigration. There are differences in style. The
British empire at its peak occupied and administered one quarter
of the globe's surface (1). The US has never actually practised
colonialism, except briefly during the international fashion for
colonial imperialism at the end of the 19th century and the
beginning of the 20th century. The US operated instead with
dependent and satellite states, notably in the Western hemisphere
in which it almost had no competitors. Unlike Britain, it
developed a policy of armed intervention in these in the 20th

Because the decisive arm of the world empire was formerly the
navy, the British empire took over strategically important
maritime bases and staging-posts worldwide. This is why, from
Gibraltar to St Helena to the Falklands Islands, the Union Jack
flew and still flies. Outside the Pacific the US only began to
need this kind of base after 1941, but they did it by agreement
with what could then genuinely be called a coalition of the
willing. Today the situation is different. The US has become
aware of the need directly to control a very large number of
military bases, as well as indirectly to continue to control

There are important differences in the structure of the domestic
state and its ideology. The British empire had a British, but not
a universal, purpose, although naturally its propagandists also
found more altruistic motives. So the abolition of the slave
trade was used to justify British naval power, as human rights
today are often used to justify US military power. On the other
hand the US, like revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia,
is a great power based on a universalist revolution--and
therefore based on the belief that the rest of the world should
follow its example, or even that it should help liberate the rest
of the world. Few things are more dangerous than empires pursuing
their own interest in the belief that they are doing humanity a

THE basic difference is that the British empire, although global
(in some senses even more global than the US now, as it single-
handedly controlled the oceans to an extent to which no country
now controls the skies), was not aiming at global power or even
military and political land power in regions like Europe and
America. The empire pursued the basic interests of Britain, which
were its economic interests, with as little interference as
possible. It was always aware of the limitations of Britain's
size and resources. After 1918 it was acutely aware of its
imperial decline.

But the global empire of Britain, the first industrial nation,
worked with the grain of the globalisation that the development
of the British economy did so much to advance. The British empire
was a system of international trade in which, as industry
developed in Britain, it essentially rested on the export of
manufactures to less developed countries. In return, Britain
became the major market for the world's primary products (2).
After it ceased to be the workshop of the world, it became the
centre of the globe's financial system.

Not so the US economy. That rested on the protection of native
industries, in a potentially gigantic market, against outside
competition, and this remains a powerful element in US politics.
When US industry became globally dominant, free trade suited it
as it had suited the British. But one of the weaknesses of the
21st century US empire is that in the industrialised world of
today the US economy is no longer as dominant as it was (3). What
the US imports in vast quantities are manufactures from the rest
of the world, and against this the reaction of both business
interests and voters remains protectionist. There is a
contradiction between the ideology of a world dominated by
US-controlled free trade, and the political interests of
important elements inside the US who find themselves weakened by

One of the few ways in which this weakness can be overcome is by
the expansion of the arms trade. This is another difference
between the British and US empires. Especially since the second
world war, there has been an extraordinary degree of constant
armament in the US in a time of peace, with no precedent in
modern history: it may be the reason for the dominance of what
President Dwight Eisenhower called the "military industrial
complex". For 40 years during the cold war both sides spoke and
acted as though there was a war on, or about to break out. The
British empire reached its zenith in the course of a century
without major international wars, 1815-1914. Moreover, in spite
of the evident disproportion between US and Soviet power, this
impetus to the growth of the US arms industry has become much
stronger, even before the cold war ended, and it has continued
ever since.

The cold war turned the US into the hegemon of the Western world.
However, this was as the head of an alliance. There was no
illusion about relative power. The power was in Washington and
not anywhere else. In a way, Europe then recognised the logic of
a US world empire, whereas today the US government is reacting to
the fact that the US empire and its goals are no longer genuinely
accepted. There is no coalition of the willing: in fact the
present US policy is more unpopular than the policy of any other
US government has ever been, and probably than that of any other
great power has ever been.

The Americans led the Western alliance with a degree of courtesy
traditional in international affairs, if only because the
Europeans should be in the front line in the fight against the
Soviet armies: but the alliance was permanently welded to the US
by dependence on its military technology. The Americans remained
consistently opposed to an independent military potential in
Europe. The roots of the long-standing friction between the
Americans and the French since the days of De Gaulle lie in the
French refusal to accept any alliance between states as eternal,
and the insistence on maintaining an independent potential for
producing hi-tech military equipment. However, the alliance was,
for all its strains, a real coalition of the willing.

Effectively, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the
only superpower, which no other power could or wanted to
challenge. The sudden emergence of an extraordinary, ruthless,
antagonistic flaunting of US power is hard to understand, all the
more so since it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies
developed during the cold war, nor the interests of the US
economy. The policies that have recently prevailed in Washington
seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand
what is really intended. But patently a public assertion of
global supremacy by military force is what is in the minds of the
people who are at present dominating, or at least
half-dominating, the policy-making in Washington. Its purpose
remains unclear.

Is it likely to be successful? The world is too complicated for
any single state to dominate it. And with the exception of its
military superiority in hi-tech weaponry, the US is relying on
diminishing, or potentially diminishing, assets. Its economy,
though large, forms a diminishing share of the global economy. It
is vulnerable in the short term as well as in the long term.
Imagine that tomorrow the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting
Countries decided to put all its bills in euros instead of in

Although the US retains some political advantages, it has thrown
most of them out of the window in the past 18 months. There are
the minor assets of American culture's domination of world
culture, and of the English language. But the major asset for
imperial projects at the moment is military. The US empire is
beyond competition on the military side and it is likely to
remain so for the foreseeable future. That does not mean that it
will be absolutely decisive, just because it is decisive in
localised wars. But for practical purposes there is nobody, not
even the Chinese, within reach of the technology of the
Americans. But here there will need to be some careful
consideration on the limits of technological superiority.

Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy the
whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, to leave
friendly governments behind them and go home again. This will not
work. In military terms, the Iraq war was very successful. But,
because it was purely military, it neglected the necessities of
what to do if you occupy a country--running it, maintaining it,
as the British did in the classic colonial model of India. The
model "democracy" that the Americans want to offer to the world
in Iraq is a non- model and irrelevant for this purpose. The
belief that the US does not need genuine allies among other
states, or genuine popular support in the countries its military
can now conquer (but not effectively administer) is fantasy.

THE war in Iraq was an example of the frivolity of US decision-
making. Iraq was a country that had been defeated by the
Americans and refused to lie down: a country so weak it could be
easily defeated again. It happened to have assets--oil--but the
war was really an exercise in showing international power. The
policy that the crazies in Washington are talking about, a
complete re- formulation of the entire Middle East, makes no
sense. If their aim is to overthrow the Saudi kingdom, what are
they planning in its place? If they were serious about changing
the Middle East we know the one thing they have to do is to lean
on the Israelis. Bush's father was prepared to do this, but the
present incumbent in the White House is not. Instead his
administration has destroyed one of the two guaranteed secular
governments in the Middle East, and dreams of moving against the
other, Syria.

The emptiness of the policy is clear from the way the aims have
been put forward in public relations terms. Phrases like "axis of
evil", or "the road map" are not policy statements, but merely
sound bites that accumulate their own policy potential. The
overwhelming newspeak that has swamped the world in the past 18
months is an indication of the absence of real policy. Bush does
not do policy, but a stage act. Officials such as Richard Perle
and Paul Wolfowitz talk like Rambo in public, as in private. All
that counts is the overwhelming power of the US. In real terms
they mean that the US can invade anybody small enough and where
they can win quickly enough. This is not a policy. Nor will it
work. The consequences of this for the US are going to be very
dangerous. Domestically, the real danger for a country that aims
at world control, essentially by military means, is the danger of
militarisation. The danger of this has been seriously

Internationally, the danger is the destabilising of the world.
The Middle East is just one example of this destabilisation--far
more unstable now than it was 10 years ago, or five years ago. US
policy weakens all the alternative arrangements, formal and
informal, for keeping order. In Europe it has wrecked the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation--not much of a loss; but trying to
turn NATO into a world military police force for the US is a
travesty. It has deliberately sabotaged the EU, and also
systematically aims at ruining another of the great world
achievements since 1945, prosperous democratic social welfare
states. The widely perceived crisis over the credibility of the
United Nations is less of a drama than it appears since the UN
has never been able to do more than operate marginally because of
its total dependence on the Security Council, and the use of the
US veto.

How is the world to confront--contain--the US? Some people,
believing that they have not the power to confront the US, prefer
to join it. More dangerous are those people who hate the ideology
behind the Pentagon, but support the US project on the grounds
that, in the course of its advance, it will eliminate some local
and regional injustices. This may be called an imperialism of
human rights. It has been encouraged by the failure of Europe in
the Balkans in the 1990s. The division of opinion over the Iraq
war showed there to be a minority of influential intellectuals,
including Michael Ignatieff in the US and Bernard Kouchner in
France, who were prepared to back US intervention because they
believe it is necessary to have a force for ordering the world's
ills. There is a genuine case to be made that there are
governments that are so bad that their disappearance will be a
net gain for the world. But this can never justify the danger of
creating a world power that is not interested in a world that it
does not understand, but is capable of intervening decisively
with armed force whenever anybody does anything that Washington
does not like.

Against this background we can see the increasing pressure on the
media--because in a world where public opinion is so important,
it is also hugely manipulated (4). Attempts were made in the Gulf
war, 1990-91, to avoid the Vietnam situation by not letting the
media near the action. But these did not work because there were
media, for example CNN, actually in Baghdad, reporting things
that did not fit the story Washington wanted told. This time, in
the Iraq war, control again did not work, so the tendency will be
to find yet more effective ways. These may take the form of
direct control, maybe even the last resort of technological
control, but the combination of governments and monopoly
proprietors will be used to even greater effect than with Fox
News (5), or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.

How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts is
impossible to say. The only thing of which we are absolutely
certain is that historic ally it will be a temporary phenomenon,
as all these other empires have been. In the course of a lifetime
we have seen the end of all the colonial empires, the end of the
so- called Thousand Year Empire of the Germans, which lasted a
mere 12 years, the end of the Soviet Union's dream of world

There are internal reasons why the US empire may not last, the
most immediate being that most Americans are not interested in
imperialism or in world domination in the sense of running the
world. What they are interested in is what happens to them in the
US. The weakness of the US economy is such that at some stage
both the US government and electors will decide that it is much
more important to concentrate on the economy than to carry on
with foreign military adventures (6). All the more so as these
foreign military interventions will have to be largely paid for
by the Americans themselves, which was not the case in the Gulf
war, nor to a very great extent in the cold war.

Since 1997-98 we have been living in a crisis of the capitalist
world economy. It is not going to collapse, but nevertheless it
is unlikely that the US will carry on with ambitious foreign
affairs when it has serious problems at home. Even by local
business standards Bush does not have an adequate economic policy
for the US. And Bush's existing international policy is not a
particularly rational one for US imperial interests--and
certainly not for the interests of US capitalism. Hence the
divisions of opinion within the US government.

The key issue now is what will the Americans do next, and how
will other countries react? Will some countries, like
Britain--the only genuine member of the ruling coalition--go
ahead and back anything the US plans? Their governments must
indicate that there are limits to what the Americans can do with
their power. The most positive contribution so far has been made
by the Turks, simply by saying there are things they are not
prepared to do, even though they know it would pay. But at the
moment the major preoccupation is that of--if not containing--at
any rate educating or re-educating the US. There was a time when
the US empire recognised limitations, or at least the
desirability of behaving as though it had limitations. This was
largely because the US was afraid of somebody else--the Soviet
Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened self-
interest and education have to take over.

Eric Hobsbawm is a historian; among his works is Age of Extremes:
The Shorter 20th: 1914-1991.

(1) Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875-1914, Weidenfeld and
Nicolson, London, 1987.

(2) Op cit.

(3) Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of
American Empire, Owl Books, 2001.

(4) "France protests US media plot", International Herald
Tribune, 16 May 2003.

(5) Eric Alterman, "United States: making up the news", Le Monde
diplomatique, English language edition, March 2003.

(6) "US unemployment hits an 8-year high", International Herald
Tribune, 3 May 2003.

This essay originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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