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An Exceptional History of an Unexceptional United States

Photograph Source: Dennis Sylvester Hurd – CC BY 2.0

In this time of change in American administrations, moving from “American First” to the unknowns of the incoming Biden administration, the role of the United States in the world remains uncertain. While we are very far from Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 hubristic declaration of the end of history and the victory of liberal democracy, we are also very far from the finality of Henry Luce’s 1941 declaration of the American Century.

How to understand the United States in today’s globalized world? Is it possible to interpret United States’ history from a global perspective?

“The United States is not a hegemon,” former Secretary of State John Kerry testily responded to a question about its declining world status in Geneva in 2017. Not a hegemon? Not an empire? While it is easy to understand the Kerry’s reluctance to use terms like hegemon or empire to describe the U.S., one can argue that there have been moments in history – 1898, 1918, post 1945, post 1989 – when the United States certainly resembled an empire.

The very use of terms like hegemon or empire ruffle the feathers of liberal Americans who refuse to acknowledge similarities between their country and former imperial powers like England, Spain or France. For most Americans, the United States’ self-declared exceptionalism – City on the Hill, indispensable nation – puts it above comparison. (Indeed, it was a professor from Bulgaria who posed the question to Kerry.) Almost all American history books are insular and self-referencing.

The English academic A.G. Hopkins, has written a path-setting study of American history through the lens of global politics. A renowned expert on the British Empire, Hopkins has done a major exploration of how U.S. history fits into larger questions of nation building, modernization, globalization and imperial domination. He firmly places the history of the United States in an international context as an alternative to American historians and politicians vaunting of American uniqueness.

Hopkins is particularly qualified to overview this history. The former Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge, he has written extensively on British Imperialism and Global History. After leaving Cambridge in 2001 for the University of Texas at Austin, he writes that he focused on the United States after the events of September 11, 2001.

American Empire (Princeton University Press) is a sweeping exploration of the U.S. history from a global perspective. It is in the formidable British tradition of imperial historians and historiographers like John Hobson and Joseph Schumpeter.

It is truly sweeping; there are 738 pages of text and almost 200 pages of footnotes. For a simpler oral presentation, and for those reluctant to wade through all the subtleties of his arguments, one can view his summary speech to the American Historical Society here

 

Beginning from early American history, Hopkins examines how the United States became an empire from internal and external perspectives. The newly independent country transitioned from a small agricultural group of communities to an industrial nation in similar fashion to other post-colonial countries who traded with European powers. Far from a Marxist, Hopkins is a keen observer of the relation between the economic and the political as manufacturing and trade developed alongside farming.

The late nineteenth century is Hopkins’ turning point in the U.S.’ move toward empire. American internal expansion was matched by its external expansion in the Caribbean with Cuba and Puerto Rico and in the Pacific with Hawaii and the Philippines. By 1898, according to Hopkins, American imperialism accelerated after its victory in the Spanish-American War and its colonization mirrored that of Britain and France.

Hopkins’ brief “Intermission” on this period, a witty and illuminating analysis of Tarzan, concludes that “Tarzan swung in Africa but resonated in the United States. Burroughs, unschooled and without academic ambition,” Hopkins writes, “was the master sociologist of his time.” The short, riveting section is a fine example of Hopkins’ ability to combine academic research with a profound grasp of the popular and vulgar. While Hopkins’ major thesis is structural, he leaves plenty of room for pertinent personal histories as well as amusing anecdotes.

He has a different view from most historians about the period 1914-1959. For Hopkins, World War I “marks an important stage in the history of globalization” as “Industrial nation-states became the predominant political force in Europe.” It also signified “the extension of the age of empires.” Territorial empires, for Hopkins, were the prime agents of globalization. The U.S. practiced informal imperialism through dollar diplomacy, challenging both British domination and American idealism about freedom and self-determination.

Hopkins perceptively describes the conflicting U.S. imperial and liberal tendencies during the interwar period. On the one hand, the Depression strengthened imperial ties. Who else to trade with given numerous protectionist policies than those within the imperial sphere? On the other hand, “Ideas had wings.” Intellectually, liberalism, fascism and communism spread across the world. As advances in technology, such as planes, radios and telephones increased globalization, so did international organizations like the League of Nations.

Hopkins’s view of World War II is of a battle between the haves and have nots; not in terms of rich and poor, but in terms of countries with empires and those without such as Germany, Italy and Japan. It was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an assault by a have-not on a have that brought the United States into the War.

And the end of the War, Hopkins sees the shape of the post War order being established by the emergence of the United States as “the dominant economic and military power in the West.” For Hopkins, post 1945 “American power – from the atomic bomb to the gold in Fort Knox – had become unanswerable,” although neither Britain nor France was willing to give up its empire in what Hopkins describes as their “second colonial occupation.”

During the post War era, he compares the rise and fall of American imperialism with that of Britain and France. His general point is that there are significant similarities among the three empires in their decline while recognizing important differences.

Among the differences Hopkins highlights was the fact that “The American Empire was the first venture in overseas development and nation-building.” Unlike Britain, U.S. domination tried to modernize and Americanize, although not necessarily to assimilate the colonized. The United States had neither the bureaucracy nor enough economic interests to manage its overseas territories like the British or French. And because of that, on the eve of World War II, the American Empire in the Caribbean and Pacific was in disarray.

After the War, Hopkins argues that the traditional reasons for colonialization faded and that there was a “shift from modern to postcolonial globalization.” He sees the Cold War as part of a decolonization process in the larger context of “the global transformation of power, interests, and values.” Here Hopkins bemoans scholars prioritizing of the decolonization of the British and French empires with considerably less attention to the American Empire. To him, the independence movements on the islands were similar to those in the British and French colonies. The U.S. was distinctive, but not unique.

In general, U.S. policy makers, according to Hopkins, misunderstood popular nationalism for communism, a revisionist perspective that easily explains the U.S. entry into Asia in Korea and later Vietnam.

The 1950s saw a major shift in power as the have-nots gained independence and asserted their new political weight – most visible at the Bandung conference of the non-aligned in 1955 and the rapid increase in UN members. The newly independent colonies were crucial to Hopkins’ understanding of “the globalizing world after 1945.” The effects of growing colonial revolts were mirrored in the civil rights movement in the United States, such as the Supreme Court decision of 1954 desegregating education as well as self-determination for American Indians. The end of the era of white man’s racial superiority was an American as well as global phenomenon. World opinion on issues such as human rights undermined the asymmetric assumptions of imperial domination.

There is no question that the United States reached its “peak power” in the thirty years after 1945. According to Hopkins, the American Century began in 1945 with no guarantee it would last until 2050. Hopkins makes a clear distinction between potential and effective power in describing the U.S. as an “aspiring hegemon.” The failure of Europe to be subservient to American interests and the rise of China are clear examples of the limitations of American power; the U.S. continued to have influence after 1945, but with mixed results.

Even at the end of the Cold War, Hopkins notes, the United States was not a global hegemon in the great tradition of empires. He defines America’s influence as limited in time and place, distinguishing between a superpower or hyperpower and a global dominating force. He is also keen to distinguish between the contexts of 1898 and 1989, keeping in mind the proportionality and relativity of global politics.

Hopkins concludes with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt Jr. in 1937: “We have one besetting sin in common with many other peoples, including the British. We think we are better than other people. Anyone who does things in different fashion from us is either comic or stupid.” Hopkins’ entire work, a true magnum opus, is meant to show the context of that statement.

In the Epilogue, in the fateful story of how in 2003 Americans repeated the unsuccessful British invasion of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in 1915, Hopkins, the foremost British imperial historian of his time, affirms that “great powers approve of themselves and feel superior to others.” That is the striking lesson of American Empire, a Greek tragedy – Nemesis does follow Hubris – as well as an historical masterpiece.

A version of this article appeared in the Geneva Observer

 

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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