Talk of empire is back in vogue. Despite repeated reassurances from Donald Rumsfeld (“We’re not imperialistic. We never have been.”) and George W. Bush (“We have no territorial ambitions; we don’t seek an Empire.”), the imperialist deployment of U.S. power is undeniable.1 But Niall Ferguson, one of a new breed of polemical right-wing historians, has gone even further: from lauding the British Empire as an Empire of free trade and economic development, to lamenting that U.S. imperialism is not more strenuous, committed and explicit.2 The problem in Iraq is not that the Americans invaded in the first place, says Ferguson, but that they want to get out prematurely. The Americans, he argues, should slough off their moral scruples and build an Empire with the same confidence as the Victorians, thus bringing to the world the benefits of stability, security, trade, investment and growth. Advocacy of Empire thus goes beyond narrow national self-interest—increasing U.S. power and profit—to claims that Empire-building serves the common global good.
Such claims happily consort with notions of globalization and hegemony, chief among them being that the free movement of factors of production—goods, labor and capital—will maximize economic growth. This, Ferguson argues, was the great gift of Victorian imperialism, which opened up closed economies, promoted trade and investment, and thus became a great engine of international development. Similar claims are made about U.S. hegemony in the second half of the twentieth century, which, it is argued, has provided valuable “public goods,” thanks to which the global economy has prospered.
With its long and tumultuous experience with U.S. imperialism stretching back at least to the 1840s, Latin America offers abundant examples of how U.S. power has actually been deployed and how these contentious notions of “empire,” “hegemony” and “globalization” might best be defined and understood. In his recent book, Colossus, Ferguson devotes some 25 ill-informed pages to the U.S. and Latin America, but he devotes about twice as many to Iraq, swapping history for journalism. As a result, the long Latin American experience with U.S. “Empire” or “hegemony” remains marginal to the contemporary debate.
First, a broad view of Empire would embody the well-established distinction between “formal” Empire, involving colonies or protectorates governed by the imperial power, and the “informal” kind, which avoids hands-on government in favor of informal control and influence mediated through “collaborating elites.”3 The formality of “formal” Empire involves two elements: direct political control and legal control, sanctioned by international recognition. Thus, the British Empire was painted red on the map and was considered British, while the U.S. presence around the world, though cartographically less striking, is underpinned by a host of treaties, alliances and military bases.4
Of course, the line between these two forms of Empire is blurred and often crossed: think, for example, of the scramble for Africa, during which loose control of local elites gave way to direct British rule; or Francophone Africa a century later, where decolonization involved a switch from formal back to informal control. The United States, too, created a formal colony in the Philippines, which it later relinquished (something it did not do with Puerto Rico). The Platt Amendment, which was incorporated into the Cuban Constitution of 1902 and lasted until 1934, gave the United States formal rights of intervention in Cuba (Guantánamo Bay remains a legacy of that arrangement). The choice between formal and informal Empire, then, often seen as a deliberate ideological choice related to notions of “democratic” political culture, is much more a matter of self-interest, calculation and capacity.
Contrary to popular belief, Great Britain was not always gung-ho for colonies. (Benjamin Disraeli, often seen as an arch-imperialist, called colonies “millstones around our neck.”) Maintaining colonies requires blood and treasure, whereas informal control is usually preferable, because it is cheaper and more discreet. Both Britain and later the United States have been leery of costly over-commitment and have preferred cheaper, more flexible, informal relations with weaker powers, so long as these served their interests. In this respect, British and U.S. imperialisms have been broadly similar.
They have also been similar regarding their basic modus operandi, which involves both molding the host or weaker society to the advantage of the imperial power and fending off threatening imperialist rivals. The first is a domestic activity, while the second involves a defensive stance against perceived “threats,” however subjective or imaginary. The scramble for Africa, for example, was triggered—or decisively accelerated—by the 1882 British occupation of Egypt, which responded to British fears of both domestic (Egyptian) nationalist protest and potential rival (French) intervention. Given their strategic concern for Suez, the British invaded and converted informal to formal control.
Several U.S. interventions in the circum-Caribbean between 1898 and 1934 obeyed a similar dual logic that received official formulation in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.5 When a swath of the map was deemed strategically crucial (for Suez, read Panama), the U.S. sought to create congenial stable regimes and avert European—particularly, German—threats, whether real or imagined. U.S. interventions in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua were justified by Washington, at least initially, in terms of freedom and self-determination; hence the contorted logic of the Platt Amendment, which laid down that “Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power … which will tend to impair the independence of Cuba.”6 But the Marines proved ill-suited to inculcating representative government among populations that lacked democratic experience, resented military occupation, and suffered racist abuse and repression.7 In the end, with the German threat removed and the costs of occupation apparent, the U.S. pulled out, but not before ensuring that pro-American regimes were set up and supported by military forces trained and equipped by the U.S. government—Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. It remains to be seen whether it is these dismal “nation-building” projects in the tropics, or the more positive experience of postwar Germany, that more closely parallel current events in Iraq.
Under formal Empire, the metropolis assumes major costs and responsibilities, but in return it has the opportunity to bend the colony to its will, as Spain did for three centuries in Spanish America, leaving an enduring cultural, linguistic, religious and legal legacy.8 Direct U.S. interventions in the Americas have been too brief and half-hearted to achieve any comparable transformation (save in the large chunk of northern Mexico that, in the 1840s, became the southwestern United States and, perhaps, in Puerto Rico). U.S. interventions in the circum-Caribbean lasted, at most, about a generation (1898-1934 in Cuba; 1915-1934 in Haiti). The Mexican port of Veracruz was a de facto U.S. dependency for just seven months in 1914. Absent the enduring direct control that Hispanicized the Americas (or, to a lesser degree, Anglicized India), the U.S. settled for informal controls, or what is sometimes loosely termed “hegemony.”
Hegemony, however, is a tricky concept. For Antonio Gramsci, hegemony was exercised within states by ruling classes who combined coercive and non-coercive methods to sustain class rule. Gramsci recognized that regimes could also adopt a range of hegemonic practices and these could be usefully transposed to international relations. At one extreme, the subordinates readily endorse the benign intentions of rulers and their proclaimed norms. At the other extreme, the subordinates repudiate such intentions and are kept in check by force or the threat of force. Between the two extremes, however, stands an ample gray area where the status quo is maintained neither by eager endorsement, nor by the threat or actuality of repression. Here, authority—whether within the state or the international system—depends on pay-offs, patronage and other forms of corruption.9
In keeping client states and societies under its influence the United States can rely on a measure of genuine endorsement. Intermittently, the United States has supported—and not just rhetorically—principles of civil rights, representative government and self-determination. The Cuban nationalist hero José Martí drew inspiration from the U.S. Constitution, and the Mexican revolutionaries of 1910 sought to emulate U.S. Progressivism. While the Cold War—and the U.S. policies it mandated in Latin America—tended to dissipate U.S. claims to progressive political mentorship, the economic appeal of the United States remained. In the wake of the debt crisis and the turn to neoliberalism in the 1980s, the Washington Consensus exerted a genuine appeal in Latin American policymaking circles. In the 1920s, U.S. financial missionaries had preached the gospel of the Gold Standard and sound monetary policy to Latin American governments.10 But 60 years later, those governments were often run by U.S.-educated technocrats who were fervent converts to market economics. Thus, the U.S. did not force NAFTA down reluctant Mexican throats; NAFTA was just as much a Mexican project, conceived by the ardently neoliberal government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Whatever the costs and benefits of NAFTA, it clearly reinforced Mexican dependency on the United States.
Mexico’s neoliberal rulers are probably the clearest examples of collaborating elites who, perhaps rationally, bought into U.S. hegemony. At the other extreme stood non-collaborators who resisted hegemony and incurred the risk of reprisals: Fidel Castro and, to a lesser degree, Hugo Chávez. In between, inhabiting the gray area, stood a range of regimes and leaders who avoided both extremes and juggled the situation as best they could, seeking limited pay-offs. As national policymakers, they needed U.S. recognition, trade, investment, credit and (sometimes) arms. As individuals or party leaders they perhaps benefited from specific favors, kickbacks and subsidies.
The result was a Machiavellian relationship, premised on neither direct coercion nor shared principles. With its deep pockets to reward its friends and punish its enemies through primarily financial/economic means, Washington could make or break fragile administrations to the south without sending in the Marines or the gunboats. Thus, a casual U.S. decision on tin-pricing helped precipitate the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, while Clinton’s rapid bailout of Mexico in 1995 helped avert economic and perhaps political meltdown. The United States thus emulated, extended and refined the kind of “informal imperialism” that Britain had exercised in Argentina a century earlier: an imperialism which depended not on gunboats, but on economic imbalance, financial muscle, and the partnership of collaborating elites who deferred to the hegemon out of pragmatic self-interest or, in some cases, genuine belief in “hegemonic” values.
In the Middle East, by contrast, we can see pragmatism guiding the House of Saud, but much less evidence of genuine belief in neoliberal, still less democratic, principles. Thus, Latin America, sharing with the United States longstanding republican and capitalist traditions, offers far better prospects for collaboration, certainly at elite levels. With notable exceptions (such as Cuba), it compares more closely with the United States’ “empire by invitation” in Western Europe.
But, as suggested earlier, imperialism also involves warding off rival imperialist threats. U.S. fears of imperial Germany (1898-1918) and later Nazi Germany and Japan (1933-1945) strongly influenced policy towards Latin America, sometimes provoking outright intervention and sometimes encouraging détente with friendly governments (such as those of Batista, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and the Somozas). After 1945, the Cold War stoked U.S. fears, leading to renewed interventions, such as Guatemala in 1954, as well as more systematic, “hearts-and-minds” policies of aid, propaganda and cultural diplomacy that had been pioneered during World War II. The Cuban Revolution confirmed U.S. fears and reinforced such policies, culminating in the Alliance for Progress initiated by the Kennedy Administration. It was an ambitious effort to mold Latin American societies in a liberal-capitalist fashion and thus fend off the (much exaggerated) threat of Soviet and Cuban Communism.
Averting the Soviet threat proved feasible, because the United States enjoyed military supremacy in the Americas and, even more important, the appeal of Communism was actually quite limited. Latin American elites, however, often had a vested interest in talking up the threat in order to extract benefits from Washington: a classic case of the collaborating tail wagging the imperialist dog (an old story, which is again being repeated in Iraq). Thus, with the partial exception of the ephemeral Alliance for Progress, Latin American elites could usually count on U.S. tolerance of economically regressive and even politically authoritarian regimes.
The ending of the Cold War, of course, has removed the external threat, deprived Latin American elites of their trump card and further shifted the balance in favor of the hemispheric hegemon. An Argentine government facing bankruptcy can no longer invoke the specter of Communism in order to induce U.S. support. Because the end of the Cold War roughly coincided with the Latin American debt crisis and the headlong rush to neoliberalism, the U.S. now faces an unusually congenial and reassuring scenario in the Americas: there is no serious rival and—for reasons of both pragmatic self-interest and genuine belief—the Washington Consensus has penetrated the Latin American policymaking establishment to its bones. Even leftists, like Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have to tread carefully and defer to the market.
Which brings us to the final topic: globalization. One reason why Lula has to defer to the market is because—we are told—in a globalized world, the market will punish those who transgress its principles: “There is no alternative.” But Lula is not the first leader to be confronted with the economic impositions of a globalized system. In fact, globalization has been happening since homo sapiens first trekked out of Africa. And there have been several other crucial moments of globalization: among them, the sixteenth century conquest of the Americas and the eighteenth century commercial revolution pioneered by the English and the Dutch. Significantly, the nineteenth century industrial revolution coupled with improved transportation and communications (railways, steamships, telegraphs) along with massive migration (chiefly from Europe to the Americas) for the first time knitted together diverse markets in a genuinely global system.11 While we may be living through another episode of globalization, characterized by yet faster communications, a more complex division of labor and rapid industrialization in some developing countries—notably, in China—we should see this as a chapter in a long book, whose plot stretches back generations, if not centuries, with many more chapters to come. In addition, previous phases of globalization were followed by renewed fragmentation and introversion; globalization is not an endless one-way street.
The relationship between globalization, Empire and hegemony, then, is a highly variable one. Some empires have fenced off sections of the world in defiance of globalization: think of Spain’s attempt to maintain a mercantilist monopoly over its empire in the Americas. The British Empire did, as Ferguson rightly notes, batter down closed economies: hence, the opium wars against China in the 1840s and the futile blockade of Argentina’s Río de la Plata in the same decade. More than most, the British Empire practiced free trade, but then, it could afford to, because Victorian Britain was the workshop of the world and the chief beneficiary of free trade. In the twentieth century, the United States—which for decades championed protectionism and imported capital—emerged as a creditor nation, exporting goods and capital, and committing to an open global trading system institutionalized in the post-1945 Bretton Woods regime. U.S. imperialism, however, had little to do with globalization and free trade. The U.S. did not need to pry open closed economies in Latin America, because they had been opened up in the nineteenth century, and the U.S. became the major beneficiary of that opening in the twentieth. Latin American protectionism, or inward-oriented development as it was called, caused some concern in the U.S. from the 1930s onward, but U.S. corporations proved adept at supplanting European rivals (with the aid of World War II) and at making money in protected Latin American markets.
Meanwhile, U.S. interventions in the circum-Caribbean had little to do with markets or investments. Cuba was already within the U.S. economic orbit in 1898. The Nicaraguan and Haitian markets were minimal. The U.S. intervened for geopolitical reasons: to protect the approaches to Panama, to avert European (including Soviet) infringements of the Monroe Doctrine, and to prevent the establishment of unfriendly regimes in the region. Even in Mexico and South America, where the U.S. preferred informal mechanisms of control and influence, geopolitics and security have tended to trump globalization (meant here as the free movements of factors of production within a global trading system).
Globalization therefore remains partial, and the partiality reflects the balance of power. The United States continues to protect its agriculture, while policing its borders against illegal migrants (as does the European Union). Globalization is favored in some sectors (capital flows) but not others (labor). The Washington Consensus mandates fiscal stringency, while Washington runs up the largest deficits in history. Like previous Empires or “hegemons,” the United States wants to have its cake and eat it, too. We might recall how the old triumphalist British refrain “Britannia rules the waves” was reformulated as “Britannia waives the rules.” The U.S., clearly, can also make up—and bend—the rules to suit itself. As a White House aide told a bemused reporter in 2002, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”12 That is, ultimately, the privilege and prerogative of an imperial power.
About the Author
Alan Knight is a professor of Latin American history at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. He is the author of The Mexican Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
1. For Rumsfeld quote, see: “U.S.: A Bigger Stick—And No Longer Speaking Softly,” Christian Science Monitor, January 15, 2004. For Bush quote, see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/11/20021111-2.html.
2. Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (New York: Basic Books, 2003); Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London: Penguin, 2005). In a similar vein see Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires: Globalization and Order (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
3. Though the usual phrase is “collaborating elites,” the collaborative arrange-ment may also involve non-elites; however, it requires elites to make it work.
4. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000). It cites 800 “Department of Defense facilities” dotted around the world, p. 36.
5. The Roosevelt Corollary stated that since the Monroe Doctrine vetoed European interventions in the Americas, the U.S. would police the region, thus removing the justification for European intervention.
6. Jules R. Benjamin, The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990), p. 64.
7. See Bruce J. Calder, The Impact of Intervention: The Dominican Republic During the U.S. Occupation of 1916-24 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1984) and Hans Schmidt, The U.S. Occupation of Haiti, 1915-34 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press 1995).
8. While recognizing the Spanish legacy, we should be very careful not to perpetuate crude cultural stereotypes of Spanish-American backwardness, superstition, corruption, patrimonialism, machismo and all the rest. Though enduring, this legacy was neither uniform nor immutable (which is why Costa Rica is very different from El Salvador, or Chihuahua from Chiapas).
9. “Between consent and force stands corruption/fraud (which is characteristic of certain situations where it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function and where the use of force is too risky).” Antonio Gramsci, in Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, eds., Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 80.
10.Paul W. Drake, The Money Doctor in the Andes: The Kemmerer Missions, 1923-33 (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1989).
11. K. H. O’Rourke and J. G. Williamson, “When Did Globalisation Begin?,” European Review of Economic History, Vol. 6 (2002), pp. 35-39.
12. Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004, p. 11.