An empire by any other name

Brett Bowden, Australian Defence Force Academy

John Pilger The New Rulers of the World (updated edition) London, Verso, 2003 (254 pp). ISBN 1-85984-412-X (paperback) RRP $25.00.

George Soros The Bubble of American Supremacy Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2004 (207 pp). ISBN 1-74114-330-6 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire;
and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.


Empire is no longer a dirty word, at least not for some. Why? Because the essential task of empires is to produce and maintain an orderly world. And at the present juncture in world politics, the Unites States and its key allies believe that the world is in need of a good dose of American-led-coalition-of-the-willing imposed order in the name of security and freedom. Or according to Michael Ignatieff, ‘imperialism doesn’t stop being necessary just because it becomes politically incorrect’ (2002, p. 54). For advocates like Ignatieff the ‘case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike’ (2003, p. 54). Although it might make sense to try to impose some kind of order on the international system of states, not all imperial orders are equal: some enhance peace and stability, others hinder it. The report card on the United States (or the West more generally) varies wildly depending on who is giving the grades, but what is generally agreed is that an American empire is more than mere imagination and conspiracy theory.

Outspoken financier George Soros is particularly scathing in his attack on the current Bush administration’s unilateral and militaristic foreign policy; no more so than when it comes to the notion of pre-emptive military strikes in the name of ‘self-defence’. Like Michael Moore (2002; 2003) and other high-profile critics of George W. Bush and his team of hawkish neo-conservatives, Soros has made it his personal mission to do all within his (considerable) power to dislodge them from the White House in the forthcoming presidential poll.

While George Soros and John Pilger might seem like rather odd bedfellows, much like Sunnis and Shiites in war-torn Iraq, they are (temporarily) united by their opposition to a common enemy—American imperialism.

Unlike Soros, whose complaint is limited to the present Bush administration, the ‘war on terror’ provides Pilger with the opportunity to pursue further some of his long-standing gripes in a reissued collection of essays on the theme of imperial injustice and exploitation. In contrast to Soros, Pilger identifies a degree of imperial continuity over the last four decades, from the immersion of Suharto’s Indonesia into the capitalist world economy, through the decade of crippling sanctions and ongoing war against the people of Iraq, culminating in the most recent assault on Iraq as part of the broader ‘war on terror’. (While it is difficult to disagree with, his essay on the plight of Australia’s Indigenous peoples seems a bit of an odd fit in this collection). Pilger is not alone in his criticism of the imperial nature of the global system (see, for example, Hardt & Negri 2000), or the United States more specifically (Harvey 2003). But United States’ imperialism also has its advocates (Odom & Dujarric 2004), cautious doubters (Harries 2004), and committed reformers like Soros, who despite being vehemently opposed to the militarism underlying the Bush Doctrine, is ultimately a proponent of global American leadership more generally in its supposedly more benign manifestations.

Soros and Pilger are odd bedfellows united by their opposition to a common enemy.

One of the problems facing the United States in its post-September 11 endeavour to separate order and disorder—and policing the frontier is a good part of what empires are about—is that certain societies seeking inclusion in the safe haven of order are frozen out as ‘uncivilised’ (Bowden 2004). Even more problematic are those societies with a vision of the ideal world that leads them to reject outright, sometimes violently, pressure to conform to the secular, liberal, consumerist values of the American empire. In the wake of September 11, international politics is increasingly dominated by the problems of who is to be included, and how, in the peace of empire and of the violence that the pursuit of peace almost inevitably generates (Maier 2002). September 11 eroded the general sense of security and undermined hope that the world had settled into a reasonably peaceful post-Cold War ‘new world order’. Those attacks and the general unpredictability of the terrorist threat directly challenge the United States’ standing, and so have added new impetus and a sense of urgency to the hegemon’s traditional task of imposing and maintaining a semblance of world order.

To impose order and sustain themselves, empires have traditionally demanded of others some measure of conformity to an ideal-type; the modern American Empire is no different. President Bush insists in the US National Security Strategy (NSS) of 2002 that there is ‘a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise’ (White House 2002). Particularly since September 11, the spread of (free-ish) markets has become an imperative of the Bush administration’s endeavours to shore up national security. In the aftermath of the attacks, Bush declared that ‘terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and we will defeat them by expanding and encouraging world trade’. It seems strange to invoke trade in the immediate wake of such a tragic and momentous occasion.

Or is it? The depth of faith the current American leadership has in markets is epitomised by US Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan’s declaration that ‘Markets are an expression of the deepest truths about human nature and … as a result, they will ultimately be correct’ (Wade 2003). Hence, the NSS reads more like a trade policy than a security strategy. The president’s preface to the document declares, ‘We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world’. Section VI, titled ‘Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade’, contains specific policy prescriptions to fight terrorism and shore up national security, recommending measures such as ‘lower marginal tax rates – that improve incentives for work’. For the Bush administration, the only true freedom is market freedom and the freedoms of association, speech, the press, religion, etcetera are subordinate or second-tier liberties at best.


The United States has long had a penchant for intervening in the affairs of others—predating Pilger’s specific gripes by decades if not centuries—particularly its southern American neighbours; often suppressing or overturning the democratic values it claims to promote. In the history of American imperial adventurism it is possible to join the dots between the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904, and the latest Bush Doctrine. To suggest, then, that American hegemony-cum-imperialism is a child of the ‘war on terrorism’ is to oversimplify and mislead; its history runs much deeper. Around a century ago Theodore Roosevelt shunned the idea that any comparison could be drawn between American expansionism and European colonialism. He insisted the ‘simple truth is there is nothing remotely resembling “imperialism”… involved in the development of that policy of expansion which has been part of the history of America from the day she became a nation’ (Beale 1956, p. 68).

The United States has long had a penchant for intervening in the affairs of others.

American leaders still protest that the United States is not an empire. In a speech to graduating cadets at West Point on 1 June 2002, Bush stated ‘America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish’. And when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked by a reporter on 28 April 2003 about empire-building he replied ‘We don’t seek empires. We’re not imperialistic. We never have been. I can’t imagine why you’d even ask the question’. Despite the protestations, both history and present trends strongly suggest otherwise.

Soros insists that the imperial adventurism of the Bush Doctrine is a ‘temporary aberration’ (p. viii). But clearly this is not so. Rumsfeld might not be able to understand why someone would ask such a question—one reason being his (mis)reading of United States’ history—but there are plenty of people that can; and there are plenty asking similar questions. Despite the Bush administration’s claims to the contrary, if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today he would not have such a hard time finding enthusiasts of American imperialism. Influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer insists that ‘no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman Empire … People are now coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire’ (‘“It takes an empire”, say several US thinkers’ 2002). Yale University’s Paul Kennedy, who not so long ago was forecasting the downfall of the burgeoning United States’ empire because of imperial overreach (Kennedy 1987), now claims that the United States is ‘an empire in formation’, not on the decline. And unlike Rumsfeld and many other American commentators and officials, he recognises that ‘From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation’ (‘“It takes an empire”, say several US thinkers’ 2002). On this point, Kennedy would likely argue that Henry Cabot Lodge was closer to the mark than Roosevelt, when in 1895 he stated, ‘We [Americans] have a record of conquest, colonisation and expansion unequalled by any people in the nineteenth century’ (cited in Williams 1972, p. 34).

And into the 20th century and beyond, one might add. The general point to be made here is that advocates of empire assume that if something is in the interest of the United States then it is in the interest of, or for the good of, the rest of the world. All too often, if ever, this is simply not so. David Rothkopf, a one time senior official in the Department of Commerce exemplifies many United States’ power brokers and commentators when he insists that ‘Americans should not shy away from doing that which is so clearly in their economic, political, and security interests – and so clearly in the interests of the world at large’ (1997, p. 48). If Soros is right to argue that the United States’ present naked pursuit of power is destined to follow the boom-bust path of a stock market bubble—an argument that borrows heavily from Paul Kennedy’s—then ultimately it is likely to be in the interests of absolutely no-one. But like Kennedy who has now changed his mind, Soros’s predictions have also been off the mark in the past; his late-90s premonition of the collapse of the global capitalist system is among the more notable.

Soros’s predictions have also been off the mark in the past.

Just what the future holds for the American empire is difficult to determine. There are those who predicted its downfall even before it was being acknowledged, and there are those who argue that it is still to peak. Some have looked to history for clues, including the work of Arnold Toynbee, who suggested that empires do not die by murder, but by suicide (1972). Another thought for the Bush administration to keep in mind as it single-mindedly pursues its foreign policy goals at the head of the thinnest of ‘coalitions of the willing’, is that even imperial powers rely on allies from time to time. The time has come, then, for the United States to stand back and assess its priorities. With its wealth, a military capable of dominating the world is not out of the question. An extensive and comprehensive system of social and medical security is also within its means. So too are massive tax cuts for its most well off. But it cannot afford to pursue all of these options (Lieven 2003). If America does decide to forego social services at home in order to maintain its military domination, then as Toynbee forewarned, problems such as the growing wealth disparity and simmering racial tension might just see the empire crumble from within.


Ignatieff makes the point that the ‘moral evaluation of empire gets complicated when one of its benefits might be freedom of the oppressed’ (2003, p. 25). There is some truth to this. But empires have often claimed to be acting in the best interests of those taken under their wing; freeing them from one or another burden or oppressor, only to overstay their welcome and take up a similar overbearing role. And just as the European colonial ‘civilising missions’ barbarised the civilisers, or perhaps more accurately, legitimised the ruthless and barbaric impulses of the ‘civilised’, so too do modern day civilising missions or imperial wars have a similar effect. Pre-emptive or preventative wars against ‘rogue’ states, largely carried out through aerial bombing and the use of ‘smart’ bombs, desensitise if not dehumanise those giving the orders and pulling the strings from afar. The prosecutors of these wars also seek to make legitimate sanitised terms such as ‘collateral damage’ in the perverse attempt to skirt around the reality and seriousness of what is actually transpiring.

Despite claims from its advocates on the Left, Right, and Centre of modern Western politics, imperialism is not the only answer or last hope for that portion of the world experiencing problems of state legitimacy or the capacity to carry out the regular functions of a sovereign nation. There is no reason to suppose that the velvet revolutions that have overthrown corrupt and tired governments in Eastern Europe could not catch on elsewhere. The current political climate in Zimbabwe, for example, makes it a prime candidate for a popularly instigated change of regime: there exists an organised opposition, the country’s economy is in virtual free-fall thanks largely to government mismanagement, and there is a widespread perception among the population that the most recent presidential poll was well short of free or fair. Given the allegiance of the military to the governing Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front, a popular uprising might not be as absolutely bloodless as those in Eastern Europe. But in those revolutions too a previously loyal military correctly gauged the mood of the nation and realised that the time for change had come, and opted to stand aside with a watchful eye and let events take their course instead of intervening on behalf of the government.

In most countries the people want to govern themselves effectively and justly.

Similarly, following the death of a powerful warlord, Mozambique is now pulling itself out of the mire and taking tentative steps towards recovery after years of civil war. In Nigeria, a fatal heart attack ended the reign of one of its most despicable dictators; soon thereafter there were elections to choose the first non-military leader in years. These are just a few examples of what is possible; there is no telling what combination of circumstances can make for sudden and drastic changes in what was once a collapsing or pariah quasi-state. And they are all examples of domestically driven political change for the better, not of direct American/Western intervention such as imperial occupation in the name of ‘nation building’. If the United States cannot make a go of nation building following its (repeated) interventions in a small and immediate neighbour like Haiti, what hope does it have in Afghanistan or Iraq?

In most countries there is a widespread desire and willingness among the people, diverse as they might be, to govern themselves effectively and justly. There is no good reason to suppose that these peoples do not have the capacity to do so. Imperialism denies and suppresses these virtues. Admittedly, in many countries there are formidable obstacles to be overcome before transitions can get underway. Not the least of these obstacles are serious ethnic divisions, many of which are legacies of previous imperial rule. Western advocates of the ‘new imperialism’ are concerned that domestically generated political change might not lead to the type of liberal democratic, market-capitalist, consumerist societies that are held up as the ideal-type; Bush’s ‘single model’ for all. The mystery is why, so soon after it was relegated by so many competent and knowledgeable people to the pages of history as a retrograde and largely racist concept, imperialism is once again being dusted off and coated in a new sheen of respectability.


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Odom, W. and Dujarric, R. 2004, America’s Inadvertent Empire, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Rothkopf, D. 1997, ‘In praise of cultural imperialism?’, Foreign Policy, no. 107, Summer, pp. 41–42.

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Wade, R. 2003, ‘The invisible hand of American empire’, openDemocracy, 13 March [Online], Available: [2004, May 14].

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Brett Bowden is a lecturer in politics in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at University College of the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. Among others, his articles have appeared in journals such as, Alternatives: Local, Global, Political; Citizenship Studies; National Identities, and the Critical Review of International and Social Political Philosophy. He has recently contributed entries to the forthcoming Routledge Encyclopedia of International Relations and Global Politics.