Empire Apart by Brian Landers

Winner of THE PEOPLES BOOK PRIZE July 2009
Prologue: Americans, Russians and Vikings

For America the road to Iraq started on Roanoke Island when the first Englishman stepped ashore and claimed a God-given right to take everything he saw. In the four centuries since then the world has been transformed but that first colonial philosophy has changed hardly at all. The central certainty has remained: Americans are special; they are due more of the earth’s riches than other nations. How those riches are to be gained, whether through the power of the musket or the dollar, may have changed but the continuity of empire is as clear between George Washington and George Bush as between Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin. America’s first President and Russia’s first Tsar spoke openly of their dreams of Empire; their twentieth century successors had the same dreams but convinced themselves that an Empire by any other name would smell more sweet.

This book has two simple themes. First that the United States is and always has been a fundamentally imperialist power and that this can be demonstrated by comparing the histories of avowedly anti-imperialist America and unarguably imperialist Russia. Second that this comparison requires the rewriting of popular history which too often says more about today’s values than about yesterday’s realities

That there is any debate about America’s imperial tradition illustrates how completely the values of today colour our perceptions of yesterday.  With apparent sincerity a President of the United States can ship prisoners of war to Guantanamo in Cuba, seized from Spain a century ago in a fit of imperial zeal, and then proclaim that “America has never been an empire”.  That America’s imperial past so closely mirrors Russia’s is uncanny but the resemblance is lost if recollections of the past are disinfected by the cleansing force of the present.

Understanding America

Edwin Reischauer when editor of the American Foreign Policy Library at Harvard University Press has no doubt that America and Russia are poles apart.

"No two countries within the bounds of Western civilisation could have had more dissimilar histories or developed more divergent attitudes towards the outside world and the problems of their own societies".

Most people would agree without hesitation, but they would be wrong. The histories of the two countries are remarkably similar, their attitudes towards the outside world have close parallels and only in their attitudes to the problems of their own societies have they diverged radically as autocracy and democracy have resolved the same issues in different ways.

At almost the same time the first English colonists crossed the Atlantic and the first Russian colonists crossed the Urals. Unleashing a barrage of muskets and microbes Americans and Russians pushed towards the Pacific. Once the power of native chieftains had been overcome tsar and president turned their attention to their weaker neighbours, each convinced that God had uniquely imbued their own nation with a manifest destiny to expand. Realisation of those territorial ambitions was made possible by economies built on the backs of serfs and slaves. After emancipation came to Russian serfs in 1861 and American slaves just two years later both nations faced the fresh challenges brought about by industrialization. New ideologies appeared, like the anarchist violence that claimed the lives of Tsar Alexander II and President William McKinley. Russia plunged into the horrors of civil war, just as America had forty years before, but just as the American Civil War changed far less than popular history imagines so the Bolshevik revolution merely replaced one autocracy with another. The imperialism at the core of both societies remained; Russian imperialism emerged in all its old brutality after the Second World War but American imperialism evolved so comprehensively that many were fooled into believing it had disappeared completely, indeed that the American Empire had never existed.

Any attempt to write an account of the American Empire immediately runs into a major obstacle: for many people brought up on the slogans of the Cold War the very phrase “American Empire” is an oxymoron. For them the only twentieth century empire, once the sun had finally set on Britain’s, was the “evil empire” of Soviet Russia. That was clearly and indisputably an empire and so one way of illuminating American imperial history is to compare and contrast it with Russia’s. The parallels between the two nations demonstrate how imperialism helped make each of them what they are today.

To find similarities between the two nations is not to suggest that they are in some way identical or even equivalent: nobody could mistake modern Russia for modern America. Despite the similarities in their histories the two nations have fundamental differences. Russia is an inferiority complex trying to find itself. America is a superiority complex trying to sell itself. Russia from its earliest days has been surrounded by enemies, terrorized by invasions and ruled by unfettered tyrants, factors for which American history has no parallels.

The reality is that whether the histories of America and Russia are perceived to be similar or dissimilar depends entirely on who is doing the perceiving. It is possible to prove either case by being selective in the choice of evidence.

One of the problems historians face is that their sources are partial in both senses of the word - they are not complete and they are not impartial. Mountains of evidence have long since disappeared and what remains often carries less weight than the conventional wisdoms handed down from one generation to another. History is not a mirror that reflects the past but a distorting prism that refracts the present. It allows us to see ourselves not as we were but as we wish we were.

Consider the following facts largely missing from Americans’ own perceptions of their nation’s history:

For more than half their history Americans have openly practiced ethnic cleansing starting when the early Puritans hired an English mercenary to conduct a terror campaign against the native population

The Boston Tea Party that sparked off the American Revolution was instigated by smugglers when the British reduced the tariff on tea

The United States started acting as global policeman with its first bombardment of Libya in 1815, just 31 years after achieving independence and 131 years before President Reagan bombed Colonel Gadaffi

The American Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery; when the conflict started both sides agreed that slavery should be allowed to continue

Throughout the nineteenth century America launched numerous wars of aggression none of which could remotely be described as defensive

4,743 people are officially reported to have been lynched between 1882 and 1968, almost all of them from ethnic minorities

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were more active socialists in America than in Russia and following the Russian Revolution a general strike in Seattle culminated in a workers’ soviet trying to take control of the city.

None of these facts are newly discovered and if any are controversial it is not because they are disputed but because they do not correspond with popular perceptions of America’s past.

It is expected that sources in Russian history will be partial, it is not expected that sources in an open society like America will be partial. Unsavoury events were less likely to be hidden in America than in Russia but being visible to historians and becoming part of contemporary awareness are two very different things. Consider the events of July 1950 near the Korean village of No Gun Ri. American forces in an orgy of violence lasting three days massacred four hundred refugees –women, children and elderly men. The facts are now out in the open but it was nearly half a century before the US authorities admitted the truth of what had happened. By that time the matter was truly history, of interest only to academics. No Gun Ri has had no impact on popular perceptions of the Korean War.

The pasts of both America and Russia are replete with events that have been painted out of history altogether or have been depicted in a myriad of contrasting shades depending on what the observer wants to prove. Two examples from the early twentieth century illustrate the issue. On Bloody Sunday in 1905 Russian troops fired on demonstrators outside the imperial palace in St Petersburg. Nobody knows exactly how many were killed. There are widely differing estimates and it is not surprising that both official and unofficial reports need to be treated with considerable scepticism. The likelihood is that around one hundred died, far less than in an equivalent event in Tulsa, Oklahoma sixteen years later. One of America's worst pogroms broke out when a local newspaper fabricated a story about a black man raping a white woman in a lift and, in an editorial, predicted his lynching. Looting whites rampaged through black areas driving out the inhabitants before blacks and whites, many First World War veterans, lined up in a pitched battle. National Guards sprayed machine gun fire into the black trenches and some reports claim that whites rained bullets and Molotov cocktails from aircraft overhead. But how many died? The official reports said 36. Unofficial reports claimed 3,000. Modern research suggests around 300 but nobody can be sure.

What is more interesting than speculation about the number of fatalities is the way history has treated Bloody Sunday and the Tulsa Pogrom. The events themselves are broadly comparable not only in their violence but in the way they illustrate the currents of conflict permeating their eras. In themselves neither changed the course of history: after Bloody Sunday the Tsar promised reforms but then reneged and tried to carry on as before; after Tulsa too reforms were promised but nothing changed. And yet every history of Russia features Bloody Sunday while today even the inhabitants of Tulsa are barely aware that their city was the site of one of the most violent racial conflicts in the history of North America.

In Russia history has repeatedly been deliberately rewritten, in America the process has been far subtler. It is true that important official documents relating to the Tulsa Pogrom disappeared but the key to understanding why history has treated Bloody Sunday and the Tulsa Pogrom so differently is in the prisms through which that history has been refracted. History is viewed in the light of ideology and the colours that shine through are those that match the prevailing ideological dogmas. Tsarist Russia was an autocracy; massacring protesters is the sort of thing autocrats do; events like Bloody Sunday therefore fit our expectations. America is a democracy; massacring the innocent is not the sort of thing democracies do; the Tulsa Pogrom therefore does not fit our expectations. The consequence is that Bloody Sunday reinforces what we already know and is added to the evidence bank of history. The Tulsa Pogrom contradicts what we already know and must therefore have been an aberration to be cast aside.

There is nothing sinister or deliberate about the process. To take another example nobody said to American teachers "When you tell children about the Pilgrim Fathers tell them about the natives who helped them find food but don't tell them about the native shaman whose head the Pilgrims chopped off and mounted above Plymouth Fort to terrorise the locals". History develops informally. That the Pilgrim Fathers invited a group of natives to a meeting and then butchered seven of them contradicts everything we “know” about the ideals of the men and women who inspired the American dream; it should not have happened and therefore as far as popular history is concerned it did not happen. The facts are not suppressed; they simply cease to be expressed.

The ideology of democracy is the most potent political force America has given the world. It fundamentally determines our perceptions of American history and conditions our view of the present. When America conquered the Philippine islands at the end of the nineteenth century it was an act of blatant imperialism and presaged decades of US colonial occupation; yet through the prism of ideology it can be and is seen as an act of liberation bringing freedom to a land that unfortunately proved incapable of handling it without prolonged assistance from the US occupiers. The parallels with modern Afghanistan and Iraq are obvious. To a villager in Afghanistan whose family is accidentally killed by an American bomb American imperialism must seem as oppressive as the Russian imperialism his country experienced not long before, but to the outside world ideological preconceptions tint the actions of the two powers quite differently.

Studying Russia as a way of understanding America is like viewing the world through the eyes of an Afghan villager. It forces the observer to recognise the similarities, identify the differences and question why both similarities and differences exist. That there are fundamental differences is undeniable. Many are due to accidents of geography or history; others arise from contrasting ideologies. Understanding how these ideologies developed is central to understanding each society today. As Pyotr Chaadayev, the first great radical Russian philosopher, pointed out history is not only a succession of events, but also a chain of ideas.

Competing Ideologies

In his 2004 re-election campaign President Bush II proclaimed the moral superiority of nations like the United States "Free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don't attack each other. Free nations don't develop weapons of mass destruction." Coming from the leader of a nation that had just invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and whose armouries included more than half of the entire world's stock of weapons of mass destruction these words match in their sheer hypocrisy Stalin's protestations of idealistic solidarity with the workers of the world when his tanks rolled into Eastern Europe at the end of the second world war. And yet there is a fundamental difference: Stalin was a psychopath who cynically preached brotherly love while signing death warrants by the thousand - whatever the ideology of Communism may have meant to him what motivated his actions was far more personal; for Bush on the other hand the ideology of democracy has so conditioned his thinking that he can make statements like "free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction" and really believe them. The distorting prism of ideology has refracted America's nuclear arsenal into weapons of mass liberation.

To understand both America’s present and America’s past it is necessary to first understand its all-pervading ideology of democracy: what is it, how did it arise, how does it differ from other ideologies?

Throughout history men and women have been motivated not only by what is in their own self-interest but by what they believe to be right - by their moral codes, religious beliefs and political ideologies. These in turn have determined how they have viewed history.

Most people when considering historical events identify first with their own nation, religion or class. When discussing Napoleon, French people tend to remember his victories, the British his defeats. This is perfectly natural, an instinctive response with no moral or ideological implications. And yet the responses often go beyond instinctive tribalism. The French value Napoleon not ostensibly because he was French but for his contribution to civilization; the British denigrate him not for being foreign but for being a despot threatening their liberty. Tribalism sustained by a belief that the tribe’s gods were superior evolved into nationalism sustained by a belief that the nation’s values were superior. Those values form the nation’s ideology. They may not influence a nation’s actions, history is full of examples of nations dedicated to freedom usurping the freedom of others, but they do influence perceptions. Nations perceive themselves to be acting in accordance with their ideology and they perceive themselves to have been acting that way in the past.

The ideologies of America and Russia are miles apart which explains why they both find difficulties in perceiving the similarities in their histories.

Russia was formed by warlords pulling together various Slavic and other tribes to produce the glories of mediaeval Rus, only to see it smashed by the Mongols.  The Russia that eventually emerged from Mongol rule had none of the vestigial hints of democracy that had existed in Rus; it was instead the Russia of unbridled autocracy summed up in one man: Ivan the Terrible. The ideology of autocracy bore the stamp of Mongol terror and Muscovite ambition. Meanwhile a new type of government was developing to the west. In England institutions were starting to form that were not dissimilar to those which had existed in Rus in cities like Novgorod, but they now put down stronger roots so that even a king like Henry VIII, (a ruler who had much in common with Ivan the Terrible), was unable to rule without a degree of genuflection to the rights of his subjects - rights whose legitimacy was core to the mindset of those soon setting off to make a new life across the Atlantic.

It was a mindset that eventually came to be expressed in the stirring phrases of the Declaration of Independence, American Constitution and Gettysburg Address and can be summed up in a single word – democracy – and a single slogan - freedom.

The concept of “freedom” is at the core of the ideology of democracy. But what does freedom mean? Is it freedom from, as Russians have traditionally thought, or freedom to, as Americans usually imagine? Terms like “freedom” are floating banners under which very different battles are fought.  For Russians freedom has meant freedom from invasion: under the banner of liberty they have fought to protect their nation from Mongol khan and Swedish king, from French Emperor and German Fuhrer.  Freedom in America has meant the opposite: the freedom to invade both the nations next door and those further away. For Americans freedom usually means not collective freedom but individual freedom, not their nation’s freedom but their own. But individual freedom as a concept is no more universal than national freedom; what is meant changes over time and from one part of the world to another. American freedom has included the freedom to own slaves and includes the freedom for children to have access to assault rifles; freedoms many would deny are freedoms at all. 

In twentieth century Russia the official ideology changed from tsarist autocracy to communism to the situation today when Russia is virtually ideology-less. Various versions of communism predominated for most of the century, each claiming to be a scientifically rigorous ideology aligning global revolution with the innate strivings of the human soul. Whether the notions of international brotherhood and universal class struggle that Stalin and his acolytes claimed to motivate their imperial adventures were ever fully believed by the Russian population is open to debate.  Whereas the American concept of democracy has been a living force since the nation was born the tenets of socialist solidarity survived for less than a century from their birth in the Russian Revolution to their death at the end of the cold war.  Russia does however have a much more ancient tradition as deeply ingrained as democracy in America: autocracy.

Autocracy was the consequence of vicious struggles between unprincipled warlords but by the nineteenth century it had evolved into an intellectual philosophy every bit as effective as democracy. For democrats in America the Rights of Man were to be protected above all else (or at least for most of its history the rights of white, literate, adult, heterosexual males). For autocrats the rights to be protected were not those of individuals but the collective rights of the nation: the right to protection from invasion, the right to order, the right for all to occupy the position in society ordained by God. The intellectual champions of autocracy are completely forgotten in the west but men like Konstantin Pobedonostsev were no intellectual pygmies blinded to the light of reason by religious bigotry and cut off from the enlightened philosophies of the west. Theorists of autocracy were well versed not only in the classics of ancient Greece and Rome but in the intellectual controversies of eighteenth century France and nineteenth century England. Despite that they still argued cogently against the “evils” of a free press (which would give power to unaccountable press barons) and universal education (which would give rise to aspirations that could never be satisfied). Such arguments today seem unthinkable but it is worth remembering that they were put forward equally vehemently in seventeenth century Virginia before New England democracy became the American orthodoxy.

Furthermore even though Pobedonostsev’s vision of how society should be ordered differed fundamentally from that of America’s founding fathers they would have recognised much of his analysis. Nowadays democracy is defined as being non-elitest. All men are created equal is deemed to imply that all are equally fit to rule. But that was not the original American meaning. All men were deemed to have equal value in the eyes of God but God had also ordained that there were to be leaders and followers. The difference between autocracy and democracy was that in the former the leaders were chosen for life from among the elite by the rules of inheritance, (at least in theory – in practice brute force often played its part), whereas in a democracy the leaders were chosen for fixed terms from among the elite by popular vote. In both cases the concept of an elite was central.

One of the great theoreticians of the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton, pointed out at the Federal Convention that “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born; the other the mass of the people” The masses he went on to say simply could not be trusted to “judge or determine right”. Pobedonostsev would have agreed. Where the two men would have disagreed radically is on the conclusions that should be drawn from the analysis. For Hamilton the rich and the well-born were the natural rulers and it was essential to bind them into the new society, as he put it they must have “a distinct, permanent share in the Government”.  Pobedonostsev believed that the elite would inevitably promote its own interests above the common good and so needed to be subject to a higher and more altruistic authority: a monarch not dissimilar to the one against whom the colonists in America had rebelled.

For men like Hamilton God’s will was that a small group of well-intentioned “well-born” should lead the masses to the Promised Land along the paths of democracy. For Russians right up until the 20th century God’s will was represented on earth not by a particular class but by a single autocrat, a single Emperor, destined to forever expand his empire.  That autocrat was the Tsar but it is not difficult to see how the ideology of autocracy mutated easily from Romanov Tsar to Bolshevik dictator. 

Ideologies are especially important in nations that have never suffered setbacks or defeat. France under Napoleon and, more clearly, Germany under Hitler gained an empire, however briefly, and then lost it in circumstances that caused much soul-searching. The same has happened to Britain over a much longer period and is happening to Russia today. In such circumstances ideologies are inevitably questioned and modified. Few in Britain would echo the imperialist ideologies of their grandparents. Even when the ideologies themselves remain untouched there is some recognition that the nation has not lived up to its ideals. America is almost unique in never being forced by defeat to seriously question its ideology or whether its actions and its ideology are congruent. Even after defeat in the Vietnam War there was no retreat from the underlying ideological commitment to the apparently tautological objective of imposing freedom.

For the United States the ideology of democracy was not a fig-leaf paraded in a cynical attempt to divert attention from the atrocities committed by American troops in Korea or Vietnam or the “coca-colanisation” of centuries-old cultures around the world or the rapaciousness of American multinationals.  Terms like democracy, liberty and freedom have real meaning to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are genuinely horrified to be labelled “imperialists” and genuinely shocked when, for example, millions of Europeans believe that the successive invasions of Iraq are more about grabbing oil than granting liberty.

The difference between Russia and America is that for most of their histories one has proclaimed its imperialism while the other has denied its. Americans act like imperialists but don’t talk like imperialists, their political culture is not explicitly an imperial culture. Even when America and Russia have acted identically, as with the treatment of their native populations or their invasions of Afghanistan, they have perceived themselves to be acting differently.

For most Americans it is axiomatic that democracy and imperialism are incompatible; the very birth of their nation symbolised the victory of the forces of light and liberty over the dark forces of empire. Their mission ever since has been to spread that light.

“Freedom is not America's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world” was how President Bush II justified the American invasion of Iraq. Bush II has repeatedly made plain his belief that America has a God-given mission to spread freedom and democracy across the globe. When US marines storm ashore from Grenada to Vietnam, from Somalia to Iraq, they are not enforcing American colonial control but imposing freedom. Canada was invaded in 1812 not to extend an American empire but to diminish Britain’s just as the Philippines were seized to hasten the end of Spanish imperialism and the mujahaddin of Afghanistan were trained in the skills of modern war to help bring down the Russian empire. As Bush II said in another speech five years earlier “America has never been an empire. We may be the only great power in history that had the chance, and refused – preferring greatness to power and justice to glory.”

There is no doubt that for most modern Americans the belief that their country is not an imperial nation is sincere. In the days of President Roosevelt I imperialism was a real issue in American politics with candidates taking explicitly pro and anti imperialist stances but within forty years a transformation of attitudes was complete and Roosevelt II could proclaim the non-existence of American imperialism with the same sincerity as Bush II.  When, during the Second World War, the three allied leaders - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - gathered at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945 members of the British delegations were horrified to find that Roosevelt regarded Churchill as a bigger threat to the post-war world than Stalin. As far as the President was concerned he and Stalin were not weighed down by the incubus of empire and were both therefore, unlike Churchill, able to contemplate a future world of independent sovereign nations. The consequence was that in the great Tehran Conference debate about opening a new front against Hitler (in which Stalin wanted the British and Americans to invade France and Churchill wanted to strike at the Balkans to forestall Russian intervention in the region) America sided with Russia effectively consigning the peoples of central and south eastern Europe to half a century of servitude as part of the Soviet empire.

If the beliefs of men like Roosevelt II and Bush II are so strong is it wrong therefore to talk of American imperialism? The answer to that question can be found by examining one of Bush II’s specific assertions - that “America has never been an empire”.

Empires Apart

It is not clear when the first Russia colonists crossed the Urals. Rudimentary Russian mining operations seemed to have started in the early sixteenth century but the first settlements are usually dated to the period following the seizure of the city of Sibir by Yermak Timofoyevich, making them almost simultaneous with the first English settlements in Virginia. Russian and American pioneers then set off towards the Pacific. Despite the early Americans facing far fewer obstacles the Russians got there first, gobbling up territory at a phenomenal rate and easily exceeding the speed with which the United States spread west. Some of the conquered lands were absorbed into the bosom of Mother Russia and others were ruled as colonies with a degree of tyranny never experienced by the fledgling British colonies on the North American continent. But it was the British colonies that burst into revolt.

The American Revolution was both a war against empire and a war for empire. The early Americans, like the early Russians, wanted to conquer a continent and create an empire. George III did not share their imperial pretensions and issued a proclamation stopping settlers encroaching on native territories across the Appalachians (just as Ivan the Terrible had originally outlawed encroachments across the Urals). When American colonists helped seize Louisburg in French Canada and Havana in Spanish Cuba the authorities in London handed them back. Britain wanted a commercial empire not extra territory to administer. The Americans wanted a much more traditional form of empire; one like the tsars had already created. Robert Kagan quotes example after example of American colonists envisioning a new empire arising on the North American continent: a speech to Yale students in 1770 calling for America to rise “the Queen of Empires” and replace the “setting” British Empire; a South Carolina planter in 1776 proclaiming that God had erected “a new Empire, stiled the United States of America” that “bids fair … to be the most glorious of any upon record” and so on. The founding fathers saw themselves not as the destroyers of the British Empire but as its inheritors. Like Lenin and Stalin a century and a half later the revolution’s leaders believed that they were creating a new form of government that would conquer the world.

At the very same time that Americans on the eastern rim of the continent were celebrating their independence from the British Russians were settling in Alaska. The Russians had gained Siberia, a territory far larger than the United States, but a land that was largely barren. Russia turned its eyes west and south, taking by force much richer territory held by Swedes, Poles and Turks. Americans by contrast found a land of abundance waiting to be exploited - once it had been cleansed of the native population – but it too soon looked covetously at the territory of its neighbours. Florida was taken from Spain and Texas from Mexico.

In the middle of the nineteenth century both countries launched attacks on their neighbours, Russia on Turkey and America on Mexico, but America soon had a better weapon than military force alone: money. The two empires traded what each had in abundance when Russia swapped the enormous empty wastes of Alaska for 7.2 million dollars. Earlier the whole American west had been opened up when millions of acres of wilderness had been purchased from Napoleon. As the century drew to a close the two empires seemed set on the same path: Russia seizing territory on the borders with China and America launching a war against Spain that left her in possession of the Philippines and Cuba.

Throughout the nineteenth century Russia and America were acting in the same way and yet history treats only one of them as having had an “empire”.

In earlier times when nations set out to conquer they did so unashamedly under the banner of Empire – from the Romans to the British they gloried in their imperialism. Russia under the tsars did likewise. For centuries after Ivan the Terrible proclaimed himself the first tsar in 1547 Russia was proud to describe itself as an Empire. Only under the Communists did imperialism have to be disguised as something more noble like “international solidarity”. America too has sought a more noble banner: democracy. And yet just like Ivan America’s Founding Fathers saw themselves as instruments of God’s will destined to extend their rule far beyond their current boundaries. In their speeches and writings George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton all used the term "empire" to describe their vision of America's future.

When Russia occupied Siberia it perceived itself – and history perceives it - as having enlarged its “Empire”. When the original thirteen colonies did the same in North America it is perceived only as extending the borders of the “Nation”. The different terminologies have come to imply that one power was inherently imperialist while the other was not but the reason the term Empire is not used for American territorial aggrandizement is far more prosaic. It is a linguistic accident that in English “empire” and “emperor” are cognate and consequently there is a natural assumption that one will be accompanied by the other. As a republic America had no monarch and thus could not have an emperor. Kings like Ivan the Terrible (or queens like Victoria) could proclaim themselves Emperor but Presidents could not. Thus America almost by definition could not have an empire.

Niall Ferguson has examined the various academic meanings given to the term empire: whether any of the meanings can sensibly be applied to the United States, whether the terms “hegemon” and hegemony would be more or less useful.  He concludes that there is today an American empire. In reality whether the words “empire” and “imperialism” are appropriate when talking about the way American history developed is largely a matter of fashion.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the terms were widely used. Men pushing to extend the nation's borders by annexing territory in Central America, the Caribbean and Pacific were proud to do so in the cause of the American Empire. But that view was never unanimous; at the end of the 19th century there were heated debates between self styled imperialists and anti-imperialists and a convention of the Anti-Imperialist League in Chicago in 1899 was attended by delegates from all over the country.  In the 1900 Presidential elections the Democrats ran an anti-imperialist campaign but lost out to the Republican’s imperialist ticket of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

In the 20th century the debate died as American business and political leaders realised that their economic objectives could usually be achieved without using military force or annexing territory, the traditional characteristics of imperialists. Even in the 19th century America had acquired far more territory by purchase than by conquest.

America was changing.  With industrialisation new social forces came into play and in particular Hamilton’s elite of the “rich and well-bred” became much richer and much less well-bred. It was the age of the “Robber Barons” at home and of mercenary adventures abroad. Imperial expansion was privatised. In Hawaii American businessmen, with the help of the US Navy, staged a coup against the local government and the territory was eventually incorporated into the United States. The next stage was the realisation that American business could own or control other nation’s property without taking on the burden of colonial rule that had helped bankrupt Britain. When US business balked at paying the tariffs demanded by the Colombian government for using the Panama Canal they organized a Hawaiian-style coup, again with the support of the US Navy, but this time created the “independent” state of Panama to manage the local population on their behalf.

American imperialism had adapted to the advent of the “corporation”.

In 1773 The British East India Company, the largest multinational corporation of its day, threatened to move into the North American market and use its massive scale to drive local merchants out of business. The colonists responded by tipping the Company's tea into Boston Harbour and thereby tipping themselves into a war of national liberation. After achieving their freedom the colonists were determined that they would never again be threatened by such corporate power. Thomas Jefferson spoke eloquently about the dangers that the very notion of “corporations” posed to the American way of life and legal safeguards were erected to defend the citizens of the new nation from any threat of corporate power. After the Civil War these safeguards started to crumble so that eventually the Bill of Rights, so carefully crafted by the Founding Fathers to protect citizens against unreasoning authority, was being used to protect corporations against elected authority. The casual assumption of the nation's founders that only human beings could have rights had been overturned and the concept of corporate “rights” was invented.

By the end of the twentieth century these rights had mushroomed. Health and safety inspectors were stopped from raiding factories on the grounds that it infringed corporations' property "rights" (Marshall v Barlow's Inc 1978). Legislation stopping corporations funding campaigns in public referenda was declared unconstitutional as it contravened the corporations' "right" to free speech (First National Bank of Boston v Bellotti 1978). For the same reason state legislatures were forbidden to order utility companies to distribute leaflets urging energy conservation (Pacific Gas & Electric v Public Utilities Commission 1986). Such cases greatly extended doctrines developed in the period of the Robber Barons between the American Civil War and the First World War.

A new ideology of corporate capitalism emerged virtually un-noticed at the same time as Karl Marx and his followers were promulgating their pseudo-scientific doctrines predicting that the end of capitalism was nigh. "Corporatism" was secreted silently in the interstices of American commerce as "Communism" developed in the bitter internecine warfare of socialist and anarchist factions across Europe. At the beginning of the twentieth century neither seemed to be particularly relevant to the imperial ambitions of the two great empires of Russia and America but both new ideologies would come to dominate imperial development for much of the century.

For America the First World War was a massive opportunity and in particular it allowed American corporations to seize markets previously controlled by its main economic competitor Britain. American exports to Britain and its allies increased sevenfold between the start of the war in 1914 and America’s entry in 1917 and even more thereafter. The European powers not only became beholden to US industry for their survival but those imports were financed with American loans that had to be repaid, often in the case of Britain by selling assets the British Empire had built up around the world. American industry was massively assisted by the state and whole industries, such as ship building, were transformed by state intervention. This state intervention continued after the war to combat economic recession: a government agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which became the nation’s largest electricity producer, has been called the world’s most successful large-scale experiment in socialism. In the Second World War the transfer of wealth from Britain to America through the “Lend Lease” programme was even more marked and for the rest of the twentieth century America’s economic imperialism had no rival.

For the Russian Empire the picture was very different. The First World War was a disaster and Russia lost nearly all of its empire in Eastern Europe. Attempts to export its socialist ideology failed. Abortive revolutions in Germany and Hungary and conspiratorial Communist Parties in many parts of the world (including two in the United States) produced nothing; the only new territory the Bolsheviks managed to conquer was in Mongolia and that was taken by force of arms. The Second World War saw Russian imperialism back with all its old vigour and with the same methodology: brute force. Like America Russia tried to export its ideology with Communist parties gaining votes where elections were allowed but at the end of the day the Soviet Empire was created as all previous Russian Empires had been by bullets not ballots.

That is not to say that ideology was unimportant in extending the Russian Empire; the short-lived Seattle Soviet of 1919 showed that communist ideology, like the ideology of democracy today, has had its adherents in the most surprising places. Nevertheless the fundamentals of Russian imperialism remained unchanged from the Empire’s inception to the collapse of communism.

By contrast America found that to become really wealthy it no longer needed imperialism of the traditional type.  Although it invested massive amounts in military hardware, the US Navy becoming the world’s second most powerful by the end of the nineteenth century, it used this power to promote its commercial interests without, in general, grabbing territory. There were exceptions, small corners of the world colonised largely for military reasons, but these were not central to American imperial strategy. Indeed one of the unintended consequences of the Iraq war was the sudden realisation of many inside and outside the United States that America possessed a colony at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba and had done so for more than a century. America had found a way of exercising imperial control without the formalities of empire - it became a small step to proclaim that this new model imperialism was not really imperialism at all. 

The United States had always seen itself as the enemy of other people's imperialism. As its own imperial advances became softer, and the tactics more subtle than those of previous empires, the absurdity of American imperialists decrying as immoral the imperialism of other nations was resolved by simply denying the existence of their own imperial ambitions. At the same time as this was happening almost unconsciously in America exactly the same process was going on in Russia. There the conversion from imperialist to anti-imperialist was more extreme and the hypocrisy more blatant.  Russian leaders exercising a degree of control over the countries of Eastern Europe undreamt of by earlier Tsars proclaimed that by definition proletarian revolution had freed them from any hint of empire or imperialist intent.

The term imperialist began to have negative connotations for almost everyone. The new Bolshevik government in Russia claimed to have rescued the country from an imperialist war and to be beset by imperialist foes. With the coming of the Russian Revolution the trappings of empire disappeared, but the reality remained. Stalin’s vicious rule over his colonies in Eastern Europe was virtually indistinguishable from his Tsarist predecessors. The only significant difference between the tsarist and soviet empires was that the latter denied it was an empire at all. Nevertheless its conquest of most of Eastern Europe continued a tradition going back to Ivan the Terrible and beyond.

“US imperialism” was much less tangible. The phrase was applied to developments as diverse as military intervention in Vietnam and Iraq, the economic power of American multinationals and the cultural domination of Hollywood.

Despite examples like Afghanistan American and Russian imperialism became less similar as the twentieth century wore on. Russian imperialism remained much as imperialism had always been but the American empire evolved as it grew; it became something altogether new and as the century drew to a close it was this new type of empire that proved itself far superior. The collapse of Communism also marked the collapse, permanently or temporarily, of the Russian Empire leaving its adversary free to conquer the world in a welter of fast food outlets, dumbed down news and US Marines.

The Empires Today

Throughout the Cold War two great empires, America and Russia, hurled the invective of anti-imperialism at each other. On one level for either to describe itself as anti-imperialist was rank hypocrisy but on another level both societies espoused comprehensive, intellectually coherent ideologies which appeared to be the antithesis of imperialist: communist autocracy and democracy. This apparent contradiction is more apparent than real for inherent in both American democracy and Russian autocracy were the seeds of imperialism.

In Russia imperialism had for centuries been driven forward by autocrats claiming to be carrying out God’s will. The mirror image of this faith appeared on the other side of the world where God’s will was equally firmly believed to be represented on earth not by a single autocrat but by a single people: Americans. By virtue of its democracy God had willed that America's manifest destiny was to rule over lesser breeds; by virtue of its autocracy God had willed Russia to do the same. Americans and Russians may have started in different places but they arrived at the same destination: empire.

Niall Ferguson concludes that there exists today an American empire and, more controversially, that it is a good thing. It is an empire in which the vassals are “dependent on” rather than “dominated by” the imperial power, (a distinction more semantic than practical). For him it is the only way to bring the benefits of liberal democracy to the bulk of the world now mired in poverty and strife. Many American neo-conservatives reached the same conclusion for different reasons, for them an explicit policy of imperial expansion is the only way to ensure America’s security.

The Russian empire on the other hand is almost universally regarded as having been a bad thing.  Only a few on the fringes of Russian politics argue for the reestablishment of Russian control over the nations of Eastern Europe.  And yet just a few decades ago there were some in the west who argued passionately that Soviet rule had brought enormous benefits to their colonies - economic stability, full employment, equality of opportunity in education, comprehensive health and welfare services and, perhaps above all, peace.  In any event it may be too early to say that the Russian empire is over. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that went with it Russia continues to fight colonial wars in places like Chechnya, thousands of people in the eastern Ukraine yearn for re-annexation into their Russian homeland and supposedly free republics around Russia's periphery find the colossus next door still dominating their economies.

Far, far more economies however are dominated by the United States. American imperialism today is more economic than military and the changing forces working in the American economy are what have changed the nature of American imperialism.

One of the main drivers behind the numerous territorial acquisitions made by the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century had been the desire to find more land on which slaves could be set to work producing goods cheaply for their masters. Once slavery was abolished the pressure for outright annexation diminished. Why make Nicaragua part of America, (a repeated endeavour of American imperialists before the civil war), if the natives then had to be paid at American rates?

By the twentieth century American companies were shipping home products and profits made around the world to further fuel the onward march of the American consumer. The economics are simple: if a US company employs someone abroad at lower rates than it would have to pay in America the US consumer benefits, through lower prices, and the US company benefits from higher profits.  The only downside for America is if unemployment at home is driven up, but as both US consumers and US investors are better off they can afford to buy more of the products and services that can only be provided within the US, thus creating more jobs.  The whole cycle works as long as those overseas do not have to be paid the same as Americans and such is the competition for jobs around the world that so far this has simply never happened.

Crude European-style imperialism was replaced not by an overt American imperialism but by “globalisation” under which raw materials from Africa might be processed in Asia and sold in Europe – with the profits spent in America.

All this was due not to imperial diktats of the kind used in the Russian empire but – or so it is claimed – resulted from the unimpeded workings of the free market. 

The irony is that American industry was able to create this happy situation precisely because it systematically prevented the operation of the free market.  Early American industry was largely created through state intervention and it only thrived by being shielded from the global marketplace by protective tariffs.  America in fact owes its economic pre-eminence to exactly those economic policies it now fights so vigorously to stop others adopting.

Most, but not all, empires have sucked the wealth of their colonies, protectorates and dominions back to the centre. In the case of the Soviet empire this process was crude in the extreme: factories in Eastern Europe were dismantled and shipped back to Russia, followed by raw materials and manufactured goods transferred across the empire in accordance with the whims of central planners. In the case of the US transfers of wealth have been far more subtle. Originally the earliest American colonists survived on “tribute” coerced from the native tribes as a form of protection money, in exactly the same way that the Mongols had extorted tribute from their Russian vassals or the Russians themselves had coerced tribute from the natives of Siberia.  But over time such crude extortion gave way to less violent methods until today wealth is transferred in the form of loans, repatriated profits and cheap imports. 

By issuing bonds and providing other investment opportunities America has ensured that a constant stream of wealth flows in to provide the sustenance of economic life.  The United States has long imported far more manufactured goods and raw materials than it has exported and it has achieved the remarkable feat of living beyond its means by persuading the rest of the world to lend it money so that American society can consume more than it earns.

America has created virtuous circles that use the wealth it has accumulated to suck yet more from its commercial empire. For example pension funds in Britain invest money in American firms who use the cash to develop global scale and muscle that in turn allows them to obtain dominant positions in national markets like Britain, reducing the relative value of British firms and thus persuading UK pension funds to invest yet more in the US.

The United States has used its ideologies of freedom and free markets to bind its commercial empire together with only the occasional use or threat of military force. The Russian empire in the twentieth century was the precise opposite. It used its ideology as a cloak to mask the Red Army shackles that bound the empire together. The machine guns, prison camps and barbed wire of Russian imperial dictatorship were hidden behind the simplistic slogans of Marxist-Leninism, Communist Brotherhood and International Solidarity.

As the Cold War progressed the two empires massed beneath their ideological banners and prepared to go to war. It was a war that never happened. The defining characteristic of the cold war was not war between the two empires but conflict within. At the end of the day the Russian Empire (like the British Empire) succumbed not to the military might of enemies beyond the empire’s frontiers but the nationalist aspirations of its colonies. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and of the USSR itself demonstrated that brute force without the economic might to sustain it could not hold an empire together. The American route of peaceful, commercial imperialism appeared to have proven itself superior. And yet America was finding that economic might not translated into brute force could also be insufficient. Overt and covert force became increasingly necessary to maintain US control over the foreign resources, particularly oil, needed to maintain its economic wellbeing.

Imperialism has played an important part in both American and Russian history but it has played a different part in each. The differences between the two nations remain far more significant than the similarities. When critics attack the erosion of civil liberties in the United States their starting point is a degree of liberty which has never existed in Russia. Fundamentally Americans have enjoyed more “freedom” for much longer than Russians.  The McCarthy persecution of supposed communists in America in the 1950s was an affront to all the values which Americans claim to hold dear but in relative terms this affront was totally insignificant in comparison with the crimes of Stalin whose victims numbered in the tens of millions most of whom lost far more than their careers. A common feature of comparisons between Russian and American history is that American history is often Russian history writ small. The exploration of the American west was Siberia on a smaller scale. The deportation of the American native tribes was repeated by Stalin on an altogether more horrific scale. The pogroms against African Americans that were a feature of American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were replicas in miniature of the Russian pogroms against the Jews in the same period (although not as miniature as many would like to believe). The American invasion of Afghanistan led to hundreds if not thousands of civilian deaths but undoubtedly fewer than the preceding Russian invasion.

There remain differences between the two societies that are so fundamental that they go right to their very souls.

For centuries there has been much anguished debate about the Soul of Russia. In the nineteenth century the Russian intelligentsia devoted enormous energy to contesting the rival claims of Slavophiles and Modernists and delving into such arcane matters as the origin of the peasant commune and its implication for the Russian way of life. The Communists eradicated such debate by imposing a brand new vision of the human soul but as their power vanished the debate has reignited. America has had no such continuing debate. Since men like Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine and James Madison laid down the ground rules Americans have known that their society is destined to be what it already is: a democracy. There may be disagreements about details, in some cases important details such as the compatibility or incompatibility of democracy and slavery, but fundamentally most Americans believe that the democratic soul of their nation is closer to God than anyone else's. That democratic soul is what gives American imperialism its constancy of purpose, confidence of execution and certainty of victory. Bush II may be wrong when he says that America is not practicing imperialism but spreading democracy but only the totally cynical would doubt his sincerity.

It is in the words of America’s leaders and thinkers that the stark contrast between democratic ambition and imperial reality are most apparent and that contrast goes right back through American history. To modern eyes and ears the words of contemporary political leaders often appear as self-serving and insubstantial sound bites while the words of earlier generations may be dismissed as quaint or archaic. These are not the adjectives which spring to mind when reading the words of many early Americans; much stronger descriptions are needed: inspiring, noble, uplifting, appalling, barbaric. The fine sentiments of men like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are rallying calls for everyone who believes in decency, dignity and justice. The proclamation that all men are endowed with certain “inalienable Rights” among them “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has stirred the imagination of the oppressed across the globe. But the words of other early Americans are offensive in the extreme: the leader of the Pilgrim Fathers glorying in the “sweet sacrifice” of natives “frying in the fire” after a particularly gruesome massacre of native men, women and children; the first president born in a log cabin, Andrew Jackson, symbol of egalitarian democracy, assailing the “wicked” opponents of slavery for daring to suggest that slaves were any different to other forms of private property; one of the most powerful nineteenth century newspaper editors proclaiming America’s “Manifest Destiny” to make the “imbecile” Mexicans succumb to the natural superiority of Anglo-Saxons. Offensive as such opinions may be they are the values that drove the ethnic cleansing which opened up the continent, the slave trade on which the nation’s early prosperity was built and the imperial conquests that established its boundaries. 

Americans and Russians perceive their histories to be more different than they are. Even where Russia and America have followed the same paths neither Russians nor Americans recognise that fact. Historians cannot even agree where the paths started. One possible starting point is with the Vikings.