Globalization and Empire

In order to understand the catch word of the day—globalization, we embrace the grand tradition of historical enquiry, from the universal historians of the 18th Century to the world history of Toynbee--and beyond. The recent ‘turn’ in International Relations to ‘grand history’ is due to a growing recognition that debates about globalization revolve around big historical assumptions and questions. Historically, globalization is a product of imperialism; that is, centers of civilization have always needed raw materials: metals, wood, and stone from afar, thus, long distance trade has tended to flow in one direction, from the barbaric or less civilized periphery towards the civilized center. In terms of the social process of learning, knowledge, and communication between the established relations of civilized and rustic populations the former has had little to learn from the later.

When we take a long view of history, we use the following analytical constructs to compare pre-modern (3000 BC to 1500), modern (1500 to 1950), and postmodern (1950 to now) empires as well as strategic differences between land and sea and air/space empires. Empires where we see the common characteristics most developed are what Schumel Eisenstadt calls “historical bureaucratic empires.” Historical examples of centralized bureaucratic empires are exemplified by the ancient empires of the Near East, the Chinese Empire, the various Iranian empires, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, several Hindu states and the Mogul empires, the Arab Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, European states during the age of Absolutism, and to their initial colonial empires, insofar as they were an extension of the concept of patrimony. Despite the variety of historical and cultural backgrounds, the common feature in the early stages of the establishment of empires is the fact that they were confined to single masses of land until 1500. Modern European colonial empires about 500 years ago began to spread across oceans and became world wide. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British polities were sea empires. Land and sea empires shared a common political vocabulary and a uniformity of institutions in the form of constituted social bodies or orders, which had evolved out the Middle Ages.

Since our focus is the American empire our constructs between modern and postmodern chronologically overlap. America’s postmodern imperial roots are in the 19th century. The United States has certainly been a global imperial power since the end of the Second World War. Though, some commentators argue that the American Empire begins in 1917 with America’s entry into the First World War. This date corresponds chronologically with the Russian Revolution and is thus a very important moment geopolitically for the 20th Century, because by the end of the war America had already emerged as a global player. At the same time the Soviet Empire emerged and asserted an alternative liberal vision and ideology. From a bird’s eye view, Eric Hobsbawm states that “from the outbreak of the First World War to the collapse of the USSR which, as we can now see in retrospect, forms a coherent historical period.” For Hobsbawm, the short 20th Century ended around 1991. Yet the early  phase of the 20th Century American Empire failed to implement what Wilson and the ruling classes had planned to create, namely, a Liberal International order that was antithesis to both Communism and Conservatism. Still other thinkers argue that the US has been an imperial power since the triumph of the Spanish-American War, when over a 100 years ago American troops occupied Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Indeed, the Spanish-American War of 1898 is chronologically and geographically significant; for it resembles other colonial powers scramble for territory; the United States pursued territorial empire beyond its national borders. And yet others even push the date back to the Mexican-American War, and Westward expansion across the North American continent until 1890, when there was no longer any new land. Finally, others detect an imperial drive as far back as 1803, when Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory--what he called the “empire of Liberty.” Then American’s saw their frontier as laying within, and not at the edge of a country. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier had  two dimensions, length and breadth. The only real difference between the American frontier and European colonies during America’s Westward expansion was that America’s empire existed within a nation.

The point is, we do not see these different chronological dates for American imperialism as contradictory, but rather as different geographical phases of empire. Indeed, today’s talk about the latest phase of the American empire that arose with the war on terror, shares many similarities with the adventurism of the Spanish-American War. Currently, this discourse is reflected in the Bush administration’s new ‘grand strategy’ that was announced in 2001, and the Department of Defense’s planning for the biggest restructuring of America’s global forces since 1945.