An Empire Five Times Over


By Michael Vlahos

January 1, 2000

What should one really have in mind when talking about an American "empire"? The word may be on everyone's lips, but no one seems to know what it actually means. As a matter of fact, there are five dimensions to it all. We present an intriguing historical tour.

History shows us five kinds of empire. The prize question is this: Does the United States fit any of these descriptions?

A great and wonderful place
The first, imperial dimension actually is a romantic and certainly harmless notion. It is that of empire as realm. This kind of empire is viewed as something magical.

It is a geographical panorama — without the political pitch and tar of other notions of empire. It is simply the designation for a great and wonderful place that is sweeping and grand enough to elicit wonder. It is majestic enough in its physical compass to be instantly recognized — and remembered — as such. That is why New York was once called the Empire State. Or why California has an "Imperial Valley."

Colonies and civilization
Second, there is the empire spread by traders, transplanting the seedlings of their own civilization to distant lands. In the antique fable, we see a Greek city on a far shore, then a Roman colonia — and then an entire Greco-Roman world empire. The light of those tiny, far-flung communities settled by "civilization" spread a net across the world.

How long was this form of empire celebrated? Just a century ago, for example, it was British colonies which were portrayed as the twinkling points of light of civilization itself. But in the modern time, Kipling's vision came to rot and stink.

The conquerors
The third dimension to note is the empire of conquest. At its most flamboyantly horrible, think Attila and his Huns, who threatened to topple Western Civilization. Think Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and other Mongol rulers of the Middle Ages whose armies terrorized settled peoples from China to Hungary.

These conquerors swept out of the wasteland — to grab whole worlds by the throat. These are the bad, civilization-destroying empires. Then, in contrast, there are the empires of conquest that create new civilizations. For example, Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent created a tolerant multi-ethnic Ottoman empire (for a while!).

Arabian nights
The Arabs, too, still celebrate their early empire of conquest, which in Muslim myth created not just a new civilization — but a sort of "golden age." Coincidentally, this vision is also romanticized by the West — in the image of Harun al-Rashid and the "Arabian Nights."

Fourth, there are the empires of association. These are the kinds of "soft" empires that actually still receive the liberal stamp of approval. Was the Athenian Empire and its Delian League a glorious instance of democratic goodness?

Coalitions or codependency?
It was, in fact, the first of many such "leagues." This was a stand-in for today's "coalition" and "multilateral" approaches. This kind of empire is not ruled from an imperial seat — as in the colonial empire or the empire of conquest. Rather, it is governed by a collective arrangement. It is an empire only because one nation leads.

But we might not want to forget that even the Third Reich had its "coalition partners" within the "new Europe" of the time. It counted among its associates Italy, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Finland and, to a certain extent, Spain.

This sort of empire may thus display less savory ties and goals — like client kings, parasitical nabobs and remittance-hungry emirs. Much of Britain's Indian Empire, for example, was built on this sort of co-dependency.

When anyone can join
Finally, there is the empire of universal identity. Most often, this empire is no more than a lingering idea that becomes apparent to people only "after the fall." Rome, of course, is the ultimate example of this sort of empire. What happened to the Romans?

Sure, Rome was conquered. But it did not fall. What really happened was that the barbarians became good Romans. They paid homage to the emperor in Constantinople — and declared they lived in "Romanitas." Rome — at least the Western Empire — thus went from military dictatorship to a commonwealth.

The commonwealths of today
Today, of course, we still see a British Commonwealth, the Francophonie of La Belle France — and not to be outdone, the Ummah of Islam. Commonwealth is still a vibrant form of empire.

So how does the United States of America today stack up? Is it an empire yet? And which kind? First, empire as realm is easy. Right from the outset, over 300 years ago, Americans in their exuberant expansion embraced the Empire Redivivus. It was the empire of a New World, the bountiful heart of a continent. "Realm" had no dark side. Americans could have their empire of liberty — and eat it too.

American colonies?
Next, was America ever a colonial empire? Nah! American never actually colonized the Philippines and Cuba — or the continental United States. Or did they? Well, as Americans prefer to see it, they settled, not colonized.

But tell that to Mexico. Texas was colonized on traditional Roman terms — and the barbarians, read: Americans, took over. Same for the coup d'etat in Hawaii of Queen Lydia Liliuokalani. Settlers or colonists? Mexicans and Indians might have a different take on the right answer.

Then go to more recent times. Did Americans not conquer Germany and Japan unconditionally, forcing their peoples to accept alien constitutions and ways of life? Are not American soldiers still in residence there? A good empire, sure — but still an empire.

"The West"
Americans, however, should take comfort that theirs is perhaps the largest and most extraordinary empire of association. NATO — despite its current troubles — ultimately appeals to all who call themselves "the West." Finally, on to empire as universal identity. With Hollywood at the fore, America may have a new universal human idea, at least in prospect. Yet, it is not quite America's time to look back.

And remember, the empire as commonwealth becomes apparent only after the era of rule. Looking at it from this angle, the United States of America today is indeed an empire. Or, as Tom Wolf might say, an empire in full.

Literary concept
Ultimately, things get even more complicated because, at last, empire is a concept. And as a concept empire is thus not literal, but literary. History — as it comes to be written by others — will judge whether America was imperial or not. We of the present can have no say in the matter. It's simply too late for hand-wringing. America, accept your fate! Just make damn sure that history remembers this empire well.

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