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Using the word “imperial” to describe what great powers have been doing for decades pretty much strips the term of any concrete meaning. ~Daniel Drezner

This doesn’t seem to make very much sense, since great powers usually are imperialistic.  This is part of how they operate as “great powers”: by dominating other powers and using force when they deem it necessary to enforce their will. 

But what, after all, do we mean by imperialism?  Here‘s one definition that sounds right to me:

The policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.

There is something of a technical debate out there over whether you can be a hegemonist without being an imperialist.  Empire usually implies sovereignty and direct control (people inevitably think of Rome or the little pink bits on the map representing British mastery), while hegemony need only imply supremacy and the ability to dictate policy to satellites.  Hegemony is supposed to be more morally acceptable because it is simply “leadership” and supposedly not coercive–the hegemon’s lackeys are willing servants, rather than subjects.  In practice, the policies of an empire and a hegemony are often so similar that the distinction is one of rhetorical presentation: to be an empire-builder today is considered unjust, but to be a hegemon “expanding freedom’s frontiers” is basically fine. 

However, if the definition of imperialism is not limited to direct control and administration of territories outside the Home Country, and it seems that it does not have to be, supporting policies that shore up U.S. economic and political hegemony could be very fairly described as imperialist.  (Never mind that we do actually wield what is effectively direct control over territories overseas in a quasi-colonial relationship with the locals.)  Indeed, the policies of Ethiopia and Eritrea towards each other and the surrounding region could also be described this way, especially since the conflict between them is centered around territorial acquisition and regional dominance.  At its most basic meaning, for a state to be imperialistic is for it to seek control and domination over others and to be willing to use violence to maintain that control and domination.  American empire is fairly unique today in that the U.S. is the only great power that states publicly that the entire globe should follow American “leadership” and that all policies that reinforce that “leadership” (i.e., superpower hegemonic status) are justifiable and serve the greater good.  

Obviously, the foreign policy establishment that has crafted and implemented the policies that have created and preserved this hegemony are dedicated to its continued preservation, which is Greenwald’s point.  Obviously, those who object in principle to this hegemonic status and regard it as the bane of this country are not to be found inside the “foreign policy community.”  Drezner’s counterargument that someone such as Scowcroft opposed the Iraq war is not at all persuasive.  Most foreign policy “realists” who objected to the Iraq war did so for pragmatic, technical reasons.  Above all, they feared that the war would weaken our ability to act as a superpower in other parts of the globe and that it would contribute to the decline of our status as the hegemon.  Scowcroft is reliably internationalist and has no qualms about U.S. hegemony in the region and in the world–he opposed the war at least partly because he wants to keep the hegemony going for as long as possible.  Those of us from left and right who regard this as deeply wrong are not fooled by such a person’s opposition to any particular conflict.  Obama always opposed the war in Iraq, but has demonstrated in all his foreign policy speeches that he is a true hegemonist.  Like the opposition between rival British advocates of a ‘forward’ posture and an approach of ‘masterly inactivity’ with respect to Central Asia, the opposition between antiwar internationalists and prowar internationalists is simply a disagreement over how to best secure the continued dominance over the region.  What Greenwald describes is most definitely hegemonism, and to the extent that hegemonism is simply a kind of imperialism Drezner’s reply on this point does not hold up very well.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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