Empire and Globalization

By Johnny Fulfer

Just weeks after the American battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in the Havana harbor, president William McKinley declared war with Spain, which gained the approval of Congress on April 20, 1898. For nearly four months, the United States fought Spain in the Caribbean where Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders gained national fame in the Battle of San Juan Hill, and in the Pacific, where Commodore George Dewey gained recognition for taking Manila Bay. After what Secretary of State John Hay called a “splendid little war,” the United States annexed Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, while also securing control over Cuba. In 1936, historian Samuel Flagg Bemis called this experience a “great aberration” from the steady progress of American principles, while more recent historians take a more critical view, viewing this experience as the beginning of an American empire.[1]

Historians have acknowledged a diverse range of factors contributing to American imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, varying from formal territorial acquisition to informal cultural and commercial expansion. Historians in the Wisconsin School of U.S. Diplomatic History, beginning with William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber, have argued that the rising influence of the Industrial Revolution created an ideological consensus between U.S. policymakers and the business community in the 1890s.[2]

[emaillocker][/emaillocker]President Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State James G. Blaine crafted an explicit strategy for America’s commercial empire during this period, which was informed by classical liberalism and the bi-partisan desire for economic growth.[3] Following LaFeber’s New Empire, Emily Rosenberg examines this ideological consensus between American policymakers and the business community in her 1982 book Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945. This consensus was centered on liberal notions of “free enterprise, free trade, free flow, and developmental laws,” producing the conceptual limits of public policy discourse.[4] The desire for external markets inspired U.S. leaders to establish a firm grip on East Asia, capturing what historians Michael Hunt and Steven Levine call the “imperial ideology,” in the process.[5]

In his recent book American Empire: A Global History, historian A.G. Hopkins argues that historians in the Wisconsin School have overlooked the broader dynamics of American empire. Hopkins takes a global perspective in both content and style, taking deliberately broad strokes to place the experience of American imperialism within a global context. Recognizing the impossible task of covering all of American history, Hopkins examines aspects that specifically involve Western empire-building in the 18th and 19th centuries and subsequent decolonization in the 20th century.

For him, American imperialism was not driven by commercial expansion. Instead, it was propelled by the determination of American policymakers to give the United States a greater sense of national unity and perceived international vigor. To fully understand the dynamics American empire, Hopkins argues that we must understand how the history of the United States fits into the broader framework of globalization.

He first examines the United States within a period he identifies with “proto-globalization,” which involved military-fiscal states that had extractive agricultural economies controlled by propertied elites. Proto-globalization reached its climax during in the late 18th century when a series of mutually destructive wars transformed the Western world, eventually leading to “modern globalization” after 1865, a period characterized by global economic integration and technological advancement.

Hopkins anchors American imperialism within this global experience by situating it within the shift from proto-globalization to modern globalization. Each stage of globalization involved the expansion of Western nation-states, an experience that produced resistance, which ultimately ended with crisis and transformation. Recognizing globalization as a multicentered process, he still argues that Western empires such as Britain and the United States were the central agents that spread the “globalizing impulses” around the world.

Interestingly, Hopkins further argues that the United States never had full independence from Britain until 1865, when commercial expansion offered the United States greater cultural and economic independence, allowing it to emerge as a formidable nation-state. This questionable argument distracts from Hopkins larger aim of revealing parallels the United States had with Western Europe during the late 19th century.

The emergence of an American territorial empire after the War of 1898, Hopkins argues, was part of global age of “new imperialism,” when European powers were also expanding their empires into Africa and Asia to create more powerful nation-states. By tracing the history of American imperialism within the broader history of “new imperialism,” he provides a way to conceptualize a global history of the United States, which is the most interesting aspect of his book.

In a book of nearly one thousand pages, Hopkins offers an extensive history of American empire, offering a “master narrative” of the United States from its beginnings to the War on Terrorism. Though he makes a persuasive argument for placing the United States within a broader framework, he does so by confining American history within a linear conception of globalization. Moreover, Hopkins takes a very economistic view of Western empire generally, arguing that both European and American imperialism led to a forced acceleration of global integration, a process which delivered public goods such as military protection to occupied regions.

Economic historians Kris Mitchener and Marc Weidenmier take a similar view in their 2005 essay, “Empire, Public Goods, and the Roosevelt Corollary,” arguing that American intervention in the Caribbean produced greater political stability, which they view as a public good that supported economic growth.[6] While this will be seen as a strength by historians and economists of a certain stripe, it seems to portray imperialism as a positive good for all of the world, bringing it closer to what he terms post-colonial globalization after WWII, when the United States cease to be a racially driven empire and began its journey as an “aspiring hegemon,” which he defines as a world power that was able to control the rules of the global economy, which other nations must follow.

About the Author: Johnny Fulfer is a graduate student at the University of South Florida pursuing an M.A. in History.


[1]Samuel Flagg Bemis, “The Great Aberration of 1898.” In A Diplomatic History of the United States (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1936).

[2]Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963).

[3]Ibid., 109.

[4]Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945(New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 13.

[5]Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. Levine, Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines toVietnam. (ChapelHill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 62.

[6]Kris J. Mitchener and Marc D. Weidenmier, “Empire, Public Goods, and the Roosevelt Corollary.” The Journal of Economic History 65, no. 3 (2005): 658-692.

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