American Empire: A Global History

Spring 2018 History Colloquium Series

In providing what he described as a “scamper” through three centuries of U.S. international history, University of Cambridge Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History A. G. Hopkins emphasized the importance of charting the nation’s evolution alongside, and often in lockstep with, other Western territorial empires. And understanding how the United States fits within this imperial system, he contended, requires careful attention to an often invoked, though also often under-analyzed, term: globalization, particularly in its context as a dialectical process for which these territorial empires long served as prime agents.

In the first of three phases into which he divided his April 9 talk, Prof. Hopkins examined a period of proto-globalization which spanned the 17th and 18th centuries. Defined largely by the actions of pre-industrial, dynastic European states, the era saw, on the one hand, empire inextricably bound up with the need to finance rapidly modernizing armies. As Prof. Hopkins pointed out, though, the fiscal strain of an arms race also exposed the limits of these military hegemons’ success, a crisis of empire embodied by the American colonies’ revolt against the financially extractive mother country.

However, his larger purpose in summoning this imperial narrative of colonial revolution was to shine light on a 1783 historical parting of the waves—or parting of the historical waves—that he deemed both odd and understandable. It is understandable, Prof. Hopkins first noted, that this moment produced an historiographical shift in focus inward in the United States, toward framing out the story of the new nation. Still, he went on, it is odd that this shift seems to have tacitly demanded not addressing the slow process of de-colonization that took place from 1783-1861, as the United States, like Germany and Italy at roughly the same time, struggled to transform formal into effective independence. Prof. Hopkins pointed out, for example, how the United States continued to exist in a neo-colonial economic relationship with Great Britain long into the 19th century, so much so that Henry Clay painted citizens of the early republic as “politically free” but “commercially slaves”; and he cited the future poet that Emerson envisions in his 1837 “The American Scholar” as evidence of the degree to which the United States’ cultural independence from Great Britain was in no way an immediate byproduct of the Revolution.

He then transitioned from examining proto- to examining modern globalization, broadly characterized by the rise of the constitutional, industrialized nation-state. From 1850 to 1950, the United States and much of Europe existed on parallel trajectories of extraordinary political development. The first half of this period saw reform in Austro-Hungary and France; the formation of Germany and Italy; Great Britain widening the franchise; and, of course, the American Civil War. At the same time, by the turn of the century, the consequences of a burgeoning manufacturing sector also began to reveal themselves. For one, social hierarchy and class division were turned on their heads, leading to the development of ameliorative forms of capitalism and the growth of welfare states from New Zealand to the U.S. In addition, with the Spanish American War resulting in control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, America found itself engaged in an imperial process of nation welding, which Prof. Hopkins described as a microcosm of what was being undertaken by the larger British and French empires in so far as U.S. territorial expansion was likewise driven by: (a) the standard, center-to-periphery exchange of raw materials for manufactured goods; and (b) notions of both racial and technological supremacy.

Global control proved difficult to maintain in the wake of World War II, ultimately ushering in the final, post-1950 phase of Prof. Hopkins’ “scamper”: post-colonial globalization. It is here, he argued, that our current, international order began coming into being through, among other things, challenges to concepts and constructions of racial supremacy, as well as confluence in discussions about and notions of civil and human rights. The era of post-colonial globalization, he described, brought the formation of new institutions like the United Nations to advance new moral ideas; it brought new, inter-industry networks of global economic integration that undid the center-to-periphery exchanges of the modern era and that had a profound effect on the need for empire; and, finally, it brought green uprising against elite constitutional nationalism that produced widespread de-colonization between the end of WW II and 1960. Interestingly, it was only after 1945 that people began speaking in earnest about the United States as an empire, a line of discourse, he noted in closing, that relies on a geostrategic rather than territorial understanding of the term.

A. G. Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge and former Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local (Palgrave); Globalization in World History (W.W. Norton); British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Routledge); and An Economic History of West Africa (Routledge).