An interview with A. G. Hopkins, author of American Empire A Global History
How did you come to write a book on the United States?
The question is more penetrating than readers might think because I had spent the greater part of my career working on the history of subjects far removed from the national history of the United States. But it so happened that I arrived in the United States to take up a permanent university position in 2001 a few hours before the events of 9/11. The animated debate over the role of the United States as a global power that followed caught my attention because it raised the issue of whether the US was an empire. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, I found myself involved in an unplanned commitment to identify the prime movers of US foreign policy.
So, your book is really an extended examination of US international policy?
Not really. Iraq was the starting point but the destination has turned out to be both different and distant. I had to undertake so much preparatory work in what, for me, was a new field of study that it was not until about 2012 that I was ready to produce a manuscript. By then, the United States had withdrawn from Iraq and attention had shifted elsewhere. By that time, too, my reading had followed a trail that led in two directions: one took me back through the twentieth and nineteenth centuries to the history of colonial America; the other led me to place the evolution of the United States in a wider, non-national setting.
How did you fit national and global history together?
There was no point in trying to rewrite the history of the United States: that task had long been in the hands of many fine historians who had spent their careers studying the subject. The only prospect I had of contributing to such a well-established subject was by looking at it from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, while also trying to absorb elements of the national story that fitted my purpose. The resulting study has brought together several decades of accumulated knowledge from three diverse fields of history. My interest in globalization has supplied the broad analytical context; my work on Western empires has suggested how imperial expansion transmitted globalizing impulses; my research on the indigenous history of former colonial states, especially those in Africa, has given me an awareness of how different the world looks when viewed from the other side of the frontier.
Yes, but how does this work in practice?
The argument, put simply, is that the history of the United States, from colonial times to the present day, conforms to three phases of globalization. Each phase can be understood by relating it to the history of Western empires, which were the principal agents of globalization from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. One phase culminated in the great crises of the military-fiscal state in late eighteenth century, which produced the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the implosion of the Spanish Empire. A second phase, which was bound up with the rise of nation states and industrialization, fueled the dramatic partition of the world at the close of the nineteenth century. A third phase, which developed after World War II, ushered in decolonization and the post-colonial world order we know today.
Does this interpretation alter the way we understand US history?
I think it offers a different emphasis on some familiar themes. The Revolution, for example, can be seen as part of a wider fiscal crisis that engulfed much of the Western world. The familiar national story that dominates the period after 1783 can be recast to allow for continuing foreign, and especially British, influence. Similarly, the Civil War was an example of a familiar episode in the history of newly decolonized states: how to turn a state in to a nation. The period after 1865 was one of reconstruction and nation-building, as it was elsewhere, notably in Germany and Italy. The era of high imperialism that followed included the United States too. The war with Spain in 1898 that led to United States to establish a formal insular empire was an expression of forces that applied to expansive imperial powers elsewhere.
But what happened after 1898?
That is a particularly astute question because at that point the existing literature changes and so does the emphasis of my argument. The literature on the period before 1898 is voluminous beyond measure, and I need to be familiar with it to develop my argument that the United States continued to be dependent on outside forces after 1783. After 1898, the US had clearly attained effective independence and I have no need to engage with the national story to the same degree. Instead, I need to reconstruct the history of the principal islands, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico (and Cuba, as an example of a protectorate). The big problem here is that, after the war with Spain, historians return to the national story and ignore the empire the war created. The last comprehensive study of the management of the colonial empire was published in 1962. Work of high quality has been completed on individual islands since then but has not yet been pulled together.
Is this where your knowledge of African history becomes helpful?
I hope so. Of course, knowledge of the indigenous history of another set of Western colonies is not directly relevant because the facts are different, but it is helpful in providing a perspective other than the one seen from Washington. An imperial standpoint from outside the US is also valuable because it suggests how the history of the US empire fits that of the other Western empires. The principles and techniques of colonial rule were the same; so was the trajectory. The US empire rose and fell in harmony with the other imperial states.
But many commentators claim that the US created an empire after 1945.
Yes, indeed. But the claim rests on a very general definition of ‘empire’ that makes it synonymous with powerful states. After 1945, the United Sates was a great power but it was not an empire. Comparisons with Rome, accordingly, are anachronistic. I use the term to refer to territorial control, which characterized the Western empires before World War II and was essential to the type of integration that suited the needs of the period from about 1750 to 1950. Under conditions of post-colonial globalization that followed, territorial empires were neither necessary not feasible. The world economy changed; concepts of human rights grew in influence. To the extent that the invasion of Iraq was intended to remake the Middle East, it was a colonial venture that destined to fail. The age of great empires had passed
What readership do you have in mind?
The book should appeal to historians of the United States, who are becoming increasingly sympathetic to global perspectives. It should also attract historians of other Western empires, who have left the study of the US empire to historians of the United States, who have bypassed it. Beyond these two groups, the argument should interest specialists in international relations and policy-makers who recognize that knowledge of the past is vital to an understanding of the present. Ibn Khaldun put it well more than six centuries ago, when he argued that history was a practical art needed for the “acquisition of excellence in ruling.”