Distinctive, but not exceptional, is the theme of A.G. Hopkins’ new tome American Empire: A Global History. For a book 980 pages long, this tagline may sound like a poor return on the reader’s investment. Such anxiety, however, is consistently expelled by the way in which Hopkins presents what Victor Lieberman has called in another context, “strange parallels“. These comparisons – which vary from “cotton was to the South what oil was to Biafra” (35) to “Algeria was Washington’s Hawai’i” (510) – enliven the narrative and exhibit the author’s ability to synthesize scholarship that otherwise would remain isolated in the silos of the modern historical profession.
The objective of American Empire, in Hopkins’ words, is not “to put the United States down, but rather to put it in – to the mainstream of western history” (691). Hopkins believes that properly understanding globalization, which he divides into three phases, is the way to do this.
Proto-globalization is the first of these. Hopkins argues that it was sparked by the gunpowder revolution, which led to arms races as states competed to advance technologically; this, in turn, required “taxable peasants and trade” (48), and the way to secure both was through territorial expansion. Proto-globalization was about military-fiscal states expanding and through empire spreading modernity – with all its boons and banes – across the globe.
A “great transition” to the second phase, modern globalization, then occurred somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century (94). This phase was about industrialization and urbanization rather than agriculture, financial services rather than commerce, and nation-states rather than dynasties. It was, nonetheless, a period of imperial expansion.
The final phase, postcolonial globalization, followed, beginning in the mid-twentieth century. The Great Depression had undermined “the existing political order everywhere,” particularly in colonies (462). Imperialism was no longer defensible as legitimate. Wealth was now produced not by taking but by making. After the Second World War, the colonial powers conjured up a “New Deal” in an effort to hold on to the old system. But too much had changed; the effort was doomed to fail in the new context of globalization.
In globalization’s first phase, the U.S. was the colony. But the military-fiscal state was in turmoil both on the European continent and across the channel. A financial panic in London in 1772 led creditors to call debts on the colonials, who were already smarting from the tightening that followed the Seven Years’ War. Revolution followed, and succeeded, for the British did not yet have the technology to beat the “tyranny of distance”.
Hopkins contends that the U.S. remained financially and cultural dependent on Britain in globalization’s second phase. The Civil War, which broke “King Cotton,” set the U.S. along a path of nationhood, even as European states (like Italy and Germany) were also becoming nation-states. This process culminated in America’s participation in the ‘New Imperialism’ by acquiring colonies (following the Spanish-American War). To become a unified nation – ending the division between North and South – he contends, the U.S became an empire.
Even here he sees a parallel with future events: “The sinking of the Maine was to the Spanish-American War what the destruction of the Twin Towers was to the invasion of Iraq” (724). Both were highly salient focal points used to justify already-latent imperial impulses. The difference, however, was one of time. In the latter instance, the U.S. radically overestimated its strength because it did not comprehend that it had entered the third phase of globalization in which its enterprise was no longer legitimate and its means radically mismatched to the end pursued (whatever, exactly, that was). “Indian fighters” may have succeeded in subduing the Philippines in America’s first major counter-insurgency, but in its second, in Iraq, conventional armies would fail for reasons outlined in 1990 by Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War, strangely never cited or discussed by Hopkins.
That, in short, is the big argument of the book. But the smaller arguments Hopkins makes along the way are perhaps the most rewarding part. The reader learns, for instance, that because of demographic pressures, America’s South “had to break out before the North broke in” (223); that “the most eminent” of America’s “learned societies all supported overseas expansion” at the turn of the nineteenth century (365); that more Filipinos died in the Second World War than Americans (631); and, that if the U.S. had expanded Cuba’s sugar quota in 1959, rather than squeezing it economically, Castro’s turn to the USSR might have been rendered unnecessary (682). All of these asides would be worthy of extended discussion, and in most cases, Hopkins cites specialist literature that does just this, providing a fascinating roadmap for future journeys.
What does it all mean? The broad implication of Hopkins’ book is that national developments need to be framed by the grand narrative of globalization(s). Recently, the economic historian Richard Baldwin has made a similar argument at a larger, even if necessarily more superficial, scale. The challenge now is to build on the globalization schema that Hopkins has developed.
Theorists of international relations, in particular, should work to nest explanations of war and peace within the relevant phase of globalization, rather than wasting their time debating supposed universals like “anarchy”. They could also more explicitly theorize the different phases, particularly the third, postcolonial globalization, which frankly remains somewhat nebulous in American Empire. Historians, meanwhile, may nibble on various aspects of Hopkins’ narrative, but should be reminded that only a competing positive alternative will be unable to dethrone what must – for now – be seen as the definitive account of America and empire.
Jared Morgan McKinney is a PhD Candidate at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). He previously studied at LSE’s Department of International History, where he received a distinction in the PKU-LSE International Affairs MSc program. A revised version of his LSE dissertation, which was supervised by David Stevenson, was published in 2018 in the Journal of Strategic Studies.