- Reading America from the Peripheries
During the European revolutions of 1848, the Austrian minister to France, Klemens von Metternich, is reported to have said, “When France sneezes Europe catches a cold.” Metternich’s assessment of the regional and global impact of the French Revolution has been recently reprised and applied to the United States: “When America sneezes the whole world catches a cold.”1 Yet the global impact of an American sneeze in this case does not refer to the revolutionary impulse of American-styled Jacobins but to the globally hegemonic influence of American economic and military power. Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the United States’ geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, the United States has entered into an unprecedented phase of unipolar power in which it has the ability to control flows of capital, people, and technology. Yet American global supremacy is contested and transforming because of economic crises within the United States and emerging centers of economic and political gravity on the peripheries of the American Empire, such as from the constellation of global South states known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
Ever since Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease’s influential Cultures of United States Imperialism mapped a new course of studies of US Empire, American studies scholars have focused on the critical dialectic between domestic social and political relations and foreign policy.2 Kaplan and Pease’s groundbreaking book was published precisely at the historical moment that the nature of US [End Page 219] power was undergoing a transformation from the Cold War to something else. The post–Cold War United States saw escalating deindustrialization, fierce attacks on the social safety net (leading to the end of “welfare as we know it” in 1996), and escalating incarceration under the war on drugs. Yet the events of September 11, 2001, marked a turning point in the post–Cold War era. The war on terror knit together the domestic logics of policing and prisons with the foreign policy of fighting terrorism. In the war on terror, the homeland, as Amy Kaplan and others argue, was expanded to include America’s global battlefields.3 As the war on terror increasingly linked a global constellation of battlefields and prisons, US-dominated neoliberalism sought to control flows of capital and direct them into Northern banks.
Despite the important critical lens that has focused attention on the global and domestic battlegrounds of the war on terror and neoliberal economics, American studies remains mostly a field rooted to knowledge produced about the United States by scholars drawing on archives within the United States. Yet it is critical for understanding the global economic and military battlefields of the United States to shift the focus to the global sites confronting the impacts of US economic and military power. If American studies practitioners agree that the United States is an empire, then perhaps we should proceed to map the United States not only from within but—importantly and critically—from the perspective of its imperial peripheries where we can view empire in all its global movements and presences. What do the imperial laboratories of Latin America teach us about the rise of austerity and prisons in the United States? Can the formation of South–South economic cooperation counterbalance the dominance of US-led globalization? What do imperial sites of policing and counterinsurgency tell us about the United States’ role as a node in a global transit of military tactics and practices?
The important and engaging books reviewed in this essay provide precisely the sort of reorientation required of a new transnational American studies that is not merely concerned with the projection of America abroad but also...