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  • American Empire: A global history by A.G. Hopkins
  • Andrew Priest
American Empire: A global history
By A.G. Hopkins. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018.

A.G. Hopkins begins and ends his huge, ambitious, fascinating, often brilliant study of the American empire in Iraq. In the prologue, he explores the misadventures of Major-General Sir Charles Townshend during the siege of Kut in Mesopotamia in 1915, a military catastrophe that effectively ended Townshend’s career. In the epilogue, he details the horrors that the American military encountered in the same place, now a major Iraqi city, almost a century later as it moved toward Baghdad in 2003.

In drawing such a direct line, Hopkins rightly suggests that Americans (including historians) need to dispense with the notion that the United States is exceptional, and that its history as an empire is unique. In fact, as Hopkins exhaustively demonstrates, its trajectory has been similar to other modern empires, and so the history of the United States needs to be seen in a globalized and comparative context. Much of the focus of the first part of the book thus deals with the fledgling United States as a subject of the whims of the European empires. Notably after 1776, the United States’ position as a postcolonial state meant that it was often at least as dependent on its former colonial master as it had been in the period before. It was only after the American Civil War, Hopkins argues, when the Northern model of a non-slaveholding society had emerged triumphant that the United States was credibly united and became independent.

Then, only in 1898 did what Hopkins calls “the real American Empire, the tangible, territorial empire” (38) materialize with the war against Spain and the acquisition of territories in the Caribbean, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, and Hawaii and the Philippines in the Pacific. The impetus to gain this empire was driven very much by the same coalescing forces of globalization that simultaneously encouraged the European imperial states to grab new territories, the author argues. He then spends much of the second, core part of the book exploring Washington’s rule over and (mis)management of these colonies for the next fifty or so years, suggesting that the growing pressures of globalization, anti-imperialism, nationalism and self-determination hindered US attempts to control them, and retarded American dreams of promoting modernization there. The final sections of the book deal with the period when empires were contested and the US divested itself of its territorial empire in various different ways after World War II.

All of this is done through an engagement with an astounding array of scholarship (there are almost 200 pages of endnotes) and in a lively written style. A particular strength is the way Hopkins brings his powers of exposition to bear on some complex and arcane areas of the empire. These serve to highlight the globalized nature of American power and influence, but also some of the limits of that power. The role of sugar is a dominant theme, as the increasingly populous and affluent United States drove demand for the commodity, and thus achieved de facto control over many sugar-producing economies. Hopkins shows the ways in which American lawmakers privileged domestic interests and voters, meaning that they often ignored the territories and nations they controlled, politically excluding subject populations and rendering them effectively expendable. In this way, American democracy mitigated against the cogent management of its colonial empire and made it like so many others at the time.

Yet in discussing these weaknesses of American rule, Hopkins also exposes some of the tensions in his own study of it. His focus on the American territorial empire means that he gives short shrift to those academic advocates of informal imperialism, who see the United States as an empire that asserted itself over other nations and territories largely without the complications of formal rule, especially through the formation of multilateral institutions that it effectively controlled. Fair enough, one could say, but, in Hopkins’ terms this means that the United States was not capable of being a meaningful empire before 1898 because of its continuing status...


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