Empire without an Emperor. America's inability to rule the world and its consequences.

Essay 2004 13 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: USA


Empire without an emperor.

America’s inability to rule the world and its consequences

Table Of Content

Section 1 – Empire defined

Section 2 – The quest for and the indispensability of order – Is there an empire?

Section 3 – Mastering globalisation – the case for an “American” empire

Section 4 – Who wants to be an emperor? – When the will to power meets reality


The last 15 years, the period after the surprising and precipitous decline of the Soviet Union and the international structure of bipolarity saw another discussion of the future development of the international system. Some predicted that an ever declining America will be balanced by aspiring middle sized powers or new alliances; others foresaw a peaceful future in an America-dominated unipolar system due to the vast gap in the capabilities of the US and its closest pursuers. Whatever stand one made, one question remained and still remains central to an assessment of the future development of the international system: the role of the United States of America.

Especially after September 11 a discussion came to the surface that has been lingering in the international system since the end of the Cold War period: Is there an American empire? In the last years a lot of scholars – political and non-political alike – started talking about the emergence or non-emergence of such a phenomenon and the range of these writings encompassed, on one extreme, realists like William Wohlforth[1], who celebrated American greatness in an unbridled enumeration of its quantitative capabilities and demanded an unconditional surrender to American power from the rest of the world and, on the other extreme, the prayer-wheel-like repetition of the American demise by writers such as the French historian Emmanuel Todd.[2] Between these extreme positions there are a lot of different viewpoints dealing with the characteristics and consequences of the current US-dominated international system. This domination and the vast gap between the capabilities of the US and other states in the system are unprecedented in history and cannot even be matched by former empires like the Roman or the British. Nevertheless, many scholars decided to use the phrase “empire” to describe the situation. To adjust this historical term to the present conditions nearly innumerable refinements, mostly “attributive”, have been made ranging from “reluctant empire” to “Empire lite”.[3] As it is always the case with applying old terms to new situations there appear some difficulties regarding the appropriateness of the term in the current situation. This is not only a semantic matter but also plays a crucial role for real world politics. If one considers oneself as an empire one will inevitably act as one – perception, especially self-perception matters in international politics. This essay will go beyond the question of the reasonableness of America’s foreign policy or assessments of particular capabilities and try to look at the term empire itself to discuss the soundness of using this term to describe the present situation. This essay will argue that the situation is more complex than depicted in most of the contributions and the question that has to be raised is twofold: 1. Is there an empire? 2. Given an affirmative answer, is it an American empire? At first glance, the separation of the term American empire into two different contexts seems inappropriate, for a lot of people would argue that if there is an empire it only can be an American one. The argument in this essay rests upon the widely familiar distinction in IR between agent and structure. An empire describes a specific kind of international structure whereas the attribute “American” points to the agent that is allegedly in charge of this structural phenomenon. Eventually, this essay will argue that there is an imperial structure out there but no agent who is actually in charge of it – in other words: there is an empire without an emperor.

The first section will shed light on the definition of the term empire and will examine four different kinds of dominion within the international system: the formal empire, the informal empire, the hybrid form of empire called suzerainty and hegemony. The second section will point out that all different kinds of empire – historical and contemporary alike – have one common essence on the basis of which one can assess the appropriateness of using the term to describe a particular pattern in the international system – a concept of imperial order. This will be followed by discussing the question whether there is an internationally valid and influential kind of order at present. The third section will scrutinize the reasonableness of the term “American” empire and the fourth section will contain a conclusion and short prospect for the development of the international system in the near future.

Section 1 – Empire defined

As mentioned before the term empire has been used in many different contexts, historical and contemporary alike. A very influential definition was written by Michael Doyle in his book about empires.[4] He distinguishes between four different possible outcomes of the presence of a superior power within the system. Based on what he calls “weight of power” Doyle distinguishes between formal empire, informal empire, suzerainty and hegemony.[5] This distinction rests upon the dichotomy of form and reality. By form, Doyle refers to the formal sovereignty – in other words the annexation of territory – by the imperial power. Reality is the term for the ability of the imperial power to wield effective sovereignty over foreign actors.[6] According to this distinction one can find an empire in which both terms – form and reality – are there. This kind of empire is called formal empire for it establishes territorial control and wields its power by direct control. Therefore form as well as reality is imperial. The second form of empire is characterised by an absence of form but the presence of reality. In this case the imperial power has no direct military control over the territory of other actors and so lacks the imperial form. However, it is able to influence the actions of other units by indirect means such as economic control and is therefore called informal. The third form of empire is called suzerainty. This is not a pure form of empire for it can be characterised by an absence of reality but a presence of form. In that sense suzerainty describes a hybrid form between an imperial reality and a mere situation of hegemony. In that case the imperial or suzerain power is able to establish an imperial form but is unable to deprive its subordinates of their effective sovereignty. The last possible outcome in which the weight of power is weakest is called hegemony. In that case the superior power is “only” able to influence the outward behaviour of other actors and therefore does not have either formal sovereignty or effective sovereignty over other actors at its disposal.[7]

The first two kinds of dominance belong to the category of empire the third must be seen as a hybrid and the fourth describes a mere situation of predominance with a limited influence on the external behaviour of other units. It is remarkable though that Doyle in no case makes the distinction between agent and structure. In all four scenarios agent and structure are inextricably bound together and by assuming a continuous correspondence between agent and structure Doyle neglects the possibility of an empire without an emperor. In other words Doyle resolves the agent-structure debate in a very simple and superficial way by assuming a one-way monocausal relationship in which the agent is the independent and the structure the dependent variable. The structure can only change if the agent changes and goes always conform to the capabilities of the agent. The ramification of this assumption leads to the deduction that an imperial structure can only exist as long as there is an imperial agent and the structure will demise immediately when the agent demises. In the present situation that seems inadequate.

Therefore, in the following sections this essay will argue that the phenomenon of empire is better understood by assuming a mutual influential relationship between agent and structure. To analyse a specific situation it is therefore better to examine the relationship between agent and structure instead of form and reality and that the measure of empire is not its level of control or weight of power but its ability to establish a specific kind of international order.

Section 2 – The quest for and the indispensability of order – Is there an empire?

As was mentioned in the above section, the level of direct control decides on the kind of empire ranging from a full territorial control of a formal empire to weak control within a hegemonic structure. Within this given range of possible scenarios many scholars make a point for an American empire in the unipolar system after the end of the Cold War, mostly referring to the form of the informal empire.[8] Control as a defining principle is irrevocably important but misses the point that besides the necessary direct or indirect control there is a more fundamental need within an imperial structure and this requirement is inherent in whatever form of empire. This characteristic goes beyond a mere control or influence and it is about order. Effective control is only possible in conjunction with an organising principle behind it.[9] If one takes a look at all the different empires that existed in the past and may exist in the future one can find that a sustaining imperial structure within the international system is only conceivable by establishing a specific kind of order that allows the imperial power to wield its influence by a particular set of rules. This order has two dimensions: first a physical dimension encompassing the ability to organise the empire in a spatial way and secondly a metaphysical dimension containing a specific kind of norms and values that at least will become predominant over other forms of societal, economic, political and cultural organisation. The first of these two dimensions is not essential and can be absent as in the form of an informal empire. The second dimension, however, is mandatory and can not be missing. So if one wants to answer the question: ‘Is there an empire?’ one has to look at the international system and find a structure of institutionalised norms and values that are valid for a number of units and mainly shaped by the superior actor within the system. Only if this is the case one can identify the existence of an empire.


[1] Brooks, Stephen G and Wohlforth, William: American Primacy in Perspective, in: Foreign Affairs, July/August 2002, p. 21ff.

[2] Todd, Emmanuel: After the Empire. The breakdown of the American order, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

[3] See for instance Mallaby, Sebastian: The reluctant imperialist, in: Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002, p. 2ff.

[4] Doyle, Michael: Empires, Ithaca, N.Y.; London: Cornell University Press, 1986.

[5] Doyle, Michael: Empires, Ithaca, N.Y.; London: Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 40ff.

[6] Doyle, Michael: Empires, Ithaca, N.Y.; London: Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 30ff. and 42.

[7] Doyle, Michael: Empires, Ithaca, N.Y.; London: Cornell University Press, 1986, p. 40.

[8] See for instance Snyder, Jack: Imperial temptations, in: The National Interest, Spring 2003, p. 29 or Ferguson, Niall: Colossus. The Price of America’s empire, New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

[9] See Hendrickson, David C.: Toward Universal Empire, in: World Policy Journal, Fall 2002, p. 4.


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London School of Economics – Department of International Relations
Empire Emperor America International Politics




Title: Empire without an Emperor. America's inability to rule the world and its consequences.