Off the Record

Is the United States an empire? 


Imperialism is thought to be one of the fundamental themes of world history; but what exactly is it, and do our national foreign policy objectives and policies advance our national interests vis a vis the rest of the world?

The Oxford dictionary defines empire as “an extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy or a sovereign state.”

Has the United States ever fit that definition? In his lecture series, “The Tiber and the Potomac,” University of Notre Dame Professor Thomas Madden has fine-tuned the definition of imperialism in a most interesting way.

Madden said there are three kinds of empires in history: empires of conquest (which include 99 percent of empires, like the Assyrian Empire and Napoleon’s Empire), empires of commerce (such as the Venetian Empire) and empires of trust. He argued that historically there have existed only two examples of empires of trust, Rome and the United States.

Madden’s hypothesis is based on a fascinating premise: that the United States has, at least up to now, more in common with the rising Roman Republic than it does with the declining Roman Empire. “Tiber and the Potomac” explores the amazing parallels between history’s two most unusual superpowers.

Both nations created empires based on trust, skillfully making friends of societies and governments that previously had been enemies and crafting alliances for common defense.

A number of historians have offered evidence that the great 20th-century world wars were really two phases of the same war, separated by an uneasy hiatus lasting from 1918 to sometime in the 1930s.

The argument maintains that failure after World War I by the U.S. to embrace its destiny as the leader of an empire of trust made phase two inevitable.

As does Professor Madden, many historians believe that in an effort to avoid the political entanglements that were correctly perceived to have led to the Great War, the U.S. blundered by not befriending former enemies and taking a lead role in cobbling together alliances in the interest of long-term common defense.

An article in The Atlantic said that the United States may have strayed into empire of conquest during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the resultant war in the Philippines. And it may have become an imperial Leviathan of sorts in the wake of World War II.

“At root, however, the United States was never meant to be an empire, but rather that proverbial city on a hill, offering an example to the rest of the world rather than sending its military in search of dragons to slay.”

We must be willing to address in a nonpartisan manner the impact of current trends in U.S. foreign policy.

The world watches as people who are unable to obtain an appropriate security clearance enjoy access to information and material routinely restricted to only those who have been screened exhaustively by one or more intelligence agencies.

Before I first stepped aboard the fleet ballistic missile submarine USS James Monroe in September of 1969, I had undergone a thorough, comprehensive background check and had been granted a top-secret clearance. This enabled me to immediately perform my job as a Polaris missile technician and allowed me access to secret, restricted printed material.

Should U.S. voters, as well as people throughout the rest of the world, expect less of our civilian government?

A reluctance exists in recognizing the existence of a complex international political system composed not only of sovereign nation states but of coalitions and alliances—not to mention ethnic and cultural entities. Kurds, for example, act in solidarity despite existing in multiple countries and under multiple jurisdictions.



Any system operates most efficiently and is most stable when it is at or near a state of equilibrium. Recent U.S. foreign policy decisions have gone a long way to bringing disequilibrium to the international system.

In particular, I am thinking of our rejection of the Paris Climate Accord, our tattered relationship with Russia, rebuff of the Trans-Pacific Pipeline, rethinking the North American Free Trade Agreement and the president’s startling pronouncements on the efficacy of trade wars with the nations with which he should be cultivating ongoing equilibrium.

On the last issue, U.S. tariff policies, which have to do with imposing taxes or duties on imported products, has an extraordinarily interesting history.

Tariffs have historically served a key role in the nation’s foreign trade policy. Before 1913, when the federal income tax was imposed, tariffs on imports represented the greatest source of the government’s income, occasionally amounting to as much as 95 percent of that income.

In 1930, however, Congress passed and President Herbert Hoover signed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. It is viewed in retrospect as embodying the prevailing spirit of isolationism.

As the world careened toward global economic depression, the U.S. increased nearly 900 import duties, and the consensus among scholars is that this single measure represented an enormous impetus for the war that the near-universal economic chaos would precipitate.



Let’s remember that maintaining order, within and beyond a nation’s borders, is the first function of any government. The U.S. does no one a service when, as a member of the international system, it acts in ways that can only be described as largely unpredictable, irrational and arbitrary.

I am not implying that we can or should expect ever to see the return of an international political system in which the U.S. is regarded with the same degree of respect and trust it once enjoyed. There is, however, every incentive to reject the illusion that as a nation we can escape membership in that system.

As a responsible member of that system, we should make it our duty to advocate policies that promote—rather than discourage—order and international equilibrium.