A.G. Hopkins on American Empire: A Global History

American Empire by A. G. Hopkins is a panoramic work of scholarship that presents a bold new global perspective on the history of the United States. Drawing on his expertise in economic history and the imperial histories of Britain and Europe, A. G. Hopkins takes readers from the colonial era to today to show how, far from diverging, the United States and Western Europe followed similar trajectories throughout this long period, and how America’s dependency on Britain and Europe extended much later into the nineteenth century than previously understood. American Empire goes beyond the myth of American exceptionalism to place the United States within the wider context of the global historical forces that shaped the Western empires and the world. Read on to learn more about how A.G. Hopkins turns American exceptionalism on its head.

How did you come to write a book on the United States?

The question is more penetrating than readers might think because I had spent the greater part of my career working on the history of subjects far removed from the national history of the United States. But it so happened that I arrived in the United States to take up a permanent university position in 2001 a few hours before the events of 9/11. The animated debate over the role of the United States as a global power that followed caught my attention because it raised the issue of whether the US was an empire. When the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003, I found myself involved in an unplanned commitment to identify the prime movers of US foreign policy.

So, your book is really an extended examination of US international policy?

Not really. Iraq was the starting point but the destination has turned out to be both different and distant. I had to undertake so much preparatory work in what, for me, was a new field of study that it was not until about 2012 that I was ready to produce a manuscript. By then, the United States had withdrawn from Iraq and attention had shifted elsewhere. By that time, too, my reading had followed a trail that led in two directions: one took me back through the twentieth and nineteenth centuries to the history of colonial America; the other led me to place the evolution of the United States in a wider, non-national setting.

How did you fit national and global history together?

There was no point in trying to rewrite the history of the United States: that task had long been in the hands of many fine historians who had spent their careers studying the subject. The only prospect I had of contributing to such a well-established subject was by looking at it from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, while also trying to absorb elements of the national story that fitted my purpose. The resulting study has brought together several decades of accumulated knowledge from three diverse fields of history. My interest in globalization has supplied the broad analytical context; my work on Western empires has suggested how imperial expansion transmitted globalizing impulses; my research on the indigenous history of former colonial states, especially those in Africa, has given me an awareness of how different the world looks when viewed from the other side of the frontier.

Yes, but how does this work in practice?

The argument, put simply, is that the history of the United States, from colonial times to the present day, conforms to three phases of globalization. Each phase can be understood by relating it to the history of Western empires, which were the principal agents of globalization from the seventeenth century to the second half of the twentieth century. One phase culminated in the great crises of the military-fiscal state in late eighteenth century, which produced the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the implosion of the Spanish Empire. A second phase, which was bound up with the rise of nation states and industrialization, fueled the dramatic partition of the world at the close of the nineteenth century. A third phase, which developed after World War II, ushered in decolonization and the post-colonial world order we know today.

Does this interpretation alter the way we understand US history?

I think it offers a different emphasis on some familiar themes. The Revolution, for example, can be seen as part of a wider fiscal crisis that engulfed much of the Western world. The familiar national story that dominates the period after 1783 can be recast to allow for continuing foreign, and especially British, influence. Similarly, the Civil War was an example of a familiar episode in the history of newly decolonized states: how to turn a state in to a nation. The period after 1865 was one of reconstruction and nation-building, as it was elsewhere, notably in Germany and Italy. The era of high imperialism that followed included the United States too. The war with Spain in 1898 that led to United States to establish a formal insular empire was an expression of forces that applied to expansive imperial powers elsewhere.

But what happened after 1898?

That is a particularly astute question because at that point the existing literature changes and so does the emphasis of my argument. The literature on the period before 1898 is voluminous beyond measure, and I need to be familiar with it to develop my argument that the United States continued to be dependent on outside forces after 1783. After 1898, the US had clearly attained effective independence and I have no need to engage with the national story to the same degree. Instead, I need to reconstruct the history of the principal islands, Hawai’i, the Philippines, Puerto Rico (and Cuba, as an example of a protectorate). The big problem here is that, after the war with Spain, historians return to the national story and ignore the empire the war created. The last comprehensive study of the management of the colonial empire was published in 1962. Work of high quality has been completed on individual islands since then but has not yet been pulled together.

Is this where your knowledge of African history becomes helpful?

I hope so. Of course, knowledge of the indigenous history of another set of Western colonies is not directly relevant because the facts are different, but it is helpful in providing a perspective other than the one seen from Washington. An imperial standpoint from outside the US is also valuable because it suggests how the history of the US empire fits that of the other Western empires. The principles and techniques of colonial rule were the same; so was the trajectory. The US empire rose and fell in harmony with the other imperial states.

But many commentators claim that the US created an empire after 1945.

Yes, indeed. But the claim rests on a very general definition of ‘empire’ that makes it synonymous with powerful states. After 1945, the United Sates was a great power but it was not an empire. Comparisons with Rome, accordingly, are anachronistic. I use the term to refer to territorial control, which characterized the Western empires before World War II and was essential to the type of integration that suited the needs of the period from about 1750 to 1950. Under conditions of post-colonial globalization that followed, territorial empires were neither necessary not feasible. The world economy changed; concepts of human rights grew in influence. To the extent that the invasion of Iraq was intended to remake the Middle East, it was a colonial venture that destined to fail. The age of great empires had passed

What readership do you have in mind?

The book should appeal to historians of the United States, who are becoming increasingly sympathetic to global perspectives. It should also attract historians of other Western empires, who have left the study of the US empire to historians of the United States, who have bypassed it. Beyond these two groups, the argument should interest specialists in international relations and policy-makers who recognize that knowledge of the past is vital to an understanding of the present. Ibn Khaldun put it well more than six centuries ago, when he argued that history was a practical art needed for the “acquisition of excellence in ruling.”

HopkinsA. G. Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge and former Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local; Globalization in World History; British Imperialism, 1688–2015; and An Economic History of West Africa. He lives in Cambridge, England.

A peek inside The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper

HarperHere is the monumental retelling of one of the most consequential chapters of human history: the fall of the Roman Empire. The Fate of Rome is the first book to examine the catastrophic role that climate change and infectious diseases played in the collapse of Rome’s power—a story of nature’s triumph over human ambition. A poignant reflection on humanity’s intimate relationship with the environment, The Fate of Rome provides a sweeping account of how one of history’s greatest civilizations encountered and endured, yet ultimately succumbed to the cumulative burden of nature’s violence. Check out the trailer to learn more.


Kyle Harper is professor of classics and letters and senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425 and From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel on Decolonization

DecolonizationThe end of colonial rule in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean was one of the most important and dramatic developments of the twentieth century. In the decades after World War II, dozens of new states emerged as actors in global politics. Long-established imperial regimes collapsed, some more or less peacefully, others amid mass violence. Decolonization by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel takes an incisive look at decolonization and its long-term consequences, revealing it to be a coherent yet multidimensional process at the heart of modern history. Recently, the authors answered some questions about their new book:

You describe the dissolution of colonial empires as a major process of the twentieth century. What makes decolonization important?

In a way, decolonization is both among the most overrated and underrated historical processes of the twentieth century. On the one hand, many contemporaries pinned high expectations to the end of colonial rule: a new age of social and international equality, post-racism, peace, empowerment of the South, economic redistribution, cultural self-determination, democracy, technological progress, etc. Many of these expectations did not, or only partially, materialize. Hierarchies and inequality continue to shape the relations between formally independent states. It is thus only natural that many see decolonization through the prism of historical disappointment and disillusion. They regard decolonization as a failure. Yet we also have to see what decolonization did change: It dramatically altered the norms that govern the word-wide relations between nations and peoples. While in the late 1930s large parts of the world population still lived in territories that were under alien rule, this has become an anomaly in the present time. Racial hierarchy is no longer an accepted structuring principle of world order. This fundamental normative change is a major dimension—and yes, also an achievement—of the decolonization era. In general, it is important to go beyond these narratives of failure and success and to understand decolonization as a fundamental restructuring—and geopolitical fragmentation—of the international system. This is a perspective we put forward in the book.

How do you explain this international sea change?

This is a question that many contemporaries and witnesses of decolonization were already debating, and today’s historians and political scientists have inherited several ways of explaining the end of colonial rule: that the colonial powers simply could not stem against the rising tide of national liberation movements, that the new postwar international scene of the Cold War and international organizations forced Europe’s colonial powers to give up colonial rule, or that the colonial powers, in association with influential big business interests, realized that they could pursue their interests in more cost-effective ways than colonial rule, the classical “neo-colonialism” theory. In our book, in line with today’s excellent scholarship, we try to avoid overtly simplified models. Decolonization was a multifaceted and complex historical process, and its sheer geographical breadth should caution us against one-factor-theories. The book seeks to provide an analytical grid that takes into account various levels of historical action (local, imperial, international) and time frames. This grid may be used by our readers to analyze and describe specific cases, and may also help to explain decolonization in comparative perspective.

How irreversible is this process, in light of the current international scene? Are there no clear signs that the international order marked by decolonization is coming to an end?

Decolonization never did away with power structures between nations and peoples. Rather, it changed the ways in which these hierarchies are arranged and exercised. The formally sovereign nation-state—and no longer the empire—has become the basis of the international system. Despite the current renaissance of “spheres of interest” and “interventions,” as worrisome as these tendencies are, we do not see the reemergence of internationally codified hierarchies between “metropoles” and “colonies.” To be sure, the post-1989 international order has been under great pressure. Yet, there are no historical precedents for the reappearance of once collapsed empires. If current talk of a “Greater Russia” really leads to Russian “re-imperialization” remains to be seen. In that case, Russian ambitions will eventually clash with a self-confident China, ironically its old Asian rival, which, by the way, has never really ceased to be an empire. Elsewhere, the rise of xenophobic and racist movements throughout the Western world hardly seems to be inspired by the desire to be again at the pinnacle of a diverse and multi-ethnic empire. These movements want to minimize interaction with what they conceive as the inferior and dangerous other (be they Syrians, Eastern Europeans, or Mexicans); their new symbol is “the Wall.” Colonial re-expansion would necessarily go in a different direction.

You also argue that decolonization marked “a crucial phase in West European nation-building.” What do you mean by this?

Of course, decolonization did not bring about new European nation-states. This happened in the global South. Yet, it did have a considerable impact on the European metropoles, and also on Japan, which had built up its own colonial empire in Asia from the late nineteenth century on. These metropoles were closely tied to their overseas possessions, and it is one of the paradoxes of the decolonization era that such ties intensified at the very moment of imperial demise. After the Second World War, Great Britain and France, the two leading colonial powers, sought to facilitate mobility within their imperial spheres and set up, by today’s standards, relatively liberal citizenship laws for people from their respective empires. Decolonization, in this context, came as no less than a rupture in longstanding geopolitical orientations. It set off a new phase in European nation-building, a sort of nation-building by way of contraction. The metropoles had to dissolve or redefine the many—economic, political, social, also mental—ties to their respective empires. In light of increased immigration from their former colonial territories, they also had to redefine what it meant to be British, French, or Dutch. Though not produced by the end of empire, European supranational integration became enmeshed in European decolonization: the postcolonial European nation-states started to focus on Europe and the European market, which more than made up for their losses in former imperial trade. Great Britain, marked by a long-standing ambivalence toward continental Europe, made its first attempt to join the European Common Market in 1961, after the disaster of the Suez crisis and at the apogee of African decolonization. In a way, the 2016 “Brexit” vote to drop out of the European Union concluded this period of postimperial British supra-nationalism.

How present is the history of decolonization today?

Remnants of the colonial past and the decolonization era are pervasive. They remind us that our current world was built out of the ruins of empire. For example, a large portion of international borders between states, including the conflicts they sometimes nourish, have been the result of colonial rule. Decolonization basically enshrined most of them as the borders between sovereign nation-states. Some of the most troubling conflicts in the world—such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the conflict between Pakistan and India—can be traced back to the decolonization era. Yet, notwithstanding the many apparent links, assessing the long-term impact of decolonization and the colonial past remains a tricky operation. Postcolonial countries have taken very different trajectories, sometimes starting from the same colonial system. Consider the two Koreas which had been under Japanese rule and which took diverging paths. The Syrian civil war, to cite another case, can hardly be seen as the ineluctable result of Franco-British quasi-colonial rule in the Middle East during the interwar years.

While the impact of the colonial past and the decolonization process may be fading with time, memories relating to this period have experienced a boom over the past two decades. Certainly, many episodes of the decolonization period remain largely forgotten. Who remembers the bloody repression of a major insurrection in Madagascar in 1947–49? Yet, debates about the colonial past and its end have attracted a great deal of attention not only in formerly colonized countries, but also in Japan and in many European countries. These memories have even become a concern in the diplomatic world. Internationally concerted efforts at remembering the effects—and the many victims—of colonial rule, similar to what we have seen with regard to the Holocaust or the world wars, however, are still no more than a wild dream by some historians.

Why did you write this book?

Decolonization has become an important topic in international historical scholarship, a development not completely detached from the memory boom we just talked about. Over the past two decades, historians and social scientists around the world have worked at piecing together a complex picture of this process and its reverberations. In many cases they have unearthed new archival evidence, a lot of which has only recently become accessible. Decolonization is in the process of turning into a highly productive—and specialized—research field. The wealth of new empirical studies, however, has been rarely accompanied by attempts at synthesis or general interpretation. The book offers such a broader survey. We sought to write it in a clear, accessible prose which addresses students and scholars, but also readers from outside the historical profession who are interested in this process.

Jan C. Jansen is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. Jürgen Osterhammel is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Konstanz. He is a recipient of the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, Germany’s most prestigious academic award. His books include The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton).