I’ve bumped into something, quite frequently now, while living abroad. There is a strong predilection for referring to the United States as an “empire.” I understand how it might get interjected into media, particularly newspapers via the opinion section. Some in academia, like Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich (who I happen to admire greatly) have used it as a standard part of their basic arguments. In turn, this term has seeped its way into the daily lexicon to the point that it might not be possible to bring it back out. It plays into the American decline storyline ~ it’s more fun to watch an “empire” fall than just a very powerful country. So I did some research, and have found a credible antidote to this common usage in the form of Yale historian and classicist Donald Kagan, one of the world’s most prestigious writers on the Athenian and Persian Empires, as well as the Peloponnesian War. On 14 May 2003, he gave an interview to National Public Radio on that conflict, and addressed the issue of an American “Empire.”
It’s become very popular in the last year to compare the American influence and power in the world with empires of one sort or another, and in my mind that’s simply misguided. It reflects an absence of knowledge of what empires are. It’s interesting, let’s take a look at the Athenian Empire and you’ll see why I say it.Here’s what it was to be a member of the Athenian Empire: the Athenians told you what kind of government you would have, the Athenians collected money from you that you didn’t want to give them, the Athenians required that you do military and naval service for them whether you wanted to or not, the Athenians were your masters, and that was clear enough.
Whatever you want to say about American influence for good or ill in the world, there’s simply nothing like that. So our situation, I think, has to be understood differently.
Truth to tell, I don’t blame people for making such mistakes, I think the character of American power today is unique in the history of the world. Somebody needs to invent a better word that will distinguish it from something from which it is different.”
“Empire” is incorrect; perhaps “regional hegemon with global reach” or simply “great power” might more accurate?