The ‘E’ and ‘I’ words, empire and imperialism, are back in fashion. Their return is not due, pace John Ikenberry, to the advent of the ‘American unipolar age’ in which ‘[f]or the first time in the modern era, the world’s most powerful state can operate on the global stage without the constraints of other great powers’.footnote1 That age had begun with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, yet throughout the 1990s the buzz-word was ‘globalization’, not empire or imperialism; and as Ikenberry himself notes, the unparalleled global power of the United States was generally discussed under the rubric of ‘hegemony’. Even critical thinkers—including many Marxists—found the concepts of empire and imperialism of little analytical use.footnote2 In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, Bruce Cumings claimed that it would have taken an electron microscope to detect the use of the word ‘imperialism’ to describe the United States’ role in the world.footnote3 Hyperbole, of course; but the exaggeration contained an important element of truth.

Nor did the publication of Empire in 2000 significantly alter this situation, for Hardt and Negri’s work simply repackaged and gave a radical twist to the central tenets of globalization-speak, including the proposition that under the present conditions of global economic and informational integration no nation-state, not even the us, can form the centre of an imperialist project. Indeed, Hardt and Negri presented Empire as a logic and structure of world rule that was in key respects antithetical to the imperialism that Marxists had theorized in the twentieth century.footnote4

The real break with the 1990s occurred only in 2001, when the Bush Administration responded to the events of September 11 by embracing a new imperial programme—that of the Project for a New American Century. There is a curious resemblance between this reflex and the actions that, sixty years earlier, had ushered in the first American Century. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan had convinced Roosevelt that a Pax Americana was necessary to ensure us domestic security and prosperity. But non-interventionist currents in foreign policy were hard to challenge as long as the American people believed that continental isolation ensured their safety. Between the outbreak of the European war and Pearl Harbor, Franz Schurmann has argued, ‘Roosevelt undoubtedly prayed for some dramatic demonstration that this was not so’. When his prayers were answered, ‘Roosevelt made astute use of the ideological sentiments of nationalism aroused by Pearl Harbor to elaborate an ideology of imperialism through which he promised Americans order, security and justice.’footnote5

Once the Second World War was over, however, isolationist dispositions reasserted themselves. Truman and Acheson knew very well that appeals to raison d’état and us economic interests would not be enough to overcome them. In drafting the text that became the Truman doctrine, they accordingly followed Arthur Vandenberg’s notorious advice to ‘scare hell out of the American people’ by inflating the notion of global Communist menace.footnote6 The trick worked in winning Congress support for the Marshall Plan. But something more was needed to secure funding for the large-scale us and European rearmament envisaged in National Security Council document 68, which Truman approved in principle in April 1950. The nsc document gave no precise figure, but estimates suggested annual expenditures 300 per cent above that originally requested by the Pentagon for 1950:

How to get that kind of money from a fiscally conservative Congress, even in the name of anti-communism, presented no small task for the Administration. What was required was an international emergency, and since November 1949, Secretary Acheson had been predicting that one would occur sometime in 1950 in the Asian rimlands—in Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, or all three. Two months after the President examined nsc-68, that crisis happened. Acheson was to say later, ‘Korea came along and saved us’.footnote7

It is hard to tell what Bush may have been praying for in the eight months between his inauguration and September 11, but we know that the promoters of the Project for a New American Century within his Administration were waiting for a chance to implement the new imperial strategy they had long been working on.footnote8 Their first months in office were not propitious, but bin Laden, to paraphrase Acheson, ‘saved them’. As Michael Mann has observed, he provided both ‘the popular mobilizing power and the targets’.footnote9 The menace of Muslim ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘rogue states’ became the new fear factor, scaring hell out of the American people and winning almost unanimous Congress support for the invasion of Iraq that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz had been unsuccessfully advocating for the best part of a decade.footnote10

It is this development that has revived the fortunes of the ‘E’ and ‘I’ words to describe the emergent imperial project of the United States. Many critics have pointed out that the policies adopted by the Bush Administration in response to 9/11 constituted a particularly unrealistic and clumsy project of global supremacy, and if they fail in their objectives the ‘E’ and ‘I’ words may lose currency as quickly as they gained it.footnote11 Nevertheless the social, political and economic circumstances that prompted the emergence of the Project for a New American Century, and its adoption as official us policy, can be expected to persist in one form or another.