This article reviews the idea of ‘American Empire’. For most of the Cold War, this term formed part of particular kind of Marxian critique of American power. Neither American nor European statesmen, nor the mainstream press, regarded America as an ‘empire’. Interestingly, the idea of an ‘American Empire’, stripped of its Marxian connotations, entered the mainstream towards the end of Cold War. This article asks two questions: what does it mean? Is it a useful expression or a dangerous distortion? It will be argued that, as a general statement of American political economy, ‘American Empire’ is meaningless: it neither lends itself to positive comparison with European empires nor describes any concrete aspect of the international relations of the US. However, it is possible to refer to American empires limited in time and space, for instance to formal empire in the Philippines or informal empire in Iran. ‘American Empire’ is thus a distortion; but is it dangerous? The idea certainly captured the neoconservative imagination, but it does not seem to have had real policy implications.
Andrew Baker completed his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2007. He has since taught history and politics at the University of Buckingham and the University of Hertfordshire. He is writing a book on the origins of post-war order.