The long and terrible history of U.S. power in Latin America and the Caribbean can shed light on the current ways that globalization, Empire and hegemony interact.
By Alan Knight
Talk of empire is back in vogue. Despite repeated reassurances from Donald Rumsfeld ("We're not imperialistic. We never have been.") and George W. Bush ("We have no territorial ambitions; we don't seek an Empire."), the imperialist deployment of U.S. power is undeniable.1 But Niall Ferguson, one of a new breed of polemical right-wing historians, has gone even further: from lauding the British Empire as an Empire of free trade and economic development, to lamenting that U.S. imperialism is not more strenuous, committed and explicit.2 The problem in Iraq is not that the Americans invaded in the first place, says Ferguson, but that they want to get out prematurely. The Americans, he argues, should slough off their moral scruples and build an Empire with the same confidence as the Victorians, thus bringing to the world the benefits of stability, security, trade, investment and growth. Advocacy of Empire thus goes beyond narrow national self-interest - increasing U.S. power and profit - to claims that Empire-building serves the common global good.
Such claims happily consort with notions of globalization and hegemony, chief among them being that the free movement of factors of production - goods, labor and capital - will maximize economic growth. This, Ferguson argues, was the great gift of Victorian imperialism, which opened up closed economies, promoted trade and investment, and thus became a great engine of international development. Similar claims are made about U.S. hegemony in the second half of the twentieth century, which, it is argued, has provided valuable "public goods," thanks to which the global economy has prospered.
With its long and tumultuous experience with U.S. imperialism stretching back at least to the 1840s, Latin America offers abundant examples of how U.S. power has actually been deployed and how these contentious notions of "empire," "hegemony" and "globalization" might best be defined and understood. In his recent book, Colossus, Ferguson devotes some 25 ill-informed pages to the U.S. and Latin America, but he devotes about twice as many to Iraq, swapping history for journalism. As a result, the long Latin American experience with U.S. "Empire" or "hegemony" remains marginal to the contemporary debate.