"American empire" as an analytic question or a rhetorical move?

Hendrik Spruyt*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Recent events have led to a renewed scholarly interest in empire and the question whether the United States and its policies abroad constitute an "American Empire." This essay clarifies the various uses of the term and argues that conceptual overstretching retards scholarly analysis of the phenomenon. This essay suggests a definition of the term "empire" and provides an ideal-typical reference point to study its empirical variations. I provide a typology of empires to guide the analysis of common features as well as distinguishing characteristics. We can then answer the question whether contemporary manifestations might differ from their historical precursors. American unilateralist policy today differs in fundamental respects from previous imperial processes and structures. In contradistinction with earlier empires, U.S. policies lack the incentive structures for peripheral elites and local populations that typified imperial rule in the past. While falling short of constituting a formal empire, its policies face the same contradictions that confronted the western maritime empires as well as the USSR and which led to their dismemberment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)290-299
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Studies Perspectives
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 2008


  • Empire
  • Iideal-type
  • Universalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Political Science and International Relations

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