MG in-depth

Why empires are not a good bargain

North America

Trump’s election is the by-product of America’s imperial fatigue. But will the U.S. resign from being the world’s only superpower? And are any of its competitors ready to take over?

1. The world as such does not exist in geopolitics. There are indeed worlds; they are the strategic representations of the planet provided by geopolitical players. They are each based on their own fickle perspective, conditioned by history, culture and geography and stimulated by technological evolution. Evidence of this is provided by the very changeable world maps produced over the centuries by cartographers at the service of princes, maps in which seas and continents are arbitrarily arranged according to seductive spatial hierarchies aimed at exalting the purchaser’s importance or aspirations.

The imago mundi is never neutral. It is always a geopolitical instrument. Now that images prevail over words, spreading one’s own version of the world’s surface is a fundamental ante in the competition for power.

No one commands or has ever commanded the world – although some have dreamt of doing so. If they had, history would already be over. Those who have attempted to draft its death certificate have suffered harsh retaliation. All empires, however, intended to create – and map – their own world, dominating it by becoming its sovereign and not only because of the predominance of weapons or the size of the economy. This was possible above all thanks to an ideology and therefore the assertion of their own way of seeing the ecumene and attributing historical direction to it, even if just a temporary destiny. Hence the philosophy of history, the queen of knowledge, that two centuries ago allowed Hegel to establish, in the presence of his students in Berlin, that, “Reason rules the world”[1]. It would require an act of faith to believe that nowadays history expresses the rational route of the spirit of the world, embodied in different ways by Hegelian heroes, from Pericles to Napoleon, from Socrates to Luther. Geopolitics cannot afford such an act of faith, because it does not search for truth in history. It is not absolute knowledge; it only compares projects in conflict over given areas. At the opposite end of any philosophical system, there is the study of the limitations the world imposes on those intending to dominate it.

Every world is established starting from the observation point of those wishing to understand it. It is a pointless to look for the Archimedes point – or Napoleon’s – from which one can nowadays cast a supreme eye over humanity. America itself, prevalent but not hegemonic on the planet, offers no such lever, since there is no emperor at the head of its informal empire[2]. The current president of the United States perhaps has the ego. He lacks the status, however, even more than the vast power media opinion obstinately attributes to him.

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An analysis of the planetary distribution of power must begin with the observation that there has been a multiplication of spaces, players and geopolitical instruments over the past quarter of a century, ever since the end of the Cold War, the last semi-global shared paradigm. Consequently, power is more widespread. Dispersed. Contrary to the dominant Western version of the 1990s, growing interdependence between human beings and their territories has not unified the planet, it has segmented it. The ideology of globalisation, the American empire’s brand name, took for granted a naïve anthropological optimism, according to which human beings would recognise one another as similar and sympathetic. On the contrary, never before have communities and nations tried so hard to exhibit exclusive identities.

Broadening one’s horizon to the last century’s parabola, one observes three correlated dynamics that contribute to the animation of the cartography of powers at a global level and emphasise the current chaos. In order of importance they are: the demographic explosion, the new dimensions of geopolitical disputes and the proliferation of the players intervening. This traces a curve that moves from relative order to rising disorder.

Let us begin with demography. At the beginning of the 20th century, the planet was inhabited by one and a half billion souls, mainly white people (795 million), with a relative prevalence of Christians (555 million)[3]. Now there are almost seven and half billion people, soon to become over ten billion after 2050. White people are a small decreasing minority, while the two billion Christians amount to just a little over 25% of humankind. According to Massimo Livi Bacci, in 50 years’ time, each human being will on average have space equal to that of a soccer pitch (one thousand times less than ten thousand years ago), with phenomenal imbalances between young and poor overpopulated countries – especially in sub-Saharan Africa – and relatively wealthy and aging nations in demographic decline, above all in Europe[4].

As far as the dimensions of power are concerned, on the eve of World War I the battlefields for geopolitical and geo-economic clashes were two; land and sea. Over time, the air, the cosmos and cyberspace have been added to these, as has the media in its more recent and basically a-social declinations (thus classified as social media). Finally, there are the players. Once upon a time, there were empires. At the beginning of the 20th century, 90% of inhabited lands were controlled by the Europeans or by their descendants. They classified humankind on the basis of racial hierarchies, with whites at the top, followed by yellow-skinned people, mixed-race people and other intermediate colours, and lower down, blacks – at the time, still Negroes.[5]

The only one left still preserving a Caesar-like aura is Japan, a country that is almost mono-ethnic, but Akihito is an emperor with no empire. The formally disbanded empires – from France to the United Kingdom, from China to Russia, from Persia to Turkey – retain the gene of this past greatness that results in sterile nostalgia or emphatic revisionism. In the only real empire, the United States of America, the word empire is still the object of dispute among the superpower’s defenders and critics, after being for so long a taboo as it is in conflict with the anti-colonial revolution it arose from. The fact remains that following the dissolution of empires, the number of states has quadrupled either through gemmation or secession, increasing from 53 in 1900 to the over two hundred existing today, of which 193 have been admitted to the United Nations. And although we lazily continue to speak of them as nation states, in many cases they are asset-based entities, whether acknowledged or not. Some are managed by one family (Saudi Arabia), some by criminal organisations (Transnistria), and even by terrorists (Islamic State or what remains of it). Of course, the more powerful or the less impotent states are, they are still the sorters of last resort in competitions for power, causing despair among those who believed they were incompatible with a “global world”. They do, however, count for less than they would like to appear to.

New aspiring protagonists emerge to side with them and at times outdo them in current geopolitical scrums, of which about thirty are classifiable as wars of significant intensity. Multinational companies dominate the stage and one can count at least 43,000, of which 147 are particularly powerful[5]. There are the big banks, almost all Western, as well as the other financial managers engaged in the strategic match involving liquidity transfers. There are then also the data lords (Google, Facebook, Amazon), in competition or the control of algorithms, hence the programming of automatisms. The list continues with NGOs (at times created by their reference governments), ethnic or transnational mafias whose size and capability is often superior to that of their countries of origin. Lastly there are the churches and para-religious sects offering sought-after goods, such as the meaning of life.

The doomsday crowd may be resigned to await a thermonuclear war or an asteroid that will destroy the planet. Ungovernability, however, is not its destiny. The world is certainly out of sync, but not for the first time in history. Reversing the perspective, the greatest disorder releases the broadest possibilities for change in the global redistribution of power. Instead of ending, history has returned to move at high speed and with it so has the competition between those who believe they can orient it towards their own interests, or simply refuse to endure it.

2. “There is a feeling in the air that this nation has reached, or is at least approaching, a great crisis in its history”.[6] John William Burgess, a pioneer of American political science educated in the neo-Hegelian seminars of the German academy, said this on the spur of the moment following the conquest of the Philippines, sanctioned by the Treaty of Paris that on December 10th, 1898, marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was an event that according to Burgess, and many others after him, certified the birth of the American empire. “But the Philippine Islands stand in no such relation to us. The principle of expansion which we have hereto followed is national expansion. The expansion involved in the occupation of the Philippines is world-empire expansion” he wrote[7].

Burgess pointed out the danger that the formalisation of colonial possessions (The Philippines were only granted independence in 1946) could undermine American democracy, foment militarism and oblige the United States to use force to control hostile populations, as already stated by the American Anti-Imperialist League founded in Boston in November 1898.

At the time however, and ever since the Founding Fathers, in America the word empire has been a synonym for “our great republic”. Or it indicated, in an anodyne manner, “the dominion of an emperor”, as also stipulated by Webster’s International Dictionary in its 1892 revised edition[8]. It was a word therefore applicable to European or Asian colonialists, but certainly not to Washington.

Burgess’ dilemma is a very current one, because it brings to mind what is at stake in Trump’s America; nothing less than the greatest world power’s geopolitical and therefore also political identity. Does the United States want to and can it still remain an empire, albeit sui generis and undeclared since it is not equipped with formal colonies in addition to its 50 states, the Federal District of Columbia and the 14 territories (of which five are inhabited, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marianna Islands, Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands)? Or, according to the title of a pamphlet by the archconservative Pat Buchanan – one of Trump’s inspirers – is it A Republic, Not an Empire (with an equally evocative sub-title, Reclaiming America’s destiny)[9]? Are the citizens of the republic/empire prepared to sustain the costs inevitably linked to imperial status, or would they instead prefer to take care of their own backyard, devoting themselves to the reconstruction of devastated national infrastructures and the protection of the white/Protestant identity threatened by immigrants and not only Hispanic ones?

In order to not only superficially address this controversy, it is best to explore the historiography. There are two schools of thought that have been in conflict on this subject since the end of World War II and that deserve special attention. The first, inspired to the iconoclastic The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams (1959), is the Open Door school of thought. American imperialism is a function of national capitalism, interested in freely expanding in the world, if necessary using force to open the gates of the markets of others[10]. The second, set out in the classic The Cycles of American History, by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1986), instead supports the hypothesis that what inspires American imperialism has been and remains reasons of state[11]. Economism against the logic of power.

A great deal speaks in favour of the geopolitical thesis, given that any monocausal interpretation of the historical course leaves aside relevant reasons and that, over time, the extra-continental projection of American capitalism has been the expression of the superpower’s inevitable vector. It was not the great companies that founded the American empire. Nor was it pressure from the people. Absurdly, America would have been an empire even if had been socialist, if it is true, as Schlesinger believes, that imperialism is what happens when a powerful state meets a weak one, an unstable border or a power vacuum, and uses its superior force to dominate other peoples to serve its own objectives[12].

But geopolitics and/or economics are not sufficient for understanding the American empire. Its quintessence is ideological. Missionary. This because the United States cannot see itself reduced to being a nation among others, differing only because of its power gradient. At the beginning of the 20th century, Supreme Court Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had already explained that, “We are the Romans of the modern word - the great assimilating people.”[13]

It is to the sound of a fanfare of uniqueness that the United States of America has appropriated itself of globalisation, seen as the Empire of Good’s projection in the world. And it is against the asserted inauspicious consequences of this ideology/praxis, that over recent years resistance has matured in increasingly vast and vocal classes of American society. It is thus that since January 20th, 2017, there has been a president in the White House who blames the country’s alleged decline on globalist Messianism. He also makes a show of being the leader of a revolutionary nationalist movement devoted to “making America great again”, cutting the country loose from the imperial burden.

3. There are two ways of looking at Trump’s America; one can concentrate on Trump or on America. The first is the finger and the second is the moon. The president is not important so much for what he says or how he contradicts himself, but for what he represents in national society. And for what, amidst almost total surprise, took him to the White House, albeit with a minority of votes.

Our primary interest is to understand whether or not this America wants to or can command the world. In other words, whether it intends to exercise an imperial role on its imago mundi, expressed in the logic of 360 degree globalisation – expanding democracy, a free flow of goods and capital, the affirmation of individuals’ human rights. The Americans who voted for Trump say ‘no’. To them globalisation means transferring work and wealth abroad, accompanied by the penetration of foreigners who cannot be assimilated into the national community. The heart of Trump’s electorate in fact consists of not very young nor very well-educated white voters, the expression of the lower-middle classes.

In the backdrop there is the racial and therefore the identity issue. Half of the white population feels it is the victim of reverse discrimination, an opinion also shared by a significant number of Hispanics (29%) and blacks (25%).[14]

Trump’s solution is “America first”. This is a geopolitical slogan that is as meaningful as it is politically vague and not exactly new in American history. In its first acceptation it envisages renouncing imperial protection – with its costs and its wars – hence abdicating from the feat of merging national interests and a universalist mission. In the second it can attract the most varied support, ranging from the extreme Left to the radical Right.

Digging deeper, Trumpian hyper-patriotism exposes the structural contradiction between globalisation and an empire. American globalists must take note that the “globalised” world is not at all a homogeneous space nor is it remotely conformed to the U.S. And of course no empire, in the strictest sense, can exist without limes, hence exercising the economics of spatial, cultural and political borders that are mobile but well-defined. Trump promises that he will partly correct this omission, building a wall along the Mexican border. Finally, the imperium par excellence from an American perspective, the Roman Empire, was obliged at the peak of its power to confront the issue of citizenship, which by definition is not universal. Can one imagine the United States’ Congress decreeing, by unravelling Burgess’ dilemma, that all subjects of the “global empire” are cives, thereby emulating Caracalla? The American empire is therefore not containable in historiography’s current imperial nomenclature. It is a paradigm unto itself. A one-off model.

As a divine project, an unselfish commonwealth does not acknowledge interlocutors or enemies as equals. Trumpian rhetoric greatly lowers this threshold. Semantics assist one here. As the leader in the ranking, America first admits a more or less conflictual coexistence with second and third place powers, with other players qualified to protect their own national interests just as much as the United States, thereby abdicating from the rank of star players and the consequent privileges that go with it. First yes. The only one, no.

To what extent will Donald Trump’s elementary rhetoric be put into practice? To what extent will this mercantilist approach, the result of his profession and not of profound political-ideological persuasions, be applied by him to relations between nations? Is his intention to bring back home manufacturing quotas exported to more attractive locations – from Mexico to Asia – compatible with the American economy’s transnational imprint? And, above all, does the neo-nationalist narrative, fuelled by racist and Islamophobic inclinations, announce a change in the American identity sufficient to undermine its cohesion and therefore its power?

Trump does not have the means to accomplish his revolution, self-centred on the idea according to which America, the victim of the idiocy of previous leaders, needs a great ruler. “People need ego. Whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies,” proclaimed the future president from the pages of Playboy in 1990[15]. The deep state – from the intelligence community to other federal agencies – the judiciary, public opinion, the intellectual elite and even part of Congress’ Republican majority have immediately underlined the restrictions to his power, accentuated by the inevitable amateurishness of a man who until he was seventy years old only observed politics rather than practising it. This has obliged Trump to disconcerting about turns. But these are still the first rounds. It will take time to establish where the pointer on the scales will stop in the arm wrestling between the cacophonic Trump Administration and the deep seats of power created to protect the empire.

If one looks at America’s world ranking from a historical perspective, one is obliged, however, to observe its embrittlement. Given that American imperialism has always been an elitist project, geopolitical extroversion has lost a great deal of its charm in a phase in which the elites are stymied and the “people” claim their primacy over experts, politicians and technocrats – if the word “populism” has a meaning it is simply this. Empires are not a good bargain. They are an atavistic, aristocratic impulse. Globalisation as the United States’ universal mission does not warm the hearts of American public opinion. Economic interdependence does not per se generate geopolitical projection. Nor are there any longer absolute enemies comparable to Nazi Germany or imperialist Japan or the Soviet Union, about which it is possible to create a narrative that will persuade the American nation of the need for an outward-looking attitude.

But the American identity, consolidated as it has been for over two centuries, is either imperial or it does not exist. Should it cease to consider itself indispensable and act accordingly, the nation would risk disintegration. At best, it would decline, becoming a great power among others on which it could no longer impose its own standards. It would have to resign itself to reaching agreements on such matters.

The means for reaffirming Washington’s hegemony remain formidable, starting with its dominion of the seas and (less) of the skies – not in cyberspace nor on land where there is a need for “friends and allies” prepared to sacrifice themselves for the superpower, not always free of charge. All this in order to continue with the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege” and the nation’s brilliant demography and technological innovation. Apparatuses do not work in apnoea. Over time, if consensus is lacking, or competition between powers loses all measure, the superpower risks stalling. When national intelligence denies classified information to its president, fearing he might allow it to be leaked to Russians, the danger level has been passed.[16]

4. Geopolitics does not like a void. Whenever there is a void, someone wishing to fill it usually rushes in. America has been suffering from imperial fatigue syndrome over the past ten years, since George W. Bush was forced by the Iraqi catastrophe to abandon neo-con utopias, passing through the Obamian leading from behind – an elegant admission of geostrategic overexposure – to then culminate in Trump’s solipsism. This is also reflected in global economic trends, showing symptoms of de-globalisation. There is, however, a lack of competitors strong enough to rise to the challenge. At the same time, even minor players on the strategic stage, while taking advantage of its resources, do not intend to act as the superpower’s maidservants. Public opinion in relevant countries such as Russia, Germany and Turkey, appears to be increasingly less enchanted by American soft power.

So the black holes dug by lower or inexistent institutional pressure in various areas of the planet remain unfilled. The tendency to chaos is accentuated, thereby restricting choices available to the superpower, aware that it cannot govern every section of this world, nor can it withdraw with impunity. Washington is desperately looking for capable and not excessively expensive partners, prepared to accept American supremacy to contribute to the maintenance of international chaos, on condition it does not exceed the safety level. This means sharing the burden, not the power. Is this possible?

It is ironic that the four poles theoretically capable of siding with the United States in such a generous feat are its potential or real competitors. In order of importance they are China, Russia, Germany and Japan, to which one distant day one may be able to add India. They are all part of Eurasia – with the Japanese archipelagos as its peculiar oceanic appendix. As an aside, this excludes for the foreseeable future that Chaosland, centred in Africa and the Middle East and hence in former European empires, may return to be part of Ordolandia (the Land of Law and Order). The priority of major powers is to prevent the chaos from spreading to their own lands, not to rebuild colonies.

So as to understand to what extent the four great powers can and want to contribute to co-managing what is mainly an American geopolitical order, it is best to start with the observation that they are all in a nationalist mood, be it in an open or veiled manner, and that they are all rearming (this also applies to the potential fifth, Modi’s India).

Increasingly less burdened by the tragic memories of its imperialism, Japan is now a top level military, industrial and technological power. In Washington’s strategic workshops, Japan is classified as a de facto nuclear power (Tōkyō could equip itself with a nuclear bomb in just a few weeks, unless it has already done so) and is a relevant player in cyberspace.

Germany is investing in the Bundeswehr with the objective of elevating it to being an “anchor army” (“Ankerarmee”) for NATO’s minor European partners. Two thirds of the Dutch armed forces are already integrated in German command organisations. Other countries, among them Romania and the Czech Republic, are ready to follow. On the basis of the motto “thinking the unthinkable” there is talk of a German atomic bomb,[17] as the United States umbrella is no longer considered reliable. The rediscovery of the national interest, increasingly wearily dressed in European blue and stars, has induced Chancellor Merkel to set herself up as the defender of liberal order in contrast with Trump’s America. Paraphrasing Obama, in Berlin there is talk of Germany as the European pivot “leading from the centre. All this without excessively analysing in depth where the leading country intends to take its associates. Grand strategy is not a German strong point.

So far, these are America’s “allies” which Washington considers freeloaders, unwilling to spend money on their own defence. As far as its rivals are concerned, even if Trump were really to share with Putin part of the dirty work in the Middle East, in the form of a war on Islamic State, it is doubtful that such cooperation could take root. This not only because of opposition from the Pentagon, the CIA and Congress, but also because the Russians distrust an unsteady president, opposed by the establishment, with a latent risk of impeachment or an assassination attempt. Nor are they prepared to risk their reputation breaking off relations with Iran in the name of an agreement with Trump. They have also invested too much in Ukraine to reach an unsatisfactory compromise with Kiev. As far as restitution of Crimea is considered; forget it. Presidents change and states even fall, but Moscow and Washington are unable to understand one another.

Finally there is the Number Two. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing wants to move closer to the status of a global power. When the Chinese president assumes the position of the champion of globalisation, he does not intend to save the American empire that Trump, perhaps unknowingly, wants to sacrifice to his late mercantilism. He indicates instead that Chinese-American economic interdependence does not imply everlasting subordination to commercial and financial standards established by the Washington consensus, disqualified by the 2008 shock. Xi proposes to add “Sino-globalisation” to the American paradigm, for which the new silk roads are the symbol, in view of China overtaking the United States in the second half of the century. All on condition that the organisational deficiencies of the Chinese political-economic model do not first defeat its geopolitical ambitions.

If none of the four great powers are prepared to become the empire’s askaris, this does not mean they will dare undermine it. This for three reasons. Firstly, the United States’ military superiority and the almost certainty that an armed conflict would degenerate into a Third World War, definitive for everyone. Secondly, China, Japan and Germany (Russia follows at quite a distance) boast in that order the top three trade surpluses with the United States; an entry ticket to the American market. Third, and more subtle, America’s competitors are inclined to consider its decline as slow but unstoppable. Hence it would be best to accompany it gently, in view of the yearned-for “multipolar world”, the last Thule of the geopolitically correct.

Beware of mistaking a dream – or a nightmare – for destiny.

(translated by Francesca Simmons)


[1] G.W.F. HEGEL, Lezioni sulla filosofia della storia, Rome-Bari 2003, p. 10.

[2] Cfr. “The empire with no emperor”, editorial for Limes, no. 4/2015, “U.S. Confidential”, pp. 7-25.

[3] See the first edition of the Calendario Atlante De Agostini. Anno 1904, Roma 1904, Istituto Geografico Italiano by Dr. G. De Agostini.

[4] M. LIVI BACCI, Il pianeta stretto, Bologna 2015, il Mulino, pp. 9-11.

[5] Cfr. K. HART, “The Rise and Fall of Europe”, Economic & Political Weekly, 23.8.2014, pp. 27-30.

[6] J. W. BURGESS, “How May the United States Govern its Extra-Continental Territory?”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1 (March 1899), pp. 1-18, qui p. 1.

[7] Ivi, p. 3.

[8] U. S. Supreme Court, “Loughborough v. Blake, 18 U.S. 317 (1820)”, Justia Supreme Court Center.

[9] Voce “Empire” in Webster’s International Dictionary of the English Language, Springfield, Massachusetts 1892, G. & C. Merriam & Co., p. 486.

[10] P. BUCHANAN, A Republic, not an Empire. Reclaiming America’s Destiny, Washington D.C. 1999, Regnery Publishing.

[11] W. A. WILLIAMS, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, New York, N.Y., 1959, Dell Publishing.

[12] A. M. SCHLESINGER, Jr., The Cycles of American History, Boston 1986, Houghton Mifflin Company.

[13] Ivi, p. 155.

[14] “Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey”, a cura di B. COOPER, D. COX, R. LIENESCH e R.P. JONES,

[15] G. PLASKIN interview with D. TRUMP, Playboy, March 1990.

[16] S. HARRIS – C. E. LEE, “Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns”, Wall Street Journal, 16.2.2017.

[17] B. KOHLER, “Das ganz und gar undenkbare”, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 27.11.2016. See also F. STUDEMANN, “Thinking the unthinkable on Germany going nuclear”, Financial Times, 6.2.2017.