America’s Anti-Imperial Century

By: Jarjieh Fang

At the onset of the 21st century, the United States emerged as the global superpower. It enjoyed incomparable prosperity and power and appeared able to exert influence over the internal and external affairs of nearly all other nations. The United States’ ascendancy to first a great power and then a hegemon also produced anxiety about the emergence of a modern American empire. It is not difficult to find disparaging references to the America’s modern empire. From maps of the global U.S. troop presence to the supposed exploitation of helpless nations by American companies, critics of the United States have nurtured a false stereotype of U.S. actions and intentions. There are critical differences between a hegemon and an empire. Empires expand territorially, place permanent structures to exploit and control their subservient holding, and seek to exclude other states from their economic and political affairs. While the United States has always sought to advance its own national interests, at times doing so at the expense of other states, United States abandoned its ties to imperialism over the course of the 20th century. The United States has played an incomparable role in fostering cooperation and openness between nations and promoting and protecting the right to self-determination and democracy. Despite its indelible impact, the United States has been consistently reticent to engage in affairs outside its borders.

Over the course of the 19th century, the United States had grew substantially, becoming more populous and productive. Despite the nation’s growth, the Panic of 1890 caused anxiety for American’s at the turn of the century about their country’s economic stability. In response, the nation began pursuing new markets for its excess goods. Turning to China, America was confronted with the potential that, like elsewhere in the world, other industrialized powers would establish closed spheres of interest that excluded the United States. Rather than challenge its more powerful peers head on, the United States conceived the Open Door Policy to preserve US access to China’s economy.[i]

Critics have suggested that the Open Door Policy represented informal imperialism built on economic, rather than territorial expansion, and a one-sided development of weaker nations. While the Open Door Policy was designed to advance American economic interests, it did not seek to preclude other nations from competing against the United States. If the United States wanted to establish an informal economic empire, a policy that exposed America to and established a precedent for open economic competition is self-defeating. Furthermore, the United States did not play a one-sided role in China. The Open Door Policy placed the United States on record in opposition to colonization by foreign powers and in support of Chinese self-rule and territorial integrity, all objectives inimical to empires. In China, the United States departed dramatically from imperial behavior. It articulated a clear recognition of the right to self-determination and governance and coordinated international cooperation to preclude any one nation from influencing and exploiting a weaker state.[ii]

While the United States did initially establish colonies and annex territories, the Open Door Policy foreshadowed America’s total rejection of imperialism. In concordance with America’s past rhetoric, U.S. respect for self-determination quickly became a major component of American foreign policy. There is, ironically, ample evidence of America’s rejection of imperialism in the Philippines, where the United States established one of its few colonial holdings. Even before it was able to fully annex the Philippines, the United States began legislating a pathway for Filipino independence and self-governance. Indeed, as Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged, America’s public came to view imperialism “as an unremunerative and indeed expensive duty”. [iii]

This perspective came to dominate US foreign policy and international affairs. The end of WWI legitimized self-determination in not only rhetoric but also practice. President Woodrow Wilson forcefully advocated for self-determination in states of any size. His frenetic efforts lead to the concept’s formalization in the League of Nations. For example, the subsequent Mandate System overturned norms that justified and tolerated imperialism by forcing states to justify subjugation and undemocratic rule. Later the United States would overcome substantial domestic opposition to intervention and underwrite international efforts to confront threats to self-determination and democracy posed by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. After WWII, the number of nation-states quadrupled. These nation-states formed in an international system, created by the United States, that guaranteed the right to self-determination. America’s revulsion toward imperialism would lead to the inclusion of self-determination in the Covenant of the United Nations.[iv] The American commitment to anti-colonialism was so salient that even Osama Bin Laden’s foot soldiers struggled at first to understand Bin Laden’s animus toward the United States.[v]

It is not a coincidence that the United States was instrumental in creation of not one, but two international organizations. Despite the relative strength with which the United States exited WWI and the widespread belief that the United States should play a role in world affairs, America did not seek to exert its influence. Rather, as evidenced by President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the most active role the United States would be willing to take was as a part of a larger whole. At a time when its closest competitors in Europe were weakened and scarred by war, the United States diluted rather than expanded their influence. Though Europeans were interested in an American arbitrator and enforcer, the Wilson instead proposed an institution of equals; even this proved too involved for many in the United States. The United Nations represents another forgone opportunity to consolidate American influence. From the outset, the United States consciously limited its influence and its ability to pursue selfish interests by extending veto power to the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, rather than reserving participation in the UN General Assembly to friendly nations, the United States supported the accession of new nation-states to the body. The United States was committed to developing a cooperative international community even when it created competition for itself.[vi]

The United States has, since the start of the 20th century, wielded increasingly disproportionate influence and power. Despite this, the United States ushered in an era of decolonization and anti-imperialism. America’s unyielding commitment to self-determination and pursuit of international cooperation catalyzed a global transition away from empires. Though the United States was not always altruistic, it played an integral role in ensuring the demise of empires. In place of colonies and imperial institutions, the United States developed intergovernmental organizations and forwent opportunities to dominate them. Strikingly, American involvement abroad in the 20th century has been characterized by an obstinate reluctance. For a supposed empire, the United States has demonstrated tremendous restraint and labored toward objectives antithetical to imperial ambitions.


American Umpire, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams

The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright

[i] William Appleman Williams Tragedy of American Diplomacy (Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1959), 56

[ii] Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman American Umpire (Harvard University Press, 2013), 191-195

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Lawrence Wright The Looming Tower (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 171

[vi] Hoffman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *