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A brief historiography of imperial overstretch and its relationship to American hegemony

December 20, 2009

Imperial Overstretch: American hegemony and the historiography of empires in decline

The idea of imperial overstretch is not new to modern history. Perhaps the most famous of all texts in this vein is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which attributes the collapse of Rome to the outsource of its security forces and the accompanying decline of cohesive civic virtue among its citizenry.

Indeed, the fascination of with the decline of major empires, according to British historian Joel Mokyr, is a “slightly sadistic intellectual schadenfreude.”[1]

Aside from the sheer complexity of explaining the constant flux of global power dynamics, any discussion of this subject is made more challenging due to the problematic nature of what empire actually means. Historian Charles Maier struggled with the definition even as he attempted to explain their relative rise or decline in his work, Among Empires. Maier argued that the term was so polarizing, it led to an oversimplification of the varied experiences great powers could have on the world stage.[2]

The other major issue in any exploration of the historiography of imperial overstretch is the methodology various authors have employed to describe it. For many historians, a broad narrative incorporating many countries was appropriate. The problem with this approach is that these histories are open to criticism that they are too vague, and are subject to a kind of historical shorthand that misses the nuances of large dynamic shifts. This is not a new challenge to the study of international history, which naturally includes the interstate interactions inherent to the examination of all empires. The other approach is less comparative; this leads to a concentration on a particular country’s imperial experience, which then can run the risk of becoming myopic. Both methods can be useful, as this essay will demonstrate, in explaining the reasons behind imperial decline.

Imperial overstretch was more recently popularized in part by Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which signified a successful attempt to explain the imperial experience of western powers since 1500. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, who Kennedy could claim as a predecessor, he saw an emergent bipolar world, dominated by Russia and the United States.[3] Both Kennedy and Tocqueville explain that this paradigm had its seeds in the 19th century, in the form of laying claim to vast continental territory with the potential for massive industrial capacity.

Kennedy, for his part, was astutely aware that the bipolar world of the post war era could only last so long. His analysis of earlier imperial experiences in the previous four centuries led him to conclude that “unusually rapid shifts in the centers of world production during the past two or three decades cannot avoid having repercussions upon the grand-strategical future of today’s leading Powers…” [4] The encapsulation of this argument is that economic hegemony, which precedes military and political dominance, can change quickly and unpredictably leading to shifts in the global balance of power.

As an aside from Kennedy’s detailed analysis of how international affairs led to the bipolar geopolitical situation of the mid 1980s when The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers was published, Kennedy’s predictions of the inevitable decline of large political/territorial blocs, particularly the Soviet and American empire, due to ever increasing military expenditure, would become the legacy of his work.

Kennedy saw an increasingly fractured world, in which smaller political units would emerge within the vacuum of such a decline. This analysis rests on Kennedy’s observation of what he perceives as the seeds of a multi-polar global environment, which began with leaders such as Tito, Nasser, and Nehru, who symbolized the refusal to align themselves with either the U.S. or U.S.S.R. This, along with the Sino-Soviet split, demonstrated that the monolithic power arrangements that had been solidified in the years following World War II up into the 1980s would not remained fixed.

This assertion rests on Kennedy’s thesis that no state has ever had a long term monopoly on power, be it the Habsburg’s “bid for mastery” in the 17th century, the equilibrium of imperial powers after Napoleon in the 18th century, nor Victorian England in the 19th century. Essentially, his only consolation for the American audience of his work, being the inheritors of global hegemony, is that the Soviet Union appeared to be in much worse shape – which was validated by its collapse only two years after Rise and Fall’s publication.

A major opponent of this view was Walt Whitman Rostow, who argued against the inevitability of this change in power dynamics. Rostow, responding to Kennedy’s work at the time of its publication, (which was still before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and long before the U.S. military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan) argued for a steadiness and continuity of American policy, rather than the classic expansiveness normally associated with empire that Kennedy alludes to. Paradoxically, Rostow wanted to avoid an American geopolitical retraction, which he warned would mirror Britain’s alleged failure to maintain its own hegemony after World War II. This, of course, could translate as the continuance of exactly the type of imperial dominance that Kennedy is warning about. Rostow embeds this type of policy in the language of partnership (particularly with Europe) and balance of power rather than hegemony, avoiding the subtext of American dominance in such a relationship. [5]

This problem of maintaining a balance of power from an imperial perspective is elucidated well by Michael Doyle’s Empires, which defines this concept as a battle of relative weight. Essentially, Doyle defines an empire’s failure to grow as evidence of its decline.[6] He asserts that changes in the relative balance of power between large nations can be indicative of future geopolitical developments.

Doyle, like Maier, also found the definition of empire challenging, and produced his own explanation to describe it. He states that empire is “…a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another.”[7] Employing a comparative method of incorporating many different empires into his narrative, as Kennedy does, Doyle describes the relative dominance of the various hegemonic powers as dependent on the characteristics of the peripheral territory they are trying to control. Essentially, his explanation is that the relative strength of these territories determines the depth of multi-polar competition for these areas, as well as whether or not they would be subject to direct rule by an imperial power.[8]

Vaclav Smil has also elaborated on the unpredictability of international power dynamics, demonstrating the stark differences between the geoeconomic experiences of Russia and China in the last four decades. Smil points out that perceptions in the West as well as within Russia and China themselves, ran counter to projections of how economies would develop in the Communist world. In this case, Smil states that the rapid ascendancy of China was a surprise to policymakers.

Smil predicts that even though the U.S. may be aware of growing trends of imperial overstretch and changing geopolitical and macroeconomic dynamics, they may be powerless to shape these movements to their advantage. Smil states, “In the West, our wealth, the extent of our scientific knowledge, and major areas of our lives where we have successfully asserted our control over the environment mislead us into believing that we are (or ought to be) more in charge of history than we can ever be.”[9]

David Kaiser’s alludes to imperial overstretch in American Tragedy, which chronicles American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kaiser’s main point is that the decision to escalate in Vietnam was based on the conviction that the U.S. could support further projections of its hegemony abroad based on its past experience. Kaiser states, “The Vietnam War was the logical, but not essential consequence of the previous thirty years of American History.”[10] Kaiser appears to be in line with Kennedy in suggesting that America’s faith in its hegemony blinded it from the obvious risks of overstretching its power in an unwinnable war.

Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001 by Patrick Karl O’Brien & Armand Clesse argue with Kennedy’s main assumption about the British Empire, stating that it was overstretched after World War I as opposed to before it. The main point of the O’Brien and Clesse text, however, is not to lament the waning of British hegemonic power, but to celebrate the ascendance of the United States. The text contains many comparisons of Britain at its heights to the U.S.; however, the authors argue that the U.S. is a far more dominant hegemony than Britain ever was.[11]

The obvious title worth mentioning in this discussion is Imperial Overstretch by Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell. This text matches Kennedy’s postulation that as an empire grows, its natural inclination is to expand its economic base to fund the military administration of the territory under its influence.[12] Burbach and Tarbell argue that decline begins when its economy can no longer meet the needs of its administrative costs. The authors’ criticism of the use of imperial power is particularly withering in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which they contend are unsustainable and evidence the inevitable decline of American hegemony.

Hannes Adomeit has also written about this concept, as is apparent in his similarly titled work, Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev. Adomeit’s principal thrust is that Soviet Russia became overstretched when it chose to occupy Eastern Germany, which he characterizes as unplanned, but followed the imperial logic of a need for peripheral territory as a buffer against rivals. Nevertheless, this resulted in grave political liabilities that eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system.[13] Adomeit’s most forceful analysis comes toward the end of his text, where he demonstrates that the U.S.S.R. under Gorbachev was unable to divorce itself from its responsibilities as a hegemonic power despite the understanding of a need for comprehensive reform.

Contrary to Kennedy, Niall Ferguson argues in The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World 1700-2000, that both Britain of the 19th century and the United States in the present time are experiencing imperial “understretch” as a result of their own uneven and discriminating style of engagement with the rest of the world.[14] Ferguson contends that this problem is derived from a lack of understanding in the U.S. that economic progress does not always lead to democratic reform. The author laments that the U.S. lacks the political will to see beyond its own democratic orthodoxy and use its economic power to generally improve the world financial system. Ferguson’s opinion is that the under-regulation of world financial markets acts as a hazard to international growth because of their contagion effect in financial panics, which has obvious echoes to the current global financial crisis.

Addressing Ferguson’s desire for the U.S. to take control of its destiny, the book Empires, Systems and States by Michael Cox, Tim Dunne and Ken Booth demonstrate that Western nations have little choice in altering the current geopolitical and macroeconomic policies at the current time. As Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly J. Silver point out in the text, “The fall is likely because the leading states of the West are prisoners of the developmental paths that have made their fortunes, both political and economic. The paths are yielding decreasing returns…but they cannot be abandoned in favour of the more dynamic path without causing social strains so unbearable that they would result in chaos rather than ‘competitiveness.’”[15] The authors note that although the hegemony of the U.S. is of a magnitude never before seen in world history, the maintenance of such power has actually been undermined by the removal of the bipolar paradigm in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Arrighi and Silver note that the conclusion of U.S. and Russian rivalries of the post war era has actually created a less stable geopolitical system, which is now more turbulent and uncertain.[16]

Other assessments of the potential U.S. imperial role during the last several decades are more critical. Historian Odd Arne Westad noted that the Cold War experience of the Third World, which contain some of the emergent economies of today, witnessed “…results of America’s interventions [which] are truly dismal. Instead of being a force for good-which they were no doubt intended to be-these incursions have devastated many societies and left them more vulnerable to further disasters of their own making.”[17] Westad goes on to argue that the U.S. was at least partially responsible for isolating non-aligned Third World countries, and attempting to suppress their political and social development.[18]

Other works also occupy the space of American hegemony within the historiography of the Cold War. The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present by Christopher Layne also deals with the U.S. hegemony, arguing that current U.S. foreign policy must be understood within its Wilsonian, liberal “open door” roots. Layne argues that this policy included not only suppressing the influence of the Soviet Union where it could, but also ensuring the preponderance of American influence. Because of this policy, Layne contends that the U.S. now faces the problem of political, economic, and military overstretch due to its history of restraining Third World powers that could have helped with regional stability in areas the U.S. must now expend resources to maintain.[19]

The current major issue in a discussion of American hegemony is the ongoing global economic crisis. Both the twin fiscal and account deficits of the United States as well as the costs of its open ended military commitments abroad, have resemblances to other overstretched empires of the past. Nouriel Roubini, a well known economist and academic, recently commented that because over half of all US Treasury bonds were owned by non residents, America faced the real possibility of losing its hegemonic dominance to its competitors, who would use this situation to their advantage.[20]

The parallels between America and other collapsed empires have also been explored by political scientist Jack Snyder, who noted similarities between the recent U.S. preemptive military actions and those of the British, Japanese, and German empires of the past. Snyder notes, “…imperial rulers feared that unchecked defiance on the periphery might cascade toward the imperial core. Repeatedly they tried the strategy of preventive attack to nip challenges in the bud and prevent their spread.”[21]

It is now clear that the resultant U.S. triumphalist view in the wake of Soviet collapse drowned out voices like Kennedy’s, who argued that neither empire could shoulder the military and economic costs of maintaining their sphere of influence indefinitely. Thus, a new historiography will likely come into view that reflects the current shift in global power, in which the U.S. is just one of many actors in an emergent multi-polar world.


[1] Joel Mokyr, “Review: On the (Alleged) Failures of Victorian Britain,”  The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 89-95. In this article, Mokyr argues that it was the challenge of  implementing technological innovation on a national scale, akin to Joseph Schumpter’s Creative Destruction that caused British decline during the Victorian era.

[2] Charles S. Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 3, 106, 115.

[3] Alexis de Tocquville, Democracy in America (First published in 1835 – New York: Random House, 2004)  “Of Discipline in Democratic Armies,” Vol. 2, Book 3, Chp. XXV, pp. 820.

[4] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987), pp. 437.

[5] Walt Whitman Rostow, “Book Review Essay: Beware of Historians Bearing False Analogies,” Foreign Affairs Vol. 66 (Spring, 1988), pp. 863-68.

[6] Michael W. Doyle, Empires (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 27.

[7] Ibid., pp. 45.

[8] Ibid., pp. 130. Doyle’s description of the nature of imperial domination of peripheral states is situated within a larger discussion of three conditions the author states are necessary for the maintenance of empire. They are: A highly integrated central metropole, a periphery that is fractured enough not to provide any reasonable competition, and a common interest (religious, military, political) that can integrate the periphery with the metropole.

[9] Vaclav Smil, “The Next 50 Years: Unfolding Trends,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec., 2005), pp. 605-643.

[10] David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (Boston: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 9. See also Kaiser’s blog, “History Unfolding” for further discussions on American empire. http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/2008/04/britain-united-states-and-middle-east.html (accessed December 13, 2009)

[11] Patrick Karl O’Brien and Armand Clesse, Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001 (Surrey: Ashgate & Aldershot, 2002). See also Andrew Bacevich, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 15, 138, 242.

[12] Roger Burbach and Jim Tarbell, Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire (Canada: Fernwood Publishing, 2004).

[13] Hannes Adomeit, Imperial Overstretch: Germany in Soviet Policy from Stalin to Gorbachev An Analysis Based on New Archival Evidence, Memoirs, and Interviews (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998).

[14] Niall Ferguson, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World 1700-2000 (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[15] Michael Cox, Tim Dunne and Ken Booth, Empires, Systems and States: Great Transformations in International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 278.

[16] Ibid.,  pp. 240, 293.

[17] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 404.

[18] Ibid., pp. 394. Westad argues that this is particularly true within the context of U.S. interactions with Africa.

[19] Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[20] Noriel Roubini, “The Decline of the American Empire,” Roubini Global Economics, August 13, 2008.  http://www.rgemonitor.com/roubini-monitor/253323/the_decline_of_the_american_empire (accessed December 13, 2009). See also Macro Market Musings, “The End of American Hegemony?” August 17, 2008. http://macromarketmusings.blogspot.com/2008/08/end-of-american-hegemony.html (accessed December 13, 2009).

[21] Jack Snyder, “Imperial Temptations,” The National Interest, (Spring, 2003), pp. 29-30.

One Comment
  1. This is an extremely difficult topic worthy of patient discussion. I am happy to have finally discovered someone critical of applying Alex Tocquville. I invite you to read/comment on my blog concerning Tocquville. Peace. wjholland.wordpress.com

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