Three Concepts of Empire
Paper for IIP Symposium: The International Legal Order
Panel: International Institutions
Vienna, 4-5 November 2003
On the coverpage of one section of The Guardian recently there was a picture of
George Bush dressed to look like Julius Caesar, with some columns – the Forum
perhaps – behind him. The caption read: ‘Hail, Bush: Is America the New
Rome?’, and the article itself began as follows:
The word of the hour is empire. As the United States marches to war, no other
label quite seems to capture the scope of American power or the scale of its
ambition. “Sole superpower” is accurate enough, but seems oddly modest.
“Hyperpower” may appeal to the French; “hegemon” is favoured by academics.
But empire is the big one, the gorilla of geopolitical designations – and suddenly
America is bearing its name.
Of course, America has been bearing that name for quite some time, particularly
in America, but the claim that empire is the word of the hour is not perhaps
wholly hype. At any rate I would like to run with that idea, and to explore in what
follows something of the relationship between empire on the one hand and
international law and institutions on the other. In doing so, however, I would like
to broaden things out a bit and consider not just the particular conception of
empire which The Guardian has in mind, but two other conceptions as well.
A. Empire as Colonialism
Jonathan Freedland, ‘Rome, AD... Rome, DC?’ in The Guardian, 18 September 2002, G2, p. 2.
In the passage I just read out the term ‘empire’ is obviously being used to denote
supremacy in international affairs, especially supremacy over the means of
coercive violence. But in what is probably its more normal usage, empire refers
to something much more specific, namely, the historical phenomenon, beginning
in the 16th century and culminating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
whereby most of the non-European world came to be subordinated to European
rule. In other words, it refers to colonialism.
How does empire in this sense relate to international law and international
institutions? It used to receive support from international law. Indeed, as Tony
Anghie and others have shown, the legitimation of colonial conquest and
dispossession was a (and perhaps even the ) defining project of international law
as it developed from the 16th century down to the 20th. But, at the least since the
1960s, international law has set its face against colonialism. And international
institutions, most notably the United Nations, have adopted resolutions and
created committees in support of a global programme – now nearly complete –
When empire is used to mean colonialism, then, it appears that, though things
were different in the past, today international law and institutions oppose empire;
they are against it, quite emphatically in fact.
B. Empire as Hegemony
To consider a second sense of the term empire, let us return now to the
conception with which I began, the conception that gets conjured up by phrases
like ‘Hail Bush’. Here what is in issue is not the historical phenomenon of
European colonialism but the present reality of American economic, political,
cultural, and especially military power, the fact that the US defence budget is
bigger than the military spending of the next nine countries put together, and so
on. Let us call this empire-as-hegemony.
What is its relationship with international law and institutions? Writing at the
beginning of the 1990s, Noam Chomsky remarks that, for empire in this sense,
‘[d]iplomacy and international law have always been regarded as an annoying
encumbrance’.2 Thus, more recently he and others have stressed the
unilateralism of US action, its willingness to act outside the framework of the
United Nations over Kosovo and now seemingly again over Iraq, its successful
scuppering of international agreements and its catalogue of high-profile treaty
denunciations and treaty non-adherences.
When empire is used to mean hegemony, then, the record of recent events
appears to confirm that international law and institutions are casualties of empire,
flung aside and trampled down as surplus to imperial requirements. Whereas in
the context of empire-as-colonialism international law and institutions are against
empire, here, it seems, empire is against them.
C. Empire as Globalization
The third and final sense of the term empire I would like to draw into this
discussion is less familiar, or at any rate less idiomatic, than the first two. I take it
from the eponymous book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, published in
2000, in which the authors use the word empire to refer to the political order that
is emerging in connection with processes of economic globalization. In other
words, what they have in mind is the widely remarked decentring of the nation-
state, and its relocation within a large, diverse and shifting field of other sites of
initiative and authority. Although, as I just noted, this is an unidiomatic and
Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (London: Vintage, 1992), p. 3.
Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2000).
perhaps even eccentric usage of the word empire, in some respects it is quite
conventional in that it follows in the ‘classical’ Marxist tradition of viewing empire,
or imperialism, as a particular stage in the development of capitalism. For Lenin,
that stage was monopoly capitalism; here it is globalization.
How, finally, does empire in this sense – let us call it empire-as-globalization –
relate to international law and institutions? Very differently from the way it relates
when empire is used in the other two senses I have just considered. For as soon
as empire is used to refer to the political order associated with contemporary
globalization, it becomes clear that, far from international law and institutions
being against empire, or empire being against them, empire and international law
and institutions are for one another. This is not to say that the latter only ever act,
and are capable of acting, in the service of powerful economic forces. A key
aspect of Hardt and Negri’s argument is that the new global configuration
contains within it new possibilities for redistributive change, and international law
and institutions can and do lend support in the realisation of these. What it does
mean to express the relationship in this way, however, is that international law
and institutions are implicated in the constitution and reproduction of this new
order. They help to shape it, just as it in turn shapes them. In the context of the
other two meanings of empire, the respective phenomena appear as
counterposed and antagonistic. Here, by contrast, we must recognise them as
interlinked and, at least in part, mutually determining.
Hardt and Negri’s book has been the subject of much critical comment, and
certainly there is a lot in it with which one might want to take issue. But their
basic conception of empire seems to me very helpful, and let me end now by
mentioning some of the reasons why I think this.
In the first place, it reminds us that global relations of exploitation and domination
did not end with the demise of colonialism. Of course, we know that, but we often
talk about it in terms of arguments about core and periphery, North and South,
First World and Third World. What Hardt and Negri’s conception reminds us is
that the patterning of contemporary hierarchies is complex, and cannot fully be
grasped through dichotomies of this sort. As they observe, we ‘find the First
World in the Third [and] the Third in the First’, and so on.4
Likewise, and secondly, Hardt and Negri also help us to see that American
hegemony does not exhaust the meaning of empire in contemporary
circumstances. To say that is not to dispute the vast, and unique, concentration
of power and resources in the United States. It is simply to acknowledge the
ways in which American policy remains constrained by forces outside its control.
No state, not even the United States, stands at the head of today’s global order
because what defines that order is precisely its acephalous, anonymous and
partly deterritorialised character.
Thirdly, this way of conceptualising empire brings out the implication of
international law and institutions, indeed their central role, in contemporary
processes that are creating a better world for some at the expense of others. In
doing so, it unsettles perceptions of international law and institutions as converts
to anti-imperialism. At the same time, it challenges assumptions, so prevalent in
progressive commentary, that international law and instititutions are casualties of
Finally, and in consequence, this way of conceptualising empire highlights that
our most pressing problem may not be the impotence of international law and
institutions in the face of US unilateralism. It may well be useful to get the United
States to sign up to more treaties or be more positive about international
institutions. But those things should not be allowed to get in the way of a more
pressing problem, which is the need to understand better the ways in which
international law and institutions retain their potency in contemporary conditions.
In other words, our highest priority, I believe, is to investigate how international
Ibid., p. xiii,
law and institutions work to sustain global relations of exploitation and domination
– and how they might also be used to transform those relations.
This idea that what is more significant is the potency of international law and
institutions than their impotence is not a novel point. It is something which David
Kennedy (among others) has been insisting on for quite some time. But it does
cut against the grain of a very standard trope not only of conservative realism,
but also of progressive internationalism, and for that reason seems to bear, and
indeed require, re-emphasising and rethematising in relation to contemporary
debates. Hence my interest in empire. And hence too my attempt to show today
that, if empire is the word of the hour, it may be Hardt and Negri’s sense of that
word, rather than the more widely circulating alternative senses, that provides the
most adequate basis for grasping its international legal and international