While he didn’t take a final stance on that issue, Hobsbawm’s lecture on the differences between the American empire and the British empire was notable for his assertion that America is an empire destined for failure.
While many other historians do not consider America to be an empire, Hobsbawm argued yesterday that it is.
Concepts of imperialism and empire are “in flat contradiction to the traditional political self-definition of the U.S.A.,” Hobsbawm said, however, “there is no precedent for the global supremacy that the U.S. government is trying to establish.”
The American empire “will almost certainly fail,” Hobsbawm said. “Will the U.S. learn the lesson [of the British Empire] or will it try to maintain an eroding global position by relying on a failing political force and a military force which is insufficient for the present purposes which the current American government claims it is designed?”
Hobsbawm addressed America’s past and present foreign policy in his speech, the second of three William E. Massey lectures this week sponsored by Harvard’s Program in the History of American Civilization.
This year’s theme, crafted by Professor of History Sven Beckert, is the “American Empire in Global Perspective,” and features speeches from the perspective of three foreigners, Hobsbawm, who is from England, Jayati Ghosh, from India, and Carlos Monsivais, from Mexico.
Past Massey lecturers have included, Richard Rorty, Toni Morrison, Gore Vidal, and Alfred Kazin.
Mentioning the work of Tisch Professor of History Niall C. Ferguson and Weatherhead University Professor Samuel P. Huntington, Hobsbawm drew clear distinctions between his owns views and their theories.
“Unlike people like me, he regrets it,” Hobsbawm said, referring to Ferguson’s opinion of the end of the American empire.
He spoke at length on the crucial differences between the American hegemony and the British empire, focusing on their different foundations. Britain had an economy-based empire and never tried to dominate the world, he said, realizing that “they were a middle-weight country” that could only hold on to the “heavy-weight title” for so long.
The U.S. empire, on the other hand, was not created through economic dominance but crafted through political means, according to Hobsbawm. He pointed to this as the U.S.’s “biggest strength and weakness,” since the political forces that hold the empire together may not necessarily last.
He said that from its roots in the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. has never viewed itself as a part of an international system of rival political powers. It lacks a foundation myth, Hobsbawm said, which is the basis for most other current nation states.
“Since the U.S.A. was founded by revolution against Britain, the only continuity between them that was not shaken was culture,” he explained, “so the national identity couldn’t very well be historical...[rather] it had to be constructed out of its revolutionary ideology.”
After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 1939, Hobsbawm went on to hold teaching positions at the University of London, the New School, Stanford, MIT, and Cornell. His most acclaimed book, “The Age of Extremes”—a history of the 20th century—has been translated into 36 languages.
Faced with the question of the future of the American empire, Hobsbawm concluded: “I’m an historian, I’m not a prophet. Don’t ask me that question.”