The American empire may actually cause disorder, barbarism, and chaos
rather than promote peace and order, one of the world’s leading
historians, Eric J. Hobsbawm, explained last night to a packed crowd at
Lowell Lecture Hall.
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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