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A history professor joining the Harvard faculty this summer called the United States on Saturday an “Empire of denial,” and compared it to the evil empire from Star Wars.
The professor Niall Ferguson, currently at New York University, and four other historians analyzed U.S. foreign policy at the fourth annual Harvard graduate student conference on international history, held last Friday and Saturday at the Center for European Studies.
The historians sat on a panel titled “Empire Strikes Back? The Contemporary Relevance of Imperial Histories” about how the United States fits into historical and cultural conceptions of empire.
The conference, sponsored by the history department and five other Harvard-affiliated institutions, was designed to look at “Empire” as a historical phenomenon, and to develop a yardstick by which to measure the “American Empire,” according to Daniel J. Sargent, a history graduate student and one of the event organizers.
In addition to Ferguson, the historians on the panel were Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs and Director of Graduate Studies Sugata Bose, Northwestern University history professor Mark Bradley and London School of Economics professor Dominic Lieven. Warren Professor of American History Ernest R. May moderated.
The panelists agreed that there is a taboo on discussing the United States in terms of imperialism.
Bose labeled Donald Rumsfeld “an American Caesar,” and asked why he seems reluctant to talk about the “American Empire.”
Bradley said he was worried that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 had shifted worldwide attention away from transnational corporations as agents of imperialism.
Lieven agreed that the United States exercises its influence not through a formal system of colonies, but through its economic power, as well as through the expansion of its culture.
“American culture, in its soft power, is both repulsive and attractive,” he said.
Looking back at the notion of “empire,” the historians argued that empire is damaging to the native populations of colonies. But Ferguson, author of the forthcoming Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, said the overall effect of the British empire was positive.
But Ferguson said the jury is out on whether or not the empire will have as positive an effect as the British.
“Successes are fewer than failures,” he said of U.S. involvement in other countries.
Denise Y. Ho, a graduate student and one of the event’s organizers, said Ferguson’s argument was persuasive within the framework he set up, but that analysis of whether an empire is good and evil is too simplistic.
“Values and rules of the game have changed, so you can’t make this discourse,” she said. “It’s not so black and white.”
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