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 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
“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