US Economic Imperialism within a British World System
Historians have been busy chipping away at the myth of the exceptional American Empire, usually with an eye towards the British Empire. Most comparative studies of the two empires, however, focus on the pre-1945 British Empire and the post-1945 American Empire.[i] Why this tendency to avoid contemporaneous studies of the two empires? Perhaps because such a study would yield more differences than it would similarities, particularly when examining the imperial trade policies of the two empires from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.
For those imperial histories that have attempted such a side-by-side comparison, the so-called Open Door Empire of the United States is depicted as having copied the free-trade imperial policies of its estranged motherland by the turn of the century; these imitative policies reached new Anglo-Saxonist heights following US colonial acquisitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific from the Spanish Empire in 1898, followed closely by the fin-de-siècle establishment of the Anglo-American ‘Great Rapprochement’.[ii]
Gallagher and Robinson’s 1953 ‘imperialism of free trade’ thesis—which explored the informal British Empire that arose following Britain’s unilateral adoption (and at times coercive international implementation) of free-trade policies from the late 1840s to the early 1930s—has played a particularly crucial theoretical role in shaping the historiography of the American Empire. In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy(1959), William Appleman Williams provided the first iteration of the imitative open-door imperial thesis, wherein he explicitly used the ‘imperialism of free trade’ theory in order to uncover an American informal empire. ‘The Open Door Policy’, Williams asserted, ‘was America’s version of the liberal policy of informal empire or free-trade imperialism’.[iii] The influence of Williams’s provocative thesis led to the creation of the most influential school of US imperial history—the ‘Wisconsin School’—which would continue in its quest to unearth American open-door or free-trade imperialism for decades to come.[iv] As a result, the contrasting ways in which the American Empire grew in the shadow of the British Empire have largely remained hidden. [continue reading]
In case you missed it (I was tweeting about it A LOT last week), Cornell Library’s Digital Collections have just made available an amazing archive – the PJ Mode Collection – consisting of around 800 political maps that should be on the radar of anyone working on imperial and global history. They. Are. Awesome.
Here’s a sampling.
‘The Whole Story in a Nutshell!’ (1888) – Here’s one of my favorites for a lot of reasons. To give it some context, the so-called Great Debate of 1888 (that year’s presidential election) was centered around the future of US trade policy. The GOP was staunchly protectionist and Anglophobic at this time, and they feared the perceived influence of ‘Free Trade England’ on US politics. British free traders (in particular London’s Cobden Club, featured on the bottom left), were the main targets of paranoid Republican protectionist propaganda. Democratic President Grover Cleveland only added to the conspiracy theories when he filled his cabinet and advisors with US members of the Cobden Club. The pro-Harrison map does a vivid job of illustrating the GOP’s economic nationalism in contrast to Democratic free trade. For more on this, my book, The ‘Conspiracy’ of Free Trade, explores the conspiratorial reception of British free-trade ideas in Gilded Age America.
Reflecting upon the centenary of Armistice Day last Sunday, an article in the Business Standard (India) explores the relationship between economic conflict and the “War to end all wars,” featuring Prof. Biswajit Dhar (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and myself. Such reflections become even more timely in light of the growing speculation just this past month from former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Bloomberg’s Shawn Donnan and Kevin Hamlin, and the Wall Street Journal’s James Mackintosh that the US trade war with China could turn into a new cold war, what Paulson calls an “Economic Iron Curtain.” From the Business Standard:
A hundred years ago from today, the ‘War to end all wars’ came to a close, leaving in its wake 19 million dead and 23 million wounded. There were many culprits, including economic nationalism, but only one victim — humanity, which was exposed to the horror of industrial warfare in those grim, meat-grinding trenches, only to face the same calamity again, magnified manifold, between 1939 and 1945 (Over 60 million people were killed in World War II). Are we seeing the economic drivers of that first great war re-emerge in today’s world of growing protectionism and trade wars?
In a 2016 report, Deutsche Asset Management Chief Global Economist Josh Feinman writes that “we’ve seen this movie before”, while referring to the rise of economic nationalism, reflected in Donald Trump’s election to the White House, the political and popular backlash against globalisation, exemplified today by the US-China trade war, and the hardening of borders against immigrants, which is a driving force behind Brexit. “The first great globalisation wave, in the half-century or so before WWI, sparked a populist backlash too, and ultimately came crashing down in the cataclysms of 1914 to 1945,” writes Feinman. He goes on to describe “protectionism and economic nationalism” as “culprits” that played a part in causing the two World Wars.
Of course, they were not the only, or perhaps even the most important, causes of the First World War. “While there is a pretty clear causation between protectionism and the era’s trade wars, it is more difficult to prove that trade wars led to the First World War. There is certainly a correlation, but causation is much more difficult to measure,” says Marc-William Palen, senior lecturer of imperial history at the University of Exeter.