The later 20th century was not a big focus of my book, Avoiding the British Empire. I date the end of the British world system to 1914, and the beginning of World War I. The time after than is mostly one of decline. But it had peaks, and the period after 2016 will be seen as a new valley. One of the things that I did study intensely in writing the book was the distinction between “informal” and “formal” empire. The informal empire of financial power was as important, or perhaps more important than all the red bits on the map that were formally controlled by the British Empire.
If you look at it that way, then it’s clear that the European Union represented a new informal empire for Britain. Which makes throwing it away with Brexit quite nuts. I take a more in depth look at this in today’s video.
To some extent, today’s video is about what empire means. Is it just about territory? I think not. Later in the week we will show how the British Empire quickly disintegrated after it lost something more intangible: its “informal empire”. This concept is pretty amorphous, and as I think about the way I’m using it this week, I think I may not do a very good job of sticking to just one definition either. Informal Empire includes what is currently known as “soft power”, the financial and cultural weight that a society has, distinct from its military power. But I consider some aspects of military power to be part of “informal empire” as well. If you are undertaking some sort of quick punitive expedition to get people to act more in accordance with your wishes, I think that’s informal empire too. Obviously, when we’re talking about military action, the lines between informal and formal empire become less clear.
I think my definition of informal empire probably includes everything that is not formal empire. If you’re not planting a flag, or a near century-long “temporary presence” like the British had in Egypt, we’re talking informal empire. US military bases abroad are formal empire. Everything else the US does in those countries, from the bankers to the diplomats, to the fact that people in that country love Apple iPhones… is informal empire. I hope this has been clarifying rather than mystifying, and I hope you enjoy today’s video “Is the United States an Empire?”