When George W Bush declared that America "has never been an empire,” he elided a half century of colonial rule over its overseas dependencies. But American expansionism has manifested in other forms too, says A G Hopkins, imperial historian and author of a panoramic new work of American history.
A G Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge and former Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local; and American Empire: A Global History. He lives in Cambridge, England.
When we talk about the American ‘empire,’ what are we talking about? Is this westward expansion across the continent, the amassing of overseas dependencies or something else entirely?
Let’s start with the word ‘expansion.’ We have the mainland colonies, and the process of western and southern settlement through the 19th century, and indeed continuing in different circumstances today. We also have the creation of a formal empire—that is, the islands in the Caribbean and Pacific that were formally placed under US jurisdiction in 1898. On top of that, you can argue for the presence of what is called an ‘informal’ empire, where US influence has been so pervasive—whether in Japan, Korea, or Latin America—as to constitute the equivalent of a formal empire.
So, the term ‘expansion’ covers everything. Imperialism represents a species of expansion, a determination to overwhelm and subjugate that results in the creation of a formal empire. As an adjunct to that, you have the spill-over of influence in places that remain independent in name but are effectively brought under the control of a greater power. You can see immediately that there are huge problems with all these terms, but that’s inherent in the name of the game. We can’t describe the world bit by bit—we have to use big words, and they’ve all got ambiguities and uncertainties in them.
I see the word ‘hegemony,’ a lot in this context. Is this what that word entails?
Let’s take the period after 1945, when the United States was acknowledged to be one of two leading world powers. Everyone can agree on that. The difficulty comes when you try to put a name to it. A large slice of opinion holds that, after 1945, the United States was an empire or became one. However, some US scholars and commentators didn’t like the designation because it linked the Land of the Free with unpalatable qualities associated with the term ‘empire’.
So, during the Cold War they applied an alternative term: ’hegemony’, which comes from a Greek word meaning leadership. It sounds far more persuasive and less coercive to call the US a hegemon than to refer to it as an empire. Hegemony then becomes the smiling face of dominance.
In your new book, American Empire, you write: “In the United States imperialism was part of the process of nation building.” What do you mean by that?
That’s an excellent follow-up to your previous question because nation-building is frequently linked to territorial expansion, and in some cases expansion can be imperialistic. From the 18th century onwards, US expansion across the North American continent was an integral part of the process of state-building and in due course nation-building, too. The question is: was that purely expansionist or was it imperialist? The answer I think that most people would give is that it was necessarily expansionist. But you can also refer to it as being imperialist because it meant eliminating, bypassing, or subjugating native Americans and taking their land with zero compensation. That form of assertive colonisation by white settlers, which is much the same as later occurred in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, was an expression of an imperialist impulse. I’ll just add to that the difficult question that follows: whether the result was an empire or something else.
What would be the something else?
Well, there are two schools of thought here. One is that the result of imperialist expansion was the creation of a continental empire. In my view, the outcome was a nation state rather than an empire. The argument is that the intention from the outset was to create separate states that would all enjoy constitutional equality within the federal constitution of the United States. An alternative view places weight on the period between occupation and statehood, when continental territories were ruled from Washington.
Forgive my ignorance, but do the five overseas dependencies that remain today have any voting power?
Some do, some don’t. Some of them, notably Puerto Rico, the largest and most important of the residuals, have a very ambiguous constitutional status. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth in 1953 but remains an unincorporated territory today. Yet, in 1917 Puerto Ricans were given the status of citizens of the United States, and those residing on the mainland were and are eligible to vote in U.S. elections. These anomalies have puzzled political leaders in Puerto Rico and Washington from 1898 onwards. Hawaiʻi, on the other hand, was incorporated in 1959 with full rights of citizenship including voting rights in federal elections. Hawaiʻi stands as the only case of an overseas territory that, after a long battle, was formally incorporated into the United States. The other islands were held at arm’s length for various reasons. The Philippines, the largest and most populous of the overseas possessions, was treated as a colony without rights of incorporation into the USA and eventually granted independence in 1946.
Let’s move on to your five books. When we discussed your choices ahead of this interview, you clarified that you’d chosen examples you regard as being “distinctive by being illuminating, if not necessarily right.”
The criterion means a great deal to me as a historian, because it’s relatively easy to be right about small things but incredibly difficult to be illuminating about big ones. Anyone who’s ever attempted it simply bows down, while taking his hat off, to those who’ve made the effort, because you expose yourself on all fronts and often receive the drubbing you deserve. It is a very challenging undertaking.
Yet it is the illuminating books that stand the test of time. They may well be flawed or limited in one of many ways, but there’s something in them that still commands respect and admiration, even decades after they first appeared. So, my selection has a coherence to it which I can summarise by saying that each of the five books reflects key changes in the way the US empire has been studied over the past century.
Let’s begin with Julius W Pratt’s Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaiʻi and the Spanish Islands.
Pratt’s book was published in 1936 and remains unsurpassed today. One of his critics—Walter LaFeber, whose book I shall discuss later—was generous enough to call it a classic.
Pratt was writing against a trend in the study of history associated with the so-called Progressive school, headed by Charles Beard. This school was critical of the self-serving view, as they saw it, that regarded the United States as a unique nation with a particular mission to bring liberty and democracy to the world. They took what they thought was a very hard-headed view that stressed the basic, grubby, material factors behind expansion, imperialism and empire.
Pratt came along in 1936 and wrote what was the first serious book attempting to get beneath the generalisations and analyse the motives for fighting the war that delivered the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific into the hands of the United States in 1898. He also included Hawaiʻi, which was not in the Spanish Empire but was annexed in the same year. When you look at Pratt’s book today, you have to marvel at the depth of research, the clarity of presentation, and the carefulness and restraint of the argument.
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In brief, Pratt argued that, though there were many considerations that led to the war with Spain, the expansionist mood of the times owed very little to economic influences. He acknowledged that there was a voluble group of expansionists who argued that the US needed more markets and opportunities for investment abroad. In his view, however, business interests were of little account in the formulation of international policy. Business lobbies were divided. Some of them remained uncommitted until the territories had been acquired, uncertainty removed, and confidence boosted.
According to Pratt, the of analysis of causation should shift to other considerations, particularly party politics within the United States: the need for the Republican Party to hang onto power; the impulses that sprang from concepts of white supremacy; the duty to bring civilisation to less fortunate parts of the world. His most telling illustration emphasised the missionary activity of the Protestant churches. He shows how these interests were far more effective in committing the ‘forward party’ to fight the war with Spain, and to take the insular territories afterwards, than were business interests. This approach provided a powerful alternative to the position taken by Progressives and others who emphasised the primacy of economic considerations.
You mentioned a white supremacist aspect to this. I know Rudyard Kipling wandered into this debate, offering the poem ‘Take up the White Man’s Burden’ to help persuade anti-imperialists to accept the annexation of The Philippines. How controversial was it among Americans? Was there a great deal of opposition?
Yes, there was indeed, and some famous names lined up against imperialist expansion. Ex-president Cleveland, a Democrat, was one of them. Mark Twain was the most famous. And you had huge philosophical figures, such as Dewey, who were associated with the anti-imperial movement. Other interests were a mixed bag. Labour organisations were concerned about imperialism because they didn’t want to have competition from cheap imported labour. If overseas territories had the rights of states within the federal constitution, then the free inflow of labour from islands in the Pacific and Caribbean would have undercut the wages of white workers in the United States.
Southern interests were also important in this connection. It’s often said, correctly, that the concept of racial supremacy was a galvanising force impelling overseas expansion. Against this, however, stood a powerful alternative that opposed imperialism because of the fear that immigration from non-European sources would dilute the purity of the white race and eventually lead to racial degeneration. So yes, there was a powerful, if also ill-assorted, anti-imperial movement in the USA.
The US case was by no means exceptional: there were influential anti-imperial movements elsewhere, notably in Britain and France. It is interesting to contrast the prominence of the anti-imperial movement in the USA in 1898 with its weakness in 2003. Opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 melted very quickly. Between the two dates, and especially after 1941, US citizens had become used to the exercise of military power overseas. What was once seen as being contrary to republican values had become an accepted normality.
Let’s move on to book two: Whitney T Perkins’s Denial of Empire, the United States and Its Dependencies.
I think this book justifies its appearance here because of its distinctiveness. But it’s different from all the others, because it has been almost totally neglected since it was published in 1962. It might to pass the test of illumination, but it fails the test of recognition.
The book enters my list because Perkins was one of those scholars who lay the foundation stones of a subject without receiving the credit they deserve. This has nothing to do with whether I agree with the author or not; it is a matter of trying to assess its contribution as objectively as possible. No one else has undertaken the task since 1962. Perkins’s research is painstaking, thorough, and reliable, and deserves the recognition it has so far been denied.
Perkins was writing after Pratt, but in the same mode. He was what you might call a rather orthodox or mainstream scholar. He wrote a similar study of the Caribbean later on, but Denial of Empire was the first book to present a thorough account of the management of the colonies the United States acquired in 1898 from the foundation of the empire to its demise half a century later.
“Perkins’s research is painstaking and reliable, and deserves the recognition it has so far been denied”
There are a couple of other things to say about Perkins. He was not a scintillating scholar. His book has a dogged quality to it that has made it extraordinarily reliable. He was also unfortunate, as we’ll see in a minute, in the timing of his publication, because his views were being challenged, even as his book appeared. It was the changing mood of the times, not his scholarship, that consigned his book to oblivion.
Perkins argued that there was nothing wrong with the benevolent intentions of US colonial rule, but that they were frustrated by local complexities and political problems at home. He wasn’t whitewashing or trying to overplay what you might call the success of the imperial project. He was appropriately and admirably objective about that. His difficulty was that he seems to have accepted—understandably, because it was in the air of the time—the ideas of people like George Kennan, who believed that the United States had a civilising mission. The US was driven to encompass the world to fulfil a benign duty, that of liberating other peoples. On that view, the problem lay not in the project but in the difficulties of achieving such a monumental task.
Rightly or wrongly, this perspective is not one that most scholars would start with today. Nevertheless, Perkins’s study remains one of the starting points for appraising US colonial rule. My own book is littered with page references to his work, and I’m more than happy to acknowledge a scholar who should be counted as one of the founding fathers of what I think will soon be recognised as a new subject. As new publications on the US empire appear, I am confident his book will be recognised as a pioneering study.
What did Perkins mean by the title, ‘denial of empire’?
That’s another good question. Perkins did not offer an extended explanation of his title, but he clearly used it to refer to the contradiction between the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the subsequent acquisition of colonies. An ex-colonial state that advertised anti-imperial values found it difficult to accept that it had become a colonial power itself. Consequently, the US was ‘in denial’ when it came to its own empire, while criticising other powers that feely admitted that they ruled over colonial subjects.
In 1999, George W Bush declared that “America has never been an empire.” Is this an extension of that same state of denial?
I think it is. The expansionist imperial history of the United States from 1898 to the close of the 1950s has more or less been erased from the books. It’s quite extraordinary. I have called this, in my own book, the largest historiographical gap in the history of modern empires. There is a vast literature on the war of 1898. But as soon as the war finishes, everyone loses interest, and I have not found a survey of Western imperial history that makes even a half-hearted attempt to deal with the history of the islands after 1898. Admittedly, the US Empire was small in relation to the British and French empires. Nevertheless, by 1940 the United States ruled about 23 million people in the Pacific and Caribbean. This was a substantial number of souls to be saved and stomachs to be filled.
George Bush was speaking in understandable ignorance of half a century of history of formal colonial rule. It is a tribute to Perkins that he saw the importance of the subject and made a great start for the rest of us, who can build on the empirical work he assembled so reliably.
Absolutely. Shall we turn to William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of Diplomacy ?
Yes. I mentioned that the mood of the historical profession was changing profoundly just as Perkins was producing his book. Contemporary commentators became preoccupied by what was called the crisis of capitalism and its various expressions, such as urban decay. The Vietnam War divided the nation and generated unprecedented hostility towards military adventures, which were seen as expressions of imperialism. The American dream seemed to be fading. It was then that William Appleman Williams published his famous book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, which appeared in 1959. Of course, he had other books to his name, but this one serves to symbolise the transformation in historical studies that took place at that time.
Perkins conceived of the US as a benevolent but misguided imperial power; Williams took his inspiration from the Progressives and the materialist interpretation of history that Pratt had rejected in 1936. Williams believed that the causes of imperial expansion could be related to the evolution and contradictions of the capitalist system. Imperialism wasn’t a matter of benevolence, coincidence, or psychic crisis, as other writers had claimed. For Williams, the story was one of capitalist crises that created acute difficulties at home through falling living standards, limited opportunities, and unemployment. It was the search for solutions to these domestic problems that led to imperial expansion overseas. This approach gave Williams a comprehensive view of American history. He went back to the era of mercantilism, advanced with the Progressives to the war of 1898, and continued into his own times with a reassessment of the Cold War. 1898 wasn’t the end of the story: it was the beginning.
“The American dream seemed to be fading”
Curiously, Williams wasn’t very interested in the formal empire that the US had created, and I’ve often wondered why. His main concern was with the informal expansion of the US through what he called the ‘open door’. He used this term to refer to the strategies adopted to enter the territory of a sovereign state and effectively make it subservient to US interests without formally colonising it. In doing so, he initiated a theme of research which has continued to today and has produced a range of studies on the US presence in the Caribbean, Central America, and of course in Latin America, as well as in Asia.
Williams himself has been much discussed, and there is still much that could be said. I shall mention here his view of the Cold War, which Platt could not have written about and Perkins bypassed. Williams produced an analysis that became enduringly controversial. The conventional view held that the Cold War was caused by Russian expansionism. Not so, said Williams. The Cold War was as much, if not more, the result of US expansionism, which was driven by fundamental economic forces that had assumed a new form after 1945. That, crudely put, was his argument. Predictably, it was an argument that sparked all sorts of criticism. It is said to be mechanistic and monocausal. It minimises political, ideological, and geopolitical arguments, and diminishes the importance of individual action. There’s a whole industry devoted to proving and disproving his analysis.
It’s a really great case of an outstanding book which, as far as I know, never won any major prizes. It was off centre. It was out of the mainstream. Williams himself was investigated by the IRS and the House Un-American Activities Committee. What a dread duo to have knocking at your door—and for writing the ‘wrong sort of history’ too! But none of that matters for historians. Williams’s book is certainly the most influential study of US imperialism written in the 20th century. Like it or not, it’s one of the classics of the field.
When it was initially published, it was described as being socialist and even anti-American. Is it still controversial?
No, I don’t think so, at least not in that sense. To understand the reaction to his work, you have to go back to the McCarthy era, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. To be an American patriot was to be ‘on side’ in the battle against the Soviet Union. The feelings of the time explain much of the hardening of attitudes ‘for’ and ‘against.’ Since then, Williams has taken his place as a major historian. And as we will see in a moment, he inspired a whole group of other scholars whose careers are now, like mine, coming to an end. Time modulates and moderates all things.
Let’s look at Walter LaFeber’s The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898. I find the title interesting because, as you outline in your book, imperialism had already taken place on a grand scale across the world. What made American imperialism ‘new’?
That’s another very good question. Whether you agree with him or not, LaFeber provides an impressive answer. We can understand LaFeber’s title and argument by linking him to Williams. Williams was the chief of the founders of the New Left branch of what’s become known as the Wisconsin school of history. A clutch of his students went on to have distinguished careers as historians. They were much inspired by the issues of the 1960s and ’70s we’ve referred to, and particularly by Williams’s arguments.
Williams wrote a number of books, but it’s been said that he was predominately an essayist. I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true that he put out the big ideas. What was needed was a set of studies that would exemplify, elaborate, qualify, or enlarge them. LaFeber’s book of 1963 did just that. His study is probably the most prominent and influential of the work dealing with US imperialism that emerged from the Wisconsin school. It retains its value today.
“Whether you agree with him or not, LaFeber provides an impressive answer”
What did LaFeber mean by the term ‘new empire’? He accepted the view that there were long continuities of expansion in US history but argued that 1898 saw the creation of a new form of empire. That’s the empire I, too, refer to: the overseas territories that were acquired by the United States after the war with Spain in 1898. It was new, not only because territorially the United States had not owned these places before, but also because of the causation LaFeber ascribed to it. This is where LaFeber built upon Williams’s rather more schematic generalisation to devise an argument that drew attention to the industrialising process in the United States from the 1870s onwards, the growth of towns, the accompanying concentration of people, and the urban unemployment that followed economic downturns.
LaFeber took this materialist argument and applied it in considerable detail to the events of the 1880s and 1890s in particular. His special emphasis was on showing how the acute difficulties of the 1890s prompted business interests to push for expansion overseas as a means of restoring economic health and political stability at home. LaFeber’s work was not only very detailed, but also expresses its own originality at every step through the book. It’s carefully and fairly argued. As I said at the outset, LaFeber goes out of his way to express his admiration for Pratt’s book, although he disagrees with it entirely and stresses the role of business pressures rather than those of ideological impulses and missionary endeavour.
Finally, we come to a very different book, Louis A Pérez’s, Cuba In the American Imagination. This is a different perspective, because it’s seen from an island that was colonised as opposed to having been written from the perspective of Washington.
Yes. We haven’t covered quite 100 years, but we’ve come a long way since Pratt in 1936—a long way in terms of how history has been studied. I’ve cited Pérez for two reasons. The major reason is that I’m using Pérez to signify a shift in attitude between his own work and the other four books that I’ve mentioned. The other books do not really have either the apparatus or a primary interest in seeing the world from the point of view of the recipients, that is to say those who experienced the weight of colonial rule. This is not the criticism it might seem because very few scholars were interested in this perspective until the 1960s. Until then, much of history of the rest of the world was assembled by the West from centres of power in Washington, London, Paris, et cetera that reached outwards. That was the conventional approach of the time.
Well, what happened in and after the 1960s was a revolution that produced what is now known as area studies. The term summarises the huge research effort following decolonisation to write about indigenous or local peoples themselves rather than treating them as agents, victims, or fortunate recipients of alien influences and rule. So, Pérez represents one dimension of this new research as it applied to Cuba. His work is a distinguished statement of a much wider process of rewriting world history. Excellent examples could also be drawn from Hawaiʻi, The Philippines, and Puerto Rico, as well as, of course, from Africa and Asia.
Nevertheless—and this is the second reason I’ve chosen Pérez—I don’t think anyone has contributed as much he has to any other part of the insular empire. In the course of half a century, he has written some 12 books on the history of Cuba and covered everything from bandits to the military and included the environment and culture, as well as standard political themes. You cannot write a word about Cuban history without citing Pérez.
“Cuba was described as a ‘ripe fruit,’ that would eventually drop off into the hands of the United States”
I’ve chosen this particular book because of the way it shows how the interaction between the US presence and its perception of Cuba produced misleading stereotypes that fed back into policy. Pérez demonstrates that the United States invented a series of mythical constructs of Cuba. The United States was not well informed about the realities of Cuba and didn’t take much trouble to inform itself better. Consequently, mistaken perceptions and appraisals created a form of reality that became a basis for action. I’ll give you some examples. In the 19th century, observers in the United States saw Cuba as an island that had drifted away from the mainland and ought to be reclaimed. The word ‘natural’ was frequently applied to support the assumption that Cuba was really part of the United States. The island was also seen as a ‘ripe fruit,’ to use a common phrase, that would eventually drop off the tree and into the hands of the United States. Then, in 1898, in order to justify the war with Spain, Cuba became a damsel in distress that needed to be rescued from the mediaeval, tyrannical rule of Spain.
After 1898 and down to 1959 the United States wielded considerable influence in Cuba, which was effectively a protectorate. However, the Cubans did not always obey their protectors. And so the image changed again. Cubans became inferior. They had limited potential. They were undisciplined. They were rebellious. Consequently, they needed paternal help and guidance before they earned the right to manage their own affairs.
In 1959, the Cuban Revolution signified their rejection of the forms of imperial subordination they had been subjected to. At this point, of course, previous attitudes became solidified. Cubans became ungrateful, rebellious, dangerous and even today deserve to be walled off and kept away from civilised countries until they have in some way repented and seen the light. President Trump’s decision to reaffirm a hard-line policy towards Cuba indicates that salvation still lies ahead in a very distant future. It is said that the president is not a great reader. It would greatly assist the formulation of US policy if someone would offer him a one-page summary of Pérez’s book.
One image Pérez picks up on that I find striking is of a child learning to ride a bicycle. It’s extremely patronising.
Are these images reflective of how the Americans feel about Cuba, or do they develop a power of their own?
A bit of both. I think that Cuba has become, through this long history of mutual misunderstandings, something of a special case because of what Washington regards as its obduracy combined with its proximity. Other islands have fallen into line to various degrees, but the Cubans failed to conform. It’s a great irony that their demand for self-determination was what President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed as a goal of US policy at the end of World War I. It’s also what the American colonists wanted in 1776. So, the precedents for what the Cubans are doing or trying to do are there in US history. It’s the practice of them that displeases Washington.
But it would not do to overemphasise the Cuban case in terms of world history, because very similar attitudes marked all the great colonial powers from the late 19th century onwards. They all thought they were superior. They all thought they had a divine right to rule, and they all came to the conclusion, one way or another, that colonial subjects were ungrateful, obstructive and occasionally rebellious and that the colonial burden was indeed a heavy one. It had to be carried for as long as possible, but there wasn’t much benefit to be gained from it. So, you can take the Cuban case as being fairly typical of US attitudes towards all of its possessions, and those attitudes in turn link with those of the larger imperial powers, like Britain and France.
In your own work, American Empire, you look at US imperialism in a wider context.
Yes, if I think about my own work in relation to the great books I have mentioned, I would say that I’ve tried to do two things that are not fully covered by the available literature. The first is to set the United States in a broader Western context. The argument here is that, though the United States is of course distinctive in many regards, there is a commonality about its evolution from the 17th and 18th centuries to today that has been missed. To make this point, I interlace my chapters on the United States with chapters about what is going on in Western Europe in terms of the changing nature of the state from an agricultural, military-fiscal state to a modern, industrial, constitutional nation state and the accompanying struggles between progressives and conservatives. The kind of trends that we know as staples of modern European history were also operating in the United States and at much the same time.
For example, when the United States acquired its formal empire in 1898, it did so at the height of ‘new imperialism’ in the late 19th century, when Britain, France and others were expanding or creating their own empires. So, there’s nothing exceptional about the participation of the US in a widespread Western undertaking. There’s no surprise either about the timing of decolonisation, except that it is not dealt with in books that offer syntheses of the subject. The US shed its empire after 1945 and at the same time as the decolonising process was getting underway everywhere else. In short, I try to show that US history, in its broad international contours at least, was part of a much wider Western developmental story.
The second contribution I hope to make follows from what I’ve said about Pérez. I am now speaking as an Africanist who’s done field work in Africa in my younger, healthier, more athletic days. The point is that you cannot now write any kind of imperial history without taking account of the enormous work done on the indigenous history of the places that were colonised. Moreover, this is not just a matter of making the story complete. It is because the story, in being complete, alters the original message. That’s to say, the view from Washington and London was itself partly created by experience in Africa, India and elsewhere, which fed back into it. There is a sense, however unequal, that colonialism was jointly produced and was not simply an imposition from the outside world. It was that, but it was much more than that.
In my book, I’ve drawn attention to the admirable and detailed work that has been done on Hawaiʻi, The Philippines, Puerto Rico and, as we have just seen, Cuba. This literature is part of the move during the last generation or so to write indigenous history. As yet, however, no one has put together the research on the imperial experience of all the major islands and linked the Caribbean to the Pacific. What I’ve done on this, I should say, is by no means definitive. And there are, I’m sure, many weaknesses that I have not yet fully perceived. Nevertheless, I have attempted to reflect in my study of American Empire approaches that would be taken for granted but also regarded as of great significance by historians working on Africa, India and other parts of the now defunct colonial world. You could say that it’s an attempt to write a global history for a globalised world.
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A G Hopkins
A G Hopkins is Emeritus Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge and former Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Global History: Interactions between the Universal and the Local; and American Empire: A Global History. He lives in Cambridge, England.
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