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The Rise and Fall of American Empire


Admission requirements



This course will cover the transition of US power through the 20th century, from a rising power challenging European interests through to a position of relative decline in the early 21st century.
In 1940 Henry Luce, the owner of Time Inc., wrote an article entitled ‘The American Century’ in which he praised the material and ideological potential of the United States to dominate world affairs, should it choose to do so. The following sixty years largely followed Luce’s argument. From 1940 to 1945 the United States went through a major transition, developing from a nation still suffering from the Great Depression to a political, economic, and military powerhouse determining international relations. The ensuing Cold War further extended US interests in a global material and ideological contest with the Soviet Union, culminating in the collapse of the communist regime in 1991 and the arrival of a post-Cold War, single superpower, ‘unipolar moment’ in the 1990s. Since the arrival of the 21st century, however, US power has been undermined by ‘imperial overstretch’ and economic weakness, leading some commentators to question whether the days of American empire are truly over.

Course objectives

This course will critically explore several dimensions of the American empire phenomenon. Firstly, it will examine the concept of empire itself: how different observers use the term, why Americans themselves often have trouble with the term, and to what extent it is justified to talk of ‘American empire’. Secondly, it will trace the ideological and material foundations for the rise of the United States, beginning with the US experience in the late 19th century of European-style imperialism (the Spanish-American War and the control of overseas territories) and looking at the expansion of US political, economic, and cultural influence through the 20th century. Thirdly, it will consider types of power (material, cultural, hard/soft, structural) through which the influence of the United States in global affairs can be critically assessed. Fourthly, it will address the issue of the (relative) decline of US power in the changing global environment of the 21st century, and how this may be affecting our understanding of the role of the United States in world affairs.


See timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Research

A mixture of lectures and interactive seminars, combined with film material and guest lectures by experts in the field. An emphasis is placed on individual research that leads towards a final paper, for which archival (or other primary) research is (usually) required. Guidance is given to enable the students to develop a practical plan.

Course Load

  • Total course load: 10 EC x 28 hours = 280.

  • Class Time: 2 hours per week x 10 weeks = 20 hours.

  • Supervision Time: 2 hours per week x 6 weeks = 12 hours.

  • Research Time: 8 hours a week x 6 weeks = 48 hours.

Assessment method

  • 60% Research Paper (6500 words).

  • 20% Four Short Response Papers (+/- 1000 words each).

  • 10% Research Paper Proposal

  • 10% Research Paper Presentation


Blackboard is used to make reading materials available.

Reading list

Proposed Literature:

  • Andrew Bacevich, Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

  • Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (London: Penguin, 2004)

  • Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth Century Europe (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

  • Charles Maier, Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).


Via uSis.


Email: Prof. Dr. G. Scott-Smith.