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The Rise and Decline of American Empire


Admission requirements

Admission to the North American Studies MA or the International Studies MA is sufficient.

Note: This course is intended for students from a limited number of programmes. Because of the limited capacity available for each programme, you may be placed on a waiting list. Students in the MA program in North American Studies (NAS)--and if their places are filled, those in International Studies--will have priority. The definite admission (by January 25) will be made according to the position on the waiting list and the number of places that will be available after the NAS students have been placed. In total there is room for a maximum of 20 students in the seminar.


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. The course begins with various interpretations of ‘empire’, and is thereafter built around a set of subjects examined every week through secondary literature, primary documents, media reports, and film material. Traditional interpretations of American empire begin with the Spanish-American War of 1898, and this course also takes that as a starting point. But whereas traditional approaches generally reject the notion of American empire from the early 20th century onwards, the subjects covered in this course illustrate how American power has been expressed in a variety of ways that can still be considered ‘imperial’.

The content of the course is loosely organized around three broad ways to interpret the purposes and goals of American power through the 20th century: The Wilsonian Century, which emphasizes the cause of freedom and the promotion of democracy around the world; the Rooseveltian Century, that focuses on the US as a force for progressive social justice and the provision of public goods worldwide; and the American Century, a phrase drawn from an article by media mogul Henry Luce that praised the material and ideological potential of the United States to dominate world affairs, should it choose to do so. These three broad interpretations lead towards the end of the course, that considers the context of US power in the early 21st century. Commentators referred to ‘imperial overstretch’ and economic weakness long before the arrival of President Trump. Are the days of American empire 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), the transition from British to American hegemony, and the expansion of US political, economic, and cultural influence through the 20th century. Thirdly, it will address the challenges to and (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.

With this format, the course meets several key objectives of the MA North America Studies:

  • participants will gain knowledge and insight into major issues in the history, literature and culture of the United States, as well as the main scholarly and theoretical debates about these issues;

  • participants will develop a critical understanding of theories of U.S. exceptionalism;

  • participants will develop the ability to critically analyze American historical and literary texts and place them in a cultural and historical context;

  • participants will develop the ability to conduct independent multidisciplinary research;

  • participants will develop the ability to identify and collect primary and secondary sources for their own research project;

  • participants will develop the ability to apply knowledge of North American history, literature and culture to contemporary social, political, literary and cultural developments;

  • participants will develop the ability to critically assess and utilize primary and secondary sources to construct an extended argument in their research papers;

  • participants will develop the ability to judge the relative merits of academic opinions and arguments about contemporary developments in North American Studies;

  • participants will improve their ability to orally present and defend the result of individual research in a group context;

  • participants will improve their ability to effectively communicate research results in written English in various formats.

For Research Masters students, the following additional skills will need to be developed and demonstrated:

  • The ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources;

  • The ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

Research seminar.

Assessment method


Research Paper 40%
Research Presentation 15%
Review 20%
Digital Assignment 15%
Weekly Assignments 10%


The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


For reasons mentioned above, the course does not include a resit option after the final deadline of the paper.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

Will be provided via Brightspace.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Rgistration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Emphasis is placed on in-class participation and the sharing of ideas on the concept of American empire. No idea is stupid, every opinion is valuable.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal