106: Neil Smith’s American Empire

Neil Smith’s American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization uses the life and career of Isaiah Bowman, geographer under FDR, to trace the interconnected histories of geography, the American Century, and globalization.  Explicitly critiquing the claim that American Empire, and the global capitalism it is attached to, are placeless or beyond the “end of geography,” Smith argues that as the “territoriality of power,” geography has been profoundly important to the construction of American Empire.  However, unlike European imperialisms,  American Empire proceeds by global economic expansion rather than in “geopolitical, territorial terms.”  Thus, American Empire and geography are evolving together, as global economic expansion makes place ever more important.

American Empire proceeds both temporally and geographically.  Temporally, Smith identifies three nodes or “formative moments” in the US rise to globalism:

  • WWI and Wilson’s League of Nations; the US gets more ambitious than it had been in 1898, and dreams of continuing its imperial acquisitions; this dream is deferred
  • WWII; by the end of the war, Henry Luce’s 1941 claim that this was the “American Century” seemed to ring true; from 1945-1970s US capital and culture flourished and spread  
  • Smashing the Berlin Wall/ sacking Baghdad in 1989/1991; after economic setbacks in the 1970s and 1980s from strengthening global competition, deregulation, the “withering” of the Japanese challenge in the 1990s, reconstruction of the US economy and the end of official communism all seemed to signify a “new world order,” strengthened by a renewed interest in geography in the 1970s and 1980s.
Spatially, he analyzes the interconnected spaces that made/make up the American Century, using Bowman’s life and career to locate them:
  • the spaces of a geography of exploration and its mapping of resources, which Bowman participated extensively in
  • the spaces of science and the “Kantian University,” traced through Bowman’s various institutional roles in scientific agencies and as president of Johns Hopkins
  • the conceptual spaces involved in the “geopolitical and geo-economic territorialization of empire,” traced through Bowman’s books, essays, and speeches
  • the spaces of governance and policy advising, read through Bowman’s interactions with Wilson, Roosevelt and Truman
Throughout, Smith emphasizes the interpenetration of politics, culture, geography, and empire, showing that the American Empire relies on geographical knowledge and the unevenness of capitalist development for its very existence, and that geography as a discipline and a profession is shot through with politics and an active agent in the construction of Empire.
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