There are generally two ways of thinking about international administration and empire in contemporary world affairs. The first approach involves making a sharp distinction between past and present. This enterprise has as its object the separation of an irredeemable history of domination and exploitation from an enlightened engagement in international governance. The second approach also involves a journey through the world of history, albeit one that seeks to establish a degree of continuity between past and present. At the core of this approach resides the belief that there is something instructive about the age of empire of which contemporary ‘international administrators’ should take notice. This essay challenges both of these approaches by arguing that the ‘is it empire?’ debate passes over more interesting and decidedly awkward questions about international administration as a way of disseminating liberal values in failed states. Thus, the problem presented by international administration is not one of reconciling a changing conception of sovereignty with the emergence of coercive or hierarchical relations that are reminiscent of an earlier age of empire; it is a matter of making sense of a discourse of ability that is equally at home in the empires that once spanned the globe and a liberal world order populated by peace-loving democracies.