History and the Hyperpower

Courtesy Reuters


Most historians cringe at talk of the "lessons of history." Trained as specialists and wary of sweeping comparisons, they flinch from attempts to make past events speak directly to current policy. They remind us of what makes circumstances unique, highlighting differences where others see similarities.

Politicians and policymakers, on the other hand, have few compunctions about drawing on historical analogies to frame and explain policy choices. Scholars may wince at their shallow thinking and imprecision, but such practitioners always have the last word. And even if we try to understand our world purely in its own terms, implicit, historically grounded beliefs -- in trends and turning points, analogies and metaphors, parallels and lessons -- inevitably shape our views. Better, then, to ask explicitly how history should inform our understanding of the present.

The historical analogy making the rounds of late is the notion that the United States today is an empire that can and should be compared with imperial powers of the past. This idea gained immediacy when U.S. soldiers trod in the footsteps of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan and U.S. tanks rumbled through the ancient imperial heartland of Mesopotamia: ruling and remaking distant, recalcitrant peoples looks very much like an imperial project.

Casual talk of a Pax Americana -- harking back to the Pax Britannica, itself an echo of the Pax Romana -- implies that the United States is following a pattern of imperial dominance that holds precedents and lessons. The metaphor of empire merits neither angry rejection nor gleeful embrace. It instead deserves careful scrutiny, because imperial history contains analogies and parallels that bear critically on the current U.S. predicament.


An empire is a multinational or multiethnic state that extends its influence through formal and informal control of other polities. The Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri put it well: "There is no empire without a conglomeration of linguistically, racially, and culturally different nationalities and the hegemony of one of them

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