In This Review

Empire and Superempire: Britain, America, and the World
Empire and Superempire: Britain, America, and the World
By Bernard Porter
Yale University Press, 2006, 224 pp

After a flood of books on empire, it would seem that everything has been said. But if the polemical battles have indeed now been fought, what is still useful is careful comparative historical inquiry into the varieties of international dominance and a search for lessons from the past. This book, by a historian of the British Empire, argues that today's U.S. global dominance bears a striking resemblance to the nineteenth-century British experience, despite the United States' claims to exceptionalism. The popular images of the British Empire are that it was built on strength, driven by the search for profits and territory, deeply racist, and -- in the view revived by the economic historian Niall Ferguson -- a means of spreading modernity and civilization. Porter contends that the motives behind British imperialism were "more mixed, its spirit more ambivalent, and its impact more uneven than any of the popular versions of it -- both pro and anti -- would suggest." Vulnerability, ambivalence, and limitations were the real hallmarks of the British Empire -- precisely the features that Porter finds evident in the United States' own post-World War II global involvements. In the end, he succeeds in showing the complexity of imperial power but provides little help in understanding the relationship between U.S. power and global governance.