In This Review

By Herfried Münkler
264 pp, Polity, 2007

The flurry of writings on whether the United States is an empire has waned, but questions remain about how best to characterize U.S. global domination. Münkler, a German political theorist, provides an illuminating survey of the sprawling history and theory of empire with an eye to making sense of today's unipolar order -- and it joins Michael Doyle's Empires and Anthony Pagden's Peoples and Empires as one of the best single summary volumes. Münkler contends that all the great empires of the past -- from Athens, Rome, and the Mongols to the Chinese, Russian, and European colonial empires -- had a similar organizational logic of territory, rights, and rule. Likewise, they all moved through cycles of expansion, consolidation, and dissolution. Does the United States fit this imperial pattern, or has it pioneered a different sort of international order, with leadership founded on respect for sovereignty and rules and the provision of public goods? Münkler argues that the United States conforms to both definitions -- but that the latter role has given way in recent years to imperial impulses. Others have made this argument; Münkler's particular contribution is to stress the structural imperatives that flow from the United States' unipolar position rather than the personalities or ideologies of specific leaders. In the end, Münkler's description of the United States -- and also of Europe -- as a "post-imperial empire" highlights just how bereft scholars are of terms to describe today's reality.