In This Review

Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power
Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power
Edited by Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper, and Kevin W. Moor
New Press, 2006, 352 pp.
Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors
Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors
By Charles S. Maier
Harvard University Press, 2006, 384 pp.

Do past empires hold lessons for U.S. foreign policy today? Many people evidently think so, as the recent flood of books and articles purporting to explain what those lessons are attests. These two latest examples of the genre come from authors with impeccable scholarly credentials. But like so much of this literature, their efforts yield little payoff.

The distinguished contributors whose writings are assembled by the Social Science Research Council (ssrc) in Lessons of Empire disagree on what an empire is, whether the United States is one, whether scholars have anything to say to policymakers, and even whether history has anything to say to scholars. The authors do agree that overreach, arrogance, racism, stupidity, mythmaking, and ignorance are bad, and that the opposites of those things are good. But these lessons are obvious, and one does not need to study empire in order to know that the United States, like other countries, would be wise to heed them.

Harvard University historian Charles Maier, meanwhile, offers a breezily written tour d'horizon of past empires and a detailed, straightforward narrative of the United States' rise to global supremacy after World War II. Although he raises important questions about imperial behavior, he assiduously avoids answering most of them, and the two parts of his book fit together uneasily.

Both volumes have interesting things to say about empires, but the only real lesson they convey, albeit unwittingly, is that the concept of empire is unnecessary for understanding the United States' current role in the world -- and that both policymakers and scholars would be better off discussing contemporary foreign policy issues without recourse to false analogies from a distant past.

name game

Matthew Connelly begins his contribution to the ssrc's Lessons of Empire with a puzzle: "Scholars of empire have to ask themselves why, after several decades of research and teaching, almost all of it critical of imperialism and its legacies, we seem not to have had the slightest impact." One good answer can be found in the conclusion to George Steinmetz's essay in the same volume: "A preferable way of avoiding having one's work functionalized for empire, to avoid the 'ear of the prince,' is to try to create accounts that are ontologically and epistemologically adequate to the processual, conjunctural, contingent nature of social life, and hence irreducible to simple policy statements." Ontological and epistemological adequacy may not do the trick, but stylistic opacity and intentional irrelevance will surely kill a putative prince's interest in academic writing.

Sheldon Pollock's piece wanders even further into academic obscurantism, arguing that "contemporary discussions of the lessons past empires may have for present ones make several assumptions that must come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the debates on historical knowledge over the past few decades. One is that we really can acquire true knowledge of history; another is that this knowledge is useful to us, that we will benefit by acting upon its truth." Oddly enough, the book's editors share some of this skepticism about the relevance of history to the present, writing that "the lessons of studying past empires reinforce a cautious attitude toward claims made about the present." That may be so, but if historians really believe that they have little to say to policymakers, why write such books in the first place?

One can draw lessons from the past only if one believes that history is real, that knowledge of history is possible, and that such knowledge can be packaged appropriately. Assuming one accepts these propositions, one then has to identify conceptual similarities between the objects to be compared and the contexts within which they exist and then develop meaningful theories of causality. Lessons of empire can be drawn, in other words, only if the United States is or has an empire and only if the foreign policy environment in which it pursues its supposedly imperial aims is comparable to that of past empires. It is that simple. If the United States is not an empire, or does not have one, there is nothing more to say about this particular subject.

In Among Empires, Maier tries to sidestep this problem by claiming that "the United States reveals many, but not all -- at least not yet -- of the traits that have distinguished empires." But if the United States does not share all the defining characteristics of empires, then it is not an empire, and there is little reason to believe that valid lessons of imperial history will apply to it. After all, the United States shares "many, but not all" traits (such as bigness, multiethnicity, and arrogance) with non-empires such as Brazil, Canada, France, and Indonesia, so why not draw lessons from their experiences with equal justification?

There is thus no avoiding the definitional question that bedevils all such discussions. One common mistake is to conflate empire and imperialism, even though the first is a type of polity and the second is a type of policy. The distinction gets lost in Jack Snyder's argument, in the ssrc volume, that overexpansion destabilizes the states that practice it. Such a statement is plausible, but why is it a lesson of empire? Overexpansion, after all, is not usually a weakness of established empires, which are exceptionally durable and not necessarily expansionist.

Another mistake is to think of empires simply as "big multinational states." But by this definition, the category would have to include Canada. "Big and powerful multinational states" is better, but still too broad, as it would have to include India. Even "great power" does not work, because some empires, such as that of the Hapsburgs, were not terribly strong and because many great powers lack the structural features of empires.

Many scholars agree that empires should be defined as polities with a peculiar kind of relationship between a dominant "core" and subordinate and distinctive "peripheries." The core is not simply larger or more powerful than the peripheries, nor does it simply influence them in some heavy-handed manner. It actually rules them, either directly or indirectly, through local surrogates.

No less important is the absence of significant relations between or among peripheries. In empires, the peripheries almost exclusively interact through the core. The resulting arrangement resembles a rimless wheel, consisting of a hub and spokes. The idea of all roads leading to Rome accurately describes the imperial structure.

the imperial republic?

So does the United States qualify? It would be absurd to say that the 50 states are an empire. Does the United States have an empire? It is too soon to say whether occupied Iraq will become a U.S. colony, although from the way the war has been going, the chances are that it will not. Afghanistan is hardly a U.S. periphery. Puerto Rico's relationship with the mainland might be "colonial," as might Samoa's and Guam's, but a few minor islands make for a pretty dull empire.

The United States and its institutions, political and cultural, certainly have an overbearing influence on the world today, but why should that influence be termed "imperial," as opposed to "hegemonic" or just "exceptionally powerful"? McDonald's may offend people, but it is unclear how a fast-food chain sustains U.S. control of peripheral territories. U.S. military bases dot the world and may facilitate Washington's bullying, but they would be indicative of empire only if they were imposed and maintained without the consent of local governments. Hollywood may promote Americanization -- or anti-Americanism -- but its cultural influence is surely no more imperial than the vaunted "soft power" of the European Union.

Ronald Grigor Suny thus sensibly concludes his essay in the ssrc volume by noting that if "empire" is defined rigorously, the United States cannot be said to have one. Appropriate lessons might therefore be drawn from comparisons with other polities that have had vast power in the international system, some of which might have been empires, some of which might not. This point is not just academic. If the United States is not an empire, then the lessons of empire are the wrong ones for U.S. policymakers to heed.

Maier implicitly acknowledges that "empire" is a dispensable term when he says he wants to investigate U.S. ascendancy without "claiming that the United States is or is not an empire." And indeed, his history of U.S. power could easily have been written without reference to empire.

Imagine, then, that policy analysts and scholars stopped applying the label to the United States. Would it make any difference? I think not. The challenges facing the country -- war in Iraq, nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, rising authoritarianism in Russia, growing military power in China, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, avian flu, climate change, and so forth -- would be exactly the same, as would U.S. policy options. Allies would still be allies; foreign critics would still express outrage at what they perceive to be American stupidity, arrogance, unilateralism, and the like. Life would go on, and no one -- except for scholars of empire -- would notice the difference.

the empire strikes out

Not only is the United States not an empire, but it probably could not become one today. Several decades ago, the political scholar Rein Taagepera -- who, distressingly, is not mentioned by any of the authors in the books under review -- plotted the life spans of empires, graphically demonstrating what is now the conventional wisdom: empires have been among the most durable, stable, and successful political entities of all time. Empire actually works -- or, rather, worked -- quite well.

Despite empire's long and venerable track record, however, there are strong reasons to think that empire building is no longer a viable political project. Imperial states have acquired territory in three ways: by marriage, by purchase, and by conquest. Marriage no longer works, as no contemporary ruler (not even a dictator) claims to own the territory he rules. Purchase is a dead end, as all the world's land is divided among jealous states and oftentimes empowered populations. Conquest is still possible in principle, and the twentieth century is full of instances in which it was attempted in practice. But the limits of conquest are clear, in the aftermath of Iraq if not before.

International and most national norms, for example, now hold that the conquest of foreign nations and states almost certainly involves violations of human rights and the principles of self-determination and cultural autonomy, and is therefore illegitimate. Moreover, nation-states are unusually effective vehicles of mass mobilization and resistance, making sustained conquest harder now than in the past. And a growing aversion to violence militates against the ruthlessness that overcoming resistance requires. The international community may look the other way if mass murder is confined to a localized area of the developing world, such as Darfur, but it is hard to imagine that repeated genocidal policies in the service of imperialist expansion would not provoke severe condemnation and some countermeasures. In sum, while history suggests that being or having an empire is a guarantee of longevity, it also shows that acquiring an empire is probably no longer possible.

Why, then, has the concept of empire become so ubiquitous in discussions of contemporary U.S. foreign policy? It cannot be that the United States has just become one or acquired one. After all, the U.S. experience with empire goes back two centuries. As Maier points out, westward expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries arguably resulted in imperial holdings that were quickly integrated into the growing U.S. state, and Julian Go's essay in the ssrc volume describes late-nineteenth-century U.S. expansion as having produced "a formal overseas colonial empire" amounting to a few islands and the Philippines. The United States' ascendancy after World War II was even more impressive, regardless of whether it was or was not imperial.

What has caused the empire vogue recently has been not the sudden appearance of imperially structured U.S. power, but the seemingly arbitrary use of that power. The invasion of Afghanistan did not provoke talk of a U.S. empire, because most people in most countries believed that it was a reasonable response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and because it was the Taliban, not the United States, that was arbitrarily violating widely held norms about human rights, cultural autonomy, democracy, and national self-determination. It was the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's tub-thumping unilateralist rhetoric that made the difference. Empire talk made sense not because the United States suddenly had an empire, but because the exercise of the United States' vast power seemed imperial to some in its potential beneficence and wisdom and imperious to others in its arrogance and arbitrariness.

Seen in this light, it comes as no surprise that the authors who are cited the most in Lessons of Empire are Niall Ferguson and the writing team of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Ferguson is an enthusiastic proponent of empire, whereas Hardt and Negri are self-declared foes of it. All three have written books that have been as popular as they are weakly argued and incoherent. The empire talk such authors promote may be of interest to students of "discourses" or intellectual fads, but policy analysts and officials would do well to abandon the term "empire" instead of fetishizing it.

Fortunately, that should not be difficult. Before there was empire talk, it was perfectly possible to discuss U.S. foreign policy in nonimperial terms. Michael Mandelbaum has recently shown in his book The Case for Goliath that it still is. Once President George W. Bush leaves office and the United States withdraws from Iraq, empire talk may well go the way of empires themselves. The issues it purported to clarify will remain.

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  • Alexander J. Motyl is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University- Newark and the author of Imperial Ends: The Decline, Collapse, and Revival of Empires.
  • More By Alexander J. Motyl