Courtesy Reuters

The Past as Prologue: An Imperial Manual

In This Review

The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power

By Max Boot
Basic Books, 2002
448 pp. $30.00

The fact of American empire is hardly debated these days. Even those who fear and oppose it (in this country, the libertarian right and the remnants of the new left; abroad, a variety of voices from Paris to Baghdad to Beijing) define international politics almost entirely in relation to U.S. power -- and especially U.S. military power. The "unipolar moment" has become a unipolar decade and, with a little effort and a little wisdom, could last much longer. Even Yale historian Paul Kennedy, who in the mid-1980s predicted U.S. "imperial overstretch," has become a believer. Stunned by the initial success of the war in Afghanistan, he wrote in February,

Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. The Pax Britannica was run on the cheap. Britain's army was much smaller than European armies and even the Royal Navy was equal only to the next two navies -- right now all the other navies in the world combined could not dent American maritime supremacy. Napoleon's France and Philip II's Spain had powerful foes and were part of a multipolar system. Charlemagne's Empire was merely western European in its stretch. The Roman Empire stretched further afield, but there was another great empire in Persia and a larger one in China. There is no comparison.

To be sure, it is still inflammatory to speak openly of empire -- hence the prevalence of euphemisms such as hegemony, preeminence, primacy, sole superpower, or, a la the French, hyperpuissance. But many of the nation's founders would not be so shocked: Alexander Hamilton, writing the first paragraph of the first Federalist Paper, described America as "an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world." Thomas Jefferson's term was "empire of liberty."

Since September 11, President George W. Bush, too, has learned that it is hard to be a humble hegemon. During the 2000 election campaign, Bush's advisers spoke contemptuously of the Clinton administration's promiscuous "engagement" in "nation building" and other "international social

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