Washington May Be Imperious, but It Is Not Imperial
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.
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
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