In This Review

Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference
Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference
By Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper
Princeton University Press, 2010, 528 pp.
The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail
The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail
By Timothy Parsons
Oxford University Press, 2010, 496 pp.
Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism From Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz
Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism From Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz
By Richard H. Immerman
Princeton University Press, 2010, 286 pp.

Many leaders of the American Revolution welcomed the idea that their new nation would grow up to be an empire. To them, the concept was compatible with a republic; it meant size and benign influence. David Ramsay, South Carolina's delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote as early as 1778 that the grandeur of the American continent provided the basis for a realm that would make "the Macedonian, the Roman, and the British sink into insignificance." George Washington thought of the new country as a "rising" or an "infant" empire. Thomas Jefferson, who secured the vast Mississippi and Missouri valley corridors, famously envisaged an "empire of liberty." But whose liberty? The idea of empire as conquest or subjugation was curiously absent from this postindependence reverie. Cheered by the euphemism of "manifest destiny" deep into the nineteenth century, Americans of European origin continued to enjoy the incredible lightness of empire.

Subsequent observers would contend that the process of building and managing an empire is often violent, unfettered by concerns about law and equality. Empire, as Joseph Conrad wrote and American anti-imperialists came to acknowledge, had a heart of darkness. As Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, the authors of the massive comparative study Empires in World History, argue, "Terror was the hidden face of empire." And it has not always been so hidden, either.

The word "imperium" originally signified the authority delegated by the Senate of the Roman Republic to exercise command over the republic's own citizens and subdue others. It came to be applied to Rome's new territories throughout Italy and then beyond, even before Augustus founded the Principate, the first formal phase of the Roman Empire proper. More recently, in the United States, the growth of presidential power has periodically awakened concerns about what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed "the imperial presidency," that is, the growth of executive authority at the expense of legislative supervision and public dissent.

Three recent books on empire -- Burbank and Cooper's comparative history, Timothy Parsons' The Rule of Empires, and Richard Immerman's Empire for Liberty -- are less concerned with how nominally representative institutions can give way to authoritarian leaders than with how one state or national group extends its rule and often territory at the expense of others. This focus is hardly surprising, since much of the literature on empires has responded to the string of interventions the United States has undertaken since the Cold War.

People who object to applying the term "empire" to the United States point out that it has never established permanent colonies beyond its borders. Those who apply the term insist that the project of filling out the continent was imperial from the outset, since it involved the forced displacement and ethnic cleansing of indigenous groups. As for American forbearance abroad, they argue, the United States has sought no permanent colonies or territories because it has not needed them. Occasional but decisive interventions have sufficed to protect U.S. interests, and hundreds of U.S. military bases continue to preserve a sphere of influence well beyond the United States' borders.

Other commentators have argued that Washington should be unapologetic about using power this way. The historian Niall Ferguson suggested in Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World that British colonialism brought valuable experience in parliamentary and economic practices to the United Kingdom's colonies, and he deplored the United States' apparent unwillingness to take on the long burden of tutelage. The writer James Traub, among others, has suggested that Washington should intervene in central Africa to stop civil war and genocide -- even if doing so would awake concerns about U.S. imperialism. And the historian John Darwin's masterly After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 accepts frankly, without any moralizing, that the United States is the most recent in a long series of transoceanic empires.

History suggests that it is not easy to maintain the distinction between humanitarian and imperial interventions. Before Iraq devolved into protracted civil conflict, it was much easier for champions of a muscular foreign policy, such as the writer Peter Beinart, in the liberal camp, and the usual neoconservative suspects, to argue that the "empire of liberty" must awaken from the torpor of indifference and intervene abroad. Immerman's history of the myopic intentions of U.S. leaders reflects the painful process of learning how difficult it can be to reshape other societies and institutions. To what degree meaning well mitigates historical responsibility remains a highly charged issue, although American society is relatively forgiving of policies whose major impact lies abroad and that exhibit the bravery of U.S. soldiers.

Such moral debates are unavoidable and important, but morality is hardly the only issue surrounding empire. Empires have existed since the organization of states in the river valleys of Africa and Asia. What characterizes them? How do they function? When do they arise? How and why do they collapse? The scientific study of empires has become a major inquiry. Burbank and Cooper's and Parsons' books are efforts to cover empires systematically; Immerman's is a more focused critique of the United States' imperial career. None is an apologia for the United States.


Cooper is one of the most perceptive historians of the late colonial period in Africa. His early work emphasized how the British and the French, by trying to allow civic and economic rights within their African possessions, only awakened more militant resistance, especially among colonial labor movements. Throughout his career, Cooper has sought to go beyond the simple dichotomy of collaboration and resistance among imperial subjects. He has proposed that colonial subjects develop various ways of pressing for equality and recognition within, and ultimately against, imperial rule. His co-author, Burbank, is an expert on imperial and twentieth-century Russia and editor of a volume that examines the impact of Russia's geographic vastness on its domestic institutions. In Empires in World History, Burbank and Cooper survey almost the entire history of global empires, beginning in the third century BC with the Han dynasty and the Roman Empire. They follow the spread of Islamic empires, Byzantium, the Mongols, and their Central Asian successors and then devote much attention to the Ottomans, before turning to the Austrians, the Russians, the overseas European empires, and, finally, the German, Japanese, Soviet, and American empires.

Burbank and Cooper accept empire as the dominant form of governance over large spaces and explore different strategies (what they term "repertoires") of imperial control. The underlying problem for empires is how to impose unity over difference. An empire must preserve the differences among the peoples it yokes together but not at the expense of its overall structure -- creating a tension that requires continually balancing power among contenders.

In the search for unity, successful imperial structures generate what might be called a big idea -- whether it be cultural unity, as in the various Chinese dynasties; citizenship, in the Roman Empire; law, in the British Empire; or, for the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, economic development. Empires organized around a monotheistic religion -- Islam or Christianity -- have drawn on a particularly potent source of legitimacy but remain vulnerable to schism and dissent.

From the Han dynasty on, the Chinese recruited a class of scholar-officials who did not have the local resources to defy the center, thereby avoiding the problem Rome faced when its delegated princes or leaders became challengers. But palace factionalism, warlordism, and the threat that officials might defect to neighboring powers remained a danger to the Chinese dynasties. Rome and subsequent empires needed, indeed wanted, their soldiers to be posted at the frontiers, a long way from the capital. But the distance also allowed ambitious contenders to accumulate power locally. Empires continually required military exertions, which necessitated the regular extraction of resources from agriculture or commerce in far-flung provinces -- a perpetual challenge. Of course, this has been the case for all types of states, which have centralized fiscal and military institutions as a response to international pressure. Still, with their extensive territory, empires experience a much greater tension between the center and the periphery. It would have been useful, then, for Burbank and Cooper to provide a more sustained discussion of the difficulties that the Mogul empire faced in South Asia. This wealthy and multireligious empire gets strikingly short shrift even though it exemplified all the liabilities of empire: unruly frontiers, aggressive neighbors, fiscal crises, and an extremely confederal structure. It was the power in Asia most similar to the contemporaneous Holy Roman Empire.

As Burbank and Cooper stress, conflict at the boundaries, especially boundaries shared by empires engaged in a protracted competition, such as that faced by the Ottomans from the seventeenth century on, can lead to revenue scarcity, rebellion, and territorial shrinkage -- all of which ultimately undermine even the most robust imperial structures. Indeed, imperial politics are uniquely determined at the perimeter, where challenges emerge. Borders can never remain entirely fixed or stable: even the Roman, Chinese, and Berlin walls were sites of turbulence. Often, brilliant and ruthless commanders who seized imperial power -- Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte -- began their campaigns at the perimeters of power and pressed inward, toward the rich provinces in the heartland.


Burbank and Cooper's decision to follow empires chronologically allows them to present a sustained, sequential narrative punctuated by targeted comparisons. At times, the individual stories flatten out into a general political account of the world's megastates, and the focus on imperial strategies fades. Although their narratives are rich in detail, it is not clear that it makes sense to follow empires individually, since the trajectory of each is affected by rivalry with others. Still, as the authors leisurely unfold their gigantic panorama, they return to the main requirements and achievements of successful empires -- the management of differences within extensive territorial and ethnic realms.

The contrast with Parsons' large study of selected empires is revealing. Parsons, an Africanist by training, samples instructive imperial experiences: Roman Britain, Muslim Spain, Spanish Peru, the East India Company in Italy, Napoleonic Italy, British Kenya, and Vichy France. Like Burbank and Cooper, Parsons synthesizes a huge amount of global history, even though he does not claim the total coverage they seek. Also like them, he attributes the lightning conquests of the Spanish in Mexico and Peru to the fact that the Aztec and Incan empires they displaced had recently conquered other tribes who chafed under the Aztec and Incan yokes.

Although they are sometimes justified by grand ideas of civilizational supremacy, empires are not really created by any cultural disparity; they arise from transitory technological and military supremacy. On this point, Parsons diverges from Burbank and Cooper, for whom ideologies must be taken seriously even when they serve as a rationale for hierarchy and domination. The notion that imperial rule is for the benefit of its subjects "was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard," according to Parsons. "Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue."

Empires are cartels of multiethnic elites in which local leaders hold on to their regional power by deferring to the overriding authority of the center. Empires stabilize their rule horizontally across space by reinforcing vertical hierarchies within their diverse geographic holdings. (The United States' effort to control tribal leaders in Afghanistan today is only the most recent example of this strategy.) Thus, the best way to study them is to examine how they lasted rather than how they came to be.

Like Burbank and Cooper, Parsons believes that empires work by recruiting intermediaries and making deals with local elites. But he thinks that the founding acts of conquest remain essential for historical judgment: "No one became an imperial subject voluntarily." Hence, he tends to characterize the kind of collaboration that occurred in Vichy France as selling out, whereas Burbank and Cooper describe a far more fluid and equal set of transactions. For them, the intermediary is a creative political entrepreneur, be he Polybius, the Greek sojourning in Rome who made himself a preeminent political interpreter, or one of the Albanian, Armenian, or Greek civil servants among the Ottomans. Linguistic talent and intermarriage are the major strategies for attaining influence among the colonizers even when those in charge promote racial distinctions to inhibit mingling. (Think of the formidable roles played by Hernán Cortés' Marina, John Rolfe's Pocahontas, and Lewis and Clark's Sacagawea.) Burbank and Cooper also stress how indigenous elites can promote genuine economic innovation.

Readers familiar with Cooper's earlier, sympathetic focus on what are often termed "subaltern" groups in British and French Africa may be surprised by the mellowness of Empires in World History; Burbank and Cooper cannot help but admire the political and societal engineering that empires have sustained over vast regions and long centuries. Cooper and Parsons both began as historians of empires in Africa, acutely aware of states where the gulf between the rulers and the ruled was reinforced by race. But Burbank and Cooper also understand that the refined courts and capitals of the Byzantine, Ming, and Persian empires often softened the founding violence of the conquerors. Such imperial grandeur means little to Parsons. For him, empires, despite all their sophistication, remain structures of conquest, domination, and exploitation, and they are doomed to fail.

Unfortunately, Parsons seems to have selected only cases that reflect this particular trajectory. He studies Napoleonic Italy, Vichy France, and the sanguinary last phase of British rule in Kenya; had he covered the major Chinese dynasties or the Ottomans, he might have wound up adopting a less accusatory stance. Burbank and Cooper, for whom empires subsist as amazing structures of large-scale governance, accommodating difference without (or until) falling to forces of localism or alternative empires, have a different perspective on collapse. Where Parsons sees the demise of empires as the inevitable result of a dialectic of resistance -- force, counterforce -- Burbank and Cooper believe that empires usually succumb because the intermediaries between the government and the governed gradually accrete their own power and form their own domains or defect to a another conqueror.


Immerman's brief study of six important architects of U.S. foreign policy argues that the idea of empire was inherent in the United States' national aspirations from the beginning. Restlessly articulated in terms of national ideals, the project was a thrust for a large national domain, not merely of liberty but also for liberty; indeed, Immerman suggests that democratic ideas continually justified expansion. He has little patience for those who hesitate to recognize the United States as an empire, and he shows the ideological contortions that accompanied the process of becoming one. His debt to critical historians, including Walter LaFeber and William Appleman Williams, is evident. Unlike them, however, Immerman sees political, legal, and racial ideas -- not the capitalist search for markets -- as motivating U.S. imperialism.

Engaging and informative as these six studies are, they do not establish a pattern. Benjamin Franklin, Immerman's first exemplar, conceives his imperial vision within the framework of a then still-viable joint British and U.S. enterprise of Western Hemispheric expansion. John Quincy Adams was probably the most articulate in fusing anticolonialism with continental expansion. William Seward and Henry Cabot Lodge were the most intent on pressing beyond continental borders; John Foster Dulles and Paul Wolfowitz, the most absolutist in their ideological ambitions. Immerman depicts Wolfowitz with considerable sympathy, even as he deplores the results of his project.

At the end of Immerman's biographies, conceptual questions remain. Is there really much of a distinction between an empire of liberty and an empire for liberty? Which territorial ambitions were understandably compelling for the early Republic, abutting, as it did, the overseas outposts of European empires? Must an ambitious foreign policy in pursuit of a national ideal inevitably degenerate into imperial interventions and acquisitions? The argument would seem less one-sided had such issues been probed more deeply.

It is normal enough that those who dominate should think their purpose enlightened and their mission natural. Empire could not exist without its intellectuals, who take on the task of explaining that goals pursued for self-interest are in fact justified by progress. Historians may find such rationales convincing, but it would be naive to forget that those who are ruled often do not. Somewhere, always, empire is sustained (and contested) by violence. Some apologists respond that the imperial conquerors impose peace or suppress barbaric practices -- the conquistadors stopped Aztec priests from ripping out the hearts of their prisoners, the Americans ousted the tyrant who had gassed the Kurds. Others will say that all forms of government sometimes require violence, or at least surveillance and coercion. All this may be true, but in democratic states, citizens have some degree of control over their own regime. The essence of empire is that the power to participate in decision-making is bestowed very unequally.


Is the age of empires over, as many believe? In the aftermath of 1989, American observers celebrated "civil society," believing that by stubbornly exercising their residual power, organized groups -- churches, unions, protest movements -- could bring down repressive bureaucratic apparatus. But since 9/11, civil society has faded as a compelling vision. Other nonstate actors have proved that violence and counterviolence still matter. In that milieu, empire will not easily fade, even if colonialism does.

The policy question, then, is whether states that have the power to act like empires can learn to work within an international system that, compared to the past, is less hierarchical and rests more on associations of interest. After 1945, the old imperial powers got caught in the contradiction of claiming to give their colonies a free choice while expecting them to stay in some form of associated subordination. Today, China, Russia, and the United States have the capacity to organize empires. But Europe is demonstrating that a new form of confederal association might emerge that in fact is more egalitarian and therefore more promising.

How the world can make the transition to a sort of comity of regions will be the overriding question for international politics in the decades to come. The world may be better off with no single superpower, even one that seems as benevolent as the United States does to many Americans. Such major transitions, however, are always risky; they create crises fraught with danger. The ride can be rocky, as future historians will no doubt document, and empire has seemed a plausible alternative in such turbulence for a long time.

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  • CHARLES S. MAIER is Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University and the author of Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.
  • More By Charles S. Maier