By comparing America to the empires of the ancient world and Europe, Charles Maier has attempted to answer the question, Is America an empire?  While his book reveals an author of immense learning, Among Empires is unsatisfying, not only because Maier answers his question in the negative—after presenting a great deal of evidence that seems to suggest otherwise—but because of what he hints at but fails to address.

In scattered moments, Maier seems oddly concerned with the historical role of empire in what he calls “inequality,” a hand-wringing refrain in any liberal’s songbook.  In his Prologue, Maier alerts the reader to his moral sentiments.  If we have in fact become an empire, “Do we make it more or less likely that the peoples of poorer nations will share in, or be excluded from, economic development and welfare?”  That sort of inquiry seems better suited to ideologues than to historians.  Maier insists that an empire is not simply a superstate, nor “just a state that subjugates other peoples or states,” but “a system of rule that transforms society at home as it stabilizes inequality transnationally by replicating it geographically, in the core and on the periphery.”  He believes that this inequality is an unintentional by-product of empire: “The divisions it intensifies along its frontier or the skewed rewards it distributes among its citizens at home amount to unplanned inequality.”  In empires, inequality (by which Maier means material or income inequality) becomes stabilized because empires encompass differentiations that are thereby somehow preserved.  In his discussion of how empires organize their economic activity, he concludes that “the structure and inequalities of empire recapitulate themselves at all levels of international, national, and local activity . . . ”

The observation seems shallow.  Isn’t it true that, in general, the inequalities of life “recapitulate themselves” at all levels of human and even animal activity?  Why the inequalities of empire are particularly noteworthy is startlingly unclear.

Maier begins one chapter by asking if there is a uniquely violent aspect to imperial rule, hoping to determine whether empires might generate a “different pattern or spectrum of violent acts . . . or a cheapening and brutalization of life in general.”  Some 20-odd pages later, after breezy descriptions of bloody warfare from the Peloponnesian War to Bosnia to mass exterminations in Rwanda and the Sudan, he simply concludes that “Such a determination remains out of reach.”  I cannot help but wonder why he brought up the subject in the first place.

The broad sweep of knowledge Maier brings to his discussion allows him to offer enticing insights—though, unfortunately, he leaves some of the most promising ones unexplored.  Maier claims one purpose of his book is to glean lessons from the past for guidance in the present, adding that comparing Rome and the United States is especially useful in discerning “parallels with and lessons for the contemporary United States.”  So it is particularly relevant when Maier suggests that it was “the cohesion of their legions,” not technological skill, that constituted the Romans’ decisive military superiority in the ancient world.  Here, perhaps, is a lesson for contemporary American military leaders—but such is not forthcoming.  Instead, Maier casually notes that Roman military superiority waned in the later days of the empire because its armies “no longer had the ethnic cohesiveness of earlier forces.”  He attaches no importance to that observation.  As used by Maier, “ethnic cohesiveness” is just another way of saying “loyalty to Rome.”  The late Roman Empire had come to depend heavily on soldiers recruited or conscripted from foreign lands, whose allegiance sometimes shifted from Rome to the chiefs of their tribal kin, even while they were under Roman command.  What lessons this might portend for multicultural America—which continually embraces a massive influx of foreign populations whose diversity rivals the variegated hordes that populated late imperial Rome—Maier does not say.

Maier is far more thorough in his discussion of whether the United States  shares enough of the attributes of historical examples of empire to qualify as one.  The United States, Maier concludes, is not (yet) an empire “at home” and has no territorial empire that it administers abroad.  Unfortunately, he does not explain why these two criteria are more important than other possible ones.  True enough, the United States has no emperor or dynastic succession, and her formal rulers are elected freely (or, perhaps more accurately, they freely arrange to get themselves elected).  And, indeed, the United States does not directly administer any vast contiguous territorial provincial system that constitutes a frontier defining who is inside, and who is outside, the empire.  But are these qualifications really necessary to constitute an empire in the modern world?

Maier acknowledges that the notion of empire is not a scientific concept and that empire itself “is not a single or coherent phenomenon,” and he suggests that America may preside over a “post-territorial” empire in which frontiers and control of land space are unnecessary in a world where financial institutions, media conglomerates, and miscellaneous corporations hold sway, protected by the world’s most powerful military.  He questions, though (and with some justification), whether private money-making organizations are properly considered part of America’s national power.  Maier does not consider, however, whether modern communications, transportation, and technologically advanced military organization have altered the meaning of frontier.  In reality, the American frontier—that is, the locations where those without the empire can enter it—might well be defined as wherever there is an airport and a State Department embassy to issue travel visas.  Penetrating this virtual border is simply a matter of acquiring a few pieces of paper—a passport, a plane ticket.  In this sense, America’s frontier lies as much in Jakarta and Calcutta and Moscow as it does along the Rio Grande.

In the premodern era, empires needed to control the land across which they marched their armies.  Without control of territory (or of sea lanes), armies could not march or sail to enforce the empire’s will.  No longer: Force projection today, at least for technologically advanced America, rests primarily on strategically located refueling depots for planes and ships.  That is why President Franklin Roosevelt demanded—and got—leasing rights for military bases across the globe in exchange for warships sent to Winston Churchill in 1940, long before the United States entered World War II.

The “territory” of a modern empire may be described as whatever the homeland will defend.  In this respect, the territorial system of America’s empire has an extensive frontier.  Under Article V of the treaty that created NATO, the United States must regard an attack on any member as an attack on herself.  Those member states that we will defend to the death include Canada, Iceland, Britain, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  And the NATO territories are not the only portions of the globe that the United States regards as extensions of herself: More than 30,000 U.S. troops still protect South Korea, while, according to the Treaty of Rio, we are pledged to defend nearly any country in the Western Hemisphere, excepting Cuba.  No power in all of human history—“empire” or not—has ever been militarily committed to protecting such a massive portion of the earth.

Maier affirms that “Imperial power is power that can be brought to bear far away with no loss of energy because of the distance.”  There can be little doubt that America exercises such power.  In his discussion of Roman military proficiency, Maier explains that what was crucial to Rome’s long-term imperial success was “the ability to project power far from the capital.  This involved the capacity to keep or to raise military forces . . . along long and far flung frontiers.”  For this reason, the efficient movement of troops was the real impetus for the construction of Rome’s famed road system; trade and commerce were secondary.  Historian Chalmers Johnson writes that, in 2001, the United States maintained no fewer than 725 far-flung overseas bases.  Only imperial force projection and the desire to defend the vast NATO configuration, as well as regions in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, can explain why U.S. forces are stationed in such places as Kef-la-vik, Iceland, 50 years after World War II and more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A modern imperial power need not have entire jurisdiction in a country in which its base is located.  The mere presence of that base is enough, especially when added to sufficient influence on the local government, to allow access to jurisdiction through friendly persuasion, bribery, blackmail, or coercion.  Americans have been especially good at obtaining access to bases, as Maier helpfully explains:

Empire is a form of political organization in which the social elements that rule in the dominant state—the “mother country” or the “metropole”—create a network of allied elites in regions abroad who accept subordination in international affairs in return for the security of their position in their own administrative unit . . .

Substitute “country” for “administrative unit,” and the way in which American foreign policy operates in such places as the Middle East becomes quite clear.

Maier believes that “an empire will punish defectors from its control,” while a nonimperial hegemonic power such as the United States “will do no more than rely on common interests and moral suasion.”  He reminds us that, when confronted with rebellion by the city-state of Mytilene, the Athenians slaughtered all its men and sold its women into slavery.  He offers other examples from ancient to modern times that, in his opinion, exempt the United States from being classified as an empire because she abstains from engaging in that level of brutality.

This argument is not persuasive.  Maier himself points out that the British, who did indeed create an empire, “in most cases shrank from such measures” against colonial peoples.  And he neglects to mention the heavy punishment accorded by Britain and the United States to Japan and Germany, who posed a threat to imperial Britain’s domination and America’s own global aspirations.  It is significant that the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were directed at civilians, mostly women and children, not uniformed combatants.  These bombings had no military purpose but a political and propagandistic one.  The message delivered was the same as that sent by the slaughter of the Mytilenians: Don’t challenge our dominance.

In Maier’s world, though America may look like an empire and act like an empire, she is really only a global “hegemon”—a distinction without a practical difference.  In the real world of history and politics, behavior—not abstract categories, definitions, and lists of attributes—is decisive.  In the real world, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, odds are you have a duck on your hands, no matter what you call it.


[Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, by Charles S. Maier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 373 pp., $27.95]