Book Review

Imperial dreams

Print edition : January 12, 2007
Two books that provide a timely corrective to the tendency to justify American expansionism.

WILL the colossal failure in Iraq instil second thoughts in the minds of those who thought of an American Empire? The spread of the United States' global reach inspired books justifying a quest for Empire. Comparisons with British and Roman Empires proved tempting. These books provide a timely corrective. Bernard Porter is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Newcastle upon-Tyne and an authority on empire and British history.

Empire builders always claim to be liberators of countries they conquer and occupy. Donald Rumsfeld claimed that the Americans "don't do empire" while justifying precisely such ventures by the U.S. Britain's Empire comprised countries under its occupation as well as under its dominance, where it ruled by proxy as distinct from countries under its "sphere of influence". Empires are built on power, and it is the reach and strength of U.S. power that matters. "The parallels with certain aspects of British imperial history are too glaring to ignore."

Even the sites are identical - Iraq and Afghanistan. There are parallels of deeper significance. The rhetoric does not conceal but rather reveals the motives. Gladstone's denials of empire-building were more elegantly worded than Rumsfeld's.

Porter cites neocon ideologues in the U.S. who openly advocate the imperial spread. "People are now coming out of the closet on the word `empire'," Charles Krauthammer noticed. Time there was when Americans berated the British for their empire. The author hates the way British history has been "used" by contestants in the debate on the U.S. empire. Not only is it not "exceptional", as Americans tend to regard their country, but, in a sense, the British Empire of old was "a dry run for the modern American variety".

This book is neither an apologia for the one, nor a denunciation of the other. It is an erudite historian's plea for a better understanding of the grim realities of empire-building. After 9/11, "American imperialism for the first time transcended its British predecessor; became something far greater - if it works, that is; if not, then far more hubristic. I call it `super-empire'." After 1945, the Americans took over from the British.

The analysis is not simplistic. It notes the peculiarities of each empire, the British and American, while drawing attention to the similarities. British law outlaws defence or "glorifying" of terrorism. But an explanation is not an apologia. Porter presents "terrorism as a rational choice in some circumstances where, for example, an enemy has an overwhelming conventional military advantage". Is it "terrorism" or resistance to foreign occupation in Iraq?

This thought-provoking book is based on careful attention to the facts of history, for which ample references are provided. In a sense, Harold James' is a companion work. He is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. His essay deals with modern America's fascination with imperial Rome, reflected in big films from Ben Hur (1959) to Gladiator (2000). It draws on Gibbon's immortal Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as well as Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and traces the links between commerce and empire. Its emphasis is on the economic aspect, which, he complains, other works neglect. Another important aspect that he emphasises is the relationship of power to the rules, both, at the national and international levels. "The exercise of power has an addictive quality." Hence the need for rules to regulate its exercise.

But the "superempire" has no interest in rules; no interest in any legal checks on its power. Checks on its power can come only from countervailing power, of which there is, as of now, little sign. Hence the U.S.' ire at any sign of Russian self-assertion.

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