Ambivalent Empire: A Book Review Essay

By Brown, John S. | Army, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Ambivalent Empire: A Book Review Essay


Brown, John S., Army


Ambivalent Empire: A Book Review Essay

Has the United States become an empire, consciously directing the activities of lesser states to its own advantage-and perhaps to their advantage as well? Since September 11, 2001, we have seen considerable advocacy for Americans actively managing international affairs. Threats from terrorists, rogue states and nuclear proliferators must be preempted, even if unilaterally. Global economic integration must be encouraged, nurtured and policed. Democracy must continue its inexorable advance.

A few recent books could illuminate a discussion of whether we are, in fact, bearing the advantages, costs and responsibilities of empire: Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors by Charles S. Maier (Harvard University Press), The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars by Robert D. Hormats (Times Books), I Want You! The Evolution of the All-Volunteer Force by Bernard Rostker (RAND Corporation) and The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Gen. Rupert Smith (Alfred A. Knopf). A not so recent book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. valuable in setting a grand strategic context. Considering each of these books in turn, and then collectively, sheds light on the contemporary United States and security-related issues of "empire."

In Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors, Charles S. Maier draws upon historical examples-Roman, Ottoman, Spanish, Russian, British and others-to define empire and its recurrent structures and features. In his analysis, Maier discusses the roles of both hard and soft power in empire building, as well as the wisdom of assuring that dependencies-or at least their elites-have a stake in imperial success. He devotes one chapter to defining and categorizing frontiers and discusses the several functions that they serve. He also cautions that the urgency of imperial responsibilities generally diminishes legislative functions to the point of "rubber stamping" the executive and notes other ways in which an empire changes the society that becomes or acquires one.

After having spent about half of the book developing a paradigm of empire, Maier thoughtfully assesses the American experience and the extent to which it reflects that of the aforementioned megastates. One of his more interesting observations is that the United States started out as an empire of production but has made the transition into an empire of consumption, useful to others largely because of our appetite for their products. The Leverett Saltonstall Professor of History at Harvard University, Maier is an ideal choice to lead us through such an erudite and engaging analysis.

One imperative of empire is finance. In The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars, Robert D. Hormats describes how the United States has financed its security over time, with a particular emphasis upon financing armed conflict. Hormats is a vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International, a veteran of distinguished government appointments in his area of expertise and a worthy authority on this subject. Not surprisingly, he argues that our advance to world power has been accompanied by thoughtful and innovative mobilizations of vast amounts of money.

The very invention of the greenback was a Civil War financial measure, and World War I turned the nascent income tax into a powerful and progressive revenue-generating measure. World War II carried income taxes and war bonds to yet another level of magnitude, and the Cold War was arguably the first war won by bankrupting an opponent without actually fighting him.

Hormats proceeds chronologically, with separate chapters focused on Alexander Hamilton and his era, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the early Cold War, Vietnam, the Reagan rearmament and the war on terrorism. He observes that in previous wars administrations sought to anticipate costs, balance revenues with borrowing and achieve reasonable prospects of expediently liquidating debts and sustaining creditworthiness when hostilities ceased. …

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