Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America Vis-a-Vis Past Empires

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America Vis-a-Vis Past Empires

Article excerpt

Compared with past great powers, say the Mongols or Romans, America wields a light touch.

After World War II, the United States rebuilt its vanquished foes and cofounded multilateral institutions like NATO, the World Bank, and the United Nations. It turned Germany and Japan into democracies, and built a global alliance of nations, making itself the first among equals.

No other superpower in history has been so multilateral and modest about its status, says Donald Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "It's very important to understand that the ancients were very different from what we are today," he says. "I would say that [America] is the great exception in the history of the world. It hasn't been so long that everybody held the same view that the ancients did, which is: 'Empire is natural, empire is glorious; there's no reason to apologize, one should be very proud of it.' "

But even a modest superpower is not considered a force for good by all. In that sense, historians say, ambivalent attitudes toward the United States today echo the reputations of ancient empires.

The imperial centers of Rome and Constantinople, like New York City, were magnets for people seeking better lives and for thinkers from around the world. In 1203, French crusader Count Geoffrey de Villehardouin wrote: "All those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed with astonishment at the city. They had never imagined that anywhere in the world there could be a city like this. They took careful note of the high walls and imposing towers that encircled it. They gazed with wonder at its rich palaces and mighty churches, for it was difficult for them to believe that there were indeed so many of them."

The flip side of imperial awe is the outsider's perception of arrogant, jaded, corrupt cosmopolitanism. The later-day Romans and Ottomans were hated for their murderous court politics and lascivious lifestyles. Even the medieval Vatican, seat of the church's power, drew violent criticism from observers like Martin Luther of Germany. The Mongols were feared as "the scourge of God," but they opened trade routes from China to modern- day Poland. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.