In the post-9/11 era, we have been forced to grapple with the concept of empire. As radical Islam looks at American military bases around the world – the most galling being in the holy Saudi Arabia – it understandably accuses the United States of imperial intentions. Conversely, Americans generally react in horror when equated with the King Georges of history, for every high school student knows the American colonies fought to liberate themselves from the tyranny of empire. If twentieth century presidential rhetoric proves anything it is that Americans conceive of themselves as projecting power abroad in order to further the ideals of this initial revolution. But as one observes the numerous bases around the globe, the centrality of the American financial system to the global economy, and the growing ubiquity of American pop icons and Yankees caps, the inexorable question looms: is America an empire?
Unfortunately this question frequently devolves into either a visceral emotional reaction – where America is accorded or denied the status of empire via initial assumption - or a semantic quibble – where the definition of empire subtly shifts throughout the conversation. To address these concerns Among Empires by Charles S. Maier approaches the question of empire from the only way possible, namely a systematic and comparative historical approach. First, Maier looks to history to determine the “recurring structures” in empires. Only then does he address the question of how America measures up to these historical structures.
The argument avoids exhaustive individual investigations of historical empires. Rather, Maier presents his general criteria of empires, and then supports these categories with myriad references to various historical examples. This approach has the virtue of keeping the book’s page count manageable, while providing satisfactory support for his overarching criteria. At times this approach leaves the particularly critical reader with the task of determining precisely how his criteria apply to all historical empires, as the examples are not exhaustive, but this is to be expected.
For Maier, the most distinguishing aspect of an empire is the ability of a home state to “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” (7). These elites may emerge from the home state or from the indigenous population of a subordinate state, but their status depends on their adherence to the language, education, and politics of the dominant state.
To create this dynamic, the tendency of empires is to enforce social hierarchies, whether of class, ethnicity, or both. These hierarchies emerge from tolerating the continuation of indigenous cultures, while at the same time establishing an elite monoculture based on the cultural and political values of the ruling state. The virtue of this characterization is that Maier accounts both for our intuitive understanding of imperial organization – its fractal like tendency to replicate hierarchies of control - and our natural impulse to distinguish between nations and empires. For Maier, the primary difference between the two is that “nations are better at equality, empires at tolerance” (29).
Nations tend to organize around a shared identity such as language or religion (including in the recent West tolerance), and they seek to establish this identity throughout the nation state. Moreover, as this shared identity coalesces there often emerges a strong concern for at least legal and sometimes even economic equality, as seen in the development of Western nations. However, to create this shared identity, nations have a tendency to be intolerant of cultural outsiders and push for assimilation. Empires on the other hand tolerate cultural diversity and co-opt it for the purposes of political control. The language, education, religion, or ethnicity of the ruling state serves to distinguish the ruling elite from the ruled. This is most evidenced by the multi-tiered language system of numerous empires, including the Roman, British, and Persian varieties.
Though Maier’s explanation of cultural diversity and loyal elites is his guiding definition of empire, he draws further distinctions that warrant attention. He accepts and develops historian Geoffrey Hosking’s distinction between having an empire and being an empire. Being an empire means that governmental structures at home are identical to those abroad, while having an empire entails a fundamentally different form of government for the nation that possesses the empire. Presumably the government at home is relatively less autocratic. For Hosking and Maier, Russia (not the Soviet Union) was an empire, Britain simply had an empire. Maier goes on to argue that, over time, empire frequently undermines the political distinctions enjoyed at home as more power is given into the hand of the emperor as in the case of Rome and Napoleonic France. Therefore, political developments at home can provide signs about whether a nation is an empire, has an empire, or is simply a nation-state.
In addition to the question of being or having, Maier adopts a second distinction between an empire and a hegemon. Acknowledging a complex discussion about how precisely to define hegemon, he emerges with his own quite precise definition. For Maier, “an empire will punish defectors from its control, while a hegemon will do no more than rely on common interests and moral suasion” (63). The paradigmatic example of a hegemon is the Athenian led Delian League of the fifth century BCE, which coincidentally serves as an archetype – no pun intended - for how hegemons devolve into empires when they seek to compel cooperation by force and/or exact tribute from the subordinate states.
So given this intellectual apparatus, how does the United States fare? Throughout the book, Maier remains ambivalent. He suggests that in looking at America one perceives “multiple zones of control in its career as a great power” (67). In its relationship with Europe and Latin America, Maier insists that the United States no doubt functions as an economic hegemon but without discernible imperialism. For example, the US tolerated French dissent from NATO in the 1960s and from the Iraq invasion of 2003. The trenchant Marxist will likely take issue with the rough equation of American economic hegemony in Europe with that in Latin America, and Maier does little to alleviate this concern. While he provides a careful and compelling narrative of American ascendancy in Western Europe, the parallel narrative for Latin America is notably absent.
In the Caribbean, Maier suggests that American influence is “potentially imperial” when its economic hegemony is challenged, as in its belligerent approach to Cuba in the 1960s. Finally, the US has shown itself explicitly imperial on several occasions, but in a “more or less temporary” way (67). Though sometimes explicitly militaristic as in Vietnam and Iraq, Maier also highlights covert coercion as in Iran in the 1950s. Furthermore, Maier insists that throughout these various developments abroad, America itself was and is clearly not an empire at home. Though he concedes the well-documented increase in executive power throughout the twentieth century, Maier believes the democratic process to be essentially intact.
Maier uses the latter half of the book to justify his distinctions and conclusions about American ascendancy. He weaves a dense political and economic analysis into what is a fundamentally narrative account. In this account, he describes US development from an empire of production to an empire of consumption. In the interwar years, American production and laissez-faire business vied with British financial savings and imperial resources in an ongoing war for global economic hegemony. While both economies were severely challenged by the Great Depression, Britain emerged from World War II severely crippled and eventually dependent on both US dollars and US production. This in turn led to the dismantling of their empire in accordance with US political and economic sensibilities. The establishment of a hegemonic US dollar was as much a political development as an economic one. America heavily subsidized the rebuilding of Western Europe not only to reestablish liberal trading partners in a new economic hegemony, but also to establish military allies with able bodies and boundaries abutting those of the emergent Soviet empire in Europe.
This arrangement worked marvelously until the 1970s when cultural and social discontent combined with the economic strains of massive spending on military and social programs to require America to reinvent itself globally (239). America thus emerged as an empire of consumption, wherein foreigners accepted “continued international domination of American firms” and subsidized American private and public net consumption in exchange for American investment in the form of capital, technology, and most importantly American manufacturing jobs (269-270).
From this story Maier concludes that America is an empire in the sense of creating “a global elite oriented toward U.S. standards and values” (270). This elite becomes so oriented both through direct training in American universities and through the economic compliance necessary for foreign elites to do business with America. Moreover, America possesses the hard power and ability to project that power that is vital for perpetuating any empire or hegemony. However, the elite mono-culture purveyed by the American empire also contains a striking feature. As American culture expands around the globe so does its animating political principle, namely democracy. Maier insists that with American ascendancy one observes “as much diffuse and decentralized yearning in the world for democracy as there was diffuse compulsion on behalf of oppressive capitalism” (283). This is not to say that democratic movements require American military intervention, as many misguided policy makers recently insisted. One has only to look to Leipzig in 1989 and Kiev in 2005 to understand this. However, the democratic ideology praised in American lecture halls and movies brings a constant and robust critique of American imperialism in its egregious forms.
Among Empires is a superbly nuanced approach to the question of American imperialism, and it should prove beneficial to a vast audience. In addition to all of the questions addressed in this review, Maier tackles questions about imperial borders, imperial peace and violence, and the constant question about decline that accompanies all empires. The book is essential reading for all of those who would employ, blithely or not, the term “American imperialism”; it explicitly addresses the ambiguities that implicitly accompany such labels. His historical narrative of the post-World War II American economy is particularly pressing in these days of financial disaster and doubt. Will America be able to reinvent itself again or will the empire of consumption ultimately consume itself? It is impossible to answer this question without the careful knowledge that Maier provides.
 The preeminent interlocutors in this discussion are, Paul Schoeder, the historian of European international relations and Michael Doyle, the classical historian who looks to ancient Athens and Sparta for definition.