The Empire Quacks

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...

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