An Unexceptional Empire? Reconsidering American Hegemony

Julian Go’s Patterns of Empire arrives on the cusp of the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq, a conflict that has done much to revive the debate over whether or not US foreign policy can be considered “imperialistic.” Go, an associate professor of Sociology at Boston University, challenges the belief that the United States has been a liberal and self-constrained geopolitical actor throughout its history. This “exceptionalist” paradigm holds that U.S. foreign policy reflects values such as respect for individual liberty and democratic participation. Even those commentators and politicians criticizing US policy frequently utilize exceptionalist depictions of the United States as a contrast to the policy being critiqued.

To make the case against exceptionalism, Go compares the administrative and geopolitical behavior of the United States and Great Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. The book is most effective when discussing the disjuncture between liberal policy preferences of the United States and its style of colonial administration. To support his contentions, Go cites the U.S. occupation of the Philippines. To consolidate its dominion over the Philippines, the US crushed a nascent independence movement that ultimately cost 400,000 Filipino and 4,000 American lives. Paradoxically, the brutality of the conflict gave way to an American administration that strived to educate the population and inculcate the populace with “democratic” norms. While this might be interpreted as evidence of liberal exceptionalism, Go contends that analogous policies were put in place within the British Empire. Throughout their respective imperial histories, both the United States and Britain displayed similar modes of administrative behavior when faced with similar local conditions. The author sees further similarities between British and American styles of administration in a variety of geographic and temporal contexts.

Go also advances a general theory of imperial aggression based on the rise and decline of an Empire’s relative economic clout.  He argues that states will be more inclined to advance themselves through military actions during phases of economic rise and decline, but will be more inclined to using non-military leverage during the intermediary period of economic hegemony. His comparison of the United States and Great Britain strives to overcome the confounding effects of the Cold War context that could serve as alternative explanations to the behaviors he observes. In light of the contextual factors hedging against further colonial expansion, his analysis treats military intervention and colonial annexation as analogous indicators of imperialistic tendencies. In order to demonstrate that U.S. military aggression increased during its period of decline (beginning in 1973), Go points to a quantitative increase in the number of military interventions starting in the early 1980’s. Great Britain reflects this dynamic of imperial decline in its increased colonial annexations and military interventions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The book is most successfully a critique of the liberal “exceptionalism” paradigm, and illustrates the disparities between exceptionalist accounts and the colonial policy of the United States.  Go makes a convincing case that the normative pretenses of U.S. politicians were not reflected in qualitatively “exceptional” policies of colonial rule. However, the book leaves some questions unanswered. Although relative economic strength is taken as the key indicator of which phase a potential hegemony finds itself in, the time-frames utilized by Go do not appear to hold to the economic indicators. By the onset of the 20th century, the US had consolidated its position as the largest producer of manufactures and steel. Instead, 1949 is used as the starting point for the hegemonic maturity phase due to the overwhelming economic preponderance of the US. Yet there is no rigorous definition (in terms of relative economic output) for each of the three phases, making it difficult to determine whether or not each country’s behavior is a function of relative power—as Go claims.

Taking Britain as an exemplary case of European-style Imperialism, Go compares the United States with a culturally and ideologically similar European power. In doing so, Go’s comparison does not address those who advance a discourse of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. Furthermore, it is less clear that the United States after World War II can be readily compared with the European empires. By emphasizing the “informal” means of exerting influence, the line is blurred between “imperialistic” behaviors and run-of-the-mill interstate politics. While the European empires were based overwhelmingly on territorial control, this is distinct from economic leverage or the capacity to remove an “unfriendly” regime. By relying on military force as a measure of imperial aggression, it is difficult to rigorously distinguish imperialism from any other impetus for military force.

By and large, Patterns of Empire delivers a comprehensive critique of the claims underlying “liberal exceptionalism” discourse, and readers will be challenged to reconsider popular assumptions about the historical (and contemporary) actions of the United States.

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