Hot, Cold and Imperial

The question of how the world should be run, and America’s part in its running, is the subject of much academic and political discussion in Washington these days. The factual questions are: Is the United States on the road to becoming an empire like the Roman and British Empires before it? What are the prospects for such an enterprise in today’s world? More speculatively, does globalization require an imperial underpinning? There are also questions of value: Is imperialism a good or bad thing? Should the United States sacrifice its republican institutions in order to fulfil an imperial vocation?1 Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended can be read as setting the scene for this discussion. The Second World War cleared away the European empires, actual and aspiring, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the two contending superpowers. The collapse of the Soviet Union concluded the “unfinished business” of the war, by leaving the United States the sole superpower and simultaneously creating a single world economy. The dynamics of postwar US supremacy and the question of whether they are pushing the United States toward formal empire are the subject matter of Charles Maier’s Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors.


World War II, according to Gregor Dallas, never ended: it just stopped where the armies of East and West met, and almost immediately morphed into the cold war. This was because although the Soviet Union had achieved its war aim—an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Balkans—America had not achieved its aim, which, it will come as no surprise, was to convert the whole of Europe to democracy and free enterprise. The cold war started when Truman realized that “democracy” did not mean quite the same to Stalin as it did to the Americans.

That, in a nutshell, is the main argument of Dallas’s discursive but fascinating book, made up of myriad fragments like a collage. Dallas justifies his method by quoting the Polish poet Czesl/aw Milosz: “You can only express things properly by details. When you’ve observed a detail, you must discover the detail of the detail.” Nevertheless, underlying the book is an eminently sound proposition: that the war against Germany (Japan is scarcely mentioned) was simultaneously a struggle to control the post-Nazi future. Behind every military decision lay a political calculation. Indeed, Dallas’s book is so much taken up with the jostling for postwar position that it sometimes loses sight of the fact that till 1945 a war was still being fought against Nazi Germany. But even in defeat, Hitler, too, influenced the shape of post-Nazi Europe, by his choice of where to fight, how hard to fight, whom to surrender to—and whom to kill. By the end, he preferred to have Germany conquered by Slavic communism than by the decadent democracies.

Dallas dates the turning point of the war to July 1943, with the German failure to push back the Russian salient at Kursk and with the Allied landings in Sicily. But Hitler may have realized that the war was lost—in the sense that he would not be able to impose his will on events by military force alone—as early as December 1941, following the disastrous German defeat before Moscow, one of the forgotten but decisive battles of the war.2 Thereafter the most he expected from his armies was to achieve “temporary” victories to put him into a better bargaining position. He thought that the alliance between the West and the USSR would soon be torn asunder by conflicting interests, leaving him with room for a “political” solution. He was right to believe the Grand Alliance would break up, wrong to think it would happen before his own empire had been swept away. His aims, methods, and crimes had put him beyond the pale for the Western Allies.

Dallas suggests that Hitler would have had a better chance with Stalin. The main evidence for this is the Ribbentrop–Molotov, or Nazi–Soviet, Pact of August 23, 1939. By the terms of this pact, Hitler recognized half of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland, and Bessarabia as being in the Russian “sphere.” Most historians have regarded the pact as a marriage of convenience: Hitler avoided the danger of a two-front war; Stalin bought time. Dallas accepts the argument for Hitler—Hitler’s sights were always set on the conquest and settlement of European Russia—but not for Stalin. Stalin looked on the pact as a long-term arrangement because, to put it brutally, Hitler could give him what the Western democracies could not: reconstitution of the tsarist empire and further gains for the future. In November 1940, he and Hitler toyed with the idea of carving up the British Empire between them. But this was not Hitler’s dream, and he was probably leading Stalin on in order to keep supplies flowing from Russia till he was ready to strike.3

Dallas claims that even after the Germans invaded Russia, Stalin never abandoned the “fantastic perspectives” opened up by the Nazi–Soviet Pact. “In the spring and early summer of 1943, Stalin’s representatives in Stockholm attempted to negotiate a revived Pact; it failed because Hitler insisted on holding on to the Ukraine.” It was the Soviet victory at Kursk in July 1943, not at Stalingrad in December 1942 (which was followed by a successful German counterattack), that finally convinced him that Hitler had no more to offer. “As the Soviet armies rolled forward, Stalin could nourish the dream of imposing on Europe a novel kind of Nazi–Soviet Pact—one minus the Nazis.”

The strength of Dallas’s hypothesis is that it helps explain the movement of Stalin’s armies, and thus links the Nazi– Soviet Pact to the origins of the cold war. Stalin’s postwar annexations, including Poland up to the “Curzon Line,” closely followed the contours of the Nazi–Soviet Pact. His designs on the Balkans, and even on the Middle East (where Israel was originally conceived as a Soviet satellite), were foreshadowed in the November 1940 conversations between Molotov and Ribbentrop in Berlin. Stalin’s ambitions were bound to break up the Grand Alliance. What Britain and France were not prepared to concede to Russia in 1939 as the price for an anti-Nazi pact, America and Britain were not prepared to concede as the price for continuing the Grand Alliance. The seeds of the cold war, in Dallas’s view, were laid when Stalin insisted at Tehran in November 1943 that the terms of the Nazi–Soviet Pact still applied to Poland.

Dallas’s thesis is not without its problems, though. Does one need the pact to explain the “movement” of Stalin’s armies? Was Stalin not just helping himself to the spoils of war that fell into his lap? For in fact Stalin got much more than Hitler offered. The cold war may have started with the Soviet takeover of Poland, but it got going seriously only in 1948 with the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, which had nothing to do with the pact. (It was Czechoslovakia rather than Poland that was regarded as the litmus test of Soviet intentions in 1948, as it had been of German intentions ten years earlier.)

One could argue that the “fantastic perspectives” that opened up to the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1948 had less to do with the pact than with the power vacuum across Western and Central Europe. The claim that Stalin had a preference for Hitler also seems overdone, in view of his earlier efforts to negotiate an anti-German alliance with Britain and France. Then again, if Stalin was so keen to have Hitler as a companion in world conquest, why did he send such a spectacularly sour envoy as Molotov to Berlin in November 1940? Furthermore, Dallas offers no evidence for his contention that Stalin’s representatives tried to renegotiate the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact in Stockholm in 1943. The truth is we will never know for sure what went on in Stalin’s mind. Dallas offers a powerful provocation to thought rather than conclusions from evidence.

Roosevelt was never concerned about who should liberate whom, because he dreamed of a post-territorial condominium with “Uncle Joe,” exercised through multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN. This can be counted as the most spectacular misjudgment in American history, aided and abetted by a network of Soviet spies in the Treasury and State Departments. Churchill, who was defending a territorial empire, evinced a much greater interest in frontiers: hence his attempt to limit Soviet expansionism by means of the “percentages” agreement with Stalin in October 1944. For the same reason, Roosevelt showed no interest in getting the British and American armies into Eastern Europe through Germany ahead of the Russians. This would have been quite feasible in the autumn of 1944, when Germany lay defenseless against Western assault. Nor did he back Churchill’s plan of seizing Hungary and Austria by forcing the attack on the German lines in northern Italy. “A break through the Ljubljana Gap and a march into Austria,” argued Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s envoy in the Mediterranean, in his memoirs, “might have altered the whole political destinies of the Balkans and Eastern Europe.”4 But implementing such strategies would have required the Churchillian concept of the “balance of power,” which had no place in Roosevelt’s brave post-territorial world. And Churchill, the weakest of the Big Three, did not control Western policy.

Of the three victors, Britain’s victory was the most equivocal. The Soviet Union gained an empire in Eastern Europe, the United States became the world’s leading power, but Britain emerged too weak to hold on to the empire which it had been Churchill’s object to preserve. Dallas emphasizes a point with which I am bound to agree since I have made the argument myself5—that Roosevelt’s persistent war aim was “the ejection of the British Empire as a Great Power.” Churchill in his geopolitics and Keynes in his economic policy fought as hard as they could to maintain independence from the Americans, but the shrunken assets Britain controlled by the end of the war were inadequate for the job.

Was there an alternative? Dallas reminds us that De Gaulle proposed an Anglo-French alliance on November 12, 1944. “Should England and France agree to act together…” he told Churchill, “they will wield enough power to prevent anything being done which they themselves have not accepted or decided. Our two countries will follow us. America and Russia, hampered by their rivalry, will be unable to counter it.” Others would join the Anglo-French camp because of their “instinctive fear of giants.” Church-

ill refused. “It is better to persuade the stronger than to go against them.” Dallas tends to ascribe Churchill’s choice of America over Europe to his rootlessness (abetted by his American mother, and his free trade perspective), but who was the fantasist: Churchill with his hopes of encouraging the Americans into the paths of realism or De Gaulle with his dream of a bankrupt Europe as a third force?


Dallas’s parallel theme is the struggle that went on within Hitler’s fortress—between collaborators and resisters, and between different groups of resisters. The collaborators hoped to find an acceptable place within Hitler’s empire; the partisans and resisters fought over the post-Nazi future—as spearheads for the armies and vanguards of postwar governments. Which political tendency won out depended on the “movement of armies.” Dallas reminds us of just how open the outcome was. In 1943 the “non-Communist resistance in Poland awaited the Western Allies to liberate them; the Communists in France stood ready for a Soviet liberation.” Neither expectation was as absurd as it now seems. The Normandy invasion had not yet happened; and the German armies were still deep in Russia.

In all those parts of German-dominated Europe whose populations were not destined for slavery or liquidation, the Germans had allies and collaborators who, whether from conviction or perceived necessity, sought a privileged place in Hitler’s New Order. For a time, at least, the Vichy regime in France enjoyed more legitimacy than the postwar puppet regimes set up by the Russians in Eastern Europe. It seemed to many in 1940 and 1941 that Germany had won the war. On that assumption, what was the alternative to making the best of a bad situation? Pierre Laval and Admiral Jean-François Darlan hoped to join with Germany in carving up Africa at Britain’s expense. This was not entirely foolish: as we have seen, it was one of Hitler’s options, though not his preferred one. Even on the murderous eastern front there were pro-Nazi forces inspired by ethnic anti-Russianism or anti-communism or anti-Semitism. Had Hitler been less brutal toward local populations he might have been received as a liberator over much of the Soviet Union, and not just in the Ukraine. But his racial theories left no room for Slav allies.

The different Resistance factions contended among themselves for control in order to establish their claim to postwar rule. Often they seemed keener to eliminate their rivals than fight the occupier. In France, the Communists tried to ensure that they, not De Gaulle, inherited liberated France. This might involve betraying Gaullist Resistance leaders, like Jean Moulin, to the Germans. The problem faced by De Gaulle—known as Ramrod, Dallas writes, “because he had all the rigidity of a poker without its occasional warmth”—was that he was the self-appointed leader in exile, whereas most of the internal Resistance, reacting to mass deportations of French workers to Germany, was run by the Communists. De Gaulle’s other problem was that Roosevelt detested him. FDR was “at heart an ally of Vichy, thinking always that at any moment Vichy would switch sides and become a convenient client state of the Americans.” For two years it was Churchill and Macmillan alone who upheld the claims of the prickly French general against American hostility. De Gaulle won the battle of legitimacy when his supporters gained control of the insurrection in Paris in August 1944 shortly before the Americans arrived, aided by the German military commander Dietrich von Choltitz, who ignored Hitler’s order to “raze” the French capital. The price De Gaulle had to play was to share his legitimacy with the Communists. Dallas rightly notes that De Gaulle’s ambiguous relationship with the Communists at home and with the Soviets abroad continued for the rest of his life.

Paris was in another world from Warsaw. The cities were “two symbols of the closing months of the Second World War: Paris was liberated, Warsaw was annihilated.” In the German-occupied part of Poland there was very little scope for collaboration with the Germans, since the Nazi plan was to make it a slave state. The murder of tens of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn and elsewhere in 1940 on Stalin’s orders showed that Stalin had an almost equally grim fate in store for the Polish elite in his part of Poland. With Wl/adysl/aw Sikorski’s death in an aircraft accident in 1943, Poland lost its De Gaulle, but even he would have been powerless to save Poland from the Soviets in face of the “movement of armies”—unless the London Polish government had received much stronger support from Britain and America. This would probably have required a showdown with Stalin—perhaps even a threat to cut off crucial supplies to Russia—which Churchill may have been ready for, but which Roosevelt was not.

Without determined Western backing, the Warsaw Uprising started by the non-Communist “Home Army” on August 1, 1944, was destined for catastrophe. Its motive was to seize Warsaw before the arrival of the Red Army, which it would greet as Warsaw’s rightful owners. It partly succeeded in its initial aim, but the Red Army remained encamped on the right bank of the Vistula and never came, leaving the Germans time to destroy the Home Army and most of Warsaw in two months of savage fighting. Stalin even denied landing rights to the RAF and USAF to fly in supplies.

Historical debate has centered on the reason for Stalin’s decision to halt his armies. Was it because they were exhausted? Did he want to give the Germans time to eliminate the anti-Communist resistance? Or was he concerned about a German counter-attack? Dallas has another explanation: Stalin stalled the advance into Germany, and diverted part of his forces to the Balkans, in order to “reestablish the gains he had made and expected out of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of 1939….” Seized by a single idea, Dallas explains too much by it.6


Of the 18 million Nazi victims in Europe, 11 million, including millions of Jews, died in Poland. The final section of Dallas’s book reminds us that Hitler and Stalin were not “normal” statesmen pursuing “realpolitik” goals, but mass murderers who aspired to reshape the societies they controlled by transporting or liquidating entire populations. Dallas’s special provocation is to argue (as Solzhenitsyn has done) that in the matter of forced labor and extermination Hitler was a pupil of Stalin, who only “caught up” with his master in the war, and then in the special circumstances of “total” war. “Russian and German camps breathed death into one another, like the winds of the plain, in an alternating cycle.” In Poland and Russia, the “Nazis moved into former Soviet camps; the Soviets then took over, and used the old Nazi camps. Worse still, some of these camps would have the same inmates and the same administrators. This is the story that has so far not been told.”

Slave labor was started by Stalin: there were already millions in huge industrial camps like Kolyma in 1939 when there were only 21,000 in German concentration camps. During the war Hitler copied Stalin by rounding up millions of foreign workers to produce munitions and food in Germany, a disastrous policy that drove young men in the occupied territories into the Resistance. The policy was the logical consequence of refusing to allow the mobilization of German women, Hitler believing that “our long-legged, slender German women” were unsuitable for factory work.7 As in the Soviet Gulag, many of these workers died from brutality, malnutrition, and disease.

Dallas follows Solzhenitsyn in denying the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The classic distinction between stigmatizing a race (which could not change its characteristics) and a class (which could be “reeducated”) breaks down with Stalin. He too “dumped whole nations down the sewer pipes,” wrote Solzhenitsyn. Stalin deported the nations whom he thought had collaborated, or might collaborate, with the Germans—Georgians, Chechens, Ingushi, Kalmuks—straining the Russian transport system just as the deportation of Jews to the East strained the Nazi transport system. The reasoning was the same in both cases: their ethnic characteristics made the victims actual or potential enemies of the regime. In 1941, Hitler wavered between deporting and exterminating the Jews. He had been considering evacuating all Jews first to Madagascar and then east of the Urals. It was “the loss of any chance for control of these lands…[which] pushed the Nazis towards…the ‘Final Solution.’”

In another twist to the story, Dallas argues that the “event decisive for the fate of the Jews” was initiated not by Hitler but by Stalin when he deported the Volga Germans to Siberia in September 1941. Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi minister for the eastern territories, told Hitler that virtually none would survive. “It seems that it was between late September and October 1941 that Hitler, not a forgiving man, decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe in return.” Thus the two regimes’ policies were linked in a murderous tit for tat. The acceleration of Hitler’s extermination program in 1942 was a reaction to a war that was being lost. After the defeat in front of Moscow, Dallas argues, Hitler “was obliged to imagine ways in which his Nazi ideology could survive…. The Jews, all the Jews, would have to be murdered while he still had control, before the war was ended.”

According to Dallas, the main difference between the Nazis and the Soviets was that “the Nazis had specific aims whereas the Communists fired in every direction.” The Nazis were the more determined killers, but their targets were much more limited. “The Russian Gulag penetrated every aspect of Soviet society,” whereas most Germans “had nothing to fear from the Nazis.” It was the Soviet Union, not Hitler’s Germany, that was “in strictest terms the totalitarian state.”

Different interpretations are possible of the origins of the Holocaust, and Dallas’s is entirely plausible. Its great strength is its insistence that this appalling tragedy was not predetermined. His account raises large questions about what other nations might have done to prevent the genocide of the Jews. The most uncomfortable question of all is: Would it have happened at all had Britain and France conceded Danzig to Hitler?

The end of the fighting left a huge population of displaced persons: the survivors of the camps, German populations fleeing from the Red Army, non-Germans who had collaborated with the Germans, voluntarily or involuntarily. At Yalta the Big Three decided that the “scum of Europe,” as Koestler called them, would be repatriated to their “home countries,” even against their will. This was a parody of “national self-determination.” Jews suffered most: for months survivors of the Nazi concentration camps stayed in them, many of them dying of typhus and dysentery. The Cossacks, Caucasians, Muslims, Christians, Ukrainians, even Poles who had fought or worked for the Germans were deported to the Gulag. The most infamous episode was the consignment of 25,000 Cossacks and thousands of Yugoslav “Chetniks” from British-occupied Austria to the sanguinary attentions of the Red Army and Tito’s partisans. The uprooting and murder of peoples went on after the movement of armies had stopped.

When, then, did World War II eventually end? It was only in the years after 1989 that the Nazi–Soviet Pact was finally liquidated. Post-Communist Russia has lost all the imperial gains it made under the pact: eastern Poland (now Belarus), the Baltic States, Bessarabia (now Moldova), plus their surrounding circle of Eastern European satellites have all become independent states. Even some of Stalin’s original dominions, inherited from Imperial Russia, have gone—Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia’s influence in the Middle East is virtually extinguished. NATO, said Solzhenitsyn in a recent interview with Moskovskiye Novosti, “is methodically developing its military deployment in Eastern Europe and on Russia’s southern flank.”8 The United States is embarked on a revised version of FDR’s mission to spread democracy and free markets around the world. It would take a rash person to say that frontiers in all these places are finally fixed, though it is far from clear where they will be fixed, or whether fixing them will make that much difference.


The US is the only belligerent discussed by Dallas without territorial ambitions. Germany, Italy, and Japan were trying to acquire empires, Russia to restore the Russian Empire, Britain to retain its empire. (China is barely mentioned.) America aspired to be a post-territorial “empire of liberty,” not a territorial dominion imposed by force. The US was only compelled to establish “frontiers” in Europe and Asia in 1947 and 1949, something FDR had disdained, because of the collapse of his delusion of a US–Soviet condominium. In the postwar world, as Professor Charles Maier of Harvard University describes it in Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, the US had “far-flung, but real, frontiers.” Woodrow Wilson and FDR had dreamed of American leadership not based on territory; rivalry with the Soviet Union forced the United States to construct a territorial and post-territorial domain simultaneously.

Maier’s book has much to say about how this construction took place after 1945. In this sense it follows from where Dallas left off. The US compromise between traditional empire and a Kantian comity of democratic republics was to establish American “hegemony” over the “free world,” backed by military commitments and military bases, and underpinned by nuclear weapons and Ford assembly-line technology. Maier distinguishes between the “empire of production” and the “empire of consumption.” In the first phase, the American productive system was transferred to its allies through Marshall Aid and other aid packages; Phase II’s “empire of consumption” was based on the dominance of the dollar, and culminated in the “twin deficits” of today—the budget deficit and the balance of payments deficit.

Maier contrasts the ways in which Britain and the United States financed their world domination. He shows how the adventurism of the Kennedy-Khrushchev period, which culminated in the Cuban missile crisis and in the Vietnam debacle, gave way to the Nixon-Kissinger-Brezhnev efforts to stabilize frontiers between the rival systems, and how this failed attempt to “adjourn…the cold war” was followed by a new “forward movement” by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and by the Carter doctrine of human rights. Of the Nixon-Kissinger design for imperial multipolarity—in which the American superpower would share the world with China and the USSR—he writes: “Not since Hitler had offered Molotov the domination of South and Central Asia in November 1940 was such a fundamental world political order presented as a grand bargain to international rivals.”

Although there are some interesting ideas here, this is the less satisfactory part of Maier’s book, since the history of the cold war is well-trodden ground. It shows signs of being hastily written, and is full of irritating small mistakes. It has not escaped the blight of the academic field called political economy—vague treatment of fundamental concepts, and of the linkages between economic and politics.

More thought-provoking is the first part of Maier’s book, in which he inquires about the meaning of the word “empire” and to what extent the US position in the world resembles past empires like the Roman and British Empires. His method is to identify “recurring themes” in imperial history and ask how far the US experience fits them. The inquiry has become especially relevant, because an academic consensus is developing that by its military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, its establishment for the first time of military bases in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and its threat of an attack on Iran, the United States has moved beyond the forms of “primacy,” “hegemony,” “leadership,” or “ascendancy,” by which its role has until recently been described, and aspires to reach a new stage in which the term “empire” might apply. The historian Niall Ferguson has called America an “empire in denial”9 ; Maier suggests it might be an empire in the making.

Maier wants to reserve the term “empire” for a “territorially extensive structure of rule,” which subordinates “diverse ethnolinguistic groups” and reserves preponderant power to an executive authority and its elites. On this definition, the United States is not and never has been an empire, because it has not sought formal sovereignty over foreign territory. (Domestic expansion in North America doesn’t qualify, in Maier’s view, because the Native Americans were semi-nomads; the Philippines was an exception.) However, Maier finds it difficult to use the word consistently, talking about the US as an “empire of consumption.” In the end, the best he can do is to say America has some characteristics of an empire and not others.

Take the way the United States exerts power. Subordinate rulers abroad defer to the United States. Washington, too, is an “imperial” capital, attracting academic and other elites who want to be near the center of power. However, unlike in the case of traditional empires, these arrangements are voluntary, resting on shared values, and were created by a common perception of an external threat by the Soviet Union: if this is empire, it is “empire by invitation.”

Empires had emperors. The title emperor was connected to military rule. The emperor personifies rule, has an intimate relationship with military resources, possesses (or claims) a moral grandeur, and, unlike a monarch, is not necessarily a heredity dynast. In Maier’s view, Rome remains the most convincing model for discussing the United States because foreign conquest changed it from a republic to an empire. It retained eviscerated republican institutions like the Senate, but power shifted to the emperor, and voting became plebiscitary. According to this view, the US is not yet an empire because its domestic politics haven’t yet become Bonapartist. But perhaps it is on the way. There has been a slippage of power from the legislature to the executive, from open discussion to expert control, and from the politics of political parties to the politics of religious and other groups. According to the Bush doctrine of the “unitary executive,” the president as commander in chief has supreme power and does not have to be accountable to Congress for its exercise.

America does not yet have emperors, though it is possible to think of its presidents as elected emperors, with dynastic elements. Since World War II, considerations of “national security” have increasingly subverted civilian institutions, even though the one genuine US proconsul, General Douglas MacArthur, was put in his place by President Truman. However, the official and popular ideology of the United States is anti-imperial, and for that reason alone America is unlikely to complete the classical transition from republic to empire.

Another recurring theme of empire is the psychological satisfactions it provides: heroism, glory, valor, honor, opportunity of service for elite groups, vicarious identification for the masses. It has been seen as an antidote to decadence.10 Maier has little to say by way of moral evaluation of empire. He writes, that is, as a political scientist or sociologist, not as a political philosopher. He does not consider the role of ideas as influences on forms of rule. This results in a defective discussion of reasons for empire and of imperial collapse. Empires, as Thucydides realized long ago, arise from a belief in the right to rule, and collapse when that belief wanes. To be sure, there is a strong ideological element in the current US drive for empire, especially among neoconservatives in the academy and Washington think tanks. It is based on the belief that the West is best, and will only be secure if the Western way becomes the universal norm. Those who resist the embrace of the West are thought to be savages and must be persuaded, or forced, to recognize the error of their ways. This is classic European imperial-speak, and it is heard in Washington today. However, the doctrine of Western superiority has not yet crystalized into an overt imperial ideology. It lacks the nineteenth-century, as well as the Nazi, ingredient of racism, without which it is difficult to justify rule without consent, though the Soviets managed it for a time.

Maier discusses whether empires by definition exploit their subjects, concluding sensibly that all theories of exploitation make “unresolvable normative claims.” Leaving these aside, Maier raises some factual questions which can in principle be resolved: Do the costs of empire outweigh the benefits to the imperial power? Can these costs be reclaimed from imperial subjects through taxation? Which groups gain and lose through the imperial connection? Maier tends to support the liberal view that empires, with all their military and other costs, are a

net drain on the imperial power, but that political and business elites, and special interests, both in the imperial center and at the peripheries, may gain at the expense of those with lower incomes.

This seems to fit recent US experience (for example, in relation to Latin America), but is unlikely to sustain an imperial project in the absence of popular support. Maier perceptively notes the reluctance of liberals to admit the connection between markets and empire. In economics as well as in psychology, they tend to view the satisfactions and rewards of empire as residues of past conditions rather than as part of the workings of markets. Thus, Maier writes, today’s market model of globalization hides the role of US multinationals in spreading “imperial employment patterns” through offshore production. To the extent that empires were always a contest for control of resources, the current American adventure in the oil-rich Middle East fits the traditional imperial logic.

The most interesting discussion in Maier’s book concerns the role of borders and of violence in the imperial experience. Empires, like states (at least in the Western tradition), are defined by having fixed borders; but the fixing of borders by conquest, and the maintenance of borders thus fixed, is a source of recurring violence “on the frontier,” which affects domestic politics. Imperial borders, Maier argues, are inherently contestable, since they do not rest on consent. So empires, unlike nations, are unstable structures. His main point, though, is that the attempt to “fix” borders marks a retreat from claims to universal sovereignty, a recognition that the imperial writ can be made to run only so far. The classic example is Augustus’ decision to limit the Roman Empire at the Rhine following the loss of Varus’ legions beyond it in 9 AD. “The utopia of the United States,” writes Maier, “has been of a system of free worldwide transactions…. When the utopia is punctured, the logic of territory reasserts itself.” Just as the consolidation of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe forced the US to limit its claims after World War II, so the emergence of terrorism has forced the US to shift from its post-territorial utopia to territorial defense in the post-Communist world.

Thus the fundamental contradiction at the heart of empires is that they promise peace but beget war. Their claim to be benevolent institutions is subverted by continuous conflict on frontiers and the revolt of subject peoples. Maier recalls England’s butchery of the native Irish population in the sixteenth century. With their mania for classification, empires also hardened ethnicities, identifications, and divisions: what are called “ancient hatreds” usually turn out to be products of colonial policies.

Maier is agnostic on the most popular current defense of empire as an agent of globalization, whatever its historical validity. The argument is that globalization requires conditions of peace and security that only empires can bring about. But advocates of empire forget that the last age of globalization, which was also the age of imperialism, ended in World War I. The truth is that no imperial substitute for multilateral institutions and rules will be accepted in a globalizing world that is also becoming more pluralist. There is no alternative but to advance at the pace which the slowest Great Power finds acceptable.


So where is America headed? The idea that the US is an “empire of invitation” rather than conquest will be harder to sustain in the future in the absence of the Soviet threat. Clearly the United States is not in Iraq by invitation. Some line seems to have been crossed and, as in Vietnam, the US either will have to make its new frontier effective—which in Iraq it is manifestly not, with sectarian civil war raging almost unchecked—or get out. In any case, the notion of an “empire of invitation” was always partly a fiction: the United States was not “invited” into Germany and Japan in 1945; it conquered them, and they have been “garrisoned” by American troops ever since. One could say that since World War II both countries have been somewhere between being independent and being client states: and the same is true for the European Union as a whole, whose leaders and populations lack the will and cohesion to break out of their US-protected cage.

The main conclusion which emerges from Maier’s study, though it does not seem to me that he spells it out explicitly, is that between the two poles of “empire” and “independence” there are a large number of intermediate positions which exhibit different mixtures of independence and subordination. It is the fiction that there are only two alternatives—a fiction which is the joint product of Wilsonian idealism and anti-colonialism—which causes most of the current confusion. Any exertion of power by the strong is called “imperialist” by its opponents, while the imperialist has to pretend that his actions are fully consistent with national independence.

Yet while this disguise may offend simple souls who crave sharp contrasts, it may also be a sign of progress. There is some evidence that forms of rule have been growing softer, more subtle, and more humane; being less transparent, they are harder to define. Despite the mass killings and other atrocities that still disfigure parts of the world, the systematic “imperial” brutality of Hitler or Stalin which Dallas documents is past history. They tortured and killed millions; now a relatively small number of violent deaths, of “human rights” abuses attributable to imperial efforts, arouses universal condemnation—partly, but not wholly, because of the difficulty of keeping violence off the airwaves.

The European Union is a new political contraption, and we Europeans have the same problem in identifying it as Maier has with the United States. Is it a federal state in the making? Is it a confederation plus? I suggest it is an experiment in a form of governing a group of countries for which we have not yet found a name. And the same, I suspect, is true of the position of the United States in the world. So, illuminating though it is, the attempt to fit the United States into historical patterns of empire is ultimately misguided. The United States is not in transition from hegemony to empire. The world is in transition to new forms of political organization, whose outlines can be dimly perceived, but whose frontiers cannot yet be fixed.


The War That Never Ended’ October 19, 2006

Which Road to Berlin? September 21, 2006

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    The latest offering is Harold James’s brilliant essay, The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire(Princeton University Press, 2006). James, whose translation from Cambridge, England, to Princeton, USA, may be viewed as an example of the imperial job market in action, quotes the bon mot once applied to the British Empire: “Britannia waives the rules in order to rule the waves.”

  2. 2

    On this see Rodric Braithwaite’s excellent Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War (Knopf, 2006).

  3. 3

    This interpretation has been challenged by John Lukacs, in June 1941: Hitler and Stalin (Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 23–24. Lukacs depicts Hitler as wavering in the autumn of 1940 between the attractions of a “peripheral” (German, Italian, French, Spanish) anti-British coalition which would include the Soviet Union and attacking the Soviet Union. It was Molotov’s demand for military bases in Finland and Bulgaria when he came to Berlin in November 1940 which convinced Hitler to give the go-ahead to “Barbarossa.”

  4. 4

    H. Macmillan, The Blast of War 1939– 1945 (Macmillan, 1967), pp. 510–511, quoted in Dallas, Among Empires, p. 442. For a different view, see Theodore Draper, “Eisenhower’s War—II,” The New York Review, October 9, 1986.

  5. 5

    In John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom 1937–1946 (Viking, 2001), pp. xiii–xv.

  6. 6

    Norman Davies, in Rising ‘44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2003), p. 272, agrees that “Soviet policy was ruthless, inhumane, and coldly calculating,” but suggests that “their hesitations may have been inspired as much by disorientation as by deliberate policy.”

  7. 7

    Quoted in Joachim Fest, Speer: The Final Verdict (Harcourt, 2002), p. 155.

  8. 8

    Quoted in William Pfaff, “Solzhenitsyn’s Righteous Outrage,” International Herald Tribune, May 4, 2006.

  9. 9

    Niall Ferguson, Colossus (Penguin, 2004), p. 6.

  10. 10

    This was one of the main themes of Leo Strauss, guru of the “neocons.” See Edward Skidelsky, “No More Heroes,” Prospect, March 2006, pp. 34–38.