World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Maier, Charles S. Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). 373 pp, $17.95.

     Until recently, most commentators and many historians refused to apply the concept of empire to the United States of America. In the last few years, however, historical writing on the history of American empire has undergone a surge. Since September 11, 2001, scholars ranging from such broad ideological backgrounds as Niall Ferguson, Deepak Lal, Andrew Bacevitch, Michael Mann, David Harvey, and Chalmers Johnson have examined, celebrated, and criticized the rise of a new American empire. Given this new appeal of empire, some of these leading scholars have even gained popular appeal as talking heads in the national media.

     Charles Maier's Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors fits into this new historiographical mold on the writing of empire. The premise of Maier's book is, however, different from its predecessors. Unlike the above mentioned authors, Maier's main concern is not to provide an answer to the question of whether the United States is an empire, and whether as an empire it is a positive or negative force. Instead Maier argues that "[i]t is time to examine what empires are and what they do and whether the United States has come to share the traits and behavior that marked the others." The book "compares some of the recurring elements of empires and asks to what extent the United States shares these attributes and what are some of the possible consequences for our political choices."(3)        

     Part one provides a theoretical discussion. Chapter one raises such issues as what is an empire? What differentiates an empire from a state? How does the United States fit the profile of an empire? What are the structures of empire? Chapter two examines the centrality, function, and typology of frontiers or borders. Chapter three explores the use of violence by empires and the various theories that rationalized and intellectualized its use in history.

     In part two, Maier applies his theoretical observations about empire to the United States, and examines how America ascended to become what he interchangeably describes as an empire, hegemon, super- or hyper-power at the end of World War II. "American ascendancy" at that time, Maier writes, "was based in part upon 'Fordist' organization of economic activity as well as on possession of weapons of mass destruction."(145) In chapter four he maintains that, like previous empires, the American- dominated international system had to protect its frontiers. It did so through the use of "non-ultimate weapons" as well as nuclear weaponry. Chapter 5 describes the United States as an "empire of production," which diffused "mass industrial capitalism."(191) American power was based on the "productivity of its land, industrial capital, and labor." (214) By the 1960s, however, Maier argues, "American foreign aid tended to run down its own advantages, and by the 1960s the changing balance of merchandise trade reflected this outcome."(225) Thus it was in the 1970s that the United States switched from being an "empire of production" to being an "empire of consumption" based on supply side economics and deficits financed by foreigners. This transition was accompanied by cuts to the welfare state, the fall of communism, and the "revival of religious commitments."(250)

     Many world history teachers will be disappointed with the strong emphasis that Among Empires puts on the western world, especially in the second part of the book. While Maier is not blind to developments in the non-western world, they play only a marginal role in his narrative. Some readers will also take issue with the fact that the specific discussion of empire in part two largely focuses on the post World War II world. Maier seems to imply that the colonization of Native American lands, the Philippines, and other events are disconnected from "American ascendancy" as an empire in the twentieth century. This argument could have used further development and explanation.

     Instructors and readers who are looking to find connecting themes between American and world history in Maier's book will be disappointed. They might be better served by reading Thomas Bender's Nation among Nations or Carl Guarneri's America in the World. Instructors looking to brush up on their Cold War history or with a strong interest in the history of global empire, however, might find the book valuable for background reading. For instructional purposes, Among Empires would work well in an upper level undergraduate or graduate seminar on the Cold War or on empire.


Christoph Strobel
University of Massachusetts Lowell


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use