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The Imperial Moment ed. by Kimberly Kagan (review)

From: Ab Imperio
4/2012
pp. 441-449 | 10.1353/imp.2012.0113

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Is America an empire? After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, critics of American foreign policy have often pointed out that the unilateral use of American military force on the world stage resembles the behavior of past empires. While the term is not part of the American mainstream narrative, this inconvenient question still awaits an answer. The very fact that the question on the imperial analogy is raised points to the transformation processes that marked the end of the Cold War, and namely, the expansion of American international influence. Whether the current world is a unipolar one or not, matters less, since scholars still struggle to grasp the nature of the hegemon. Internationally, the United States is still the dominant military power, outspending the next ten countries combined, but, domestically, political actors constantly refer to America's economic decline, and some of them ask for military spending cuts. This declinist theme is a recurrent one in American politics mirrored even in the 2012 presidential debates. Is the United States at the peak of its power on the global stage or is the unipolar moment gone?

The ambitious volume edited by Kimberly Kagan attempts a herculean feat; it raises, explores, and answers a host of intriguing questions related to this by now very popular imperial analogy. Kagan, however, suggests that the United States should be compared to emergent empires. It is the transition to an empire that is of interest here. The term imperial moment refers to this transition. It should be noted that from the very beginning the inquiry focuses on the political and military aspects of imperialism leaving aside the economic and some of the cultural dimensions of empires. This might come as a disappointment for Marxist historians studying economic imperialism, or for historians studying imperial institutions from a cultural perspective, but it is a methodological decision that aims at setting clear boundaries for the volume.

Another methodological decision refers to the definition of empire. Given the diversity of meanings ascribed to the term, Kagan states in the introduction that "this book does not offer a single definition or typology of empires" (P. 7). The term empire had different meanings and purposes in various historical and regional contexts; Kagan rightly emphasizes that many historians are tempted to adopt a teleological view and regard the emergence of empires as the culmination of an inevitable path toward empire. Hence, even though a single definition of empire is not provided, the volume highlights and focuses on two necessary dimensions of empire, and thus of the imperial moment. The first one is related to the projection of power abroad, namely, the situation when a state begins to issue orders to other autonomous states with the certainty that those orders will be obeyed without the constant use of force (P. 173). That is how the powerful state eliminates the ambiguity of informal domination. The second dimension stems from the first one and refers to the domestic narrative. It is at this point that culture enters the picture. The authors try to pinpoint the various cultural and linguistic forms that suggest that the elites in a specific context embraced an imperial identity. More specifically, the authors look at the moment when state elites begin self-identifying with an empire, and the official title of the ruler includes the term "emperor" in one of its regional or historical forms. Both are required elements of imperialism, but the second one is grounded in the first. This definitional choice seems to give preference to the relational understanding of empires, even though it tries to mitigate the tension between the two divergent traditions in the study of empires by including the second element.

Here are just a few of the pertinent questions singled out by Kagan in the introduction and the conclusion of the book: "Do powerful states inevitably become empires? Do particular decisions or events, either alone or in series, cause that transition? [...] Do policy makers have a choice about whether their state is or becomes an empire? When, or in response to what events, does the process of becoming an empire become irreversible? If the process is not reversible, why not? If it is, why do emergent empires...


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