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  • Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors by Charles S. Maier
  • Mary A. Renda
Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors. By Charles S. Maier. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Is empire rational? In Among Empires Charles Maier argues that it is profitable (so to speak) to cast the problem of U.S. power in these terms. To “explain” empire, says Maier, is to understand its “rationality”—the sense, that is, in which it is logical for the state that follows the course of empire. In order to consider the ways that empire has been or might become a rational path for the United States, Maier scans the history of dozens of empires to discern what he regards as the essential features of empire as a structure of rule. Foremost among these is the reproduction of structures of inequality. Empire “preceded capitalism [and] modern markets,” Maier argues, but it “could not have preceded inequality” as “it was the manifestation in world politics of hierarchies that already existed and seemed worth defending” (55). Empire, he finds, “depends on—and in turn consolidates—social cleavages throughout its domains” (10). Other distinguishing characteristics of empire are transnational elites that work together to organize economic life in accordance with metropolitan imperatives and to secure their own local dominance; the ability (and necessity) to compel compliance first and foremost through military might; and “frontiers” or borders marking off the territorial space to be protected from the challenges of rival empires and “barbarians.” Maier’s discussion of frontiers emphasizes the imperial institutions that structure border zones and the border conflicts that, in turn, structure the empire itself—from villages to “gated communities and urban projects,” from factories and hospitals to the seats of executive power.

With these general observations as a guide, Maier turns his attention to the question of “U.S. empire.” Skipping ever so lightly over the conquest of the nation’s eventual North American land mass and barely touching ground in Latin America, the Caribbean, or the Pacific between 1898 and 1940, Maier focuses instead on the nation’s ascendance after World War II, first in relation to its Soviet rival and later as a force of undisputed (though not unchallenged) global dominance. So as not to distract readers with what may be a semantic rather than substantive disagreement, Maier emphasizes his use of the term empire as a comparative tool rather than as a precise designation for U.S. power.

The strength of Maier’s analysis resides in his finely wrought account of the advent of U.S. dominance in postwar Europe in the face of expansionist Soviet aims. Maier details the construction of imperial institutions in the evolving European borderland of U.S. “empire.” He locates the springs of the emerging system in a longer-standing development: the rise of U.S. industrial power in the nineteenth century and, crucially, the advent of Fordism as a system of production and social organization. A series of specific and contingent developments, the opening salvos of the Cold War, led President Truman and George Marshall to embrace the coupling of U.S. financial assistance with European commitments to contribute to the military defense of an American-led alliance system. But, as Maier emphasizes, aid also required Marshall Plan recipients to adhere to the Fordist model for economic reconstruction. The “empire of production” that resulted rested on a collective commitment to economic growth, a buy-in from labor to accept a modulated share of national wealth, the construction of welfare states, and the exclusion of radical elements that would challenge the essential features of the emerging capitalist bargain. Finally, atomic weapons were the initially unique and crucial feature of U.S. military power, which underwrote and gave shape to the emerging system during this period.

In the 1970s and 1980s, during a period of profound challenge linked initially with U.S. war in Vietnam, the “empire of production” gave way to a new structure of U.S. power, which Maier dubs an “empire of consumption [and]. . . diffused development” (275). No longer would the blast furnace of the steel mill stand for America’s industrial might; the domestic economy of the United States...

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