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Reviewed by:
  • The Imperial Moment
  • Alexander Mirkovic
The Imperial Moment. Edited by Kimberly Kagan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. 268 pp. $ 49.95 (cloth).

This collection of essays focuses on six imperial moments, particularc events in history when a powerful state becomes an empire. The imperial moments included in the collection are as follows: (a) classical Athens, (b) the Roman republic, (c) Great Britain (before American independence), (d) China of the Qing dynasty, (e) Russia, mostly before the Romanovs, and finally (f) the United States. In this last [End Page 816] case the focus is on the new American empire created after 9/11, in the wake of the so-called Bush doctrine, the foreign policy principle that allows the United States to act "preemptively" when it concludes that its security interests are at stake. With great precision, the editor made it clear that the scope of this collection was narrow. The editor's choice of imperial moments might strike many readers as a missed opportunity to include more, but it is the author's or editor's prerogative to limit the scope of his or her book. Therefore, economic or cultural aspects of empires were not discussed here. There is no mention of Immanuel Wallerstein and his world-system theory. Ethical and racial aspects of empires were also not considered. Noam Chomsky and Edward Said are never mentioned in the book. Most surprisingly, there is no mention of the age of empires, the nineteenth century. The editor explains this exclusion by saying, "it is not possible to define empire or develop a general theory of empires exclusively on the basis of the nineteenth-and early twentieth-century examples" (p. 8). The book is about power politics and interstate relations, pure realism in international relations, as pure as it was conceived by Machiavelli.

However, as one delves into the book, it becomes clear that, although the scope of this book is extremely narrow, the editor's ambitions are colossal. On the narrow basis of the six examples listed, Kimberly Kagan would like to create a general theory of empires and cover the whole world and all of history. How can this be done? Historians seldom write narratives such as this one that span from antiquity to modern times. These grand narratives leave normally careful and cautious historians overexposed to attacks from all sides, from specialists who cover a single period or region, to experts who have theoretical and methodological complaints. Kagan attempted exactly that: to compile a history of imperialism in six easy examples. With much nerve, Kagan constructed a grand narrative of imperialism from ancient Athens to George W. Bush trying to explain how powerful states become empires. She tried and, in my opinion, failed. Let me try to explain this with a story. Winston Churchill also had no qualms about writing grand narratives. When he wrote A History of the English Speaking Peoples he said, "I write about the things in our past that appear significant to me and I do so as one not without some experience of historical and violent events in our own time." His archrival Clement Attlee mocked Churchill's historical work and his selectivity by saying Churchill wrote a book about "things in history that interested me."1 [End Page 817]

Like Winston Churchill, Kagan is a conservative activist. Educated as a military historian and a graduate of classical studies at Yale University, Kagan has taught at various institutions, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. However, she left her academic career and became a founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., an influential political think-tank. In recent years Kagan conducted many military missions as a part of civilian advisory teams. As a result of these military engagements, she produced the book The Surge: A Military History, published in 2009. Kagan praised military generals who enacted the surges in Iraq with the following words: "Great commanders often come in pairs: Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list."2 Therefore...