- Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present by Julian Go
American exceptionalism and imperialism are both highly contentious topics in contemporary and historical debates, and Julian Go boldly confronts both in his sweeping Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. His approach is to compare the United States with the icon of modern imperialism, the British Empire, in order to “ascertain what, if anything at all, is distinctive, unique, or exceptional about American empire” (p. 5). Any book that aims to [End Page 458] summarize and analyze the history of the United States in a digestible number of pages is doomed to make simplifications and lack nuance at times. Adding a history of the British Empire only worsens matters. In consequence, area specialists are bound to find plenty with which to quibble. For example, this reviewer was taken aback by Go’s unqualified assertion that ordinary Britons were not particularly cognizant of the empire until the later decades of the nineteenth century—a claim that runs contrary to a generation of scholarship on eighteenth-century Britain. Yet, Go makes his apologies for such faults from the start, and it is well worth looking past them to engage with his far more important broader arguments.
Go’s definition of empire is flexible in that it includes both formal and informal strains. The key, Go argues, is that empire is “a socio-political formation wherein a central political authority . . . exercises unequal influence and power over the political (and in effect the socio-political) process of a subordinate society” (p. 7). Therefore, territories need not be painted Victorian pink to be considered part of an empire. It is the exercise of political control that matters. This is ultimately the linchpin of arguing that the United States is an empire, but the “informal empire” was crucial to the British, too, the term and argument being asserted most famously by Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher in their 1953 landmark article.1
The book’s six chapters (not including a robust introduction and conclusion) compare Britain and the United States at key points in their respective developments, which Go labels hegemonic ascent, hegemonic maturity, and competition/decline. Such divisions are, of course, untidy at times, not least because the American colonies that formed the United States were a key part of Britain’s hegemonic ascent and, in turn, the hegemonic maturity of the United States has relied heavily on Britain as an ally. Collectively the chapters work to demonstrate Go’s thesis: that empire “must be understood as adaptive dynamic entities that are shaped and reshaped by foreign societies as much as they strive to control them” (p. 27). In other words, the British and American empires were shaped as much, if not more, by overseas forces than domestic ones. Britain annexed large chunks of Africa during the scramble for Africa because it was competing against other European empires that sought to annex and subsequently close parts of Africa to British trade. The United States established military bases around the [End Page 459] world to assert control during its hegemony, because in the context of the Cold War and decolonization, this better suited its political and economic goals than plain annexation.
Go ultimately concludes that the United States “is and has” been an empire and that it is not exceptional (p. 235). Whereas the British annexed parts of Asia and the Caribbean, the Americans occupied it—different methods of similar intentions and yielding comparable results. To think otherwise, he warns, is dangerous, declaring, “empires that insist on their exceptionality do not behave well. And self-fashioned exceptional empires that are falling behave worse still” (p. 245). It seems the real proof of Go’s historical analysis lies in the future. Until then, Patterns of Empire makes for compelling reading that will be thought-provoking for both scholars and students.
1. “The Imperialism...