- American Empire: A Global History by A. G. Hopkins, and: The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History by David Edgerton
These two interesting and moderately revisionist books are efforts to undermine the exceptionalism often characteristic of national [End Page 636] histories of the two most powerful states of the twentieth century. Both Hopkins and Edgerton attempt to place the United States and Britain, respectively, within broader and somewhat complementary interpretative frameworks. Hopkins' target is the concept that the United States is exceptional in its rise to global power with Edgerton arguing against the belief that Britain was exceptional in its decline. In different and overlapping ways, both Hopkins and Edgerton deal with the relationships between national states and empires, the spread of industrialization, and the impacts of the ebb and flow of globalization.
Hopkins is a co-author of the standard account of British imperial history.1 His American Empire is an impressive effort to re-interpret the broad sweep of American history in the context of a model of imperial-national states based on European-North Atlantic experience over the past three centuries. American Empire is essentially three interleaved and well integrated books. The first component is a general model of the evolution of European empires and nations. The second component is his re-interpretation of American history in light of the model. The third component is a thorough overview of the formal American "insular empire"—Hawai'i, other Pacific islands, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Cuban protectorate—acquired at the end of the nineteenth century. Hopkins' analysis of the relatively small insular empire is a methodologically thoughtful and important component because careful comparison of the history of the insular empire with the histories of some European empires permits a test of the generality of his model.
Based on a prodigious amount of reading and synthesis of the secondary literature, American Empire is a sustained critique of American exceptionalism in two important senses. The first is the popular sense of the United States as possessing a special mission or exalted role in history. The second is a historiographic sense in which American history is a major departure from the history of other North Atlantic states.2
Empires occupy a central place in Hopkins' model as vehicles of "forced globalization." Hopkins presents a three-stage model with "dialectical" features in which initial imperial success leads to countervailing phenomena that undermine the imperial structures. In the initial phase of "proto-globalization," several early modern fiscal-military [End Page 637] European states pursue empires. By the mid-eighteenth century, imperial rivalries heighten the costs of sustaining empires, leading to efforts to extract more colonial revenues. The conjunction of inter-imperial conflicts, increased fiscal demands, and the limitations of long-distance governance lead to colonial revolts and formation of post-colonial states in the Western Hemisphere. The latter follow a relatively stereotyped pattern with initial economic dependence and cultural dominance by the former imperial overlord. The second phase of "modern globalization" in the nineteenth century is driven by the spread of industrialization and emerging national states. These processes permit the great expansion of European empires but also require increasing transformation of oligarchic fiscal-military states into liberal, constitutional states. The spread of industrialization into former colonies results in attainment of "effective independence" as these national states become less dependent on the former metropoles. The domestic strains attending industrialization contribute to the late nineteenth century increase in imperial rivalries, setting the stage for the catastrophe of World War I. After World War I, the continued spread of industrialization and concepts of nationalism lead ultimately to "post-colonial globalization" and the dissolution of imperial states.
The American Revolution and early American republic is the archetype of Hopkins' first phase. Following the remarkably successful outcome of the Seven Years War, British efforts to increase control over and enhance revenue from the American...