After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it became fashionable on the right, and among some hawkish liberals, to defend and even promote the idea of an American Empire to keep us safe from terrorists, hold rogue nations in check, and secure global commerce. It’s true that Pax Americana’s chief boosters believed in empire long before “everything changed”; the neoconservative historian Robert Kagan wrote a 1998 article in Foreign Policy, for example, celebrating the United States as a “benevolent empire.” But the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center provided new momentum for the imperial cause. A month after the attacks, Max Boot published “The Case for American Empire” in The Weekly Standard, arguing that 9/11 “was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation.”
In the middle years of the last decade, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew steadily worse, this jingoism fell out of favor, leaving only a shrinking core of committed neoconservatives to champion the virtues of empire. Still, the questions posed by American global military dominance were far from settled in public opinion. In March, when President Barack Obama ordered the bombing of Libya and the enforcement of a no-fly zone, introducing American military hardware into a contentious Arab Spring for the first time, disputes over Washington’s proper global role were again thrust to the fore of public debate.
Relatively few Americans question the morality or utility of their country’s power, even if there is substantial disagreement about how and when that power should be used. Advocates of empire sometimes acknowledge that ruling the world through military might requires a great deal of violence, but they argue that this is the price of security and prosperity. Two recent histories of previous great empires argue instead that the imperial project is inherently unstable.
The Rule of Empires, by the Washington University historian Timothy Parsons, explores the fundamental contradictions of imperial rule, making the case that empires have become increasingly difficult to maintain as potential subjects’ identities have become less fluid and more nationalistic. In Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, the independent historian Stephen Bown takes a less systematic approach to the study of imperial power, but his book supplements Parsons’ by filling in the biographical details of the men who built Europe’s modern commercial empires. Both books demonstrate that while empire may seem a quick route to power and wealth, in the long run the idea is a military and financial loser.
Parsons studies seven empires, searching for the features they have in common. His selections seem designed to illustrate the point that the conquerors become the conquered and vice versa. Britain was once a remote outpost of the Roman Empire, but many centuries later Britain’s might would far eclipse that of its former masters, covering a quarter of the world’s people and lands as far-flung as India and Kenya. The Umayyad Muslims controlled parts of Spain for more than 700 years, but once Spain was united as a Christian kingdom its rulers wasted little time in seizing a South American empire from the Incas. Napoleon led the French to dominate continental Europe, including the former Roman heartland of Italy, which the French treated as a backwater inhabited by savages. They were repaid in kind when the Nazi empire stormed across France in 1940, shocking and embarrassing an ostensibly formidable imperial power.
Parsons argues that empires, contrary to popular opinion, are extremely vulnerable to conquest. Invaders can turn established rulers’ subjects against them and, once in power, expropriate the centralized administrative systems already in use. When a small number of Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro attacked the Incan Empire ruled by Atawallpa, they took advantage of the civil strife that had begun after the death of Atawallpa’s father. Pizarro and his men were assisted by numerous Incans who sought a better life after Atawallpa’s tyrannical rule, including several of his brothers, who hoped to claim the throne. “In effect,” Parsons writes, “the conquistadors enlisted New World peoples in their own subjugation.” Firmly ensconced in power, the Spanish used Incan roads and detailed censuses to exploit populations long accustomed to imperial rule.
Parsons contrasts this gaping hole in the seemingly impenetrable armor of empire with the resilience of stateless societies. For example, the Nandi, an East African people who live in what is now Kenya, spent a decade successfully fighting off far more heavily armed British imperialists at a time when England was at the height of its power. Parsons does not mention them, but the Mapuche Indians illustrate the point even more dramatically: They resisted both the Incan Empire and the conquistadors, maintaining a large degree of independence well into the 19th century without any centralized political authority.
Empires throughout history have claimed “to rule for the good of their subjects,” Parsons maintains, but this “was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard. Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue.” To keep resources flowing from subjects to rulers, empires must walk a tightrope between subjugation and assimilation. If the state imposes draconian laws and taxes, it will face rebellion, so the rulers must seek out collaborators among their subjects who will assist in the domination of their fellow citizens. In return, collaborators are frequently brought into the imperial fold and given a portion of the spoils. But this leaves the empire vulnerable to conquering from the inside out, with many masters and few servants.
Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages—or al-Andalus, as it was called—faced the latter problem more severely than any other empire Parsons examines, because it was animated by the universalistic creed of Islam. Spanish Christians and Jews were “peoples of the book” (dhimmi) and entitled to practice their religions, provided they paid a head tax known as the jizya. Pagans could be exploited further, possibly through outright enslavement. But any Muslim was theoretically free of these restrictions, and conversion was as simple as publicly declaring, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” Parsons explains the conundrum this situation created for the Andalusians: “Proselytizing religion provided a moral excuse for empire building, but it also blunted the extractive power of imperial rule. More seriously, the subject majority threatened to hijack the imperial enterprise as they became Muslims in ever larger numbers.”
Not surprisingly, Islamic imperialists resolved the conflict between spiritual duty and worldly goods by altering their faith. The Umayyad Empire conquered an area stretching from South Asia across North Africa to Spain within a few generations. Seeing the possibility of losing most of their tax revenue, the Umayyads often simply refused to recognize Jews’ and Christians’ conversion to Islam as legitimate. Parsons points out that no more than 10 percent of the Persian population converted under the Umayyads, and the majority of Egyptians remained Christians into the ninth century.
As the Andalusians learned, Christians under Islamic rule face a powerful economic incentive to either convert or migrate. This steady erosion of the tax base, combined with the assimilation of the Muslim rulers into Iberian culture, weakened al-Andalus until it was reduced to the rump kingdom of Grenada and finally conquered by the combined kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1492—the same year Christopher Columbus set sail on a voyage that would allow Christian Spain to dominate the Americas for the next century.