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Empire and Superempire

Review by: Aragorn Storm Miller, University of Texas at Austin

Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World , Bernard Porter (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 2006), 224 pages

Though most diplomatic historians agree that U.S. foreign policy contains imperialistic hues, the general perception among the American public tends toward the opposite. Other states—Rome, Britain, the Soviet Union—maintained empires. Most Americans believe that the United States spreads prosperity and freedom. In Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World, Bernard Porter portrays such notions as fallacies and demonstrates that common perceptions of the nature of, and differences between, the British and U.S. “empires” are often superficial and simplistic. Further, perception often leads people and governments to conflicting conclusions about the same events and policies. Though Porter’s treatment of U.S. policy occasionally lacks nuance, his work will greatly benefit beginning students of diplomatic history while serving as a reinforcing study for specialists in imperial power structures.

Porter’s appreciation of the power of perception to the study of imperialism serves, perhaps, as the greatest contribution to knowledge made by this book. According to Porter, Britain was never the imperial monolith described by conventional history. At the apex of its imperial endeavors, Britain did not possess great military strength and within the heterogeneous British polity, only a fraction thirsted for empire. Indeed, Porter maintains that many Britons refused to acknowledge imperialism as the dominant national trait, or else worked to discard imperial trappings. Similarly, while the United States pursued imperial policies, few Americans considered themselves to be imperialists. As Porter shows, most people point to other nations as operating empires, and regard their country as a vanguard of freedom, prosperity, and democracy. This tendency creates misunderstanding and tension: what the powerful nation perceives as a gift to a backward state, the weaker nation deems as interference.

Porter contends that empire entered a new “super” phase with the power, ambition, and sense of righteousness displayed by U.S. foreign policy after 9/11. The U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prove emblematic of what Porter sees as a dangerously aberrant vector of imperial power. He believes that towing such a path invites disaster both for the United States and the wider world. It is here, however, that Porter veers from insight into polemic. His demonstrations of the complexity of the British imperial character, as well as the congruence of U.S. foreign policy pre-9/11, appear unassailable. Unfortunately, Porter’s decision to isolate the last five years of U.S. policy and portray it as a long-term barometer for future U.S. behavior seems out of step with the general direction of his work. After rigorous exertions to reveal the nuance and ambivalence of the British experience, he appears to turn his back on his own methodology in discussing the very recent American experience. Criticism aside, Porter succeeds in dispelling perceptions of American exceptionalism and a monolithic British empire, and contributes to the dialog concerning American imperialism in the early 21st century.

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