Friday, January 2, 2009

Empires of Trust

Thomas F. Madden, Empires of Trust: How Rome Built -- and America is Building -- a New World. Dutton, 2008.

It has been all the rage to talk about the world -- and especially the United States -- in terms of empires in recent years. It began, I think, with the collapse of communism, leaving the U.S. as the sole superpower and it accelerated after 9-11 as U.S. policy became more intentionally international. My colleague Dave Balaam teaches a class on Empires -- one of probably hundreds offered on college campuses today. He doesn't have to look very far to find interesting books and articles for his students to read.

Part of the appeal of Empires today is the idea of rise and fall and these are times when it looks to many like the U.S. is heading for collapse; thinking about the U.S. this way fits easily into the arguments the pessimists want to make.

Thomas F. Madden's book takes the idea of a U.S. empire seriously -- as a real condition rather than a loose metaphor -- and his book makes good reading whether you are into the empire idea or not. Empires rise and fall, Madden says -- that's what they do. But they aren't all the same. He cites three types of empires: empires of conquest (not given much treatment here), empires of commerce (like Britain in the 19th century) and empires of trust (Rome ... and the United States).

Empires of conquest and commerce are intentionally outward-looking. They seek resources and markets respectively. But empires of trust, in Madden's analysis, just want want to be left alone. They mainly venture abroad when foreign actions are necessary for domestic (should I say "homeland") security. Empires of trust have different motives and actions, Madden argues, and have the potential for long life. Rome's empire lasted for centuries before the inevitable collapse. There is no particuar reason to think that the U.S. era will be over soon if the U.S. holds true to the principles that cause foreign powers to trust its motives.

Madden's method here is to tell stories of Rome's experiences in some detail and then use them to reflect on key events in U.S. international policy. Some of the insights have astonishing, causing me to stop and rethink previous opinions. That's the purpose of the book, in my view. Not to convince you that the U.S. empire is a good thing (although it might be) or that it is fundamentally peace-seeking (because it isn't always), but rather to get you to think seriously about world affairs and not fall into shallow intellectual ruts, as it is so easy to do.

So I recommend this book very highly (and I thank my mentor Phil Phibbs for recommending it to me) as an aid to serious analysis. You need to read the whole book, however, to capture the full effect. This is not a burden, however, as Madden is a good story teller. I devoured the 300 pages on the plane to Tucson.

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