Why Empires Fail

August 9, 2012 Topic: DemocracyGrand StrategyHumanitarian Intervention Region: United States Blog Brand: Paul Pillar

Why Empires Fail

Being an empire these days is tough. The difficulties do not go away by pretending one is not trying to be an empire.


A lot was said about empires in some comments by Charles Hill that Robert Merry recently critiqued in these spaces. If I understand the gist of Hill's message, it is that an activist United States has long been the world's guardian of the state system and of open expression and free trade and that if the United States does not continue to play that role,  the world will fracture into spheres of influence, which leads to empires, which is bad. Merry's comments about this are on the mark, with regard to how a role of active world guardianship has or has not played in American political traditions and how Hill seems to have difficulty keeping states and empires straight.

My main problem with Hill's ideas are that the value-laden assertiveness that he seems to be defending and that appears to be equivalent to modern neoconservatism involves acting like an empire rather than being an alternative to empires. Even the more gung-ho neoconservatives tend to eschew the term “empire” as applied to the United States, but observers from outside the United States do not hesitate to use the term that way. The British-born historian Niall Ferguson in an article in Foreign Affairs a few years ago, for example, argued that one of the reasons the twentieth century was exceptionally bloody was that empires were disintegrating. With fewer empires still around to disintegrate, this suggests the twenty-first century will have less bloodshed. But the one region where Ferguson says that favorable scenario does not apply is the Middle East, and one reason it does not apply is that there is still an empire there—the American one.


Insofar as the United States acts as an empire (as it especially has when under neoconservative influence), it behooves us to think about what makes for successful and unsuccessful empires. That question is analyzed in a book written by a German academic, Herfried Munkler, and translated into English a few years ago: Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. The main characteristic Munkler identifies that distinguishes successful empires, such as those of the Romans and ancient Han Chinese, from ones that quickly broke apart, such as the Macedonian and Mongol empires, is that at some point the imperial rulers determined that further expansion of the empire was unnecessary and that barbarism beyond its borders could be ignored except in very limited instances where it posed some kind of security problem. There is an important distinction, says Munkler, between imperialism and sound imperial rule. The Romans had decided by the time their empire had reached its greatest territorial extent under Emperor Trajan that they could let barbarians be barbarians and concentrate their own attention not on the periphery of the empire but on the prosperity of its central zone, which embraced most of the then-civilized Western world. The ancient Chinese had even more of a geographical basis to call a halt to further imperialism once their empire came to embrace most of the then-civilized Eastern world as the Chinese knew it and to disregard most of whatever was going on beyond the periphery of the empire.

It is harder to use such an approach in a more modern, interconnected world. It is harder to put down an imperialist, civilizing, humanitarian, value-expanding mission by which an empire has defined itself, without being seen—by those within the empire as well as by others—as in decline. “The United States today,” says Munkler, “finds itself facing just such a dilemma”:

The peaceful safeguarding of resources would imply not taking on too many global commitments. In order to hold its subglobal world, an astute imperial policy should keep out of the problems of the global world and protect itself from them by drawing “imperial boundaries with the barbarians.” But it is scarcely an option in the age of democracy and media saturation: it would continually contradict the imperial mission of the United States, and without such a projection of moral purpose, the U.S. empire would lose much of its strength. To put it plainly, it may be that the American empire will founder not on external enemies but on the moral overload associated with its mission, because this makes it impossible to maintain the required indifference to the external world.

It seems the only way out of the dilemma is to avoid the moral overload by not trying to act like an empire in the first place.

Munkler has an interesting observation about empires that also are democracies and what this means for choice of methods. “The burdens of empire are long-lasting,” he says, “but democracies have little time and are always in a hurry.” He cites in particular the impact of a four-year election cycle. As for what this means in the methods used:

Probably, Washington's growing tendency in recent years to use the military for problem-solving also has something to do with the time pressure built into democratic mechanisms. Military solutions offer themselves with a suggestion of speed and finality, so that an “empire in a hurry” may grasp at them more often than would be sensible or advisable.

Being an empire these days is tough. The difficulties do not go away by pretending one is not trying to be an empire.

Image: Jimmy Walker