The Magazine

Hegemony, Not Empire

How the pax Americana differs from the pax Romana.

May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

CRITICS OF THE United States have long called it imperialistic and compared its "empire" to those of the European colonial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Now, however, some American thinkers lay proud (or reluctant) claim to the title of empire. They compare the United States admiringly to ancient Rome, forger and protector of the rule of law, peace, and prosperity. Some of them say America already is such an empire, while others urge it to become one. But in fact, the United States is not an empire at all, and the analogy with Rome is deceptive and misleading.

Consider Rome at the height of the pax Romana, the reign of Trajan (A.D. 98-117), when no other state could challenge its military might. The great bulk of the empire had been conquered by force, destroying the independence and autonomy of the conquered lands. During Trajan's reign, the Roman state directly administered territories from Britain to Palestine, from Spain to Turkey. The emperor sent governors into every province. These governors collected taxes, administered justice, and conscripted provincials into the Roman army. The state could requisition goods and services from private individuals. The Roman army permanently occupied garrisons in every province.

These troops not only protected and expanded the borders of the empire, but also policed its residents. These people were not citizens of the Roman state, so they did not enjoy full legal rights or the opportunity to hold public office in the imperial administration. In contrast to provincials, Roman citizens paid no direct taxes. The peaceful conditions of the Roman Empire fostered economic prosperity and order, but these benefits came at a price: the highly intrusive presence of the Roman state in the life of the average provincial person.

The pax Americana differs fundamentally from the pax Romana. With the exception of three possessions, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the United States treats no nations as protectorates, let alone incorporates them and places them directly under its power. However great its ability to project military force around the globe, the United States does not maintain garrisons in every foreign territory where its interests lie. Nor does it use its military power to establish American jurisdiction over those territories.

American policymakers have a fundamentally different goal from Roman emperors. The United States seeks to maintain a peaceful world in which conflict between or within states is settled without recourse to violence. The Roman Empire in the time of Trajan had all but eliminated small states from the Mediterranean world. There were no longer conflicts among states to settle by military or diplomatic means. Rome stood alone with the Parthian (later the Persian) Empire, with which it fought occasionally for control over territory. America, by contrast, works hard to preserve small states.

Another aspect of the pax Romana was Roman leaders' policy of exporting Roman culture--the Latin language, monumental architecture, and certain civic values--to the provinces in order to enhance the state's control over those areas. Provincial elites often adopted and promoted outward symbols of Roman dominance in order to obtain favor, and ultimately power, within the Roman administration. Today, American culture is pervasive, but foreigners adopt its outward signs--speaking English, wearing blue jeans--not to gain power within America, but to emulate and participate in our extraordinary economic and political success. Precisely because we do not administer foreign territories, we do not engage in cultural imperialism in the Roman sense.

Rome, of course, did not always directly control foreign states. Earlier, during the Republic, the Romans constantly fought rival states, but without at first annexing them as provinces. A few writers liken American power after the Cold War to that of the Roman Republic at its height, after the defeat of Carthage in 201 B.C. or after the elimination of regional rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean in 129 B.C. They suggest that the United States is on the brink of establishing unrivalled control over the world as we know it, and that, like the Romans, we are determined to conduct our foreign policy so as to organize that world to suit our interests.