The Magazine

Hegemony, Not Empire

How the pax Americana differs from the pax Romana.

May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By KIMBERLY KAGAN
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Yet the mechanism of republican Roman foreign policy was very different from America's now. Rome declared war on states whose interests threatened its own. Once it had defeated them, Rome despoiled its enemies, levied an annual tribute, enslaved captives, and compelled them to pursue Rome's foreign policy goals. Even a "friend and ally" of the Roman people had no scope for independent action in foreign affairs. The Romans actually took land from one longtime ally that attempted to negotiate a peace between Rome and a mutual enemy. (Imagine the United States punishing England militarily for proposing peace negotiations!) During the Republic, the Romans sought to subordinate the foreign policies of all other states, enemies and allies alike, to its own, so that no state could conduct an independent foreign policy.

This is not true of America today. America seeks to prevent states from attempting through violence to organize the world contrary to its interests, but it does not prevent even its enemies from allying with one another to pursue their interests, as long as those do not lead to conflict with the United States. Nor does it control its allies' policies vis-a-vis each other. Above all, the Romans were not merely willing, but usually eager, to use their military power for conquest and domination, whereas America is habitually reluctant to contemplate the use of force even in defense of its own interests.

As the United States is engaged neither in controlling the policies of other states, nor in administering them, to call it an empire is inaccurate, and also harmful to American interests. It invites the criticism that is justly made of states, like Rome from the late Republic onward, that have sought to impose their rule on others. Such domination was intended partly to achieve security, but also to accomplish the conquest of new lands, adding to the power, wealth, and glory of the imperial state.

The pax Americana is different from the pax Romana. America does not directly control small states, such as Bosnia or Afghanistan. It does not send governors, impose its laws, levy taxes, conscript soldiers, or permanently garrison its military forces abroad. In its foreign policy, America is not an empire, but a hegemon. "Hegemon" is the Greek word meaning leader. Most of the time America is a reluctant leader that needs to be persuaded to intervene, usually by the representatives of a troubled people. The difference is important. America --in Bosnia, in Korea, in Afghanistan--aims to secure its interests by preventing other states (or people protected by states) from overturning the international order by acts of violence. America is engaged in building infrastructures within independent states that will assist in the creation of peaceful, democratic, and independent regimes.

Hegemony is more complicated than empire. It is fairly easy for a state with overwhelming military resources to behave as Rome did: to fight its enemies without hesitation, impose peace terms, occupy lands with military forces, and ultimately establish its own administration to eliminate the threat of continued hostility. Rome's allies followed its policies without question for fear of being crushed. America's hegemonic role is much more difficult. The United States does not attack all of its potential enemies. It must persuade its allies to support its policies. It aims not to control disorderly regions, but to help those regions regain stability and then rule themselves. We must engage in military activities around the world to secure American interests, but we must also recognize the limits of American ambition and the unique position in world history that America now occupies.

The pax Americana is the peace established by a leader of free peoples, not the control of an empire of subjects. We should embrace our hegemony in all of its complexity and difficulty, precisely because it rests on the principles of democracy and sovereignty rather than on those of autocracy and subjugation.

Kimberly Kagan teaches ancient history and world history at West Point. The views expressed here do not reflect the official policy of any department or agency of the U.S. government.