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.
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.