It may seem like overkill to write a multi-part book review, but historian Thomas F. Madden’s new Empires of Trust: How Rome Built–and America Is Building–a New World explores a thesis I’ve been interested in for some time, which has significant implications for our country’s foreign policy and the wider question of what our country is and what its place in the world ought to be.
The US has been often accused, of late, of being an empire. Madden effectively accepts that this is the case, but argues that this is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Among his first projects is to lay out three different types of empire: empires of conquest, empires of commerce, and empires of trust.
An empire of conquest is one spread by military power, in which the conquering power rules over and extracts tribute from the conquered. Classic examples would include the empires of the Assyrians, Persians, Mongols, Turks, Alexander’s Hellenistic empire, Napoleon’s empire and to an extent the Third Reich, Imperial Japan and Soviet Union. Empires of conquest are spread by war, and conquered territory is ruled either by local puppet rulers or by a transplanted military elite from the conquering power.
An empire of commerce is interested only in securing enough of a political foothold in its dominions to carry on trade, and is less concerned over political control or tribute. Examples would include the British and Dutch empires; in the ancient world the Pheonicians and Athenians; and later, medieval Venice. Empires of conquest are typified by a network of far-flung colonies directly controlled by the home country, at locations which are strategic for exploiting natural resources or trading with regional powers. They are less focused on conquering large swathes of territority than with controlling enough of a foothold (and enforcing enough stability in the surrounding area) to carry on their commerce.
The book, however, is primarily concerned with a third type of empire, the empire of trust, of which Madden gives only two examples: Rome and the United States. The term “empire of trust” itself requires some unpacking.
A follow up to Darwin’s post. I do not think that the United States is an empire, at least in the manner of past empires, and I do not wish to reopen that debate here. I am more intrigued by the question of whether an empire has to be evil by definition. I think it is an undeniable fact of history that, as is the case with all forms of human government, there have been evil empires, the Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union top that list, mostly good empires, the British Empire I think is the prime example, and mixed empires, the Roman and the Spanish empires come to mind. Even a mostly good empire can be hard to live under, as the Founding Fathers and my Irish ancestors would attest, and even an evil empire will have its adherents. Like any human institution an empire has to be judged on its record. The best empires I think are those which bring peace and allow for trade and the exchange of ideas among different peoples. The wisest empires understand that no human institution can last forever and help to prepare by their actions their peoples for the day when the empire will be one with Nineveh and Tyre.