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The Perils of Empire: America and Its Imperial Predecessors

by James Laxer

The American empire is waning. A neo-conservative, unilateralist America is stuck in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan while at home the economy staggers. Increasingly successful challengers abound: Iran, China, the EU, even Venezuela. Will the American empire survive? In The Perils of Empire, James Laxer, political science professor at York University and a star of Canada’s political left, studies the present empire, and compares it to earlier examples, notably Egypt, China, Rome, Spain, and Britain “to expose the basic factors that cause empires to rise and fall.”   

With the end of the Cold War, the U.S. lost its legitimacy as the defender of what it had dubbed the “free world.” The failure to cash in on the peace dividend demonstrated that U.S. power was not based on East-West tensions, but rather on naked self interest. And yet, the U.S. is unique among empires in that it denies that it is one. Add to this an elite enamoured of neo-conservative tax breaks and unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to maintain and grow the empire, and you get an empire that is doomed, at least according to Laxer.  

Laxer’s book has an organic quality; it contains many interesting ideas (albeit with an obvious left-wing bent), but they do not cohere. Comparisons to the empires of history get lost between chapters dealing with the American empire itself. Perhaps the disjointed quality is a result of the book’s evolution from a 2005 article in The Walrus, to Laxer’s 2006 Groundwood Guide, Empire, to its current incarnation. For those looking for an introduction to America as empire, the Groundwood Guide is more concise.

Nonetheless, Perils is a thought-provoking and broad survey of current political thought. Laxer writes that, “in the halcyon days of the 1990s, the sorry state to which America has sunk in the world would have seemed unimaginable.” Considering the influence that even a fading America brings to bear on Canada, let us hope that from this nadir, a kinder, gentler – if lesser – empire will emerge.