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Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States.

Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present, and Future of the United States. By Victor Bulmer-Thomas. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. xx, 459. $32.50.)

Is the American empire in decline? Until relatively recently, this question may have struck many observers as absurd. At the end of the Cold War, and particularly after the United States had invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, American power appeared to reach its zenith. Yet as Victor Bulmer-Thomas argues in this excellent review of American imperial history, the foundations of American empire have weakened over time. Although much of this story may be familiar to scholars of American diplomatic history, this book is perhaps the most comprehensive survey in a single volume of the rise (and possible fall) of American empire. Students in particular will welcome Bulmer-Thomas's clear and accessible prose, making it a fine text for any course on U.S. foreign policy.

Bulmer-Thomas begins by outlining three forms of empire that secured America's global dominance: territorial, informal, and institutional. He provides a detailed history of American territorial expansion from the conquest of the continental United States to American supremacy overseas. Although more might be said about the American colonies formally acquired after the Spanish-American War, Bulmer-Thomas's account is generally balanced and comprehensive.

He then turns to the foundations of America's informal empire. He reviews the symbiotic relationship between the American state and nonstate actors, such as corporations, the media, and religious groups, all of which have contributed to U.S. global power. He illustrates how American officials and corporations from Ford to Google have worked hand-in-hand to secure free-market capitalism throughout the world.

Bulmer-Thomas's treatment of the international institutions that contributed to the rise of a global American empire is a particular strength of this work. The United States, he rightly notes, gave itself a singular role among international security and financial institutions like NATO and the World Bank. Although the United States has been uniquely successful in creating this institutional empire, American officials have always struggled to design institutions that serve the world, but cannot be used against the United States. And in recent years, other nations have become more resistant to this American-dominated order.

Why, then, is the empire in retreat? The rise of China and other external factors certainly play a role, but Bulmer-Thomas finds internal dynamics to be the primary cause. The relative decline of the American economy, the global focus of multinational corporations, the extreme political polarization in the U.S. Congress, and the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 indicate that the unique constellation of factors that allowed for the rise of the American empire may no longer exist.

But this is not a simple story of decline. Indeed, Bulmer-Thomas concludes his book on a hopeful note. Imperial retreat, he wisely argues, is not the same as the decline of the nation-state. If the United States can shed its "imperial mindset" and its insistence on its "exceptional" status among nations, it could remerge as a more humane nation. Many young Americans today seem open to this possibility.

University of Hawai'i

Colin D. Moore
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Title Annotation:THE AMERICAS
Author:Moore, Colin D.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2019
Previous Article:American Empire: A Global History.
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