Why a GPRIS member should read: Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present.

Dominic McClaran is a second-year War Studies & History student at KCL. Having developed a keen interest in Anglo-American foreign policy, his specific focus is on modern imperialism and its influence on current geopolitics. In this article, he explains why Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (2011) is a must-read to understand current American foreign policy and future trends in geopolitics.

As the liberal international order makes way for multi-polar politics, American exceptionalism is under increasing fire. Ironically, the latest shots have been fired by its own president, Donald Trump. He has branded the American media as ‘’fake news’’, withdrawn from international treaties and confronted some of his closest allies over unequal trade. With America’s uniqueness being questioned from within the Whitehouse itself, a reappraisal of its imperialist tendencies and national myths is sorely needed.

In Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present, Julian Go produced an essential addition to the revisionist critiques of American exceptionalism. Acknowledging a shift in exceptionalist discourse since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Go shows how refuting America’s imperialism has become the exception, not the rule. However, this apparent revisionism has perpetuated perceptions that while America is an empire, its own brand of imperialism is a cut above the rest. Pursuing a self-acknowledged “assault” on these assumptions, Go revisits traditional theories of exceptionalism challenged and puts any pretentions to unique imperialism under scrutiny.

By comparing stages of American imperialism to its archetypal British predecessor, Go divides their respective imperial trajectories into “hegemonic ascendency”, “hegemonic maturity”, and “hegemonic decline”. Referring to their geopolitical power as well as their economic capacity, Go emphasises that the “hegemonic decline” of these empires was characterised by increased economic competition and the rise of ambitious rivals. More interestingly, he proceeds to show that three phases of imperial “expansion, abatement, and reassertion” occurred in parallel with these geopolitical and economic trends. As each empire became increasingly challenged, it also became more imperially active.[1]

For the British, a period of economic decline during the 1880s led to participation in the “Scramble for Africa”, discussions on tariff reform and an expensive naval race with Germany. The sell-by-date for the British Empire’s time as the global power is widely acknowledged as the late 1940s, being replaced by the USA and the USSR. However, while America emerged from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, its place at the top of the global order is becoming increasingly undermined. Like its British precursor, the United States is ever more aware of its imperial status and the vulnerability that brings.

This escalation of American imperialism is a trend that precedes Trump. Moderation has increasingly made way for action. The limited aims of the Gulf War (1990-91) have been replaced by the ambitious and protracted struggles in Afghanistan (2001-Present) and Iraq (2003-2011) in response to the rising dangers of non-state actors. Indeed, in the wake of the USA’s invasion of Iraq, a senior aide to the George W. Bush Administration remarked that “We’re an empire now”.[2] These assertive imperial tendencies have been carried on into the Barak Obama Administration, which has committed ten times more pre-emptive drone strikes than its predecessor. Similarly, concerns over America’s cyber-security have prompted a record number of whistle-blower prosecutions.

This pattern of imperial assertion clearly validates Go’s prevailing point: external developments – rather than internal agency – direct the actions of modern imperial formations. Thus, America’s current geopolitical goals can be understood by examining its responses to relative military and economic decline. Trade deficits with rising powers like Germany and China have resulted in escalating trade wars. Meanwhile, Russia’s military modernisation programme has provoked greater calls on NATO members to fulfil their defence spending obligations. An increased assertiveness can also be discerned in dealings with traditional enemies such as Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Some may explain these actions as the personal whims of Donald Trump. But that would be to miss Go’s point: he is not concerned with individuals but with the broader patterns they follow. America’s actions today are not anomalies, but consistencies in the wake of increased global competition.

The ambitious nature of Go’s work does come with disadvantages. Those with an eye for historical detail may find these sweeping macro-sociological comparisons a difficult pill to swallow. However, to get fixated on detail would be detrimental to comprehending Go’s conclusions: America is an empire like any other and its actions follow clear precedents. This work is essential for understanding American politics today. But looking to the future, one must turn to China. Will the PRC follow this same imperial path, or chart a new course? In answer, only Go’s conclusion may suffice: ‘’Something more is coming’’.[3]


[1] Go, J. Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. Cambridge University Press (2001). P.207

[2] Suskind, Ron. Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush The New York Times Magazine (0ctober, 2004)

[3] Go, Patterns of Empire, P.245

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