the British and American Empires,
1688 to the Present
Julian Go
Cambridge University Press
Winner, Best Book in Global and Transnational Sociology, American Sociological Association, 2012
Winner, J. David Greenstone Book Award for the Best Book in Politics and History in 2010-2011, American Political Science Association
Choice Magazine’s “Outstanding Academic Title” (2012)
"an ambitious, courageous, and largely successful effort. [...] Patterns of Empire is a fascinating and enlightening read that expands our comprehension of world history and has important implications for the current global situation." - Christopher Chase-Dunn, forthcoming in The American Journal of Sociology
Citation from APSA Greenstone Book Award committee:
“Patterns of Empire offers a persuasive challenge to the story of American exceptionalism. Relying on a sustained comparison with the British case, Go argues that the U.S. experience with imperial rule during its rise, height, and current decline has not been fundamentally different from that of other imperial states. Although the received scholarly wisdom has long held that the American empire was somehow more “liberty-loving” or tutelary than its European rivals, Go’s careful comparative analysis shows that the imperial policies and institutions of the United States were remarkably similar to those of Britain. In their long ascent to hegemony, both nations moved to expand their territory and both established formal administrative colonies. Indeed, as Go demonstrates through a series of detailed case studies, British rule in India was remarkably similar to American rule in the Philippines, just as American rule in Guam differed little from British rule in Fiji.
Yet the contribution of this book goes well beyond the welcome observation that the American approach to empire was in no way exceptional.  It also accounts for much of the variation among colonial governing systems. Challenging past theories of imperialism that focus on metropolitan institutions, Go persuasively argues that the institutions of colonial rule in both empires emerged from the interactions among imperial officials and colonial subjects. In this account, the agency of non-western peoples is shown to play a central role in shaping these “patterns of empire.” As Go puts it, “rather than omnipotent powers that easily make and remake their subjects and spaces, and rather than entities shaped from within, [empires] must be understood as adaptive dynamic entities that are shaped and reshaped by foreign societies as much as they strive to control them” (27).
This argument proceeds in several stages. Reviewing the history of the U.S.’s early-nineteenth-century westward expansion in North America and late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century expansion overseas, particularly to the Philippines, Go makes clear that leaders of the American empire treated their colonial subjects with as much condescension and brutality as did leaders of the British empire during corresponding periods of its evolution. And not only were the practices of American empire less exceptional than sometimes reported, but where those practices were relatively benign, that fact is attributable not primarily to enlightened principles on the U.S. side, but to the insistent demands of colonial peoples for self-determination. In Go’s words, “[w]here seemingly exceptional colonial policies surfaced at all, they had less to do with America’s unique values, virtues, and traditions than with the specific character of the colonies themselves” (93). As he notes, only this explanation makes sense of the fact that U.S. occupations of some territories were significantly more benign than others. Here, he draws useful contrasts between the Philippines and Puerto Rico, on the one hand, and Guam and Samoa, on the other.
Go tells a similar story about U.S. empire during its hegemonic period in the aftermath of World War II. According to the exceptionalist story line, at the height of its power, the U.S. “decolonized its empire, refused to take new colonies, pushed for free markets, and supported self-determination around the world” (107). Again drawing on a comparison with Britain, Go finds this imperial behavior less singular than is sometimes claimed. Like the mid-twentieth-century U.S., mid-nineteenth-century Britain repeatedly declined opportunities to expand its territorial holdings, sometimes supported the sovereign aspirations of colonial peoples, and generally pushed for free and open markets above all else. And while the post-war U.S. did indeed grant independence to the Philippines, it retained a variety of hierarchical relationships with Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and asserted new such relationships over the Marshall Islands and a number of other Pacific territories. The post-war U.S. also undertook a variety of overt and covert military interventions in nominally independent states, particularly in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Go does not suggest, of course, that there were no significant differences between the U.S. and British empires at their respective heights. Rather, he repeatedly demonstrates that what differences there were resulted not from any inherently democratic or liberty-loving spirit on the part of the U.S., but from different patterns of engagement and resistance by colonial subjects, as well as shifts in the global landscape of sovereign nation-states from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.
Finally, Go argues that the decline of Britain’s global economic hegemony in the late-nineteenth century was accompanied by an increasingly aggressive policy of foreign military interventions. Recounting the history of U.S. military deployments since 1973-in Granada, Panama, Haiti, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Chad, Sinai, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Zaire, Bosnia, Croatia, Sudan, Nigeria, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan-he makes clear that the U.S. is in the midst of a similar phase of imperial decline. Rather than “the work of [a] powerful empire[] flexing [its] muscles,” these regular military interventions reflect the situation of an “ailing hegemon[] tactically trying to ward off impending doom” (205).
This masterfully written book represents several of the best traditions of politics & history research. In the historical sociology tradition of Theda Skocpol, it deploys the comparative method to illuminate large substantive questions of power and governance. It traces big, slow-moving processes over 300-plus years of history across multiple continents, and yet supports its key claims with careful archival research. And its central argument questions the received wisdom about the past in ways that are of broad contemporary significance. In particular, Go’s observation that “falling empires, like rising ones, do not behave well” (x) provides a cautionary lesson for the U.S. role in the world today.”
"At a time when comparative method in history has given way to "entangled" and transnational histories, Go makes a strong case for rigorous comparison as a way toward a greater understanding of the dynamics of modern empires." -Clara Altman, H-Net Reviews
"Rigorously thought out, lucidly written, and empirically insightful, Julian Go's work dispatches arguments that the United States has not been an empire and sets out convincingly the changing nature of that empire. Far from being just a demonstration of what ought to have been obvious before now - the role of empire in American history - Go advances our understanding of the trajectory of empire and informs contemporary debates about the future of the United States and its global hegemony. This is a stunning application of transnational and comparative methods of analysis." - Ian Tyrrell, Scientia Professor of History, University of New South Wales
"Julian Go's book is, simply, in a different league from almost all previous work in the field. Combining close historical analysis with conceptual rigor, joining the skills and strengths of the historian with those of the social scientist, this is a project of striking originality." - Stephen Howe, University of Bristol