Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the present  by Julian Go. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011


Christopher Chase-Dunn

Description: Patterns of EmpireUniversity of California-Riverside

Reviewed for the American Journal of Sociology


            Julian Go’s Patterns of Empire carefully examines and compares the foreign policies and practices of the United States and the United Kingdom during their respective periods of hegemonic rise, maturity and decline. The book is an ambitious, courageous and largely successful effort to examine the relationships among political, military and economic power in the world-system over the past several centuries.  Go’s main goal is to show that, contrary to American exceptionalism, the United States has behaved similarly to imperial powers of the past, especially Britain, except that the world historical context has required substituting informal imperialism for direct colonial control over other societies. Exceptionalism is the idea that national values -- a commitment to democracy and self-determination -- caused the Americans (and the British) to exercise power for the good of global society as a whole.  

            A growing number of comparative historical sociologists are focusing on world historical changes in the structure of power. Go uses the lens of political and military power to compare the forms of control that both Britain and the U.S. employed vis-à-vis dependent societies in the global south. Both powers used a mix of formal sovereign control backed up by military force and informal clientalism in which influence was based on financial support including the training and arming of military personnel. Go shows that the choice of direct vs. indirect rule for both the U.S. and Britain was greatly influenced by the problem of engineering consent within the dependent polities concerned. And both powers followed a pattern in which imperial expansion was most frequent during their hegemonic rise and during their decline, but less frequent during a middle phase in which they held a predominant position in the larger world economy based on comparative advantages in the production and exportation of highly profitable goods.

            Go convincingly shows that U.S. economic hegemony is declining, just as British hegemony declined. His focus on the forms of imperialism is useful in showing the similarities between the British and U.S. empires, but he ignores another similarity -- the economic stages of hegemony in which the hegemon moves from comparative advantage in consumer goods, to capital goods and finally to finance capital.


            Go advances the concept of “global field” in order to designate the larger structural conditions and cultural contexts that have constrained the behavior of the hegemons. Even the most powerful organizations (the hegemonic core states) are limited in their choices of methods for extracting resources and compelling compliance by the evolving structures of uneven development and the emerging global institutions and moral order. Go’s main examples of changes in the global field are:

·       The long rise of anticolonial nationalism in the global south that eventually became so powerful that it prevented the reestablishment of formal colonies, and

·       the alternation between world historical periods of greater competition among core powers vs. periods of “hegemonic stability” in which a predominant hegemon had such a large comparative advantage in the world economy that it was able to maintain world order with only infrequent use of force.

            Go’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that the shift from formal colonialism to clientalism by both the British and the Americans was mainly caused by changes in their position within the larger world-system, and by the rise of anticolonial nationalism in the Global South. Go convincingly shows that the U.S. initially supported the maintenance of the colonial empires of the European core states after World War II and that, in exchange for this support, the U.S. was able to establish a truly global network of military bases located mainly in the colonies of the other powers. It was only later, with the rise of powerful movements for national sovereignty in the colonies, that the U.S. shifted its stance toward support for decolonization. Go emphasizes the importance of geopolitical and economic competition among powerful states in shaping their behavior toward less powerful peoples. He also shows that the less powerful have reshaped the institutions of global governance by resisting and rebelling, forcing the core states to pay more attention to their professed ideologies of democracy and self-determination in their behavior toward the non-core peoples.

            Go’s demonstration of the similarities between the British and American empires is good medicine against the dangerous habit of exceptionalism that clouds the analysis of how power really works in the modern world-system. His analysis of the ways that competition among core powers and the effects of world-wide revolutions against slavery, serfdom, colonialism and capitalism have had on the exercise of global power is very valuable for our understanding of world history. But stressing the similarities between the last two hegemons can obscure the important economic and political transformations that have occurred over the last several centuries and the implications of both the cycles and the trends of human sociocultural evolution for the future. Indeed, the evolution of global governance from a system of colonial empires with rising and falling and ever-larger hegemons toward the emergence of a democratic global commonwealth in an increasingly integrated global system has been driven by a series of world revolutions over the past several centuries. The enlightened conservatives in successive hegemons, in their efforts to gain power, wealth and legitimacy, have institutionalized the demands of earlier world revolutions in order to placate the global masses and to outmaneuver challenges from the semiperiphery.

            Go notes that the political cultures within the hegemons are complex, containing both strong support for imperial ventures and occasional and substantial eruptions of anti-imperial social movements. He also notes that periods of inter-imperial rivalry have been dangerous because the great powers use force to preempt each other in the non-core and against each other in great world wars among those contending for global power. Patterns of Empire is fascinating and enlightening read that expands our comprehension of world history and has important implications for the current global situation.