Little fights to maintain a big power

America may have started out a republic but it is now an empire. That is the conclusion of a growing body of writers who argue that the United States must abandon its traditional squeamishness about foreign adventures and embrace the imperial mantle. And why not? US firepower in Afghanistan astonished not just the primitive Taliban, but the Chinese and the Europeans as well. America's unquestioned power is coupled with unique threats and, so the argument goes, it must be willing to intervene wherever disorder looms – whether the Philippines, Somalia, or Iraq.

Max Boot's nuanced and lively contribution to this chorus is that America has a long record of intervention abroad and that this experience holds useful lessons for the nation's future. "The Savage Wars of Peace" offers a history of America's "small wars," little-known conflicts where the US was called upon to suppress irregular forces in inhospitable locales around the globe. He shows that such deployments were a frequent part of American military operation, but their story has long been ignored in favor of the country's more glamorous major wars.

Boot's account is principally a military history in three parts, focusing first on America's interventions as a rising commercial power, then its actions as a young great power, and finally its place as a superpower.

In the republic's early years, its interventions consisted mainly of naval skirmishes with pirates who were targeting US commerce. Other early engagements included intervention in a tribal war in the Marquesas Islands (recently invaded by the CBS TV show "Survivor") and a mission to protect US interests in China during the Second Anglo-Chinese War. In recounting these campaigns, Boot has an ear for colorful anecdotes. He describes each battle in exhaustive, at times exhausting, detail.

American intervention took on a more substantial character at the beginning of the 20th century when the US started occupying foreign lands – for example, the Philippines, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Boot argues that these actions were driven not by commercial interests but principally by a combination of idealism and a desire to keep out the influence of other powers.

Although he focuses more on narrative, Boot uses this fascinating history to draw out some broad lessons of American imperialism: By placing garrisons throughout the countryside, the Army was able to cut off support for anti-US insurgents, but equally important, the US was willing to make long-term commitments – for example, staying 44 years in the Philippines and 19 years in Haiti.

Indeed, one of Boot's principal points is that extended US occupation was often benevolent: whether by building schools in the Philippines, wiping out yellow fever in Cuba, or holding elections in Haiti. He is, however, admirably evenhanded in pointing out the excesses of US rule, such as the use of torture and internment camps to put down the Philippine insurrection.

In looking at America as a superpower, Boot shifts gears substantially from description to prescription. He ambitiously tries to revise our understanding of Vietnam, suggesting that if it had been fought using the lessons of past small wars instead of as a replay of World War II, the outcome would have been different. He then reviews the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, claiming that effective action was often stymied by the misread lessons of Vietnam, embodied in the Powell Doctrine – that any action must have clear goals, popular support, overwhelming force, and an exit strategy. Boot persuasively argues that this maximalist approach is ill-suited to the ambiguous, limited interventions required of America today.

Boot sensibly tempers this view by suggesting that the US employ the UN or "coalitions of the willing" to help legitimate its interventions. His qualification, however, emphasizes how different America's current situation is from the small wars of the past: An interconnected world requires an effort to secure legitimacy through multilateralism. Moreover, the threats to today's would-be imperialists are profound. America may be the new Rome, but this time the Goths could have nuclear weapons.

• Siddharth Mohandas is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.

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