America vis-à-vis past empires

Compared with past great powers, say the Mongols or Romans, America wields a light touch.

After World War II, the United States rebuilt its vanquished foes and cofounded multilateral institutions like NATO, the World Bank, and the United Nations. It turned Germany and Japan into democracies, and built a global alliance of nations, making itself the first among equals.

No other superpower in history has been so multilateral and modest about its status, says Donald Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. "It's very important to understand that the ancients were very different from what we are today," he says. "I would say that [America] is the great exception in the history of the world. It hasn't been so long that everybody held the same view that the ancients did, which is: 'Empire is natural, empire is glorious; there's no reason to apologize, one should be very proud of it.' "

But even a modest superpower is not considered a force for good by all. In that sense, historians say, ambivalent attitudes toward the United States today echo the reputations of ancient empires.

The imperial centers of Rome and Constantinople, like New York City, were magnets for people seeking better lives and for thinkers from around the world. In 1203, French crusader Count Geoffrey de Villehardouin wrote: "All those who had never seen Constantinople before gazed with astonishment at the city. They had never imagined that anywhere in the world there could be a city like this. They took careful note of the high walls and imposing towers that encircled it. They gazed with wonder at its rich palaces and mighty churches, for it was difficult for them to believe that there were indeed so many of them."

The flip side of imperial awe is the outsider's perception of arrogant, jaded, corrupt cosmopolitanism. The later-day Romans and Ottomans were hated for their murderous court politics and lascivious lifestyles. Even the medieval Vatican, seat of the church's power, drew violent criticism from observers like Martin Luther of Germany. The Mongols were feared as "the scourge of God," but they opened trade routes from China to modern- day Poland. They also established a fast, Pony Express–like postal service to serve the territory they conquered.

While medieval Europe languished in relative poverty and ignorance, the Islamic caliphates nurtured sophisticated mathematics, literature, astronomy, and culture. The empire brought a host of different nations together under a common religion and accelerated the use of Arabic as a lingua franca for the Middle East.

Pax Romana's influence on those it conquered was magnified by the dissemination of its values. "In the time of [Emperor Caesar] Augustus, who was an excellent propagandist, it was said that their empire brought peace and law and justice to people who were without those things," says Professor Kagan.

The success of Augustus and his countrymen can still be seen in plazas of Europe. Roman roads, literature, architecture, and even ideas about government still influence people from Romania to Spain. Likewise, cultural traces of the British Empire – secondary-school systems, parliaments, and cricket – can be seen in nations as distant as New Zealand and Egypt.

But arguably, the "marketing" by past empires pales in comparison to today's Brand America. Through the enormous reach of Hollywood and its history of democratic values and civil rights, America sells well. Grade-school girls in Pakistan and India can be seen carrying pink Britney Spears backpacks. The poorest Filipino boy knows the Statue of Liberty.

In part to fight negative perceptions of the US, American universities recruited a record total of 547,867 foreign students in the 2000-01 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.

Kevin Herbert, a professor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis, says this echoes similar practices by imperial Britain and Rome. "There was a program to bring hostages from the [conquered] noble families to Rome where they would be educated ... become pro-Roman in their attitudes and carry the message back to their native lands," he says.

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