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What I’m Reading: Agonies of Empire

Michael Cox Agonies of Empire: American Power from Clinton to Biden (Bristol UP 2022)

In Agonies of Empire Michael Cox, Professor of International Relations and founder of LSE Ideas at the London School of Economics surveys the post-war foreign policy of the United States, including the first year of the Biden administration. It is a timely work, more so than intended, as his insights into Russia (and the Russian/Chinese relationship) in particular read more prescient than they would have done a mere fortnight ago. Similarly, the chapter on Clinton’s approach to Russia is particularly interesting given recent events. Overall, this is an excellent book which is a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in post-war American foreign policy.

This is a collection of essays not a true monograph, at least one of the chapters has been republished from an earlier work and could have done with ‘updating.’[1] Further, the connecting thread of ‘America as an imperial power’ is less consistently applied than it should have been. And, as I find often to be the case in works of contemporary history the more ‘contemporary’ the chapter the less insightful it is. Granted, the fact that I have personal memories of American presidencies from Bush onwards may have impacted my perception that the section on Clinton’s foreign policy was the most insightful.

Despite my issues with the inconsistency of application of the ‘America as empire’ lens, Cox does convincingly lay out the case for considering America as an imperial power – in effect, the power and reach of American power cannot effectively be described, at least from an analytical perspective, as anything other than an empire. However, I’m not sure that that perspective itself brought much to the table, at least in the book, with the exception of the examination of the ‘Bush doctrine’.

What the book does highlight quite well is that America’s biggest struggle, post-Cold-War, isn’t necessarily an external actor but rather the contradictions of American power and wealth. Despite unrivalled military and economic power (regardless of what the technicalities of GDP may stipulate) the United States faces significant limitations on its ability to shape the world. However, as Cox says this isn’t unique, no empire throughout history has truly been ‘master of the world.’ What is perhaps more problematic is the anger and frustration at America’s domestic economic decline. This was something that President’s Obama and Trump were both able to tap into, albeit in very different fashions. And in the end, if the American empire falls it will be because of this divide not the actions of an external power. The United States, by almost every measure remains and will continue to remain, one of, if not the, most powerful countries; but a ping-pong between a progressive (Democratic) and Trumpian foreign policy could dissipate that power in the global arena.

That said, this is an interesting insightful overview of the past 30 years of American foreign policy. Part One on President Clinton was particularly insightful, as was the chapter discussing Russia and China. Overall, I would recommend the book.

[1]Discussing the US withdrawal from Iraq as a future possibility rather than a past event, for example

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