Myths of Empire

Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition

Jack Snyder
Copyright Date: 1991
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Myths of Empire
    Book Description:

    Overextension is the common pitfall of empires. Why does it occur? What are the forces that cause the great powers of the industrial era to pursue aggressive foreign policies? Jack Snyder identifies recurrent myths of empire, describes the varieties of overextension to which they lead, and criticizes the traditional explanations offered by historians and political scientists.

    He tests three competing theories-realism, misperception, and domestic coalition politics-against five detailed case studies: early twentieth-century Germany, Japan in the interwar period, Great Britain in the Victorian era, the Soviet Union after World War II, and the United States during the Cold War. The resulting insights run counter to much that has been written about these apparently familiar instances of empire building.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6860-5
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
    J. S.
  4. 1 The Myth of Security through Expansion
    (pp. 1-20)

    Great powers in the industrial age have shown a striking proclivity for self-inflicted wounds. Highly advanced societies with a great deal to lose have sacrificed their blood and treasure, sometimes risking the survival of their states, as a consequence of their overly aggressive foreign policies. Germany and Japan proved so self-destructive in the first half of this century that they ended up in receivership. Most other great powers, including the United States and the Soviet Union, have exhibited similar tendencies from time to time, but they were better able to learn from the adverse reactions their aggressive behavior provoked.¹


  5. 2 Three Theories of Overexpansion
    (pp. 21-65)

    The idea that security can be achieved through expansion is a pervasive theme in the grand strategy of the great powers in the industrial era. What explains the prevalence of this idea and variations in its intensity?

    Realists argue that statesmen who believe expansion is the best means of achieving security are often making reasonable judgments. In their view states are doomed to unending competition in an anarchic setting, like Hobbesʹs state of nature. In the absence of a supranational sovereign to enforce rules, states must constantly be wary of depredations by others, looking to themselves for security and material...

  6. 3 Germany and the Pattern of Late Development
    (pp. 66-111)

    In the first half of the twentieth century the word Germany became a synonym for self-destructive aggression. German belligerence in crisis and war twice provoked overwhelmingly powerful coalitions that fought at great cost to impose a decisive defeat on the German nation. Any theory that attempts to explain self-defeating expansionism must begin with this quintessential case.

    The Germans who embarked on this course of expansion did not, of course, see themselves as engaged in quixotic folly. They contended, and for the most part believed, that the dangers and opportunities inherent in Germanyʹs position in the international system required an expansionist...

  7. 4 Japanʹs Bid for Autarky
    (pp. 112-152)

    Japanʹs attack on Pearl Harbor marks one of the most extreme examples of imperial overexpansion in the industrial age. A Japanese colonel, returning from a fact-finding mission to the United States in August 1941, reported to the chief of the armyʹs General Staff that the United States commanded twenty times the steel production capacity of Japan, five times its capacity to produce aircraft, and ten times its overall war production potential. The chief of staff commended him for an excellent report, burned it, and had the author fired.¹ Moreover, a cabinet Planning Board study pointed out that plans to rectify...

  8. 5 Social Imperialism in Victorian Britain
    (pp. 153-211)

    The grand strategy of Great Britain contrasts starkly with those of Germany and Japan. With the latter two, the puzzle is why they pursued hyperaggressive expansionism that led to their encirclement and conquest by the other great powers. In the British case the puzzle is for the most part the opposite. As Paul Kennedy has put it, ʺWhy did the British Empire last so long?ʺ¹ How did Britain manage to stay on the winning side in two world wars, while retaining its imperial holdings, decades after the relative decline of its industrial base?

    Kennedyʹs answer is that Britain pursued a...

  9. 6 Soviet Politics and Strategic Learning
    (pp. 212-254)

    On a comparative scale, the Soviet Unionʹs tendency toward overexpansion has been moderate. Through its aggressive behavior, the Soviet Union has occasionally provoked the formation of encircling great-power coalitions, and it has occasionally become overextended at the periphery. But each time, it has learned to retrench in the face of effective opposition.

    Any theory of overexpansion should be able to explain periods of retrenchment as well as periods of self-encirclement. What needs to be explained about the Soviet case is (1) the lack of significant overexpansion before World War II, and Stalinʹs adoption of a hedgehog strategy of ʺsocialism in...

  10. 7 Americaʹs Cold War Consensus
    (pp. 255-304)

    In the late 1940s, two schools of thought vied for control of Americaʹs national security policy and foreign economic policy. Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a key architect of the bipartisan Cold War policy, called these two ʺthe ʹEastern internationalistʹ schoolʺ and ʺthe ʹMiddle Western nationalistʹ school.ʺ¹ The internationalists, epitomized by Trumanʹs secretary of state Dean Acheson, favored a deep American involvement in multilateral economic and military institutions designed to stabilize Western Europe in the face of the Soviet threat, but they cautioned against entrapment in Asian quagmires.² The nationalists, epitomized by Republican senator Robert Taft, resisted costly commitments of American troops...

  11. 8 Overexpansion: Origins and Antidotes
    (pp. 305-322)

    All the nations examined in this book exhibited a tendency toward overexpansion, in the sense of provoking self-encirclement by their belligerent behavior, blundering into quagmires on the periphery, or both. These cases include all the industrialized great powers except France, covering the periods of their greatest relative power and imperial activism.¹ The tendency toward overexpansion varies greatly, however, both across cases and over time.

    Germany and Japan were most inclined toward disastrous overexpansion; Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States were less so. When Germany and Japan encountered resistance, they usually took this as a signal to redouble their...

  12. Index
    (pp. 323-331)