Kathleen Burk opens her book with the line ‘Britons have a problem with their Empire.’ So do Americans, though some of them question whether they ever had one. Ruling territories outside a nation’s borders has become an increasingly contentious issue in our contentious age, with empire builders widely condemned, their monuments attacked and their portraits removed. It is not Burk’s purpose to engage in the debate over the rights and wrongs of imperialism but to provide a thoughtful and scholarly analysis of the interaction of the British and American empires over two centuries. In this she succeeds admirably.
The story is one in which the two sides waxed and waned in strength at different times. The British Empire reached its peak in the 19th century, while the peak of American power came at the end of the Second World War, when Britain’s sway in the world was in terminal decline. Over the decades there was both cooperation and conflict, but the many skirmishes never developed into world war. As Burk argues, this was because war would have been a waste of time and money at a point when neither side was in a position to defeat the other. Moreover, the links of law and language were such that diplomacy rather than arms was the obvious way to settle disputes.
Burk’s great talent is in dealing with government action, in untangling the many disputes and explaining the often-complex negotiations that brought about their resolution. She has little to say about the underlying effects of a common Anglo-Saxon culture, consideration of which would have strengthened her analysis. There was, she notes,