War is famously good for geography and during two world wars Isaiah Bowman, protagonist of Neil Smith’s American Empire, was the professional geographer closest to the heart of Washington’s postwar reconstruction. In 1917, on the eve of the us entry into World War One, the ambitious young director of the American Geographic Society was recruited by Edward House as a central member of Woodrow Wilson’s Inquiry, the group charged with preparing us positions for the peace settlement. Bowman was Wilson’s chief territorial adviser at the Paris Conference and, in 1921, a founding director of the Council on Foreign Relations with Elihu Root. His geopolitical survey, The New World, published the same year, became ‘a handbook for the budding American Century’. Bowman was attached to the State Department under Roosevelt’s administration, before and during World War Two, and sat on the Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy from 1942. A visceral anti-communist—and President of Johns Hopkins—he died of a massive heart attack in 1950.

Smith’s intriguing contribution to the history of us expansionism is not, as its title might suggest, yet another contribution to theories of imperialism; nor does it cover the postwar period as its subtitle, ‘prelude to globalization’, might indicate. Instead, Smith focuses upon how the American liberal internationalists of the first half of the twentieth century actually thought about their imperial-expansionist project, and the language that they constructed to legitimate it. In doing so, he reveals the extraordinary continuity of the American expansionist impulse over the past century, and the equally enduring nature of its ideologies, from Wilson to Bush. The ‘attempt to apply the principles of the Monroe Doctrine to the world at large’ is as apt a summary of Bush’s National Security Strategy of September 2002 as it was of Wilson’s efforts to build the League of Nations.

Smith demonstrates how the ideologies of American expansionism constantly dissolve the critical geographical relationships that underlie the enlargement and sustenance of the Empire, into empty universalizing notions which serve to obliterate space—phrases such as Luce’s ‘American century’, for example, or ‘globalization’ itself. To the extent that the ‘geography of the American century’ remains obscure, he argues:

the origins, outlines, possibilities, and limits of what today is called globalization will also remain obscure. There is no way to understand where the global shifts of the last 20 years came from or where they will lead without understanding how, throughout the 20th century, us corporate, political and military power mapped an emerging empire. If this book is primarily historical, its main purpose is to provide a missing perspective on the geography of contemporary global power.

Smith’s last sentence here may be misleading. Rather than the geography of contemporary global power, Smith offers us Isaiah Bowman’s view of the geography of power during the decades of us ascension. An exhaustive exploration of Bowman’s archives yields an illuminating portrait of Bowman and his colleagues, the world they confronted and the requirements of the drive for American expansion. Indeed, Smith’s fascination with Bowman leads him to explore every facet of his public life and opinions, well beyond the field of foreign relations. The result is a many-sided portrait of the outlook and prejudices of a central figure of the American internationalist elite.

Bowman was born in 1878, a descendant of Swiss Mennonites, and grew up in a poor farming community in rural Michigan, some sixty miles north of Detroit. Strong-willed and pugnacious—there is a passing resemblence to James Cagney—at the age of 22 he seized the chance to break free from village school-teaching and go to college. His geography teacher at Michigan State, Mark Jefferson, helped him on to work with William Morris Davis at Harvard, where the young Bowman fuelled furnaces and shovelled snow to pay his way, but found the work ‘encouragingly difficult’. Geography was still in its infancy as an academic discipline in the us. Smith describes the coexistence of German influences—Leipzig-based Friedrich Ratzel’s Die Erde und das Leben, and his 1898 Politische Geographie, for instance—with more pragmatic native traditions of state-sponsored exploration and mapping dating back to Jeffersonian days. Bowman worked for the us Geological Survey in Charleston and Dallas, then moved to Yale where he helped forge the new curriculum, teaching an encyclopædic range of courses from geology and physiography to commercial and political geography, and pioneering important regional studies.

Smith evokes very well the us ‘imperative of expansion’ as it was expressed in the early 1900s—citing, for example, Senator Albert Beveridge: ‘American factories are making more than the American people can use. American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us. The trade of the world must and shall be ours.’ The surplus-capital theory of imperialism had first been articulated by the Wall Street journalist Charles Conant in the 1880s. Conant explained the depression of that decade as being caused by the absence of new domestic outlets for America’s surplus capital, and urged imperial expansion to open up profitable new fields for investment. Conant’s theory was later taken up not only by enthusiasts like Elihu Root and others, but by critics of imperialism like John Hobson in England, and indeed by classical Marxist theory. Smith himself does not dwell on the origins of the expansionist impulse, but seems to accept that it is the tendencies towards domestic overproduction and surplus capital within powerful capitalisms that lead their states to attempt to open other zones for capital accumulation.