Empire Without End
Charles S. Maier
Imperial Achievements and Ideologies
Many leaders of the American Revolution welcomed the idea that their new nation would grow up to be an empire. To them, the concept was compatible with a republic; it meant size and benign influence.
Subsequent observers would contend that the process of building and managing an empire is often violent, unfettered by concerns about law and equality. Empire, as
The word "imperium" originally signified the authority delegated by the
Three recent books on empire -- Burbank and Cooper's comparative history,
People who object to applying the term "empire" to
Other commentators have argued that Washington should be unapologetic about using power this way. The historian
History suggests that it is not easy to maintain the distinction between humanitarian and imperial interventions. Before
Such moral debates are unavoidable and important, but morality is hardly the only issue surrounding empire. Empires have existed since the organization of states in the river valleys of
Cooper is one of the most perceptive historians of the late colonial period in
Burbank and Cooper accept empire as the dominant form of governance over large spaces and explore different strategies (what they term "repertoires") of imperial control. The underlying problem for empires is how to impose unity over difference. An empire must preserve the differences among the peoples it yokes together but not at the expense of its overall structure -- creating a tension that requires continually balancing power among contenders.
In the search for unity, successful imperial structures generate what might be called a big idea -- whether it be cultural unity, as in the various Chinese dynasties; citizenship, in the Roman Empire; law, in the British Empire; or, for the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, economic development. Empires organized around a monotheistic religion -- Islam or Christianity -- have drawn on a particularly potent source of legitimacy but remain vulnerable to schism and dissent.
From the Han dynasty on, the Chinese recruited a class of scholar-officials who did not have the local resources to defy the center, thereby avoiding the problem Rome faced when its delegated princes or leaders became challengers. But palace factionalism, warlordism, and the threat that officials might defect to neighboring powers remained a danger to the Chinese dynasties. Rome and subsequent empires needed, indeed wanted, their soldiers to be posted at the frontiers, a long way from the capital. But the distance also allowed ambitious contenders to accumulate power locally. Empires continually required military exertions, which necessitated the regular extraction of resources from agriculture or commerce in far-flung provinces -- a perpetual challenge. Of course, this has been the case for all types of states, which have centralized fiscal and military institutions as a response to international pressure. Still, with their extensive territory, empires experience a much greater tension between the center and the periphery. It would have been useful, then, for Burbank and Cooper to provide a more sustained discussion of the difficulties that the Mogul empire faced in
As Burbank and Cooper stress, conflict at the boundaries, especially boundaries shared by empires engaged in a protracted competition, such as that faced by the Ottomans from the seventeenth century on, can lead to revenue scarcity, rebellion, and territorial shrinkage -- all of which ultimately undermine even the most robust imperial structures. Indeed, imperial politics are uniquely determined at the perimeter, where challenges emerge.
Burbank and Cooper's decision to follow empires chronologically allows them to present a sustained, sequential narrative punctuated by targeted comparisons. At times, the individual stories flatten out into a general political account of the world's megastates, and the focus on imperial strategies fades. Although their narratives are rich in detail, it is not clear that it makes sense to follow empires individually, since the trajectory of each is affected by rivalry with others. Still, as the authors leisurely unfold their gigantic panorama, they return to the main requirements and achievements of successful empires -- the management of differences within extensive territorial and ethnic realms.
The contrast with Parsons' large study of selected empires is revealing. Parsons, an Africanist by training, samples instructive imperial experiences:
Although they are sometimes justified by grand ideas of civilizational supremacy, empires are not really created by any cultural disparity; they arise from transitory technological and military supremacy. On this point, Parsons diverges from Burbank and Cooper, for whom ideologies must be taken seriously even when they serve as a rationale for hierarchy and domination. The notion that imperial rule is for the benefit of its subjects "was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard," according to Parsons. "Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue."
Empires are cartels of multiethnic elites in which local leaders hold on to their regional power by deferring to the overriding authority of the center. Empires stabilize their rule horizontally across space by reinforcing vertical hierarchies within their diverse geographic holdings. (
Like Burbank and Cooper, Parsons believes that empires work by recruiting intermediaries and making deals with local elites. But he thinks that the founding acts of conquest remain essential for historical judgment: "No one became an imperial subject voluntarily." Hence, he tends to characterize the kind of collaboration that occurred in Vichy France as selling out, whereas Burbank and Cooper describe a far more fluid and equal set of transactions. For them, the intermediary is a creative political entrepreneur, be he Polybius, the Greek sojourning in Rome who made himself a preeminent political interpreter, or one of the Albanian, Armenian, or Greek civil servants among the Ottomans. Linguistic talent and intermarriage are the major strategies for attaining influence among the colonizers even when those in charge promote racial distinctions to inhibit mingling. (Think of the formidable roles played by Hernán Cortés' Marina,
Readers familiar with Cooper's earlier, sympathetic focus on what are often termed "subaltern" groups in British and French Africa may be surprised by the mellowness of Empires in World History; Burbank and Cooper cannot help but admire the political and societal engineering that empires have sustained over vast regions and long centuries. Cooper and Parsons both began as historians of empires in
Unfortunately, Parsons seems to have selected only cases that reflect this particular trajectory. He studies Napoleonic Italy, Vichy France, and the sanguinary last phase of British rule in
Immerman's brief study of six important architects of U.S. foreign policy argues that the idea of empire was inherent in
Engaging and informative as these six studies are, they do not establish a pattern.
At the end of Immerman's biographies, conceptual questions remain. Is there really much of a distinction between an empire of liberty and an empire for liberty? Which territorial ambitions were understandably compelling for the early Republic, abutting, as it did, the overseas outposts of European empires? Must an ambitious foreign policy in pursuit of a national ideal inevitably degenerate into imperial interventions and acquisitions? The argument would seem less one-sided had such issues been probed more deeply.
It is normal enough that those who dominate should think their purpose enlightened and their mission natural. Empire could not exist without its intellectuals, who take on the task of explaining that goals pursued for self-interest are in fact justified by progress. Historians may find such rationales convincing, but it would be naive to forget that those who are ruled often do not. Somewhere, always, empire is sustained (and contested) by violence. Some apologists respond that the imperial conquerors impose peace or suppress barbaric practices -- the conquistadors stopped Aztec priests from ripping out the hearts of their prisoners, the Americans ousted the tyrant who had gassed the Kurds. Others will say that all forms of government sometimes require violence, or at least surveillance and coercion. All this may be true, but in democratic states, citizens have some degree of control over their own regime. The essence of empire is that the power to participate in decision-making is bestowed very unequally. THE END OF AN ERA?
Is the age of empires over, as many believe? In the aftermath of 1989, American observers celebrated "civil society," believing that by stubbornly exercising their residual power, organized groups -- churches, unions, protest movements -- could bring down repressive bureaucratic apparatus. But since 9/11, civil society has faded as a compelling vision. Other nonstate actors have proved that violence and counterviolence still matter. In that milieu, empire will not easily fade, even if colonialism does.
The policy question, then, is whether states that have the power to act like empires can learn to work within an international system that, compared to the past, is less hierarchical and rests more on associations of interest. After 1945, the old imperial powers got caught in the contradiction of claiming to give their colonies a free choice while expecting them to stay in some form of associated subordination. Today,
How the world can make the transition to a sort of comity of regions will be the overriding question for international politics in the decades to come. The world may be better off with no single superpower, even one that seems as benevolent as
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