by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper
Why, in 2011, think about empires? We live in a world of nation-states — over 200 of them, each with their seat in the UN, their flag, postage stamps and governmental institutions. Yet the nation-state is an ideal of recent origin and uncertain future and, for many, devastating consequences.
Empire did not give way to a secure world of nations with the end of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Romanov or German rule after the first world war or, in the 1940s-1970s, with decolonisation (by the French, British, Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese). Many recent conflicts — Rwanda, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan, ex-Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Congo, the Caucasus, Libya, etc — emerged from failures to find viable alternatives to imperial regimes, after 1918, 1945 and 1989.
It is not a question of sinking into imperial nostalgia: sentimental evocations of the British Raj or French Indochina have nothing to offer to our present political thinking. Similarly, imperial name-calling — invoking “empire” or “colonialism” to discredit US, French or other interventions — cannot help us analyse or improve today’s world. But an exploration of the histories of empires, old and new, can expand our understanding of how the world came to be what it is, and the organisation of political power in the past, the present and even the future.
Over a very long time, the practices and interactions of empires configured the contexts in which people acted and thought. Examining the trajectories of empires — their creations, conflicts, rivalries, successes and failures — reminds us of something we have forgotten: that sovereignty in the past, and in many areas today, is complex, divided, layered and configured on a variety of founding principles and practices.
What gave empires their world-shaping force? Partly it was their durability (1). As large political units, expansionist or with a memory of expansion, empires maintained distinctions and hierarchy among people even as they forcefully incorporated them. They recognised and had to manage diversity among their subjects. Their multiple governing strategies gave them adaptability and the ability to control resources over long distances and times. Compared with the longevity of the Ottoman Empire (600 years), and more than two millennia of imperial rule by a succession of Chinese dynasties, the nation-state is a blip on the historical horizon.
Some of the imperial strategies were learned from predecessors or rivals. The Ottoman Empire managed to blend Turkic, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol and Persian traditions; to administer their multi-confessional realm, the Ottomans counted on the elites of each religious community without trying to assimilate or destroy them. The British Empire over time encompassed dominions, colonies and protectorates, with India governed by a separate civil service, a disguised protectorate over Egypt and “zones of influence” where the British engaged in what has been called the “imperialism of free trade”. An empire with a varied repertoire of rule could shift its tactics selectively, without having to face the problem of assimilating and governing all its parts according to a single model.
Politics of difference
We can observe basic, and contrasting, patterns in the way empires managed their diverse populations. In some empires the “politics of difference” meant recognising the multiplicity of peoples and their varied customs as a fact of life; in others it meant drawing a strict boundary between insiders and “barbarian” outsiders. For rulers of the Mongol empires of the 13th and 14th centuries, difference was both normal and useful. Mongol empires sheltered Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Daoism and Islam and fostered arts and sciences produced by Arab, Persian and Chinese civilisations. The Roman Empire tended toward homogenisation, based on a syncretic but identifiably Roman culture, the attractive notion of Roman citizenship and, eventually, Christianity as a state religion.
Empires developed variants on these two ideal types; some, like the Ottoman and the Russian empires, combined them. European empires in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries hesitated between a tendency to assimilation — motivated by their confidence in the superiority of western civilisation — and a tendency to indirect rule, to govern through the elites of conquered communities.
The “civilising missions” of the Europeans were sometimes in contradiction with racial theories of the day. No matter how imperial rulers conceived of “others” and their cultures, they could not administer empires by themselves; they needed “intermediaries”. Often they used the skills, knowledge and authority of people from the societies they conquered: local elites who could gain from cooperation, or people who had been marginal and now saw advantages in serving the victorious power, or else a settler or functionary from the colonising power. Both strategies relied on the intermediaries’ own social connections to ensure effective collaboration.
Sometimes they did the opposite: put in positions of authority slaves or people detached from their communities of origin, and depended for their welfare and survival solely on their imperial masters. This strategy was used effectively by the Abbassid caliphate and later the Ottomans, whose highest administrators and commanders had been extracted from their families as boys and brought up in the sultan’s household.
In theory, European empires should have replaced such personal methods of delegation with bureaucracies. In reality, in the vast spaces of Africa, administrators saw themselves as “kings of the jungle”. Local officials needed chiefs, guards, translators, who were all trying to find an advantage for themselves. Throughout history, intermediaries were essential but dangerous: settlers, indigenous elites and groups of subordinate officials might all want to run their own show.
Focusing on intermediaries emphasises the vertical connections between rulers, their agents and subjects — a political relationship that is now often overlooked in favour of horizontal affinities based on class, race or ethnicity.
One empire, one God
Neither limited to one idea nor infinite, the political imagination of empire builders and their local elites was critical to their empires’ practices and impact. In turn, the Roman emperor Constantine and later Muhammad adopted monotheism, which gave them the powerful idea of “one empire, one God, one emperor”. The idea also led to schism — the argument that the current emperor was not the proper guardian of the true faith.
Empires tried to associate themselves with ideas of justice and morality, though such claims could rebound against them. Think of Bartolomé de las Casas in the 16th century, the anti-slavery movement of the British Empire in the early 19th century, or those Asians and Africans who turned European assertions of a “civilising mission” into the claim that democracy could not be quarantined inside one continent.
The concept of “trajectory” applied to empires can help us analyse their transformations and interactions, avoiding the tautological explanation of history as a succession of distinct epochs. What is sometimes called the “expansion of Europe”, from the 15th century onward, was not the product of an inherently expansionist instinct among European peoples, but rather one effect of a particular conjuncture. Wealth created in the powerful Chinese Empire and Southeast Asia offered incentives to distant merchants, but the Ottoman Empire — bigger, stronger, and more securely ruled than the fragmented political units of western Europe — stood in between Europe and China. The kings of Spain and Portugal, and later the Netherlands and England, sought overseas connections as a way around the Ottomans and their own dependence on local magnates. An unexpected outcome was connecting people on two sides of the Atlantic, after Columbus sailed west to Asia and ran into what would become America.
Another critical conjuncture in world history, the European and American revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, looks different seen in terms of relations among empires. The revolutions in French Saint-Domingue, British North America, and Spanish South America were conflicts within empire before they became efforts to get out of it.
The world torn apart
If we turn to the shifting fortunes of imperial regimes in the 19th to mid-20th century, we find the world torn apart by new empire-building projects — Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union — against which imperial powers mobilised people and resources. In the mid-20th century, the supposed transition from empire to nation-state was not self-evident. The mixed populations in southern and central Europe who had lived under multiple empires, including the Ottoman and the Habsburg, had suffered waves of ethnic cleansing, each supposed to ensure that every nation would have its state. That was the case in the Balkan wars of the 1870s and 1912-13, and after the first world war when the victors dismantled the losing empires; and again after the second world war, when ethnic Germans were expelled from some places, Ukrainians and Poles from others.
Even so, state did not correspond to nation, and more ethnic cleansing followed in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Africa, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 should also be seen as a post-imperial attempt to produce a singular people who would govern themselves. In the Middle East, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war has still not been digested: opposed nationalisms claim the same territory in Israel-Palestine, and different groups vie for power in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
The trajectories of empires have shaped today’s most powerful states. Take China, whose eclipse from the early 19th to late 20th centuries by more dynamic imperial powers turned out to be only an interregnum, shorter than others in 2000 years of Chinese imperial dynasties. During the Republican and Communist periods, aspirants for power took for granted the borders established earlier, by the Yuan (13th century) and Qing (17th-20th centuries). Today’s Chinese leaders evoke these dynasties and their imperial traditions as the country turned the tables on the West, exporting industrial goods beside its silks and porcelain, running an enormous trade balance, becoming the creditor of the US. The desires of Tibetans for independence and secessionist politics in the largely Muslim province of Xinjiang pose classic problems for Chinese empire (2): as earlier, China’s rulers must control economic barons and monitor diverse populations. But the regime can draw on its accumulated imperial statecraft to meet these challenges and resume its place in the shifting geography of power.
Deciphering the Soviet Union
The formation and the breakup of the Soviet Union can also be understood in imperial terms. Its strategy of fostering national republics, led by Communist intermediaries with native credentials, provided a road map for disaggregation as well as a common language for negotiating new sovereignties. The largest of the successor states, the Russian Federation, is explicitly multi-ethnic: the 1993 constitution offered Russia’s constituent republics the right to establish their own official languages, while defining Russian as the “state language of the Russian Federation as a whole”.
After a short unruly interlude Vladimir Putin revived the traditions of patrimonial empire. He and his protégés reconnected magnates to the state, tightened control over religious institutions, brought the media to heel, transformed electoral process into a “sovereign democracy” supported by a single party, compelled loyalty from the federation’s governors, flirted with nationalism in Russian areas, re-entered the competition for Russia’s borderlands and effectively wielded Russia’s prime weapon — energy — in the international arena. As the country was doing all this, its empire reappeared in yet another form in its old Eurasian space.
The European Union is today the most innovative of the large powers. Europe was riven from the 5th to the 20th century by the aspirations of some of its elites to create a new Rome, and the determination of others to prevent such an outcome. Fights for and against European empire run from Charlemagne through Charles V and Napoleon to Hitler. It was only after the mutual destruction of the second world war and the inability of Europeans to hold onto their overseas colonies that the deadly competition among European empires was definitively ended. European powers nevertheless tried after the war to reconfigure their empires to make them more productive and legitimate, and Britain and France only gave up such attempts at the end of the 1950s. Germany, like Japan, was freed from the empire game; and both countries flourished as nation-states where they had failed as empires.
Between the 1950s and 1990s European states, freed from empire, formed alliances among themselves. This structure has functioned most effectively when limiting its ambitions to administration and regulation. But anyone who passes abandoned customs houses along frontiers where millions of people have died in repeated wars can appreciate the remarkable achievement of the Schengen states: one of the most basic attributes of sovereignty, control of who crosses a border, has been pushed up to a European level. Europe’s transit, from conflicting empire-building projects to national states (shorn of colonies) to a confederation of nations, underlines the complexity of sovereign arrangements over time. It also makes clear that national conceptions of the state had only recently detached themselves from imperial ones.
After 2001 it became fashionable to call the US an “empire”, to denounce the arrogance of its actions abroad or celebrate its efforts to police and democratise the world. But what is worthwhile is to examine the US repertoire of power based on selective use of imperial strategies. In the 20th century, the US repeatedly used force in violation of other states’ sovereignty; it did occupations, but has rarely sustained colonies. But even the US’s national sense of self emerged from an imperial trajectory: Thomas Jefferson had proclaimed in 1780 that the rebellious provinces of the British Empire would create an “Empire of Liberty”. The new polity emerged on what we could call Roman “politics of difference” — on the basis of equal rights and private property for people considered citizens and the exclusion of Native Americans and slaves. Extension over a continent eventually put great resources in the hands of Euro-Americans, and after nearly foundering on the rock of slavery, American leaders gained the strength to choose the time and terms of their interventions in the rest of the world.
Empire has existed in relation to — and often in tension with — other forms of connection over space; empires facilitated and obstructed movements of goods, capital, people and ideas. Empire building was almost always a violent process, and conquest was often followed by exploitation, if not forced acculturation and humiliation. Empires constructed powerful political formations, and also left trails of human suffering. However, the national idea, developed in imperial contexts, has not proved effective, to judge by the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
We live with the consequences of these uneven and broken paths out of empire, the fiction of sovereign equivalence and the reality of inequality within and among states.
Thinking about empire does not mean resurrecting vanished worlds. It allows us rather to consider the multiplicity of forms in which power is exercised across space. If we can avoid thinking of history as an inexorable transition from empire to nation-state, perhaps we can think about the future more expansively. Can we imagine forms of sovereignty that are better able to address a world marked by inequality and diversity?
Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper