The Empire Effect
Why, in the year 2012, think about empires? We live, we are told, in a world of nation-states: about two hundred of them, each with a seat in the United Nations and a flag, postage stamps, and governmental institutions. Yet the nation-state is an ideal of recent origin, uncertain future, and, for many, devastating consequences. Following the destruction of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Romanov, and German empires after World War I and the decolonization of French, British, Dutch, Belgian, and Portuguese empires from the 1940s to 1970s, empire did not give way to a secure world of nations. Many bloody and destabilizing conflicts — in Rwanda, Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, ex-Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Congo, the Caucasus, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere — have emerged from failures to find viable alternatives to imperial regimes, after 1918, after 1945, and after 1989. States created on the terrain of former colonies have not achieved many of the goals hoped for at the time of independence. The great powers proclaim a world of inviolable and equal nations, while deploying economic and military might to undermine weaker states’ sovereignty.
Imperial nostalgia — sentimental evocations of the lost world of the British Raj or French Indochina — has nothing to offer to the present. Likewise, imperial name-calling — invocations of the word empire or colonialism to discredit interventions by American, French, or other governments — does not provide means to analyze or improve today’s world. But an exploration of the histories of empires, both old and recent, can expand our understanding of how the world came to be what it is and open a wider perspective on the organization of political power in the past, present, and, perhaps, future.
Over a very long time, the practices and interactions of empire configured the contexts in which people acted and thought. The study of empires helps us think about what made possible particular connections across space and time and what prevented other connections from happening. Empires were assertive shapers of production, communication, and culture in the world, but they had to deal with their own limitations, especially with the challenge of exercising power at a distance and over diverse populations, usually in the presence of other empires. Examining the trajectories of empires — their creations, conflicts, rivalries, successes, and failures — reminds us of the multidimensional nature of sovereignty. What gave empires their world-shaping force? For one thing, empires have been a durable form of polity. As large political units, expansionist or with a memory of expansion, empires maintain distinctions and hierarchy among people even as they incorporate them, forcefully or otherwise. The fiction of the nation-state is homogeneity — one people, one territory, one government — whereas empires recognize and have to manage diversity among their subjects. Empires govern different people differently. The multiple governing strategies used by empires gave them adaptability and the possibility to control resources over long distances and times. Compared with the longevity of the Ottoman Empire (six hundred years) — not to mention the more than two millennia of imperial rule carried on by a succession of Chinese dynasties — the nation-state is only a blip on the historical horizon. We ignore the real historical processes that have shaped polities and politics over time if we assume that the homogeneous state is the norm and anything else a violation of it.
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An earlier version of this article was published as “De Rome à Constantinople, penser l’empire pour comprendre le monde” in the December 2011 edition of Le monde diplomatique. We develop the themes and arguments of this article in our book, Empires the Politics of Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).