Blogs > Cliopatria > Cliopatria Symposium...on Empires

Aug 10, 2005 3:23 am

Cliopatria Symposium...on Empires

For this issue of the symposium, we are focusing on Akira Iriye's Beyond Imperialism: The New Internationalism. Niall Ferguson's The Unconscious Colossus: limits of (and alternatives to) American empire is a companion piece that we couldn't get reprint rights to. Hence, I don't think it will get addressed directly. Without further ado, below are the responses from the Cliopatria crowd. I will add any I receive after this post goes live. Click read more for the entries to this symposium....

Greg Robinson: I am always impressed by Professor Iriye’s lucid analyses of international relations. This short article is a fine exposition of the rise of empires in the 19th century and how they served a positive role as guardians of order. Professor Iriye’s point is not entirely new, of course—it is a derivation of the theory most famously enunciated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, that the British Empire and its naval power, as both the strongest force and the equalizer among other nations, was the principal guarantor of global stability. Still, Professor Iriye brings in an interesting new element with his examination of the role of nongovernmental and international organizations, which he locates as potential contemporary anchors of stability.

I find two weaknesses in Professor Iriye’s presentation. The first is his image of the pre-1914 world as a functioning balance of power represented by Great powers who, in spite of their colonial wars (which in fact were few in number—at least shooting wars-- in the Age of Empire) managed to cooperate and build a stable international order. The First World War and the dragging in of the various nations shows, I think, that the conscious coordination of these empires and their ability to coordinate and temper conflict was ultimately limited.

More importantly, I think that the analogy between these empires and the current description of the United States as an imperial power may have very limited use. The United States, even in Latin America, was not an imperial state during the Age of Empire in the same way that the European powers were, in placing the emphasis on direct colonization of subject nations. While the American government did certainly annex Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone, and take over Spain’s Pacific Island colonies and Puerto Rico as the fruits of victory, these moves were heavily contested and, I would argue, fairly peripheral. It was the economic penetration of Latin America and Asia that distinguished American power far more than the exercise of sovereignty, and the extent to which that penetration was responsible for global development is a subject for a very different debate. Moreover, probably the vast majority of those who discuss the United States as an empire (and who do NOT do so in positive terms) regard it not as one of a concert of powers, or even a first-among-equals in the sense that the British were in the 19th Century, but rather as a hegemonic state which stands over all other powers, acting on its own and menacing the equilibrium of the world.

Jonathan Dresner: Full Disclosure: Iriye was one of my graduate advisors; I took several of his courses and did an examination field with him in US Foreign Relations. So this article comes as no surprise: his interest in the limits and accomplishments of internationalism in the face of terrible stresses and conflicts is longstanding. I agree with both the history he presents and the importance of internationalism as an alternative to superpower (funny how the term"hyperpower" has fallen out of use as we've come to better understand our limits) empires, with a few caveats about pitfalls for which we need to account. (I will not be directly addressing the Niall Ferguson article, both because we've not been able to reprint it and because I don't think it's worth our time: it reminds me of a paper by a student who has a grand theory but hasn't really bothered to learn how to do history.)

The phrase which struck me most in Iriye's article was"Empire of Freedom": because of the spread of both nationalism and the discourse of rights in the world, it would be nearly impossible for an empire to extend itself without accommodating the protection and extension of rights for subject peoples. Walter Hamilton wrote that"Business succeeds rather better than the state in imposing its restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices." The state has ways of creating the appearance of choice and participation (there's a whole body of scholarship on the question of whether Japanese democracy has ever been really democratic, for example; also see recent moves by Middle East monarchies towards open voting for powerless assemblies) and of transfering power away from traditional institutions (e.g. NAFTA shifts considerable authority to special"free trade courts" which are not part of the judiciary). As I once said in another context, just because you've done all the paperwork correctly and there are no guns present at the signing ceremony doesn't mean that you're not an Imperialistic conquerer.

Another phrase which struck me was"stable order" and variations: that seems to mean"a world without war" or something like that. But internationalism, which depends on the existence and participation (willing or otherwise) of nations, cannot prevent social disintegration ("failed states") or revolution from within. Security cooperation will clearly be a part of successful internationalism; in fact, more robust peacekeeping and nation-building forces should be a high priority.

Moreover,"stable" usually implies"static": I know that Iriye isn't using it that way deliberately, but, as the nuclear proliferation issue demonstrates, it's hard to prevent less powerful nations from harboring ambitions of shifting the balance. One of the flaws of international institutions as they're currently constituted is the tendency to lock in certain power structures or values: the UN Security Council, for example, or the free-trade absolutism of WTO/NAFTA/CAFTA/etc. If international institutions are going to successfully manage change, they need to be able to change.

Finally, I think that"trade" is a category of which requires more attention. Commerce is not just exchange of value: there are personal connections, political implications and habits formed. Perhaps more obviously, transnational corporations (TNCs) are international institutions with their own institutional rules, diplomatic functions and agendas. As the Hamilton quote suggests,"free" markets are often managed and shaped by corporations in ways that do not benefit consumers, citizens, polities. TNCs can rival, even dwarf, countries (territorial powers?) in economic power, have immense strategic resources and can command considerable loyalty even against the interests of nations of citizenship.

I think any attempt to use Empire as a boon to humanity is fatally flawed: empires are created for glory and profit; altruistic imperialism is an oxymoron. Political empires are highly unlikely to be terribly stable in the present anyway, so if stability is your goal, empire is not your tool of choice. No, what we need is institutions which bind us together -- to solve problems, resolve disputes, suppress violence, etc. -- without tying us down.

Manan Ahmed: I must admit that I have started to change the ways in which I approach examinations of Empires. Growing up in a country that acts often as a jilted, jealous ex-lover of the Great British Empire, it is fundamentally easy to critique empires and their evil, dastardly ways. Currently living in another country involved in global scale war-effort [covert and overt], it becomes even easier to raise the anti-Imperial flag proudly. However, in recent months, I have found myself situated not in the colony but in the metropole. I will get to that in a second.

Both Ferguson and Iriye look at Empires on the meta-scale of agency and action. The Ferguson piece, I will leave alone. I am quite impressed with the Iriye because it does attempt to historicize the role Empires have played in the recent hundreds of years. I am especially pleased that at least he attempts to shift the understanding of Empire to more than"Big Army Will Conquer", though, I do not think he goes far enough into elucidating the trade and cultural aspects of Empires. His argument about extra-state and non-governmental agencies as the logical extensions of stability in the 21st century is sound and valid. I agree that the age of empires is over, not just for the rampant anti-imperialism that has wide and general acceptance. I agree that the NGOs and other agencies have the means to build trans-national ties that are much more crucial than national ones. I also firmly believe that terrorism, as it has manifested itself 2001-onwards is a non-state manifestation and any state-based"remedies" are short-sighted and fool-hardy. In that regards, Iriye's argument about the centrality of extra-state agencies is even more crucial because they are the only legitimate way we have of combating terrorism.

Still, I almost want to draw a parallel to the many"End of..." dead horses along the Trail. We have proclamations about the death of God, history, and boy bands. Yet,.... There is little doubt in my mind about the American Imperium in 2005. There is also little doubt in the minds of the overwhelming majority of Americans that, America is not an Empire. This problem, of self-perception and self-knowledge, is where Niall Ferguson makes his case, over and over. I disagree fundamentally with his conception of the role and utility of Empires, past and present. But, he has a valid and legitimate point: America acts as a de-facto Empire on the global stage, why doesn't it just fess up and take charge? Why, the charade?

Which brings me back to my opening point. The [dis]placement from the colony to the metropole. From the colony, it is easy to spot an Empire, even an Empire starkly missing in its own metropole. In America of 2005, there isn't the high imperialism of late 19th/early 20th c. Britain. Neither is there the tormented self-examination of early 19th century. There is just the absence of conversation, with which I am intrigued. The imperial adventures of the neo-con crowd are almost certainly over. Barring any drastic action from Iran or Syria, there will not be any further fronts during the current WH administration. However, all that does not make the question of the Empire go away. America, if it means to assert itself in honorable ways on the world stage [and, truthfully, I think it certainly can], will have to explicitly ask itself: Are we an Empire? Such questions, are usually ear-marked for election cycles. If we had a democratic party with brains, they might want to fight the next election on the basis of wars to come rather than wars past.


Also see Rick Shenkman's response, American Imperialism.

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Louis N Proyect - 8/9/2005

I think it is confusing to mix precapitalist empires like the Ottomans with capitalist empires like the kind that emerged in the late 1800s. The Ottomans operated with a fairly light footprint. Check the new book on Thessalonika for how they ruled rather benignly. With capitalism, you get an intense to extract surplus value rather than collect tribute. Thus, you get chattel slavery rather than the peculiar forms in the Ottoman empire which allowed slaves to become top officers in the military. You really need to historicize these categories better.

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