Jane Burbank y Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History. Power and the Politics of Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010, 496 págs.

Bogumil Maria Terminski-Mrowiec


ABSTRACT: Contemporary nature of the research on changes in international relations very often brings us the necessity of a broad analysis of the historical determinants of processes observed today. The current international order, in many places there are in fact reflected in the past. Extremely helpful, therefore, seems to in-depth observation of the political, social or cultural reasons of the dynamics of evolution and functioning of the great empires throughout history (their origin, the causative agents of evolution, and the reasons for the fall). Published in 2009 by Princeton University Press book by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper beside difficult to overestimate educational values is also very important voice in the debate over the nature of the evolution of great empires. Mentioned book successfully continues issue has already taken in the eighteenth century British historiography, becoming a very valuable source of information for all readers wishing to understand the phenomenon of emergence and the twilight of the great empires throughout history.

KEYWORDS: Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper, Imperialism, Empires, International politics.

Living in the era of self-determination of nations, we less and less use the concepts of hegemony, imperialism, interblock rivalry or balance of powers – which were, with relish, used a few dozen or a dozen years ago. Constrained by the norms of public international law, the modern international system today seems to us, at least an ostensibly democratic reflection of the internal order. The development of sub-regional powers is finally accompanied with in depth discussions on the shape of global leadership, the importance of economic factors in international cooperation, or on the twilight of classical forms of multilateral diplomacy. Membership in the United Nations, infeasible just a few decades ago, is now attributed to nearly two hundred countries in the world.

At the same time more and more decisions seem to be made without ordinary actors of international relations, so to speak, over their heads. Annual conferences held by the most influential countries in the world (G8 and G20) are increasingly seem to resemble the concert of powers, well-known in history. An increasing paradox is becoming the revival of stricte geopolitical thinking, accompanying deterritorialization and the depoliticization of contemporary international relations. It is hard to say whether over the next decades, the development of the great subregional powers and distinguished areas of influence will become a feature of the international system. But surely it becomes increasingly important to undertake in-depth scientific discussion in this regard. The perception of the dynamics of the contemporary international system based solely on economics and labour categories may prove to be unreliable. Let us remember that, just as throughout history, important factors influencing the strength of the country are also cultural, institutional, and ideological factors. The analysis of the past also seems to be necessary for understanding the contemporary nature of the ongoing changes in the international environment. It appears that none of the currently seen political processes had its precedence.

What factors seem therefore to prejudge that some empires exist for many centuries, while others, equally strong, big and rich, fall much faster? Why provincial Rome became a political hegemony with a lasting impact on the history of the centuries, while the once impressive empires of Amenhotep IV, Alexander the Great or Carolingians had left little more than a few ruins of the once breathtaking buildings? The answers to these and many other questions is the subject of the recently published book by Jane Burbank and Francis Cooper Empires in World History. Power and the Politics of Difference. The presented work is not a typical factual academic monograph. Its purpose was rather to show the creation of great empires and their decline as a process. As one knows, this process was influenced by a diversity of factors. They decided not only about the life of the individual state organisms, but also about their impact on the realities of later times. Therefore, it may seem significant to ask why the achievements of some empires had become a reference point for civilization of our culture while the others had disappeared without a trace.

Another important assumption of the authors is to present the diverse nature of the great empires existing throughout history. The analysis presented in this work may therefore be a valuable source of inspiration for historians of politics or scholars of political thought and the history of public institutions. Presentation of the history of several great empires forces the political scientist to ask questions about causes of their evolution and collapse. Quest for territorial expansion, appropriation of land and conquering the surrounding communities does not always constitute a decisive factor in the formation and stability of the empire. Dreams of the leaders – from Alexander the Great to Hitler – to build an empire based solely on military superiority over its neighbours had often failed. The impact of this category of powers on future generations also seems to be limited. Based mainly on strength, the Mongols empire did not play much importance in social history of subsequent centuries.

Therefore maybe the source of persistence of the great powers and their impact on future generations should be sought in the personal characteristics of their leaders? A clear answer to that question seems to be much more complicated. For sure, strong and centralized authority is one of the key factors for the emergence and persistence of the great empires. All of the examples of great empires, known from the history, were governed more or less in an authoritarian way. However, one should note on the continuing problem of power as a factor very often inhibiting imperial ambitions of specific people. The empire of Alexander the Great or Carolingian monarchy ceased to exist in a relatively short time after the death of their authors. The actual end of the Mongol empire was the result of the collapse of the Yuan dynasty ruling the country in 1368. Despite the significant impact of great individuals, it is hard to determine that those personal factors have become a key condition for determining the degree of stability of the empire and its impact on subsequent times.

By putting the facts presented by the authors in terms closer to political discourse I can say that great empires are built primarily on the great ideas and strength standing behind them. These are the inextricably coupled with categories of ideas and powers that decide upon the creation of a great empire, its historical significance and impact seen in later times. However, can the idea (or even ideology) on its own constitute a sufficient factor influencing the stability of a given superpower? The answer to that question seems to be negative. The sine qua non condition for persistence of any empire is, in my view, an institutionalized set of ideas evolved within more or less developed public plane.

Even the superpowers possessing the greatest military force can turn out impermanent without having a strong public support for certain ideas, in other words: extending them to the plane of praxis. Roman Empire Emperors – Septimius Severus and Caracalla were well aware of that fact. Wishing to extend an important, for a relatively narrow circle of patricians, idea of the conquest, they granted citizenship to all the inhabitants of the empire (thus, citizenship has become a form of social institutionalization and legitimization of the idea of conquest, by expanding it to wider social classes). Similar actions could also be observed in other historical periods. One should mention here, at least strong support of Chinese emperors for Confucianism, the attempts of European monarchs to subdue the religion to the monarchy or more or less successful forms of building a strong socially internalized national ideology (ranging from the French Revolution and ending at the national socialism).

Let us therefore look how the question of the origin, evolution and fall of great empires has been discussed by Burbank and Cooper. Already in the first chapter, they note that the history of great empires, presented in the book, is of more or less of selective character. The impact of a political individual on history of subsequent empires becomes the point of reference of the authors. For this reason, their analyses begins from the history of the Roman and Chinese empires, established parallel near the third century BC. Given the enduring influence of the ancient Egypt or the Hellenistic world on political history of the subsequent centuries, the research perspective proposed in the book does not seem fully justified. Within the first chapter, the authors are focusing their discussion on the identification of the empire as a form of state and a governance tool – in a word, a political phenomenon. Historical empires sometimes formed a very diverse political system, just as different where the means and methods of governance. An important subject of the analysis, taken in the first chapter, was also the growth rate of the existence of the great powers, determining whether the country will exist for ages or decay few years after the death of its creator.

The subject of analysis in the second chapter is the creation and development of two great empires of the ancient world – Rome and China. The authors see the sources of power of small Latin Rome, mainly in the smooth combination of military force with effectively acting institutions of power. Therefore, a key role in the construction of Rome's imperial position, has not been played by the change in the form of governance (from the republic to an empire), but by a successful adjustment of model of public institutions in order to adapt to the requirements of the changing political situation. However, even an efficient system of government was not able to protect the empire against the effects of mass migrations of peoples – which constituted an eco-environmental phenomenon rather than a process determined by political factors. One should also remember about the smooth reception of earlier achievements of states as one of the sources of power of the Roman Empire for almost five hundred years.

Quite different were the origins of the Chinese Empire, which begun to be formed in the third century BC. The reigning Qin Dynasty has been relatively quickly overthrown as a result of civil war. Only the smooth transfer of power by the chief Liu Bang –the founder of the Han Dynasty, which later ruled over China– has saved the country from sharing the fate of Alexander and Charlemagne. An important factor in the development of the empire became the establishment of Confucianism as the state religion (by Wudi Emperor in the years 141-87 BC). Despite some common elements affecting the dynamics of the empire’s development, the political history of ancient Rome and China, however, arranged in a decidedly different way.

In another passage of the book, the authors analyse the importance of the three great empires of early medieval world: the Eastern Roman Empire, the Islamic world and the Carolingian monarchy. Despite the significant relevance of the military supremacy over the environment, it is the religious and ideological factors that have become sources of superpower position of each of the abovementioned countries. Sources of persistence of the Byzantine Empire can be seen in well-functioning legal institutions (Code of Justinian) and in the related good governance of the extremely ethnically diversified and cosmopolitan empire. The consolidation of power in the Arab world (and also less stable union of the Carolingian monarchy) seems to be more the result of ideological and military opposition to those three countries surrounding territories.

Particularly interesting, for the political scientist, seems to be the discussion in the next chapter, on the source of power of the Mongol empire. The authors see it in the proper combination of asymmetric military advantage along with a well-working diplomacy. Some historians emphasize today the stabilizing effect of the Mongol tribes’ invasions on the social history of certain regions of Europe in the next decades (the so-called Pax Mongolica). Despite the relatively small impact of the abovementioned empire on the political history of our continent, we can discern, however, a kind of Mongolian rite of governance even in the subsequent centuries.

In another passage, the authors focus on the history of Ottoman Empire, created at the beginning of the fourteenth century, as well as on associated growing power of the Spanish, connected with Reconquista. The source of power, as well as the greatest political achievement of the Turkish empire appears to be efficient administration as well as the absolutist model of government, built on the feudal principles (more or less successfully imitated later in Europe). The principal reason for the rise of Spain seems to be the effective inhibition of Arab expansion in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the integration of the state.

One of the most important factors influencing the development of the great empires of the past five centuries, are colonial expansion and geographical discoveries, discussed in the next part of the book. The expansions of own reign at the expense of weaker nations is therefore a sine qua non condition for the development of great empires. Geographical discoveries have therefore became a source of strength of at least some countries (Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, and - later - Great Britain), effectively inhibiting the development of less expansive coastal countries (like Italy) or geographically limited monarchies (such as Poland). However, one should remember that larger territorial expansion could be performed only by internally well-managed countries, which had no major conflicts with their neighbours (however, sometimes we have seen exceptions to this rule).

The substitute for geographical discoveries for Russia and China (and, to a certain point, to Poland as well) has become a strong political expansion over the surrounding territories of these countries. Exploration of Siberia has become for Russians a kind of prelude to a strong centralized state power and building an absolute model of governance in the eighteenth century. Also in China, one can observe the growing centralization of state power, strong isolationism, a strong border protection and an attempt of social and cultural unification of the held territory (especially during the reign of the Ming Dynasty in the period 1368-1644).

The realities of the eighteenth century, has forced European empires for stronger centralization of power, and for the protectionism of the national economy. The implementation of these principles is not possible just at the peak of power; it also requires a strong social unification over the idea of nation and citizenship. National consciousness, and the institution of citizenship, which depicts its borders, becomes a tool of the policy of absolute monarchy. Since the time of the French revolution, the ideas of citizenship and nation-state are slowly yet consistently being implemented in most European countries (different, however, in their form, scope or manner of implementation).

In the ninth chapter, the authors draw attention to an interesting trend in the political history of the nineteenth century, or to be precise, nineteenth century geopolitics. It is the time when the two countries, taking up virtually whole continents, have started to flourish: United States and Russia. The first of these countries owes its development to the land increase policy, policy of isolationism proclaimed in 1821 and consistent and inhumane dealing with the indigenous peoples. The development of imperial Russia can be attributed to its truly geopolitical plan of expanding its ruling over the entire Eurasia, combined with the ideological conditions (especially with the idea of Pan-Slavism).

Another tool for the construction of the imperial position of the European countries has become colonialism, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Apart from purely pragmatic factors, it also accounted for the transfer of local European conflicts on an unprecedented global dimension (e.g. the famous Fashoda incident in 1898). No European country could no longer afford to stand aside these great events, therefore, Germany, Italy and even Belgium started their colonial expansion.

Spatial expansion and seizing new territories, however, was not the only imperial policy instrument of European states. An equally important tool, discussed in the eleventh chapter, has become the form of indirect influence of European countries on their closer and further international environment. An example of such processes is provided, by the aftermath of the Crimean War, interesting relations of Western countries and Japan or the division of spheres of influence in China, made in the nineteenth century.

The beginning of twentieth century was a period of major revaluation in the than-intensified imperial rivalry. The outbreak of the First World War was de facto the beginning of the end of the great imperial superpowers and the period of decisive importance for the development of international order, characteristic for the international order till 1989. The result of these re-evaluations became not only the constitution of the bipolar order, but also numerous intermediate processes accompanying it. This includes decolonization and, consequently, the fall of the British Empire. Conclusions presented by the authors in the thirteenth chapter are essential for our modern perception of the international system (and therefore to the balance of powers in the world and the factors affecting them.)

The discussion on current role of states and empires in our political imagination closes the historical deliberations of the authors. It is difficult not to agree with the thesis that there are still great empires. What changes is only their arrangement and form of interaction but the desire of states to maximize their importance in the international sphere remains unchanged.

A synthetic and condensed view on great empires, presented by Burbank and Cooper, seems to me a particularly important work both for historians and political scientists, policy-makers, lawyers and scholars of international relations. The reference to specific historical examples allows for better understanding of the current re-evaluation of the international system. Because the history often repeats itself. [Recibido el 13 de enero de 2011].

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