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30 November 2023

When is an empire not an empire?

World powers are struggling to work out what their authority means.

By Odd Arne Westad

Empire in one form or another has always been with us, and probably always will. From the Akkadians in the Middle East in the 24th century BC to the Americans in the same region four and half thousand years later, contours of imperial domination have been significant types of government in all human history. They have never been the only kinds of regime. Cities, religions and nations have competed with empires for primacy and influence, and have sometimes been successful in avoiding imperial predominance. Even so, only slightly more than two generations ago most of the world’s population lived within some form of empire, and it could be argued that empires are making a comeback today, although in new forms.

Definitions of empire have always been elusive. It is often difficult to distinguish an empire from what these days is called a nation-state. The communists who rule China maintain that their country is a nation, even if it is a nation whose borders look remarkably like those of the Qing Empire in the 19th century. Vladimir Putin’s Russia denies that its war of conquest in Ukraine is an imperial war. But its insistence on the continuation of a “Russian world”, a spiritual and historical unity of who knows which Slavic peoples, belies that disclaimer. And the United States, with its 800 military bases and 200,000 troops around the world, as well as recent interventions in Asia and Africa, insists on its anti-imperial character, as a (very composite) nation born in a war of independence.

Problems of definition are not new. Eugen Weber reminded us that “the famous hexagon [today’s France] can itself be seen as a colonial empire shaped over the centuries”. “Were not all nations empires once?” asks historian Charles Maier. And indeed it is so. In southern China, a couple of hundred years ago, few people would have thought of themselves as Chinese in any meaningful form of the term. Today almost everyone would, except those that the government itself defines as “minority nationalities”. In Britain, there is an unstable relationship between being British and being English, Scottish or Welsh, though the British identity came about on the back of English imperial predominance. One person’s empire can be another person’s nation, even though we often reserve the use of these terms for the clearest expressions of one or the other. Austria-Hungary was undoubtedly an empire. Albania is some form of nation-state. But many modern countries exist in a state somewhere in between.

This diffuseness helps explain why empires went away, until they didn’t. The great waves of decolonisation, in the Americas first, then in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, changed the world in dramatic fashion. Before the First World War there were a little more than 50 independent countries, of which almost half were in Latin America. Today there are nearly 200, big and small, who all hold sovereign rights to territory. And the newest wave of decolonisation, which started with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, is still under way, with very uncertain outcomes. What about China, if the communists lose their grip on power? Or what about the ancient Ethiopian empire, the borders of which encompass at least 70 different population groups? Today, we are rediscovering that empire is truly in the eye of the beholder, with consequences that may be just as surprising as the construction of an independent US or a Nigeria were for earlier generations.

[See also: Serbia’s Russia revolution]

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Nothing has reminded us of this more forcefully than the Russian war in Ukraine. When the Soviet Union fell apart, a vast system of predominance, from Germany to Korea, came crashing down. The origins of this system go back to the 17th century, when the Russian empire began a territorial hyper-expansion that was to last up to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s. What set this empire apart from all its European-origin competitors, except the US, was that it was a land-based, contiguous entity, that continued to expand in all directions. By the 18th century it had reached the Pacific. A century later, it had taken control of much of the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the north-east Asian coast. In the 20th century, in the ideologised form of the Soviet Union, it controlled much of eastern and central Europe. It seemed ready to last forever as a contrary, powerful exercise in autarky, thumbing its nose at the weakness of other Europeans and their waning empires.

Its end came about in the most surprising way. By the 1980s the Russians themselves were tired of empire and tired of the system that had produced it. Their country was losing the battle in Afghanistan, the non-Russian parts of the empire were troubled and disorderly, and policy at home seemed rudderless and vacuous. Worse, many Russians believed that they had drawn the short straw within the imperial construct. Shops were empty, Russia was isolated, and people suspected that their country’s vast wealth was being squandered on unnecessary wars and foreign subsidies. When Boris Yeltsin, in one of the most remarkable moves in political history, declared Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union, many Russians felt relieved of being rid of the burden of empire. Just like the “Sinatra doctrine” – do it your way – had replaced the interventionist Brezhnev-doctrine in eastern Europe, I remember young Russians in the 1990s cursing Balts, Ukrainians and Kazakhs as spendthrifts of empire whom Russia was better off without.

Putin made it his life’s work to rid Russia of its post-imperial liberation. To him, the economic and social troubles of Russia’s 1990s were products of imperial collapse and foreign pressure. There could be no post-imperial Russia, because the essence of Russianness lay in empire. Rebuilding Russia was therefore also about rebuilding some form of what had been lost. Not necessarily in the form it had had in the past, with all parts of the Soviet Union reintegrated into Russia, but a sphere of Russian predominance, more like American or Chinese positions within their regions, in which Russia was recognised as the centre of a “Russian world”. Though the problem for Putin, as for so many other imperialists, is to know where formal empire stops and informal empire begins. Crushing Chechnya and conquering parts of Georgia and Ukraine is one form of imperialism. But what happens when a newly liberated post-colonial country, which Putin had defined as being part of his “Russian world”, insists on full sovereignty?

It is this imperialist conundrum that led Putin to his post-colonial Ukrainian war, in ways not too different from France in Algeria or Britain in Ireland. For a declining imperial power, the semblance of control and deference is more important than actual control itself. Such wars often end badly, because it is much harder for the post-imperial power to define what it wants to achieve within the reduced means at its disposal than it is for the anti-imperial forces to lay out their aims, which invariably are full sovereignty and territorial integrity. Putin is now living through that political nightmare in Ukraine. Having lost the war, even if he manages to hold on to parts of Ukrainian territory, he has presided over the end of Russia as an imperial state. He has isolated the country more than even during the Soviet era, secured its further economic decline, and made it subservient to an Asian power, China, for the first time since the Romanov’s started their imperial expansion in the 17th century. It is a remarkable disaster, due to Putin’s unique combination of hubris and gripe.

The biggest question in terms of present-day empire is how much further Russia’s disintegration will go. Its losses and increasing exhaustion in Ukraine could mean the Russian state itself comes under pressure from within. The Russian Federation today consists of 83 federal entities, including 21 non-Slavic republics. In the Caucasus there are already signs of regional leaders taking more power for themselves. But the real challenge may come from Russians in faraway places within the federation. It is the sons of those peripheries who have sacrificed most in the war. It is they who have suffered most from the economic downturn. And there is plenty of evidence, especially from the eastern regions, where people feel most threatened by Putin’s deference to China, that patience is wearing thin. Not just Putin’s survival, but the survival of the Russian Federation in its current form, may depend on when Moscow decides to negotiate its way out of the war in Ukraine. There is also a Charles de Gaulle lesson for Putin here. The French president decided to give up on the war in Algeria when that imperial adventure threatened the survival of the French republic itself.

Today’s Russian imperialism is fossilised and backwards-looking. China’s leaders, on the other hand, imagine an empire that is closer to that of the United States. They see economic expansion at home as the key, enabling them to secure regional hegemony in eastern Asia, and use a mix of economic and military clout to handle issues to their advantage further afield. The unprecedented economic growth of China has enabled its masters, at least in theory, to seek all of these aims at the same time. Some African and Asian countries are now more dependent on China than they have ever been on another country in their post-colonial existence. And even if the Chinese communists’ quarrels with their international rivals – the US, Europe, Japan and India first and foremost – are hindering China’s further rise, the modern version of the Chinese empire will remain a key player in global affairs.

The big question for China is whether the country, in the Xi Jinping era, has engaged in what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch”. China’s rise has been so fast, and the consequences so enormous, that its leaders seem caught in an information loop in which everything confirms the unavoidability of China’s further rise. In this world-view, foreign enmity is caused by irrational fear combined with envy and racial hatred. China, therefore, has to speed up its process of translating economic hyper-growth into military and strategic power. It has to fix what its leaders see as domestic problems – Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet and, eventually, Taiwan – through assertiveness and the use of force if necessary. It has to respond to any criticism of China with more virulent verbal attacks of its own. And it has to stand by any foreign friend, such as Russia or North Korea, even when it is not obviously in China’s interest to do so.

[See also: Cheap weapons, new wars]

While China aspires to modern empire, the US is having an increasingly hard time deciding what kind of empire it wants to be. There are similarities between the United States now and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Americans today are tired of mindless foreign wars, deeply divided at home, and given to believe that pie-in-the-sky politics will give them what they are looking for. Social divides are increasing, public goods are diminishing, and the industrial base is crumbling. The twin advantages that the US has are the creativity of its technology sector and the strength of its military. The question is whether the country will attempt to keep its global liberal hegemony in place (the Biden model) or become dedicated to a new authoritarian nationalism (the Trump model)?

The consequences of these developments are new forms of imperial rivalries taking shape, similar to those of the late 19th- and early 20th-century than anything we have seen since. This is not a cold war, but, increasingly, a multipolar world where empires contend with each other and insist on hegemony within their regions. They are all market-oriented, though in different ways, and all of them are looking for economic advantages. But at the core of their interests are strategic superiority and regional status. None of them want to be seen as empires – not surprising, given the legacies of oppression, exploitation and slavery that earlier empires left behind. But they increasingly act as such, both internally and externally, and in the demands for deference from others that they project.

Meanwhile, some regions of the world are attempting to move away from past imperial frameworks towards regional organisations that are built on equality, integration and joint security interests. Europe, Africa and south-east Asia all have strong, integrationist associations, with the European Union having become a supranational confederation of great power and influence. The irony, as Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, is that these organisations have themselves taken on some of the characteristics of empire – a union-wide civil service, strong behavioral norms, and threats of intervention against recalcitrant members – that empires present and past have thrived on. The EU has attempted to discipline some of its member states, most recently Hungary and Poland. The African Union has intervened militarily against six of its members. They have done so, they claim, to protect common norms. But the imperial framework can easily be seen, both in terms of ideas and methods. Some would claim that such associations of smaller states are necessary to prevent great evils, such as the domination of adjacent great powers. The Ukraine war has certainly increased the number of Europeans who believe that only an increased normative supranationality through the EU can prevent fragmentation under pressure from Russia and other empires.

The international conceptual battles of the 21st century will all include a solid portion of positioning with regard to empires and their legacies. Like great-power war, empire today is a concept that we cannot avoid through simply refusing to discuss it. As international tension grows, as new and divergent nationalisms rise, as old empires try to reassert themselves, imperial frameworks of the past will work on the modern mind in ways that those who think history began in 1945 will find puzzling. We better be prepared for the return of empire in more senses than one.

[See also: The Israel-Iran endgame]

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