Empires In World History: Power And The Politics Of Difference, by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper
Empires can be a tricky subject to write about. It is easy for people to feel a sense of moral fury when it comes to empires and the way that they have behaved throughout history, but the authors do a good job at being fair-minded when it comes to both the good and bad sides of empires. As many people are not used to giving credit where it is due, that is impressive. The authors are also critical about both the nostalgia for empire as well as the way that imperialism fell not because of humanitarian reasons per se but because in an age of growing social welfare states in imperial states most empires simply ceased to be profitable given the minimal economic development of most colonial areas and the growing opposition that was faced in many areas. Also, the authors are wise to note that the age of empires is not necessarily over, and that they may return because there has been no great change in human nature over the course of the last few decades, something that many writers of history have conveniently forgot.
This book is almost 500 pages long and is divided into 14 large chapters. The book begins with a list of illustrations and a preface and then discusses imperial trajectories (1) around the world as well as the similarities and differences between imperial rule in Rome and ancient China (2). After that the author discusses what happened after Rome in the Mediterranean and European world regarding the different models of empire between Christians and Muslims (3) as well as the Eurasian connections of the Mongol Empire (4). There is a discussion of the Ottoman and Spanish empires and their importance beyond the Mediterranean (5) as well as the Oceanic economies and colonial societies between Europe, Asia, and the Americas (6). The authors discuss empire-building beyond the steppe in Russia and China (7) as well as the relationship between empire, nation, and citizenship in the revolutionary era (8). The authors slow down the time span to discuss the spread of Russia and the United States across continents (9) as well as imperial repertoires and the myths of modern imperialism on the right and left (10). After that the authors discuss sovereignty and empire in 19th century Europe and its near abroad (11) as well as war and revolution in an imperial world between World War I and the end of World War II (12). Finally, the authors close with a discussion of the end of empire (13) as well as the relationship between empires, states, and the political imagination (14), after which there are suggested reading and citations as well as an index.
The author’s view of histories is quite expansive, beginning in early history and continuing to the present day. Of particular importance is the way that empires have always involved the disparate power between rulers and ruled as well as the politics of difference that have always separated peoples and prevented a great deal of buy-in. That said, empires have also generally required at least enough local buy-in to endure, and the authors explore those aspects of various empires that have made them more lasting as well as more important in the course of the world. In particular, the authors are intrigued by the difference between the persistent Chinese unity despite periods of disagreement and the equally persistent disunity in the former Roman empire, something that would be of interest to many readers as well. This book is a long one and one that would take people quite a while to read, but if they have an interest in reading about empires and want to do it right, there is a lot to appreciate here. Not everyone is going to want to think of anything positive to come out of the Mongol Empires or the empires of Western European countries, but those who are willing to reflect on the balance sheet of empires will find a lot here to think about.