Friday, October 25, 2013

The persistence of empires

British historian John Darwin writes about the "modern" era in global history as if he were perched on a satellite in earth orbit and gifted with magic glasses that render accumulations and diminutions of power in a succession of imperial states as a sequence of colorful bubbles: filling, expanding, receding, falling limp and sometimes reinflating. After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 is thought provoking and, for me, great fun. Like Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes, this is history that overturns the "western" habit of making the European experience central to modern history. But it is in no way anti-European; rather it is Olympian, looking down from an imaginary height, discerning patterns for which Darwin claims some universality.

Here's a sample that introduces the gist of his argument:

The history of the world, it is tempting to say, is an imperial history, a history of empires. It would be easy to think from much historical writing that empires are abnormal: unwelcome intrusions in a non imperial world. Their rise is credited to exceptional circumstances, or the manic energy of a unique personality. Their fall is predictable, because the exceptional circumstances that permitted their rise have a limited life. This view is appealing, but has little else to commend it. A glance at world history suggests on the contrary that, for most of the time, the default position so far as politics went was imperial power. Empires were systems of influence or rule in which ethnic, cultural or ecological boundaries were overlapped or ignored. Their ubiquitous presence arose from the fact that, on a regional scale, as well as a global, the endowments needed to build strong states were very unequally distributed. This was a question not just of cultivable plains or navigable rivers, but of social and cultural solidarity and the relative ease with which both manpower and goods could be mobilized by the state. It was this kind of 'modernity' that allowed the creation of a huge Chinese empire by 200 BC. Against the cultural attraction, or physical force, of an imperial state, resistance was hard, unless reinforced by geographical remoteness or unusual cohesion.

… Most histories of 'empire' after the mid eighteenth century share a common assumption: the only empires that matter are the colonial empires of the Europeans -- until Japan starts to borrow the colonial idea at the turn of the twentieth century. The drama of the African scramble has led to a distorted image of a rampant imperialism that nothing could stop. But if we look closer at Asia we get a different impression. For all their nibbling at its maritime fringes and their halting inland advance at the end of the century, with the grand exception of India, the Europeans' domination of Asia was very partial at best. The case could be made that the real story in Asia in the long nineteenth century was one of Asian persistence and not of Asian defeat. … A similar pattern can be seen in parts of Middle Eurasia. Exposed as they were to Europe's commercial and physical power, the main Muslim states in West Asia did not succumb to colonialism. Shorn though it was of its European provinces by 1913, and then forced to surrender its Arab dominions after 1918, the Anatolian core of the Ottoman Empire escaped the partition that the peacemakers intended, to become a new 'Turkish' state. The territorial extent of the Iranian Empire had waxed and waned under Safavids and Qajars. But the area now ruled by the Islamic Republic comprises most of 'historic' Iran, …. even those parts of Middle Eurasia (like Egypt or India) whose political shape was drastically altered by Europe's intervention retained or constructed a distinctive identity that transcended the limits of a colonized culture.

What made this possible? Part of the answer, as we saw in an earlier chapter, was that Europeans lacked the resources and sometimes the motive to make global empire complete. Their imperial diplomacy baulked at the task of partitioning China, Iran or the Ottoman Empire before 1914. After 1918, their divisions were greater and the task even harder. But this is only one side of a complex equation. Just as important were the tenacious traditions of political and cultural autonomy in the great Asian states, which hemmed in outsiders like an invisible wall.

… The states that the Europeans faced were ancient regimes in need of renewal, not broken-backed states that had fallen to pieces. [This is closer to how Darwin characterizes the Aztecs and Incas.] Those who had served them were often aware of their weakness and the need for 'reform' . But that meant the grafting of new political methods on to the original stock, not imposing an alien blueprint to which no one was loyal. … Persistence was cultural as well as political. The role of religion, language and literature in creating national identities in Europe is a familiar story. There were several reasons why the nation-state idea developed more intensely in Europe than in other parts of Eurasia before 1914, not least the effects of the revolutions and wars that raged across much of the continent between 1789 and 1815.

Across most of Eurasia (and including much of Eastern Europe), the link between culture and state had not followed the model that appeared in Western Europe. Absolute loyalty to a territorial state and its ruler conflicted with notions of an Islamic community of believers -- the umma -- and the autonomous authority of those who interpreted the Koran and the sharia. In the vast subcontinental empire of China, with its periphery of smaller, weaker or dependent states, the cockpit mentality of dynastic conflict and state-building that shaped European nationalism was conspicuously lacking. In Japan, two centuries of seclusion reinforced an intense suspicion of outsiders. But little need had arisen to identify Japaneseness with a strong central state.

Yet, if the European obsession with the nation state as a union of culture and politics had little meaning elsewhere, the effort to bind society together with common values and practices (from diet and dress through to history and cosmology) was taken just as seriously. Across the rest of Eurasia, just as in Europe, traditions of learning were maintained and transmitted by teachers and texts. Around them were gathered the educated elites who enjoyed social prestige and exerted cultural authority. In Iran and China, this class was closely identified with the idea of the state. From Safavid times onward, the ulama asserted the claim that the Iranian state's first duty was to protect Shia Islam from the assaults of its enemies. The minority status of Shia in the Islamic world made this all the more urgent. In China, the scholar-gentry formed the administrative cadre as well as the cultural elite of the imperial system -- a role, it seems likely, that they continued to fill in the 'nationalist' era that followed. Even in India, where British rule was gradually imposed from the mid eighteenth century, pre-colonial traditions survived, because they were already deeply embedded in vigorous vernacular cultures. …

This is history as big picture, detached and challenging. We moderns instinctively assume that everything about our circumstances is novel. Darwin repeatedly reminds us how a global view can emphasize continuity as well as change.
I particularly appreciated Darwin's observations on the place of what became the United States among all these empires.

In conventional (and American) versions of the American past, it is America's isolation and detachment from Europe that are stressed: the forging of a separate political tradition; the making of an American 'exceptionalism'. Europeans were trapped in their history, condemned to work out the consequences of dynastic, class and ethnic struggles to their bitter and turbulent end. But Americans were free to create their own future, to pursue freedom without the shackles of Old World inequalities and antagonisms. In large part this story is merely a grandiose version of settler myth: versions of it can be found in most settler societies in the nineteenth century, and in most of their 'nationalist' historiographies in the twentieth. The American reality was more prosaic. America was the western extension of Greater Europe.

Yet because North America was from its white settler beginnings integrated into world commerce and industry, its cross-continental expansion launched the world's greatest economic power long before we got into the empire business ourself.

Conventionally, America has been left out of the narrative of European imperialism in the nineteenth century, entering the stage only in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. In fact America's peculiar growth path was extremely influential. For all the scale of its farming frontier, America's industrial and financial capacity made it a part of the Atlantic 'core' which drove the expansion and integration of Europe. Its trade helped enrich its Atlantic partners, but without consuming too much of their available capital. Its innovations in agricultural, mining, hydraulic and railway technology were readily diffused to other frontiers of European expansion.

What Darwin believes requires more explanation that it usually gets is why the United States didn't get into the world empire business sooner, not really until after 1945.

... the breakneck expansion of American power was somewhat surprising. Accepting obligations outside the North American continent or Central America had always been contentious in American opinion. Fear of foreign entanglements ran very deep. American freedom was widely thought to derive from a deliberate rejection of the atavistic mentality and warlike spirit of a decadent Old World, and to be gravely threatened by too much contact with it. The American political system seemed poorly equipped for the formulation and conduct of foreign policy, the continuity of which was easily wrecked on the shoals of domestic controversy. …

Two factors transformed the American outlook. The first was the extraordinary gap that had opened up between America's material strength and that of any other state. In 1950, five years after the war, the American economy produced twice as much as the economies of Britain, France and Germany combined (compared with a rough equality in I9I3). This economic advantage was dramatically reinforced by the possession of nuclear technology and the unique capacity to deploy atomic weapons. By themselves, perhaps, these new sources of power might have promoted an even more isolationist mood than in the inter-war years. But they were coupled with awareness that the defensive perimeter of America's safety had been hugely extended by advances in air transport and the need to manage the international economy to avoid a post-war depression. 'Fortress America' was no longer invulnerable. Instead, American leaders now enjoyed the margin of power to make alliances on terms that secured American primacy.

… The result was the creation of an American 'system' imperial in all but name.

Darwin's big picture, published in 2007, certainly adds dimension to our view of contemporary empires, especially our own. All those recalcitrant parts of the world that challenge the US imperium turn out to have their own history of enduring empire. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise, but I imagine that ancient Romans had a hard time realizing that Parthians and Iberians had their own histories also. The view from the top of the heap can be distorting. This is a useful corrective.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

Lovely book report, and it was only about a third of the way in that I realized you meant [John] Darwin and not Charles [Darwin]. Either would have worked, because that was part of what the earlier Darwin was exploring, looking loftily and globally while focusing on the particular.

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