The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Imperial Generations: Some Preliminary Throughts

August 3, 2005

Some thoughts on Chirol’s “History of Empires II”.

I’ll state my basic concern up front: Chirol’s “second-generation empires” sound pretty much like what internationalrelations (and other) scholars call “hegemonic systems.” There are a number of good overviews of hegemonic-stability theory available on the web. It holds that, “The stability of the International System requires a single dominant state to articulate and enforce the rules of interaction among the most important members of the system.”

I’ve posted on related issues a few times.

It seems to me that Chirol might want to consider trying to disentangle a bit more the various things going on his argument, some of which concern the ebb and flow of global connectivity and others of which involve shifting systems of political domination. The causal vectors by which these processes are related are almost certainly extremely complex. Why does this matter? Consider Chirol’s central conceptualization of empires:

[E]mpires are natural and positive developments which have proven to be the best method of protecting and promoting globalization… empires always coincide with “the” or “a” core…. By imposing a forced peace and increasing and their “system coverage,” they promote stability and increase the four vital flows of globalization, thus having had an overall positive effect on world history.

There are a number of potential pitfalls here.

Do empires “always” coincide with “‘a’ core” because empires are, as Chirol implies, a necessary and sufficient condition for expanding economic, military, and cultural connectivity? Or do they always coincide with a core because empires have a core-periphery structure in which resources from peripheries are expropriated for the good of the core? If the latter is the case, then we can easily imagine other arrangements that promote “connectivity.” There is, for example, a significant body of literature that suggests that competitive, multi-state systems breed far more economic, political, and cultural innovation than imperial ones. Moreover, it shouldn’t be surprising if empires correlate with increased exchange in some settings, because, historically speaking, empires have generally been the most flexible institutions for establishing long-distance control over heterogeneous human communities.

Chirol argues that,

1) Empires are always founded by successful countries/cultures

Success means having either superior technology, a superior rule set, or both. For example, the Mongols policies were responsible for their success, they did not invent the technology they introducted but rather spread the achievements of regions within their empire to all the others. Additionaly, they placed a high value on work, technology and liberal ruling (liberal for their time).

There’s a sense in which the claim is trivially true. Political communities that successfully dominate other political communities are, by definition, “successful.” There is also a more important sense in which it is true. Empires often emerge when a political community achieves a military, technological, or social advantage over its neighbors and using that advantage to conquer them. But here’s where we need to be extremely careful. The kinds of advantages that allow one political community to expand at the expense of others do not necessarily make them “superior” societies from the viewpoint of human progress – however defined.

Chinggis Khan, for example, combined steppe cavalry techniques with a reorganization of the tribal structure of his forces, a not-so-healthy does of sociopathic paranoia, and, eventually, Chinese siege techniques. Despite Chirol’s assertion about the Mongol imperium (which lasted, as such, for an extremely short period), it is pretty hard to know whether it was really a net positive. The Mongols did enormous damage to regions of China, destroyed the Kievan Rus’, crushed the Abbasid Caliphate, and just plain killed a lot of people. The factors that led to Mongol success in warfare had very little to do with whatever contributions they brought to the world by making the east-west trade routes safer for a time.

The same can be said of many other empires: they claim an enormous human cost.

I write none of this to condemn empires as any more odious than, say, authoritarian sovereign states. Empires actually have a pretty reasonable track record – compared to nation-states – when it comes to dealing with ethnic diversity.

We can obviously debate the relative merits of specific imperial projects. As Battlepanda points out in her comments on the post:

I suppose a translation of his [a previous commentator’s] best point into serious mode would be “You seem to be cherry-picking characteristics of the most successful empires and then touting their success as a reason why projecting power outwards (either militarily or through other means of influence) is a good thing. I don’t think that is valid and you are begging the question.”

I want to turn attention to Chirol’s list of characteristics of putative “first generation” empires.

– Empire initially created by forceful incorporation of smaller states by bigger ones into a political union

There’s nothing unique to empires about this one. Most political communities are built, at one time or another, by the incorporation of smaller polities into a “political union.”

– Primary method of unity of state was military force

Again, there’s nothing specific to empires about this characteristic.

– Military stationed throughout in order to prevent secession

No more true for empires than for many other political forms. I suppose the degree to which this is true of empires depends on the definition of what it means to have a “military stationed throughout [the empire].”

– Under the rule of some form of monarchy (or sometimes oligarchy)

I wonder if Chirol believes that the Dutch, the Athenians, the British, the French cycled in and out of being empires depending on their domestic political institutions. I would certainly not expect Chirol to exclude, for that matter, the United States after the Spanish-American War from his set of empires.

The fact is that almost all pre-modern and early modern polities have been monarchies or oligarchies, so Chirol’s probably conflating a general characteristics of those polities with a subset of them, i.e., empires. On the other hand, all Chirol may mean by “first-generation” and “second-generation” empires is “pre-industrial” and “industrial to post-industrial.” If that’s the case, then I’m not sure how interesting the distinction is, at least without some additional analytic work.

– State or empire is multiethnic and often multi-religious (at least in the beginning)
– Incorporated regions used for resources and/or to settle
– Created its own “core” which usually did not overlap with that of other empires

Here I think Chirol’s on stronger ground for getting at how we would understand “empires” in ways that distinguish them from other forms of political organization. If you survey scholarly literature on empires, you’ll find a broad agreement that empires are multiethnic entities, that they involve the dominance of one polity over other political communities, and that core-periphery relations are an important component of imperial systems.

Dan at Txdap has some interesting comments on this point. In particular, he cites Jeff Vail’s argument that Rome was a “new” kind of empire.

Many of the major empires that preceded Rome shared a common source of formational energy. As described by historian Karl Wittfogel, they were all “hydraulic” empires. The mechanism of centralization [of the old Empires] was their shared need to pool massive labor and resources to build and maintain the irrigation works upon which their agricultural sustenance depended. Rome formed in the absence of great public-irrigation projects. As such, it required a new mechanism of political centralization to provide formational energies and counter the distributed spacing and centrifugal tendency of economic organization. Rome pioneered a new form of Empire, a connectivity empire, laying the groundwork for modern hierarchical state-economies….

I wasn’t aware of Vail’s work – and his book – until Dan linked to it; Vail shares some of the same sensibilities that Patrick Jackson and I have articulated in some of our collaborative pieces. That being said, the hydraulic theory of empire is, as a comprehensive account of the formation of ancient empires, probably wrong. I would also argue that empires, at least as ideal types, always involve this kind of “rimless hub-and-spoke” core-periphery structure. In other words, the authority structures of ideal-typical empires look like this:

Empires often – by encouraging trade, the diffusion of culture, and so forth – lead to the formation of cross-cutting ties between peripheries, but that both undermines imperial control (by making it difficult for empires to divide and rule their subjects) and tends to transform empires into different kinds of political communities. Thus, in my view, a defining feature of empires is not “cultural, economic and religious influenced used intentionally to create cohesion.” Empires sometimes do this (but that tends to make them look less like empires) and sometimes they do not. Similarly, most empires are not “characterized by the enforcement of maximum rule-sets”; many empires are based on rather “thin” contracts – or imperial bargains – between the core and peripheries, such as “pay us tribute or we’ll crush you” or “give us basing rights and we’ll give you access to our markets.” Factors such as “Competed with other empires for actual control of new markets” are also not defining features of empires, but a description of the behavior of some empires at various times.

To return to my initial point, it strikes me that Chirol’s “second-generation empires” aren’t empires at all: they’re hegemonic orders. This does not invalidate his argument; it may be, as Robert Gilpin argues, that hegemonic orders have supplanted empires (at least for the foreseeable future) because of changes in the nature of trade and the emergence of norms of national sovereignty. It may also be, as I suspect, that what we see now are embedded logics of informal empire within a complex international system.

[Edited slightly since initial posting.]

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.