What is imperial sovereignty

What is an empire?

In the history of the empires lies a lesson for the present from Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper

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Why think about empires today? After all, we live in a world of nation states, at least that's what we believe. There are more than 200 nation states today, each with a seat in the UN, a state flag, their own postage stamps and government institutions. The nation-state, however, is an ideal that is not that old at all; its future is uncertain and for many people it could be a devastating prospect.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Dual Monarchy, the Russian Tsarist Empire and the German Empire after the First World War, a stable world of nation-states did not emerge - nor after the decolonization of the French, British, Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese overseas possessions in 1940 until 1975. After 1918, after 1945 and after 1989 the imperial regimes were by no means replaced by viable alternatives. Instead, there were many bloody and destabilizing conflicts: in Rwanda, Iraq, Israel / Palestine, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, the Congo, the Caucasus and Libya, which is by no means all of them.

The successor states of earlier colonies did not achieve much that they had hoped for at the time of their independence. And although the great powers are committed to a world of inviolable and equal nations, they use their economic and military means to undermine the sovereignty of the weaker states.

Imperial nostalgia, the sentimental evocation of lost empires - such as the British in India or the French in Indochina - are of no use for the present. And the recourse to terms like “empire” or “colonialism” - with which military interventions by the USA, France and other states are condemned - does nothing to an analysis, let alone to improve the present world situation. However, critical exploration of the history of the empires - old and newer alike - can help expand our understanding of the state of the world today. And opens a new perspective on the organization of political power in the past, the present and perhaps also in the future.

For long periods of time, the great empires, with their actions and interactions, provided the context that was decisive for people's behavior and thinking. The exploration of empires therefore helps to think about the question of how and why certain connections and frames of reference emerged over spatial and temporal distances - and others did not. The empires were very active in shaping the modes of production, communication and cultural developments in the world, but they also repeatedly reached the limits of their possibilities. The greatest challenge was always the problem of how they could assert their power over great distances, across different population groups - and in the face of competing empires.

If one studies the historical development of such empires - their emergence, their conflicts and rivalries, their successes and their failures - one will see what has been forgotten in the last few decades: that state sovereignty in the past, as in many respects also today, is first and foremost is a complex phenomenon that is distributed over various individual areas and layers and, secondly, arises from very different founding principles and actions.

Give space to diversity

What gave the empires their world-wide shaping power? On the one hand, it grew out of its stable political order. The empires are large-scale state structures that focus on expansion or draw on an expansionist past. As such, they preserve distinctions and hierarchical gradations between different peoples, even if they have forcibly appropriated them. The nation-state is based on the fiction of its homogeneity: one people, one territory, one government. The empire, on the other hand, recognizes the diversity of its subjects and has to cope with this diversity. Empires rule different peoples differently.

These variable strategies of domination gave the rich a high degree of adaptability, which enabled them to maintain control of important resources in vast territories and over long periods of time. In comparison with the long lifespan of the Ottoman Empire (600 years) or even the Chinese Empire (which lasted for more than 2,000 years and across the succession of different dynasties), nation states are only a brief flash on the horizon of history.

But since the differences between the peoples remain within the empires, there is always the possibility that individual parts of the empire will split off. This explains why the empire as a form of government is historically so widespread, but keeps dividing, reorganizing or collapsing completely.

The Reich as a state idea was contagious. The peoples could envision many forms of statehood, but if there was an empire in the region in question that ruled over the population and natural resources in several territories or countries, the model of the empire had to be used in the practical implementation of such ideas consider and imitate if possible. Basically, every empire faced the same problems: How should one govern the different population groups? How can one exercise dominion over great distances (between capital and regions)? How can one control widely dispersed subjects?

The answers to these questions, however, could not be the same: each empire relied on its own and special “repertoire of power”. Some have copied their strategy from previous or competing empires. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was based on a successful mixture of Turkish, Byzantine, Arabic, Mongolian and Persian traditions. In managing their multi-denominational structure, the Ottomans relied on the elites of the individual religious groups and did not attempt to assimilate or destroy them.

The British Empire encompassed Dominions (which ruled themselves), colonies, protectorates; India ruled by its own bureaucratic apparatus, a disguised protectorate in Egypt and “zones of influence” with the help of which the British pursued their “free trade imperialism”. An empire with such a broad repertoire of resources had the advantage that it could change its tactics of rule depending on the situation without the problem of how to rule and assimilate all parts of the empire according to a single model.

When treating the different population groups, some basic patterns can be distinguished, which can also be completely opposite. In some empires, the “politics of difference” implied that the diversity of peoples and their respective customs and traditions were viewed as part of the reality of life. In other cases it meant that a sharp line was drawn between “insiders” and “barbarians”. For the rulers of the Mongolian empires in the 13th and 14th centuries, the diversity of ethnic groups was both normal and practical. Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism, and Islam were at home in these realms, and arts and sciences derived from Arab, Persian, and Chinese influences were promoted. The Roman Empire, on the other hand, tended towards homogenization on the basis of a Roman culture that came from different sources but was identifiable, a privileged status for Roman citizens and - towards the end of the empire - the Christian state religion.

The different empires developed various variants of these two ideal types; some, like the Ottoman and the Russian, worked with a combination of the two. The European colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries in Africa fluctuated between the tendency towards compulsory assimilation - based on their belief in the superiority of Western civilization - and the tendency towards indirect rule based on the elites of the conquered peoples. The concept of the “civilizing mission” of the 19th century stood in a certain contrast to racist theories. Regardless of what ideas the imperial rulers had of the "other" peoples and their cultures in mind: the conquerors could not manage their empires themselves. For this they needed “intermediaries”.

Often the imperial rulers claimed the knowledge, skills and authority of the conquered peoples by making use of the elites who profited from this cooperation; or they rely on minorities and marginalized groups who hoped to benefit from their service to the victors. Another type of middleman was settlers or civil servants who came from the land of colonial power.

An exactly opposite tactic was to use slaves or other persons who had been removed from their community of origin and whose survival or well-being thus depended solely on the imperial masters as authorities. This method was successfully used under the Abbasid Caliphate and later in the Ottoman Empire. With the Ottomans, the highest administrative and military posts were entrusted to men who had been torn from their families at a young age so that they could be educated and trained at the court of the Sultan.

According to the theory, the youngest colonial empires of the Europeans should have replaced such personnel structures made up of middlemen with a functional bureaucracy - but that was more on paper than in reality. In the vast expanses of Africa, the colonial official saw himself as the "king of the jungle". The local functionary relied on chiefs, guards and translators, all of whom were looking for personal gain. In the history of all empires, intermediaries have been as indispensable as they are dangerous. The settlers, the local elites, and also the simple officials often pursued their own interests. If you look at these intermediaries, the vertical connections between the rulers, their agents and subjects come into focus - i.e. those political relationships that are nowadays often overlooked because of the horizontal connections - e.g. class, race, ethnic group Attention is paid.

Political ideas have always been tricky for empires. The imperial masters viewed political challenges and opportunities in relation to the situation; they did not harbor one very specific idea, but neither did they have an infinite number; Likewise, the local elites and subjects had their own ideas, which we should all judge from the historical context of the time and not by today's standards. Take the (east) Roman emperor Constantine the Great, who - like Mohammed later - made monotheism a state doctrine: the idea of ​​an empire, a god and an emperor was a strong pillar of power; but the downside is the ever-threatening schism with the argument that the current emperor is unsuitable as the guardian of the true faith.

There were also attempts to charge the imperial idea with ideals of justice and morality. But critics could easily use them against the empire itself, as did Bartolomé de Las Casas in the 16th century and the anti-slavery movement at the beginning of the 19th century, or the anti-colonial freedom fighters in Asia and Africa who claimed the Europeans took their "civilizing mission" at their word and argued that the principle of democracy should not be confined to one continent.

When analyzing transformation processes and empires, the notion of a historical "course curve" may be helpful. This can replace the tautological explanatory model that sees history as a sequence of epochs, each of which differs from the previous epoch by certain features.

Great power dreams and wars of the Europeans

The "European expansion" that took place since the 15th century did not stem from an inherent "expansionist instinct" of the European peoples, rather it resulted from the historical coincidence of very specific circumstances: the wealth generated in the powerful Chinese Empire and in Southeast Asia was an irresistible incentive for merchants in distant Europe; but in between lay the Ottoman Empire, which was larger, stronger and politically more stable than the fragmented state structures in Western Europe of that time. Therefore, the kings of Spain and Portugal - and later those of the Netherlands and Great Britain - wanted to explore new sea routes to bypass the Ottoman Empire and its dependence on local financiers. The unexpected result was the connection to peoples across the Atlantic when Columbus found what would later become America instead of a western route to Asia.

Another world-historical course, namely the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, is also different when viewed through the spectrum of relationships between empires. The revolutions in Santo Domingo in France, in British North America and in Spanish South America were initially conflicts within the empires for power in the motherland, the position of the settlers overseas and the subjects there, before they developed in the pursuit of independence from the empire.

If we look at the changing fortunes of the empires in the 19th and 20th centuries, we see a world that is torn between new imperial projects - Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union - and the old powers that oppose the potential of their colonial spaces sought to mobilize the new competition. In the middle of the 20th century, the transition from the empire to the nation state was by no means a natural trend. The ethnically mixed population who lived in multiethnic states such as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires suffered three waves of ethnic cleansing, the aim of each of which was to give each nation its own state: the first time in the Balkan Wars of 1876 to 1878 and from 1912/13; the second time after World War I, when the victors dismantled the defeated empires; the third time after the Second World War, when German ethnic groups were expelled from some regions, while Poles, Ukrainians and other minorities were expelled from others. But even after that, the state borders did not coincide with the settlement areas of the respective nations. So it came to new, extremely bloody ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.

In the Middle East, too, the consequences of 1918, i.e. the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, have not yet been overcome. In Palestine / Israel, competing nationalisms claim the same territory. Iraq, Egypt, Libya and other Arab states experience a constant power struggle between different groups.

The historical "course curves" of empires have decisively shaped today's great and world powers. One example is China, which was held down by more dynamic imperial powers from the early 19th through the late 20th centuries. In retrospect, this period only presents itself as the most recent interregnum, which is definitely shorter than many other intermediate epochs in the 2,000-year history of the Chinese Empire. The borders of this empire, expanded in the 13th century by the (Mongolian) Yuan Dynasty and between the 17th and 20th centuries by the (Manchurian) Qing Dynasty, remained for the Republic (1911-1949) and the Communist China (from 1949) a natural legacy. Today's Chinese leadership also invokes these dynasties and their imperial traditions.

China has now gained the upper hand over the West. It is no longer just an exporter of silk and porcelain, but above all of finished industrial products, and it has gigantic trade surpluses. And it is the largest believer in the United States today. At the same time, Beijing inherited the classic problems of the Chinese Empire: the Tibetan people's desire for independence and the secessionist aspirations in the largely Muslim province of Xinjiang. As in the past, the Chinese leadership has to keep the “economic barons” in check and the various population groups under observation. But in dealing with this task, it can fall back on the historically grown imperial rule techniques and regain its old meaning in the course of geographical power shifts.

The emergence and disintegration of the Soviet Union can also be interpreted in the context of such an “imperial” curve.The Soviet policy of founding national republics - with communist "middlemen" of domestic provenance - facilitated the orderly dissolution of the Union in the 1990s and also ensured a common language in the negotiations on the new state structures. The largest successor state, the Russian Federation, is explicitly a multi-ethnic entity. The 1993 constitution grants the constituent republics of Russia the right to use their own official language, but at the same time defines Russian as the “official language of the Russian Federation as a whole”.

After a brief interlude, Vladimir Putin revived the traditions of a patriarchal empire. Putin and his favorites have re-subjugated the oligarchs to the government, consolidated control of religious institutions, brought the media into line, shaped the elections into a one-party event under the title “sovereign democracy”, and made the governors of the regions compliant with the Russian Nationalism flirted and the country's main weapon - oil and gas resources - used with success in the international arena. In short, the Russian Empire has reborn in a modern version.

Of all the great powers, the European Union is the most innovative entity today. From the 5th to the 20th centuries Europe was torn by the ambitions of part of its elite to create a new Rome and the determination of the other part to prevent it. The struggles for and against a European empire ranged from Charlemagne to the Habsburg Emperor Charles V and Napoleon to Hitler. It was not until the mutual destruction of World War II and the subsequent inability of the European powers to retain their colonial empires that the empires of Europe finally ceased their murderous competition.

Nevertheless, after 1945 some European powers tried to reorganize their empires and make them both more productive and more legitimate. Great Britain and France only gave up this endeavor in the late 1950s. In contrast, Germany and Japan were eliminated from the competition for the formation of the Reich. Reduced to nation states, both countries experienced an (economic) boom that they had never achieved as empires.

The European states made use of their “freedom from the empire” they had finally won and worked out a confederative political structure among themselves. This structure has always worked best when it was limited to administrative and regulatory functions. But also one of the most fundamental characteristics of state sovereignty - the control of persons at the borders - is now settled at the European level. When you see the many abandoned customs buildings on the same borders for which millions of Europeans have died in ever new wars, you realize what a remarkable achievement the Schengen area is. The development of Europe from competing imperial education projects to nation states (which have lost their colonies) and further to a confederation of states makes it clear to us the complex variety of models of sovereignty Europe has gone through. And that nation-state concepts have not broken away from imperial concepts for so long.

After September 11, 2001, it became fashionable to designate the United States of America as an "empire" to either brand the arrogance of its foreign policy actions or to celebrate its efforts to bring order and democracy around the world. More illuminating than the question of conceptual attribution is a closer look at the American repertoire of power, under the aspect of which means of imperial strategies were used in each case.

In the 20th century, the US repeatedly used military force, violating the sovereignty of other states; they occupied foreign territory, but this rarely gave rise to colonial structures. But even the national self-image of the USA emerged from an imperial curve: Thomas Jefferson had announced in 1776 that the rebellious provinces of the British Empire would establish an "Empire of Liberty".

The new state arose from a policy of difference based on the Roman model, that is: on the basis of equal rights and the right to private property for all people who were considered citizens, but to the exclusion of the Native Americans and slaves. With the expansion of their national territory across the continent, the Euro-Americans appropriated vast amounts of natural resources. Over time (and after their federation almost collapsed over the slave question), their political leadership grew in power to determine the timing and conditions of their interventions in the rest of the world, depending on their own interests.

Empires always existed in relation - and often in tension - to other forms of spatial networking; Empires enabled or prevented the freedom of movement of goods, capital, people and ideas. Empire building was almost always a violent process, and conquest was often the prelude to exploitation, if not forced assimilation and humiliation. Empires created powerful political structures; and they always left a long trail of human suffering. But the idea of ​​the nation state, which itself grew out of the imperial context, has not proven to be an antidote to the arrogance of empires. Just think of the current unresolved conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.

We still have to grapple with the consequences of the collapse and overcoming of empires: with the fiction of equal sovereignty and the reality of inequality within and between individual states.

Thinking about the phenomenon of empire does not mean that the British, Ottoman, or Roman empires should be resurrected. But it helps us to perceive the variety of forms in which power over geographical areas has been exercised. And if we avoid the mistake of thinking of seeing the historical development from empire to nation-state as an iron law, we can perhaps think more openly and impartially about our future. For example, about forms of sovereignty that give better answers than empires or nation-states to the ever-current questions of inequality and diversity of the world's population.

Translated from the English by Niels Kadritzke Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper teach history at New York University. Co-author of "Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference," Princeton (Princeton University Press) 2011.

Le Monde diplomatique, December 9th, 2011, by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper