Tuesday, June 13, 2006

# Posted 9:31 AM by Patrick Porter  

BEWARE THE CONQUERORS' FALL: There is a thread that runs through the work of British historian Niall Ferguson: tragedies that accompany the fall of empires.

For example, his revisionist attack on orthodoxies about World War I, The Pity of War, saw the war as a catastrophe for the British empire, which (according ot him) it mortally wounded.

One thought-provoking article of his warned against allowing unease with unipolarity to become a misguided desire for a world without power-projection. An apolar world without hegemons or great powers would be effectively a regression into a new dark age of stagnation, piracy, a retreat into fortified cities. The hegemons, he argues, are needed to hold back chaos.

His latest book , The War of the World, argues that the fall of empires and the frictions at the point where empires collide is the key to understanding violence in the twentieth century:

But 20th-century violence, he maintains, is unintelligible if it not seen in its imperial context: the decline and fall of large multi-ethnic empires dominated the world in 1900. Nearly all the principal combatants in both world wars were empires or would-be empires. One of the reasons for this was again economic: economies of scale were available to an empire, as opposed to the nation state, in raising large armies and paying for them.

He points out that two of the greatest battles of the century — Stalingrad and El Alamein — were fought by “multi-ethnic forces under imperial banners”. Another reason was geographical: the points of contact between empires, the borderlands and buffer zones, or “the zones of strategic rivalry they compete to control”, see more violence than the imperial heartlands.

What Ferguson calls “the fatal triangle”, the territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea, was a vast killing space not just because it was ethnically mixed but because it was the junction of the imperia of the Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs and Ottomans. Manchuria and Korea occupied a similar position in the Far East, and with the rise in the critical importance of oil, so increasingly have the Gulf and the Near East.

Violence climaxes with the birth and death of empires:
The “ebbs and flows of international commercial integration” are closely associated with the rise and fall of empires, with war more prevalent at the beginning, and especially the end, of an empire’s existence.
This should probably be tempered by another factor which also helped make the twentieth century the most violent: the rise of utopian ideologies and the one-party state, armed with both technology and organisational sophistication (eg. the Cultural Revolution).

And the radicalising changes to empire itself, in the shift from dynastic empires to the empire ruled by the 'Party' (contrast the Austro-Hungarian 'dual monarchy' empire with the Soviet empire, for example).

Occasionally in his other work, Ferguson betrays a faint whiff of nostalgia about the days of the British Raj or the colonial world.

I remain more convinced by the Adesnikian vision of a world of independent democratic states, with the American empire confining its imperialism to the release of indigenous democracy and opposing the anti-democratic forms of militant Islam rather than annexing territories. A foreign policy which combines this idealism with the realist appreciation of strategic necessity, or in the words of Charles Krauthammer,
We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in place where there is strategic necessity - meaning, places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global threat to freedom.
But Ferguson's book sounds like a reminder of what the end of empire means, and what it costs.
(8) opinions -- Add your opinion

Thanks for the personalized adjective!
Read John MOser's book Twisting the Lion's Tail to see how fat the US went in dismantling the British Empire from the 1920s and how far the exit of Britain and France from the Middle East and Asia involved the USA in a Manichean contest with the USSR allowing nationalist forces to manipulate Great Powers in a war by proxy.

The Nazis had offered India to Stalin who really wanted the Baltic and Scandinavia making Russo-German conflict over the European Plains once more central to their politics. It was Ribbentrop who wanted German forces to drive down from The Caucasus into the Middle East and pincer the British from the rear................

It was however the speed of British disengagement in 1947 from Palestine (where 50% that US loan negotiated by Keynes was spent)and from India that dislocated the geopolitics as the US behaved with the naivety that somehow modernity and democracy would triumph in the post-colonial era - a case of two many Americans believing the spin on their own history which was less a contest against a rapacious foe in England, and more the by-product of superpower rivalry between France and Britain which succeeded in the American Colonies but failed in Canada.
Not to be difficult, but I can't see what's stunningly original about Ferguson's arguments -- although some recent papers suggest that it isn't rise/decline of empires that matters so much as shifts in predominant institutional forms. I can't imagine, furthermore, that he's going to have an easy time proving some of the claims about the causes of ethnic conflict.

Wasn't he also supposed to produce a work of original historical scholarship for Harvard as a condition for his appointment? This kind of secondary-source rich semi-social scientific argument would hardly seem to qualify.
hey anonymous,

its probably not 'stunningly original' as you say.

But its easy to overdo emphasis on originality as the overriding benchmark of historical scholarship. there is sometimes value in going back to older interpretations/arguments to test or challenge current orthodoxies.
A good work of scholarship can be valuable without inventing a new colour.

Ferguson has refined and revived an older critique of anti-imperialism,
which seems especially timely right now given that empire is the subject of much debate within (and beyond) the American academy. I don't necessarily hold with all his views, but its a debate that we need.
Have you also read Deepak Lal's 2004 book "In Praise of Empires"?
haven't read it yet, any good?

I reviewed Depak Lal's book recently. My general impression? A mixed bag. Some very good points, marred by too much polemicism. Lal also tries to fit too many different issues into the framework of "praising empires," which renders the book pretty disconnected.

The best line of the book, which is now quoted in one of my article manuscripts, is this: “the contemporary academic theory” that “Ph.D. practitioners have learned has by and large been devised for the anarchical European state system which developed with the fall of Rome.” How “to maintain an empire is not what they have been taught in their classrooms.”

Ironically, I don't think he makes that strong a case for American empire. A lot of what he describes fits better under the traditional rubric of hegemony. This has some major consequences for his policy recommendations, e.g., while he's right that the character of US influence and power suggests that we shouldn't be that concerned with counterbalancing right now, it is hard to imagine that in a world where we pursued his recommendations we wouldn't provoke counterbalancing.
hey Daniel,

one question:

do you distinguish 'hegemony' as projecting power from 'empire' as owning/occupying territory?

'hegemonic' empire versus 'territorial' empire seems to be where the issues get confused in the debate.
Post a Comment