Is the imperial age over? Part I

It is common to say that the age of the empire ended when the colonies became independent after the Second World War. At that time, the Western imperial powers removed their colonial administration and left the formal government to the new states. Nevertheless, the concept of empire has reappeared in international politics in recent years. This time there are more people talking about the empire in more hopeful terms; some even see empire as a solution to several difficult problems in the world today.

  • What are the characteristics of an empire?
  • Is there an empire today?
  • Can the empire teach us anything about today’s international politics?

The most famous empire in history is the Roman Empire . Rome began to expand beyond the Italian peninsula around 300-250 BC. (then as a republic) and was expanded to include large areas in North Africa, Asia Minor and Europe, before it collapsed approx. 470 AD

It would be more than a thousand years before an empire became so powerful again. Although the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century controlled large tracts of land in Asia and present-day Eastern Europe, the British Empire was the first to compete with the Roman Empire. In the 19th century, it covered a quarter of the world’s land area and people – the largest and most powerful empire so far in history.

2: Control of empire

The traditional definition of empire emphasizes control over territory and coercion . This means that the empire was always a result of wars where the imperial power constantly conquered new territory. The empire encompassed the areas where the colonial administration had control and the laws of the empire were enforced .

Furthermore, the empire was divided into center and periphery . The city center was almost always the capital of the state that leased the empire – London, Paris, Lisbon or Amsterdam. The periphery was the area that was controlled and exploited – India, Latin America, Africa. It was always the case that the center made itself rich at the expense of the periphery, often by extracting natural resources and by exploiting the population as slaves.

Yet there was always a kind of exchange relationship. Someone in the periphery lit up the scheme, i.a. in the form of important positions, tax exemptions or other freedoms that did not benefit the rest of the population. Although the empire was administered from the center, these local elites, or middlemen , often had important governing functions and a relatively large freedom to govern according to their own heads. In these cases, the center’s control of the periphery was indirect . Other times, the colony administration was sent out from the center (eg from England), and the control of the periphery was then direct and strong.

Today, there is no empire that controls other countries by means of coercion and legislation, as the Western empires did until the middle of the 20th century. But does this mean that the empire has disappeared from the scene? If we look at the Cold War – the period between the decolonization and the fall of the Wall in 1989 – we see that the empire has never been completely gone – at least not in the rhetoric. Former United States President Ronald Reagan has branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” The Soviet Union acknowledged that the United States was no worse off on that front. And among the people there was talk of both US and Soviet imperialism.

The fact is that both superpowers had a sphere of influence outside their own territory, where they did not tolerate outside intervention. This control was often justified (legitimized) by the fact that it was necessary to defend the independence of these countries. The Soviet Union’s control of the countries behind the Iron Curtain was usually stricter than the United States’ control of vulnerable countries in the “free” world, but this situation can still be described as a struggle between two empires.

3: Informal Empire

When the Wall fell, some people hoped and believed that we had reached the “end of history”. By this they meant that democracy and the market economy would spread peacefully to the whole world, and that there was an end to upsetting conflicts – cold or hot – in international politics.

Today we see that the tension created by the rivalry between the two superpowers has been replaced by new threats and lack of security, with religiously motivated terrorism and international organized crime as the most striking. At the same time, we see struggles for control over natural resources such as oil and gas and perceptions that some regimes (Iran, North Korea) threaten “the free world”.

According to SHOEFRANTICS, it is in the face of these threats that some want the empire back, albeit not in the same form. Now we are talking about an informal empire where one must respect the country’s formal independence, but still be more active, even using force if necessary, to promote key benefits such as democracy, human rights and free markets. The legitimation of the use of force may then seem paradoxical; we must use war as a tool to create peace.

If this strategy is to succeed, it is important to establish an association of actors at many levels. It can consist of alliances between states (such as the “coalition of the willing” during the Iraq war), of open or covert support to opposition groups in countries with hostile regimes or to local elites in countries with friendly regimes.

It can also consist of agreements with multinational companies with a turnover greater than GDP in small countries. If we see such associations in an overall perspective, ie as one authority structure that consists of many different types of agreements between many different types of actors, but which nevertheless has a clear center , it makes sense to talk about a modern empire . This gives us a different picture of international politics than we get what we do as researchers in international politics have usually done, namely to look at relations between states and to exclude those aspects that do not fit into such a perspective.

Informal Empire 1

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