The return of ’empire’ in international politics

Critics of multilateralism argue force will always shape world affairs. It is a small step to see empires as a means to stability.

It is over 70 years since the sun set on the British Raj. A century has elapsed since U.S. president Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the triumph of “national self-determination” on the ruins of the Romanov and Hapsburg dynasties.

And yet there is growing talk of “empire.”

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, told the Munich Security Conference last December that both Russia and China had “empire desires.” The same month, in Lisbon, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed “Iran’s empire is tottering.”

Recent books by leading academics resonate with imperial themes. In Erdogan’s Empire, Soner Cagaptay argues much of Turkey’s current behavior — in Libya, Syria and elsewhere — needs to be understood in the context of the Ottoman past. Richard Sakwa’s The Putin Paradox portrays Russia’s president as indifferent to the end of Communism while viewing the Soviet Union’s demise as “a major geopolitical catastrophe.” With The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi analyzes a century of a Zionist “colonial war waged against the indigenous population… to force them to relinquish their homeland.”

Empire. Colonialism. Imperialism.

Are these words so bandied around that they have lost meaning? Anyone searching for historical overview can turn to Dominic Lieven’s Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals, first published in 2000. Lieven migrated from being a historian of Tsarist Russia — whose empire expanded massively in the 18th and 19th centuries — to comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

Rather than offer a glib definition of “empire,” Lieven explored ways the word has been used since the Roman imperium— dominion, whence imperialism — first examining the links between imperium and colonia, whence colonization and colonialism. Lieven found common features in four empires — Russia-Soviet Union, Britain, the Hapsburgs, and the Ottoman. An empire, he concluded, is “a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of an era… a polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples… not a polity ruled with the explicit consent of its peoples.”

As a historian, Lieven avoided modern liberal, democratic standards in analyzing the past. Indeed, he drew attention to features of past empires that seem today “progressive.” The multinationalism and other policies of the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg Empire, he wrote, compare well with “the Jacobin nation or the frenzied ethnic nationalism that devastated Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.”

At the same time, there may be much to learn about Russia’s behavior today from Soviet or Tsarist history.  In The Putin Paradox, Richard Sakwa points out President Vladimir Putin in 2014 justified annexing Crimea, part of a Ukraine independent since 1991, both in terms of the failure of the European security system and as a defense of the “Russian world,” or Russki mir. 

The Russians seized mainly Muslim Crimea in the 18th century from the Ottoman Empire, prompting 100,000 Tatars to flee. The British and French invaded alongside Ottoman forces in the Crimean War of 1853-6, wrote British historian AJP Taylor, “against Russia rather than in favor of Turkey.”  

With Turkey, Soner Cagaptay tells me that the word “empire,” while useful in analyzing Erdogan’s rule, should not be pressed too far. “Nations that were once great powers — Turkey, Russia, the UK — have an inflated, often nostalgic sense of their heyday,” he says. “This comes with a readiness to be inspired by politicians who can pick at this narrative, and embody it. That’s how I see Erdogan’s role in suggesting that a return to Ottoman glory in foreign policy is something Turks should strive for.”

Like the Ottoman Empire, Erdogan’s foreign outreach has an Islamic tinge, albeit in the different guise of patchwork relationships with groups affiliated with, or inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood. By backing ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, Ankara has acquired a lasting rivalry with Egypt’s military dictatorship that is playing out in Libya. Turkey’s maritime agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj’s beleaguered Tripoli-based government is designed in part to pierce what Ankara sees as an axis to its south of Israel, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.

Empires have imperial capitals. Erdogan’s designation of Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction, as a mosque appeals not just to fervent Muslims but to many Turks nostalgic over the Ottoman days before Kamal Ataturk in 1934 turned the mosque, which had been a basilica before the Turks conquered the city in 1453, into a museum.

Like Istanbul, Tehran still has palaces from its imperial past. The royal legacy has been sometimes uneasy for the Islamic Republic established in 1979, but official statements often refer to the long history of “great Iranian nation,” which has always been multilingual. A more negative take on Iranian power comes not just from Netanyahu: in a CNN news bulletin on 4 January, Robert Baer, a former CIA operative employed by the network as a security analyst, spoke of “an Iranian Empire that goes across the Levant.”

The Islamic State group — Daesh, or Isis — and other hard-line Sunni Islamists routinely call Iran and its Arab allies safawi, referring to the Safavid dynasty of 1501-1736, which ruled not just today’s Iran but intermittently parts of central Asia and today’s Iraq. The term safawi is commonly applied by Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Tehran, partly for its sectarian connotations given that the Safavids effectively converted Iran to Shi’ism.

American officials generally avoid applying the term “imperial” or “empire” to today’s Iran, preferring to assert a break between the Islamic Republic and the previous regime of Shah Mohammad Reza, which Washington supported. By arguing that any problems with Iran stem from its “regime” they sidestep the question of how far Tehran’s foreign policy and actions today — including the nuclear program and would-be regional influence — follow those of the Shah.

Another case where American officials avoid talk of empire, albeit for different reasons, is Israel. Yet a comprehensive recent work from Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ Waron Palestine, argues that Israel was from the beginning a colonial project. The number of Jews in Palestine rose from 8.6 percent of a 700,000 population in 1918 to 28 percent of 1.5 million in 1939, as the British, ruling under an international mandate from 1919 to 1948, facilitated immigration. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev, in One Palestine, Complete points out that the Jewish state proposed by the UN in 1947 covering 56 percent of Palestine, smaller than what became Israel in 1947-8, still had a slight majority of non-Jews.

Khalidi argues “…there are now two peoples in Palestine, irrespective of how they came into being, and the conflict between them cannot be resolved as long as the national existence of each is denied by the other. Their mutual acceptance can only be based on complete equality of rights…There is no other possible sustainable solution, barring the unthinkable notion of one people’s extermination or expulsion by the other.”

An empire — a polity, to quote Lieven “that rules over wide territories and many peoples” — may resort to such measures. Many have. Stalin moved whole populations, including Finns, Poles, and Tartars: he deported Volga Germans during the Second World War and unleased a famine in 1930s Ukraine partly as a means of control.

But if the 20th century witnessed barbarism, it also saw the rise of the notion of crimes against humanity. The demise of empires with the 1919-20 peace settlements, and the wave of decolonization after 1945, ushered in a new order not just of national self-determination but also of international law. Yet today’s problems in Syria, Iran and the eastern Mediterranean and Crimea, plus the end of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” all reflect weakened multilateral systems and the erosion of international law.

Critics of multilateralism argue force will always shape world affairs. It is a small step to see empires as a means to stability. Robert Kaplan famously argued in 2014 in The Atlantic for a “tempered U.S. imperialism” drawing on the experiences of past empires, one that would understand “imperialism, not as it has been conventionally thought of, but as it has actually been practiced throughout history.”

Lieven, who has spent his academic life studying empire, would incline towards those in the U.S. and elsewhere arguing for maintaining and strengthening multilateralism and international law. “The Soviet Union,” Lieven writes, “showed that the idea of empire is now bankrupt.” Hence it’s almost a term of abuse. It is “nowadays… polite to call a state an empire,” he notes, “only when it is safely dead and beyond resurrection.”

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