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  • The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1425-1980
  • Ian K. Steele
The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires, 1425-1980. By David P. Abernethy (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000) 524 pp. $35.00

This ambitious, systematic, and thoughtful analysis of a vast contentious field rewards careful reading. As his wide-ranging forty-two-page bibliography confirms, Abernethy has canvassed English-language titles in political science, sociology, cultural studies, and especially history in developing his explanation of how Western European states built, sustained, and lost their overseas empires.

Although asserting that Europe's imperial states had an advantage over Arab and Chinese competitors by having three semi-autonomous but linked sectors interested in empire (government, business, and religion), Abernethy concentrates on government. His "empire" was a metropole's formal control of domestic and external affairs in a territory not deemed sovereign by "major actors in the interstate system" (20), and this dominance included establishment and staffing of colonial administrations. He avoids "informal" empires of gunboat diplomacy, and does not see empires as stages of capitalism or Christianity, though the traders and missionaries were heralds and outriders. Abernethy too easily gives Europeans a culturally determined "explore-control-utilize" syndrome, evident in their attitude to nature, to science, and to life. These attitudes complemented their organizational, geographical, and technological advantages in discovering the seas, and exploiting both nature and people.

Abernethy creates and describes five unconventional "phases" of European empire: expansion (1415-1773); contraction (1775-1824); expansion (1824-1912); equilibrium (1914-1939); and contraction (1940-1980). Historians, inveterate naysayers to bold generalizations, can rightly contest most of these boundaries. Phase 1, for example, which is too varied to mean much, should start a lifetime earlier with Iberian colonization of Atlantic islands, and it ends with the British Regulating Act of 1773, which stopped nothing except the East India Company's fading independence from the British government. The mid-seventeenth-century launch of European consumer demand for the taxable exotic drugs of sugar, tobacco, and tea prompted new imperial objectives, unlike the earlier quests for precious metals. Yet readers should reserve judgment on Abernethy's odd categories while learning from the numerous insights that his juxtapositions offer or invite. [End Page 455]

After chapters on each phase, Abernethy devotes eight more to dissection of European and colonial features of expansion, the techniques of imperial control and colonial response, and the reasons for retreat from empire. The decolonization of 1940 to 1980, for example, is seen as fed by European warfare and the inherent contradictions between European ideology and practice. However, the rising cost of empire or trusteeship deserves emphasis, since expectations about government social services rose. As business power expanded beyond empire to effective multinational operations, modern imperial governance was increasingly seen as an unnecessary, expensive, and embarrassing responsibility. The economics of "independence" does not interest Abernethy, who is confident that political independence ended European imperialism, and that the global system of nation states was empire's most important innovation and legacy.

Abernethy quietly joins much of the postcolonial world in his intellectual and moral surrender to the almighty nation state, and in his rejection of tribe, continent, empire, or humanity as alternative communities of legitimacy and responsibility. This approach is entirely anachronistic in understanding either imperialists or most of their opponents. After a wise discussion of imperial political and cultural legacies, Abernethy attempts an unscientific and counterfactual "Moral Evaluation of Colonialism." Selected critics and defenders of empire are used to extract common elements and frames of comparison. Japan, China, and Ethiopia are instructively diverse examples of states that escaped sustained imperial occupation. However, imperial oppressors are never compared with those of "national" leaders who could order extermination of civilians in Germany, Japan, Uganda, or Rwanda. How much finger pointing is possible with so much tyranny, injustice, and greed accompanying the postimperial integration of the planet, and its frantic exploitation to sustain at least seventeen times as many people as inhabited it in 1415?

This book has interest for readers with some prior knowledge of this broad field. Abernethy's bold categories and cautious insights should provoke some well-targeted research and much fruitful argument. [End Page 456...


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