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  • Amongst Empires:A Short History of Ireland and Empire Studies in International Context
  • Joe Cleary (bio)

This essay begins with a summary overview of emergent intellectual trends that are redefining the study of empire today. It then charts a history of modern Irish scholarship on empire, discussing the achievements and limitations of Atlantic History, Commonwealth History, and postcolonial studies.1 The piece closes with a discussion of how Empire Studies in Ireland might be reoriented in the future so as to deal not only with Irish responses to the now-vanished British Empire but also to the wider European imperial system and to the American neo-imperialism that emerged in its wake.

Empire Studies and the Crises of American Imperialism

Not so long ago the historiography of empire was a sedate enterprise with the air of a somewhat inconsequential intellectual tidy-up operation in which mostly Western historians deliberated the character of European empires gone the way of Nineveh and Tyre. For a time, the very word "imperialism" seemed even to be becoming obsolete due to the collapse of Marxist theory's intellectual stock [End Page 11] after 1989 and to its displacement by newer lexicons like "globalization." Now, as Giovanni Arrighi has remarked, the "E" and "I" words are very much back in fashion and, what is more, the study of empire and imperialism has lost much its aura of retrospection, its romance of requiem.2 And as this has occurred, the center of gravity of Empire Studies has also moved westward from Britain and France to the United States. When contemporary intellectuals debate the economics of imperial expansion, the nature of inter-imperial competition, or the dangers of over-stretch, they do so less as archivists of a disappearing age and more in the manner of auguries hoping to discern the outline of a new world in the entrails of the old.

The current reinvigoration of Empire Studies owes much to scholars who have worked to rehabilitate the idea of empire, not least by arguing that the United States should assume the imperial functions relinquished by Britain and France after World War II. Refurbishing arguments about imperialism as midwife to modernization and enlightenment, this scholarship is also advanced on the "realist" premise that in an inherently war-prone international state system it will always be necessary for some master-state to regulate the world. Hence, unless a twenty-first century pax Americana can replicate its nineteenth-century British predecessor, the world is doomed in the century ahead either to long-term chaos or to the prospect that some non-Western power will assume the Augustan mantle the United States was too weak to seize. In sum, this new scholarship's axioms are essentially "Empire or Anarchy" or "Imperialism or Barbarism."

These apologists of empire are not just maverick voices; their ideas have found receptive listeners in some administrative echelons of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Moreover, if the positive benefits of empire are now being re-aired, this obviously owes less to the writings of Robert Cooper, Niall Ferguson, or Herfried Münkler than to the expansion of NATO across Eastern Europe and to the post-9/11 invasions of [End Page 12] Afghanistan and Iraq.3 But whatever scholars argue about America as past, de facto, or prospective empire, the debate itself is indicative of a significant shift in American public consciousness: as Charles Maier observes, it has recently become possible for the first time since the days of Theodore Roosevelt openly to debate in the American public sphere "whether the United States has become or is becoming an empire in some classical sense."4 American popular culture, however, may signal a different story. If James Cameron's Titanic, Oliver Stone's Alexander, or Mel Gibson's Apocolypto are any index, perhaps the true concern is not whether the United States is about to become an empire but what will happen when its current hegemony begins to shudder and disintegrate.

Alongside the intellectual rehabilitation of empire, the last two decades have also witnessed an efflorescence of loosely left-wing scholarship working to very different agendas. Initially, the impetus for new thinking on...


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