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  • Recalling Empire:Anglo-American Conceptions of Imperialism and the Decline of the Nation-State
  • Graham MacPhee (bio)
Porter, Bernard . 2006. Empire and Superempire: Britain, America and the World. New Haven: Yale University Press. $30.00hc. 224pp.
Doolan, Andy . 2005. Fugitive Empire: Locating Early American Imperialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. $60.00hc. $20.00sc. 280pp.
Boehmer, Elleke . 2002. Empire, The National, and the Postcolonial 1890-1920: Resistance in Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. $95.00hc. $29.95sc. 250pp.
Muthu, Sankar . 2003. Enlightenment Against Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $80.00hc. $22.95sc. 379 pp.

Yet another "Treaty," this time with Mesopotamia, another vast Arab country [End Page 198] coolly annexed by Britain after the world war, under the guise of a "mandate." The Treaty—in actual fact a charter of conquest—for what Mr. Churchill calls the "provisionally independent state of Irak" has been negotiated over the heads of the inhabitants, and Baghdad . . . is in a state of "acute tension" in consequence.

(Poblacht na hÉireann, 15 June 1922)

Over fifty years ago in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt tied the historical disasters of the Second World War, the Nazi genocides, and the rise of police regimes in the Soviet bloc to European imperialism through her account of "the decline of the nation-state" (1973 [1951/58]). Here Arendt traces the paradoxical configuration of the political in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, caught between the irreconcilable demands of the nation-state and economic expansion through imperialism, a configuration that would give rise not only to fascism and Soviet authoritarianism, but also to the current hegemonic position of the Western democracies—meaning principally the US. Notwithstanding the problems in Arendt's approach, her text is worth recalling here because it is radically historical in recognizing the ways in which the history she narrates redraws the parameters of both the future she inhabits and the futures she anticipates (Tsao 2004). In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt figures historical destruction as itself powerfully productive or inventive, in the sense that the ruptures she charts will themselves persist or remain operative but in transformed and even unrecognizable ways: in the erosion of the substantive legal freedoms of the nation-state and the marginalization of its formal democratic mechanisms by the concentration of economic power; in the subordination of national sovereignty to global flows of capital which are themselves guaranteed by nonnegotiable supranational institutions; in the rejection by the most heavily armed states of claims to juridical universalism through assertions of "national security"; and in the persistence of "tribal nationalism" and the fantasies of "race-thinking" (1973, 227, 158).

For much of the last fifty years this gesture has been unusual within public discourse in both Britain and the US. Indeed, the very phenomena which Arendt had connected to imperialism—the Second World War, Nazism, the regimes of the Soviet bloc, the undermining of formal juridico-political institutions—have been widely understood as marking precisely what separates us from imperialism: it was the war "against fascism" (within British public discourse) and the hot and cold wars "to defend freedom" (for the US) which at once redefined Britain as an imperially-innocent medium-sized nation, and simultaneously elevated the US into the stern but fair global single-parent, replete with soft-spoken demeanor and big stick. Subsequently, the extension of American global power has not only found its justification in the victims of Stalin, but after 1967 has also been conducted in the name [End Page 199] of the six million Jewish victims of Hitler's Final Solution (Novick 1999). And once the languages of revolution and liberation—taken up in the West in the 1960s as an echo of the battle for decolonization across the developing world—were marginalized in the 1970s, then the shibboleth of empire could be redirected back at the collapsing Soviet Union, whose disastrous adventure in Afghanistan allowed Ronald Reagan to cast it Darth Vader-like as the "evil empire." The different experiences of this largely shared mythology have given rise to a divergent awareness of imperial history: for Britain, the deeply ingrained sense of failure incumbent on the processes of decolonization and subordination to the US has...