- Empires Old and New
Imperialism can be defined as a policy to take away sovereignty and territory from another actor. But it can also be understood as influence—direct or indirect—over other actors, achieved by economic, cultural, political, or military leverage. Not every empire is the same. Depending on definitions, not every “empire” is an empire. What Joseph Nye calls soft power—the capacity to persuade and co-opt—can rival hard power—command and coercion—in creating and maintaining an empire.
Empires in World History shows that imperial power—and contests over and within it—have for thousands of years configured societies and states, opening and closing political and economic possibilities. This book offers students of Asian affairs (and international relations generally) a broad historical and comparative perspective for viewing the actions and interactions of imperial hegemons and their potential or actual subjects. How could anyone understand “China” or “India” without knowing how they [End Page 519] influenced and were influenced by Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, Europeans, and Americans?
Burbank and Cooper outline similarities and differences among many great empires beginning with those of Rome and China in the third century BCE. Each lasted for centuries, but China relied on a class of loyal, trained officials, while Rome—at least in theory—depended on empowerment of its citizens. The authors next consider empires that tried to move into Rome’s place—resilient Byzantium, the fissionable Islamic caliphates, and the short-lived Carolingians. These rivals built their empires on religious foundations. Both Christians and Muslims fought to spread their versions of the one true faith, but religious militancy also provoked splits inside empires over competing claims to god-given power.
Empires in World History relates how, in the thirteenth century, Mongols put together the largest land empire of all time. Pragmatists, they combined intimidating violence with protection of religions and cultures along with the politics of personal loyalty. They controlled China for much of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and influenced also the emerging Russian, Mughal, and Ottoman empires. They protected trade routes from the Black Sea to the Pacific.
Burbank and Cooper explain how European maritime extensions were stimulated by the high-value goods exchanged in the Chinese imperial sphere; the Ottoman empire’s dominance of the eastern Mediterranean and land routes east; and the inability of European polities to rebuild Roman-style unity. All this spurred European navigators to reach Asia and the Americas. In the twentieth century, as Burbank and Cooper demonstrate, imperial rivalries intensified. Japan joined the imperial game while China, for many decades, withdrew. Two world wars led to the collapse of European empires and greater weight for the United States, Russia, and China in the global arena.
Which comes first—a strong state or an imperial domain? Which is cause and which effect? And how do they interact? Burbank and Cooper argue that a tale of European state development and other people’s “responses” would misrepresent the long-term dynamics of state power. The authors argue that Britain and [End Page 520] France became strong nation-states as the consequence of their imperial expansion rather than the other way around (pp. 7–8).
Imperial influence depends not only on the expanding imperial power but also on its targets. Focusing on China’s tribute system, Ji Young Lee also looks at both sides of imperial relationships. Many scholars have portrayed the tribute system as China’s tool for projecting its power and influence in East Asia. They treat Korea, Japan, and other actors as passive recipients of Chinese domination. China’s Hegemony shows that Asia’s international order was not so Sinocentric as conventional wisdom suggests...