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Empire without End?

24 September 2013

campbell-adrianAdrian Campbell is a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department. He is an organizational theorist with longstanding interests and experience in the associated fields of leadership and human resource management and he has researched, taught and consulted in these fields for over thirty years. Adrian is a strong believer in organizational analysis (primarily the interaction between the three factors of structure, power and culture, and between rational and non-rational motivation) rather than the prevailing fashion for institutional analysis. The experience of the contradictions involved in the reform of Russian federalism led him towards a preoccupation with the concept of empire which is now the main focus of his research.

The paper East, West, Rome’s best? The imperial turn explores in more detail why the period of unipolarity experienced after the end of the Cold War ended with the emergence of China and other rising powers. Adrian argues that the current changes with respect to the transfer of power within the global system are suggestive of the Roman concept of ‘translatio imperii’-meaning there is a succession of one ephemeral empire to the next  with each attaining a semblance of eternity that empires aspire to but never achieve.

Focusing on Russia and the background to its recent diplomatic success over Syria, this blog post presents Adrian’s views on why the concept of empires may still be relevant in the 21st century. To him, the West could not anticipate the return of the Russians because they failed to understand the latter’s attachment to the idea of their country as an eternal empire. Read on and learn more about empires and their significance today.

During the recent Syria crisis I found myself recalling an image from September, 1994; a blustering, furious speech by the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, protesting about NATO airstrikes on Serb positions around Sarajevo, his anger seemingly not so much over the strikes as such but how the West had shown that Russia could safely be ignored.  Only seven months earlier, in February, 1994, Russia had secured a rescinding of NATO’s threat in return for Serb agreement to withdraw their artillery. That agreement (eerily similar to the recent agreement on Syria) had been hailed by the Kremlin as ‘diplomatic victory of global significance’, one that (as the LA Times put it) gave Russia ‘that old superpower feeling’. In the event, neither the agreement nor the feeling were to last.

It is possible, but unlikely, that the same sequence of events will be repeated this time around. Russia in 1994 was at a historical low whilst the US was enjoying its unipolar moment. Russia has spent much of the intervening period (during which it was generally written off as an international player by expert opinion) playing a longer game, strengthening links with China, Central Asia, Indonesia, Latin America, supporting multi-lateral organisations that `excluded the West (whether or not they served any other purpose) and  (so far) containing or reversing the effects of the Western-backed ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring states. French analyst Emmanuel Todd, who had correctly predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, observed in 2001 that the West appeared to have forgotten that chess was Russia’s national game (indeed, the ‘checkmate’ image has recurred in the media in recent weeks).

Part of the problem is the degree to which views of Russia are tied to perceptions of the leader – just as Bill Clinton reportedly had difficulty seeing Russia other than through the prism of the chaotic personality of his friend Boris, so the West tends to see Russia in terms of the idiosyncrasies of its current president, and thereby ignore the historical dimensions of current disagreements. For example, when Putin, at the end of his 9-11 New York Times article, referred to the dangers of exceptionalism whatever the motivation, many in his home audience would have seen a direct reference to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the anti-hero, Raskolnikov, writes an article that justifies crime if committed by extraordinary people with higher ideals. Raskolnikov, whose name recalls the Russian term for the religious schism of the 11th century between Byzantium and Rome is the most striking of many Russian fictional characters who embody the country’s Russia’s troubled and paradoxical relationship with Western modernity, an early form of the hybrid identity of post-colonial literature.

As the Cold War ended, it was assumed by many that a capitalist Russia,  minus the ideology of Communism, would become part of, or at least a poor relation of, the West and that any remaining friction would disappear once Russia dropped its ‘imperial baggage’. The implied analogy was with Britain, which had accepted the inevitability of decline and had transferred its global role to the United States.  This view ignored an important peculiarity of the Russian case. Unlike the colonial empires of Western Europe, which were cohesive nation states before they expanded overseas, Russia was an empire before it became a nation state and as a land-based empire there was no clear boundary between metropole and dependencies.  Russian national identity is thus attached to empire as a concept in a way that has no analogy in Western Europe (this is not to be confused with ethno-nationalism in Russia which in fact undermines any aspiration to wider influence).

More fundamentally, Russia shares with China an implicit view of the state as eternal – that periods of instability and collapse are merely temporary phases in a longer cycle. In the West all empires and superpowers ultimately look back to the decline and fall of Rome (or rather its Western half) in the fifth century, a source of fascination from Gibbon to Paul Kennedy.  The Eastern Roman empire, of which the Russian empire became to some extent the successor state, lasted another thousand years, so the myth of decline is less powerful.

The concept of decline is even less relevant to China, where successive reinventions of empire have occurred over broadly the same location, enabling a more convincing approximation of eternity than Rome was able to achieve. In the West where geographically dispersed rival imperial centres have vied for supremacy over centuries, only the USA after 1945 and more particularly after 1991, ever attained a position of (briefly) unrivalled leadership of the Western world – precisely at the point the Western world as a whole began to lose its own leading position (it is curious to note how Iran, over millennia has both retained its imperial vocation and also its role as a pivot between East and West).

China and Rome, in different ways and isolation from each other, both created the concept of universal empire, which under various guises has survived to the present day. It is unclear whether these different concepts of universalism will compete or merge, or a combination of the two.

The Eagle and the DragonThis question lies behind an upsurge of interest in comparative research on Ancient Rome and China in recent years. One major exhibition in Rome in 2009 brought together artefacts from ancient Rome and China under the title ‘the Eagle and the Dragon. It was interesting to note that the Italian language poster for the exhibition (pictured) placed the Roman and Chinese statues confronting each other as mutually alien civilizations, whereas the English language poster (also pictured) preferred to place the two statues shoulder to shoulder, facing the future together, altogether a more comforting view for the current leaders of the West.The Two Empires

America’s concept of manifest destiny was linked to the Roman concept of ‘translatio imperii’, the transfer of imperial legitimacy westwards from Troy to Rome and ultimately (several transfers later)  to the United States, the ‘last empire’. An alternative view (popular in nineteenth century Russia) was that imperial legitimacy went eastwards to Byzantium and then to Russia. Uncertainty about  the nature of China’s emerging global power is reflected in the way its rise can be accommodated with either version of the translatio imperii myth;  it can be seen receiving legitimacy westwards across the Pacific from the United States, or eastwards across central Asia from Russia. Of course the translatio imperii is a mythical construct, but it is one that has retained an intuitive appeal for anyone attempting to make sense of longer term geopolitical trends. It also brings out the ambiguity of the rise of China – on the one hand China, as the ancient ‘middle kingdom’ has no need to see itself as heir to Rome, having, unlike the other great powers, a quite separate and older history. On the other hand, China is emerging as a dominant power in a global system that has been created by powers which were, or which saw themselves as being, the heirs of Rome.

Campbell, A. (2013). East, West, Rome’s best? The imperial turn. Global Discourse, 3(1), 34-47.

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