Saturday, February 23, 2008

Empires remain, but with a new name

This book undertakes a grand discussion on a grand scale: the history of empire, which is really the history of the world, since the passing away of the great Mongol ruler Timur-i lang.

Tamerlane (a name derived from "Timur the Lame," a commonly used expression among Europeans during the 16th century) was a ruthless 14th century conqueror whose empire stretched across the breadth of Central Asia.

John Darwin, a professor at Oxford, has written extensively on the end of the British empire, especially its demise in India, "the jewel in the crown" of the British Queen. Here, however, his scope is much larger, and he pays tribute to historian Halford Mackinder, whose concept of "the world island" guides Darwin's own study.

An ardent imperialist, Mackinder believed that geopolitical success rested on a country's ability to subjugate the entire landmass of Europe and Asia. Indeed, Darwin says, this has been the history of the empire for six centuries now. While Mackinder's ideas gained a certain currency in the interwar years, he has not been paid much heed since. Which is a pity, since his analysis proved to be surprisingly correct, as also, given recent history, remarkably prescient.

Darwin divides the six centuries since Tamerlane's death into three distinct periods: the first ending in the 1750s when the equilibrium of power between continental Europe and Asia ended; the second continuing until World War I, during which European powers consolidated imperialist gains in much of Asia and Africa; and finally, the period continuing today, marked by the unilateralism of the American "empire."

While the process of Asian subjugation had been set in motion at the beginning of the 17th century with the formation of the East India Co., it wasn't until the American Revolution of 1783 that European powers began to look toward Asia with a serious intent of recovering lost ground.

The 19th century was marked by a breathtaking pace of colonization, with technological advancements (James Watt had invented the steam engine in 1769) helping European countries to replace the extant Ottoman Empire.

Just two years short of the 20th century, however, the "new world" began to assert its dominance. The Spanish-American War of 1898 saw the United States snatch away the Philippines and Cuba from Spain, a decidedly old-world state.

While the United States' entry into the First World War was anything but planned, Pearl Harbor changed the rules of the game forever. The nation's entry into World War II as part of the Allies in December 1941 ensured Nazism's defeat and paved the way for American ascendancy.

The history of the past 60 years has also been one of supremacist tendencies, with the United States and Soviet Union locked in bitter rivalry over the years. Darwin tracks America's growth closely and points to the Soviet collapse in 1991 as the incident that reshaped global forces and launched what he calls the world empire - an unveiled criticism of America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While this argument is fairly robust, it fails to account for 9/11, an incident that was staggering enough by itself to shake geopolitical realities. Darwin also fails to fully account for the effects of globalization and instant communication on empire building. Even so, he is right in directing readers to the limits of hegemony - a theme that he says all empires have been plagued with.

After Tamerlane is undoubtedly a great work, a book that goes truly global in chronicling the history of one of our abiding concerns: the pull and limitations of absolute power. It forces the reader to rethink commonly held assumptions about our collective past. For that alone, it should be read.

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Update: Also read Military, industrial and complex

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