Review of Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper Princeton University Press

Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. By Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. 511 pp. + maps and illustrations. $35.00 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780691152363

Although we live in a world of some two hundred nation-states – each of which flaunts its own sovereignty, claims to represent a unique people, and is, at least in principle if not in practice, an equal member of a global community of states bound by international law – this world that we take for granted is something of an anomaly in world history.  As Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper point out in their much anticipated and most-welcome new volume, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010): “For most of human history empires and their interactions shaped the context in which people gauged their political possibilities, pursued their ambitions, and envisioned their societies” (3-4).  Beginning with a comparative look at Rome and China in the third century BCE, Burbank and Cooper follow the evolution of imperial practice on the Eurasian and North American continents right up to the present day where we now find two empires in Republican guise (Russia and the United States) confronting the reemergence of the world’s oldest empire at the far-end of the Eurasian landmass (China).  In contrast to the homogenizing project of the nation-state, the ability of empires to successfully employ the politics of difference – that is, to create and maintain hierarchy and difference within their own polities – is what has made them so enduring and is the focus of this book.

Rome and China receive first billing in Burbank and Cooper’s work not because they were the first empires, but because of their lasting legacies in the history of empires.  Chinese and Roman administrative institutions, legitimizing strategies, and methods of relating to outsiders became significant reference points for later imperial rulers and their intermediaries.  Building atop the rubble of the Roman empire, the Byzantines, Islamic caliphates, and the Carolingians made perhaps one of the most significant innovations in the history of empires: the linking of imperial power to monotheism.  Later, in the middle of the thirteenth century, the Mongols combined intimidating violence with the politics of personal loyalty to create the largest empire the world has ever known.  The cross-continental connections this empire fostered, not to mention the trade routes it protected, held a particular allure for the fledgling empires in Europe (not that “Europe” was imaginable as a political identity at the time, as the authors correctly point out).  Ottoman dominance on the eastern Mediterranean and the land routes east meant that the emerging empires of Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain had to find another route to China, leading them, by accident, to the Americas, a “discovery” that profoundly altered the global economy and world politics.

In a refreshing break from the tired “expansion of Europe” narrative, Burbank and Cooper instead demonstrate that European activities in the Americas were initially attempts at dodging the “world of power and exchange” back on the Eurasian landmass.  Even as the world became more interconnected, none of the European maritime empires were able to make the world its frame of reference – “The Ottoman and Chinese empires were too powerful to become enmeshed in a European web; the interior of Africa was inaccessible,” and European powers remained dependent upon links to networks in Asia and Africa that they did not control or even know much about (180).  By the late nineteenth century, even as new parts of the world came under European control, European powers found governance proved just as challenging as it had ever been.

Having set the groundwork for the period of time historians still refer to as “the great divergence”, the “early modern period”, or the “rise of the state”, Burbank and Cooper devote the rest of their book to recasting the otherwise familiar “national” narratives within the mold of empire.  Eighteenth-century discussions concerning “the people” and “citizenship”, for instance, took place within imperial contexts: American patriots, we are reminded, “proclaimed an ‘Empire of Liberty’ – although they did not mean for all people in the empire to enjoy its liberty” (221).  While industrialization did indeed give European empires the ability to conquer like never before, governing remained just as challenging as ever.

Their project highly ambitious in both its temporal and geographic scale, Burbank and Cooper do not disappoint and make a compelling case not merely for the centrality of empires in world history, but for their own book as a foundational text within the undergraduate and graduate-level world history classroom.  Empires further deserves a home on the shelf of secondary level world history teachers as it has a lot to offer at the stage of lesson, unit, and curricula planning.  Graduate students in world history will especially appreciate the thematically-grouped “Suggested Reading and Citations” section that accompanies the text.  Empires in World History is an important work, highly enjoyable, and will no doubt inform discussion within the historical profession in the years to come.

Reviewed by Andrew Tait Jarboe, Northeastern University
Edited by Jodi R.B. Eastberg

(c) 2011 The Middle Ground Journal, Spring, 2011. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]

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