Have we seen with the end of Soviet Union the final triumph of the national over the imperial principle? Mark Beissinger thinks not. The USSR was, rather, the first of a new kind of empire which denied its imperial quality and used ‘the corner stones of the modern nation-state system—the norms of state sovereignty and national self-determination’ to maintain non-consensual control over culturally distinct populations (Beissinger 2005: 17).

In practice, distinctions between nation states and empires can be hard to maintain. The rise of many early European nation states was accompanied by imperial expansion, through both the colonization of immediate neighbours and the conquest of faraway territories. Although liberal varieties of nationalism might later reject empire, racial nationalists asserted the rights of elite nations to rule over others. These latter extolled empire as integral to national prestige and as justifying claims of a civilizing mission. As revolutions in industry, communications, and trade demonstrated the global interdependence of states, so by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries imperialist nationalists dreamed of creating pan-national or racial blocs (Anglo-Saxon, Slavic, Germanic, Asian) in the belief that only units of near continental scale could provide geopolitical and economic security (Lieven 2015: Ch. 1).

If great powers blurred the distinctions between national and imperial states, few of the new post-imperial states of the twentieth century can be described substantively as sovereign nation states. Each imperial dissolution resulted in the hasty and unplanned mass creation of states with significant minorities and boundaries that generated security problems in strategic borderlands. To these minorities the new states had an imperial character, and their security problems encouraged projects to reabsorb them into new imperial units that proclaimed some kind of global mission, whether nationalist, Communist, or Fascist.

We see a continuous dialectic between nation-state emergence and imperial formation conditioned by the weakness or absence of neutral authoritative international institutions. When dynastic empires collapsed in 1918, their non-European colonies were incorporated into nation-state empires of the victors under a mandate. In the interwar period, Britain and France, beset by economic instabilities, abandoned free trade and tried to create mercantile units from their imperial possessions.

In Eastern Europe the Bolsheviks, confronted by their White opponents and an Allied intervention to overthrow the revolution, reconstituted much of the Tsarist Empire without the Western borderlands (of Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states). By promising recognition of their rights to self-determination Bolsheviks co-opted minority nationalists, threatened either by the Whites’ plans to establish an imperial Russian domination or by external neighbours, such as a resurgent Turkey which claimed Armenian and Georgian territories. Rule by a more distant imperial centre granting degrees of autonomy was less intimidating than that of a menacing neighbour.

Italian anger at the Allies’ rejection of their irredentist ambitions fuelled a Fascist drive for empire in Africa. In Germany resentment at the Versailles truncation of the Reich gave impetus to Nazi dreams of a racial empire in the East that would reunite Germans in a homeland and provide Lebensraum for its population. The Nazi (and Fascist) drive for empire was assisted by the weakness of international institutions (the League of Nations), the political instabilities of the new states, the breakdown of a liberal international economic order in the 1930s, and opportunistic use of the principles of national selfdetermination. Intellectuals, of both the right and left, proclaimed that the era of liberal nation states was over and the future lay with large blocs pursuing autarchic collectivist policies (Carr 1939). The Soviets constructed a closed economic area and a collectivist war economy, while the Nazis revived older German dreams of Mitteleuropa. Japan in the 1930s created the East Asian Co-Prosperity Area, invading Korea, seizing Manchuria, and occupying large parts of China.

The following world war led to the destruction of the Axis projects and the crumbling of European overseas empires, first in Asia and the Middle East, and then in Africa. The United Nations Charter (1945) appeared to guarantee the independence of nation states by forbidding external interference in the territorial sovereignty of existing states. However, the European battle for global supremacy was succeeded by ideological and military struggles between the two quasi-imperial powers, the USA and the USSR. The latter, as we saw, had attempted to defang nationalism by granting elements of selfdetermination, formal sovereignty, and cultural autonomy to its nationalist minorities. It similarly secured its external domination in Eastern Europe by giving formal independence to its new territories, thereby creating a buffer zone of states, recognized juridically by the international system, but which were subject to covert controls (Beissinger 2005: 28-32). The USA used economic power to enforce obedience on its allies: on the Dutch to withdraw from Indonesia and on the British and French over Suez. Both powers carved spheres of influence in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle

East, where there was prolonged military instability, and supported client states in playgrounds in which they fought out their differences, often intervening after ‘invitations’ to support rival ideological factions. In the Korean peninsula, the USA and China were drawn into direct confrontations, and in Indo-China, after the French failure, the USA fought against Vietnamese ‘national liberation’ forces indirectly supported by the Soviet Union and China. In the Middle East, the Cold War protagonists intervened to support their favoured side, the USA occasionally supporting military coups (e.g. in Iran) just as it did in Latin America against instances of what it feared as Communist subversion. Decolonization, particularly in Africa, has been dubbed a new kind of imperialism, as a formal transfer of authority masked the continued incorporation of the new states into a world political and capitalist economic system in which the rules of the game were determined by the West (Darwin 1999).

After the demise of the Soviet Union, the USA became a global hegemon: a military giant with a web of 132 foreign military bases, the dynamo of the world capitalism with its reserve currency (the dollar), control of international economic institutions and multinational companies, and the cultural leader as English (or American) became the world language of commerce, science, and the humanities (Mann 2004b: 22). It remains the world’s policeman, driven by its own sense of mission or pressed into service by regional actors, usually by forming coalitions of states in areas of insecurity. At times it seems to be operating (even if temporarily) as an old-fashioned territorial empire— temporary in the sense that its goals have been to intervene in strategic areas that pose a threat (of terrorism or of weapons of mass destruction) in order to establish friendly regimes.

Overt imperialism, however, produces internal opposition in the metropole by those who interpret it as a potential threat to their distinctive traditions and liberties. America, after all, prides itself as the first modern democratic republic. The spread of nationalist ideologies has also made the costs of establishing new empires unaffordable (Mann 2003; 2004b). Previous empires rested on collaborators who are now rendered illegitimate by the spread of nationalist ideologies. A new empire would have to rely almost solely on overwhelming military force but, while the USA has technological superiority sufficient to win wars, in possessing a professional rather than a mass conscription army it lacks the numbers to control territory.

Daniel Moran (2006: 32-5), like Mann, suggests that developments in guerrilla war undermine territorial imperialisms in two important respects. Through contact with the West the non-European world has absorbed organizational techniques, mass communications, and ideologies (such as nationalism) that provide two new strategies of resistance. The first is an ability to appeal to the sympathies of international outsiders. Resistance movements have developed expertise in obtaining diplomatic support and economic and military aid, often from their diasporas overseas. The mass media has made the world a global village, making war unpalatable by bringing its horrors into living rooms, and capable of making unpopular wars like the Vietnam conflict all but unsustainable. Insurgents deploy tactics to appeal to global public opinion as well as to undermine the legitimacy of the conflict in the intervening state, in which the heritage of colonialism has produced a moral ambivalence about military action. Algerian revolutionaries who styled themselves ironically as ‘Maquis’ (a French Resistance term) used French military tactics, including torture and reprisals against the Algerian civilian population, to erode public support for France’s campaign against the guerilla struggle for independence, which in turn undermined the morale of the military. Such military practices threatened to pollute the legitimating myth of post-war France (of the Resistance’s heroism against the brutalities of Nazi occupation), by appearing to place France in the role of the Nazi regime and the Algerians in that of the French Resistance (Moran 2006: 31, 117-18; Prost 1999). What one might call ‘spectacle terrorism’ is also used to intimidate, and the use of the symbolism of the levee en masse as well atrocity stories has weakened the legitimacy of ‘imperial’ forces. Military authorities, aware of the corrosive effect of media images, have sought to domesticate journalists by embedding them into military units.

The second is a new capacity to bear the burdens of protracted war. With the spread of nationalism, mobilization is no longer local and haphazard, but sustained and coordinated across larger territories. With an understanding of Western public opinion, new military methods employ time as a weapon. Against opponents with superior organization and technology, traditional methods of resistance by guerrillas (asymmetric war) have evolved so that the strategy is to avoid decisive battles in favour of a gradual exhaustion of the enemy forces and of their public support.

Against this one might argue that the states in which the USA intervenes are unstable because of profound social divisions, which makes it possible to find collaborative allies, even if this is unlikely to produce long-term stability. Moreover, John Darwin argues that while formal empires are ideologically problematic in an age of nationalism, the highest forms of empire are informal. Just as British predominance in the nineteenth century rested not just on its navy but on its vast economic and financial power and the prestige of its liberal ideas and rational culture, so too this is now the case of the USA. Michael Mann, however, has also questioned the latter’s capacity to act as an economic hegemon.

US predominance has produced nationalist reactions from other power centres (China, Iran, and Russia), but these themselves act as quasi-imperial powers in their drive to control strategically sensitive and economically crucial territories (Russia in Eurasia, China in Inner Asia) that results in the subordination of neighbouring nations or ethnic populations. Vladimir Putin’s policies, although subject to nationalist pressures, are currently influenced by a vision of Russia as a great Orthodox European civilization—a new Byzantium—that will lead a multinational bloc of Eurasian peoples in defence of traditional conservative Christian values against the corrosive global liberal economic policies and human rights agendas advanced by the West (Laruelle 2016). There are equivalent reactions in Europe, where France and Germany built a European political and economic community as a place of stability and economic security to counter both Soviet and US power. Just as alliances with the USA have been sought by states with powerful neighbours (Japan and Korea fearing China), so too many post-Soviet states have rushed to join the EU, even at the cost of surrendering sovereignty to an organization dominated by France and Germany, to achieve security against a possible revival of Russian imperialism.

As we noted, very few states, including post-imperial states, are truly national. Many of them have an imperial character with respect to their historic national territorial minorities (for example, Spain with respect to Catalans and Basques). In an era where national self-determination is the dominant ideology, overt empire is now illegitimate. But Beissinger (2005: 33) maintains that in the contemporary world empire can be redefined to refer to illegitimate relationships of control by one national political society over another. Citing Ian Clark (2001: 250), he further argues that the norms of state sovereignty and restrictions of self-determination to state territorial units constitute a form of imperial rule by established states, which render illegitimate the claims of stateless nations.

War, then, historically has not produced a world of substantive nation states but new forms of political multi-ethnicities of a hierarchical character which generate new problems of legitimacy and disorder. We shall explore the implications of this for war-making and nation formation in Chapter 4.

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