Travelling recently in Israel, I was asked several times to formulate my ideas on empire in English. So I’ve tried to do so.
1. Since WW2, we have come to think of the nation state as the norm of political life. However, this was never the case in history. Until recently, most inhabitants of the world were citizens of one empire or another: Persia, Rome, Byzantium, the Arab, Holy Roman, Ottoman, British, French, Austrian-Hungarian or Soviet Empires.
2. The must cursory examination shows, (a) that the breakup of empires was accompanied by terrible wars, genocides, and “ethnic cleansing”, and that (b) the nation state has neither ensured international peace nor internal democracy and progress. Examples for (a) are the “population transfers” after the end of the Ottoman Empire, the First and Second World Wars, the massacres and displacements after the end of the British Raj, the partition of Palestine and others. Examples for (b) include almost all the states in Africa and the Middle East, many in Latin America, but also in Europe, from Germany after 1871 to Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey under fascism until the mid-seventies and the Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia or Serbia today.
3. The USA is an exception, but the USA is not a nation-state in the classic sense. Thomas Jefferson called it an “Empire”. Israel, too, is an exception, though it is not clear how long it can maintain its status. China and Russia are (still) empires. India is more like the USA than like a European nation-state.
4. We think of empires as conglomerates of peoples and semi-states controlled and exploited by a ruling centre, and kept together in the last instance by military subjugation. But this is only true of some empires and in some situations. The Soviet Empire is one example. But Rome, for instance, was so attractive to peoples outside the Empire that they begged to be allowed to join it. Similarly, the British Empire was ruled for quite a while with the consent of the governed. Most people in what used to be Yugoslavia, a “mini-empire”, do not feel that the situation today is better, and want to join the EU, where national differences, borders etc. will once again become as unimportant as they were under Tito. There is a good case to be made for the proposition that Africa was better off under colonial rule, and that life in Palestine was in many ways better under the Ottomans and British, too.
5. So, what is an empire? It is indeed a conglomerate of peoples and semi-states; they are bound together for common security, mutual trade and progress and by an overarching bureaucracy. Individual members, as states and as citizens, have less say in the government than they could if they were independent nation states or citizens if such states. However, there need not be an exploiting centre, and the empire need not be held together by military force. It is quite possible to hold it together by common institutions and values, and for the common good. In this sense, the EU is an empire, albeit an empire “of a new type”.
6. The deficiencies of the EU can generally speaking be attributed (a) to attempts to transform the EU into a nation-state, “The United States of Europe”, or (b) attempts to reduce it to a “common market”. The “best” example for (a) is the Euro, a currency looking for a state. The fact that the EU does not have a common foreign and security policy, border regime and defence forces is an example of (b).
7. Thus, the way forward for Europe is to recognize (a) that the Euro and the quasi-national integration it demands is an option, not a necessity. And (b) that Europe must do more to create a common foreign policy and the means to enforce it.
8. Quasi-imperial solutions to some of the problems of other regions , for instance Latin America, with its common language and culture, or the Middle East with its heritage of past “Empires in the Sand” (Efraim Karsh) should be considered. If the EU had more imperial coherence and the USA were more ready to invest money and manpower, this could be achieved fairly quickly, i.e. within one or two generations.