On Empire
Eric Hobsbawm
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Buy *On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy* by Eric Hobsbawm online

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy
Eric Hobsbawm
128 pages
March 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This book has two objectives. First, it seeks to analyze, survey, and comprehend the situation in the world at the beginning of the third millennium. Second, it attempts to shed light on some of the main political problems confronting our world today. To do this, the author uses the four essays in this book to shed light on two more specific and interrelated issues that, according to him, "require clear and informed thinking." The first issue concerns war and peace in the twenty-first century, and the second issue relates to the past and the future of world empires.

What are the chances of returning to the imperial world of the past or, put somewhat differently, has the world of empires come to a definite end? This question is taken up in the first essay. The author begins by pointing out that when he was born (1917), all Europeans lived in states that were a part of empires except the citizens of Switzerland, the three Scandinavian states, and the former dependencies of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. All this has now changed. As a result, there is now a general crisis of both state legitimacy and power even in the territories of the old and stable European nations like Spain and the United Kingdom. In such circumstances, contends the author, there is little likelihood of a return to the imperial world of the past. In other words, the "age of empires" is dead.

War and peace in the twentieth century is the subject of the second essay. We are told that although international wars have declined noticeably since the mid-1960s, internal conflicts within nations have risen substantially. In addition, although relatively small numbers of civilians perished in past international wars, today, anywhere between 80 and 90 percent of those who are most affected by wars are civilians. This has a lot to do with a fundamental change in the way in which wars in the twenty-first century take place. Specifically, wars now no longer take place in a world divided into territorial areas under the authority of governments that possess a monopoly over "the means of public power and coercion." This means that the balance of war and peace in the twenty-first century will depend not only on devising more efficacious negotiation mechanisms but also on "internal stability." This essay concludes with a rare forecast from the author. His almost eschatological prediction is that armed violence will remain omnipresent in large parts of the world in the foreseeable future.

Next on the agenda in the third essay is a continued discussion of war and peace, but now in the context of the political, economic, and military activities of the U.S., the supposed hegemon of the twenty-first century. The transforming forces of globalization, contends the author, have dramatically limited the ability of governments - in nations like the U.S. - to control their national economies. In addition, most Western governments can now no longer treat their citizens as "basically law-abiding and orderly." These two facts, combined with the dramatic rise in the economic fortunes of China, have created a potentially combustible situation in the world. In particular, the potential reluctance of the U.S. to accept China as a "rival superpower" may lead to a major international war. To make such an unstable situation less unstable, it will be necessary for other nations to limit U.S. power by refusing to participate in Washington-led initiatives involving military action. The author bluntly states that the principal task of international politics today is to take those steps that will allow the US to return from "megalomania to rational foreign policy."

The fourth essay explains why the hegemony of the U.S. differs from Britain's empire and this explanation rests on four key points. First, we are reminded that although the British Empire did not create a century of peace between the pertinent powers, it benefitted immensely from this peace. Second, the typical form of U.S. power outside its own territory has not been colonial; instead, it has involved the maintenance of a "system of satellite or compliant states." Third, those who have profited disproportionately from a globalized market economy in the past may not do so in the future. Finally, the U.S. empire, unlike the British, "has consistently had to rely on its political muscle." The author concludes this essay by wondering whether the US will learn the lessons that Britain learned - apparently rather well - in the mid-twentieth century.

This book does have a few disquieting aspects. First, the author's animadversions on globalization notwithstanding, it is clear that this phenomenon has had several laudable impacts and hence it is hardly obvious that the net effects of globalization are negative. Second, the author makes the inscrutable claim, without any supporting evidence, that the actual dangers to world stability from the sum total of all terrorist movements "are negligible." Third, the author contends that empires "had some positive results" but he does not, in any systematic manner, explain what these positive results were. Finally, the author's argument that the U.S. military was never in a position to "directly coerce any state in South America" seems implausible. These caveats notwithstanding, there is no gainsaying the fact that this is a thought-provoking book by an eminent historian which credibly claims that the U.S. government's attempts to establish global supremacy will eventually prove to be otiose.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, 2008

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