The present volume is the product of a project on the comparative history of empires launched in 2001at the Central European University. The individual contributions were originally presented in 2003 at an international conference in Moscow and revised in light of commentary and discussion during and after the conference. The project was designed as a contribution to the history of state building that has recently signaled a significant shift away from nationalism to a study of empires. In part the changing emphasis may be due to theoretical exhaustion following a period of richly diverse interpretations of the formation, development and crisis of the nation state. No doubt, too, it also reflects current interest in multi-unit formations such as the European Union and the appearance of transnational organizations, corporations and NGOs, and the emergence of new forms of imperial domination exemplified by the recent expansion of military, political and economic outreach by the United States. But there is also a growing recognition among historians, some of whom are represented in this book, that nationalism studies have exhibited a tendency to fall into an implicit teleology, or at least to overemphasize the linear progression of the nation state often in alliance with the concept of modernization, another paradigmatic teleology. To be sure, there have been recent attempts to pluralize these phenomena—nationalisms and modernizations (or multiple modernities)—in order to take into account different contexts and asymmetrical chronologies. But the underlying assumptions remain unshaken.
The present volume does not propose, however, a conceptual revolution, a radical paradigm shift, tempting as that may be, by claiming that nation narratives mask imperial aspirations, or more provocatively that all the major and some minor modern nation states were imperial enterprises. Instead these essays argue for the need to complement rather than replace the national narratives. They represent one of several attempts to restore the balance in the history of state building by giving prominence to a phenomenon that we would prefer to call imperial rule instead of the traditional terms of empire and imperialism. Imperial rule as a term has the advantage of being both broader and more flexible and embraces different examples of the unequal relationship between the imperial center and peripheral . . .