Imperial Rule

By Alexei Miller; Alfred J. Rieber | Go to book overview

Empire on Europe's Periphery:
Russian and Western Comparisons

DOMINIC LIEVEN

The aim of this paper is to compare Europe's main empires on the continent's western and eastern peripheries. Above all, this means a comparison between the Russian and British empires, though some reference is also made to Spain. In this paper I will make no reference to another useful comparison between empires of the European periphery, namely that between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. I have covered this angle elsewhere myself.1 Moreover, it will be tackled by other contributors to this conference's papers. My own paper concentrates on what seem to me to be the core attributes of empire: on the one hand this means the management of space and multi-ethnicity; on the other hand, it entails power, and above all [hard power] in the international context.

To attach such over-riding significance to hard power when discussing past empires is unfashionable in contemporary Western academic circles. At present academic historians of empire are much more inclined to concentrate on questions of culture, epistemology, identity and race—for reasons linked to current trends in Western thinking and current issues in the domestic politics of Western states. As Linda Colley notes, however, it is naïve to imagine that these factors alone tell one all one needs to know about the emergence, survival and impact of empires.2 Ironically, at a time when historians are tending to neglect the realities of power in their study of empire, international relations experts are having a belated conversion to the importance of the concept of empire because of their acute awareness precisely of American power and its implications for the contemporary global order.

Five-power domination of European inter-state relations emerged in the early eighteenth century and was established definitively by Prussia's survival and Russia's impressive military performance in the Seven Years War.3 It was consolidated, and to an extent institutionalized as the European concert, after the defeat of Napoleon and by the Congress of Vienna. Within the five-power concert Russia and Britain were the continent's peripheral powers. They played a key common role in ensuring that Europe remained a multi-power international system, rather than falling under the domination of a single imperial hegemon as was usually the case in East

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