Review: Michael Doyle’s Empires

One of the most hotly debated but frequently weakly theorized topics in political science is that of empires.  As systems of political rule, empires are neither perfectly understood through the lens of intrastate politics within the sovereign state nor by the dynamics of interstate interaction at the level of the international system.  Rather they occupy an uncomfortable academic space between comparative politics and international relations that some argue necessitates a perspective that recognizes a complex multidirectional interaction between the two.

In Michael Doyle’s Empires, he seeks to develop just such an analytic framework.  In today’s academic environment that increasing fosters an appreciation and analysis of institutional complexity, this approach appears a necessary given.  However, when Doyle published his book in 1986, a fierce debate remained between structural realists, classical liberals, and post-colonial theorists who respectively argued that the international system, the domestic politics of the metropole, or the politics of the periphery exclusively or primarily determined the opportunities for, maintenance of, and conditions for the collapse of empire.  Thus when Doyle proposed that an accurate analysis of empire must include systemic, metrocentric, and pericentric perspectives acknowledging that no one motive force is more necessary than or causally independent from any of the other two, he was making a rather important pronouncement for the time.

Reaching as far back as the ancient Athenian empire and anchoring the substantive comparative discussion in the politics of the Scramble for Africa by the major European powers in the late 1800s, Doyle identifies key recurring features of imperial emergence, expansion, and collapse.  Unsurprisingly he concludes that imperial expansion is most probable when the metropole is powerful and politically stable, the periphery is weak, disunited, and militarily vulnerable, and the international system or competing great powers do not provide serious threats or obstacles.  The particular institutional manifestation the imperialism itself will take also appears to be dependent on both the nature of the international system and the existing political order of the imperial possession itself.  While bipolar orders tend toward informal empire, multipolar systems favor formal domination given the apparent greater threat of imperial competition by multiple equally matched metropolitan powers.

This piece sits somewhat uncomfortably with his implicit assertion that while informal arrangements were preferred particularly where socially differentiated native or substantial settler societies existed, all metropoles that succeeded in maintaining empire in the longer term necessarily moved toward formal control as part in parcel of “Augustinian revolutions” that bureaucratized the imperial project.  This raises serious questions as to whether the formalization of empire really has much to do with power distributions in the international system as it is a reflection of the necessary tasks of state (and apparently imperial) consolidation and administration.  Moreover, Doyle argues that empires could not be sustained without the formal division of labor between the administration of affairs of (metropolitan) state and imperial periphery.  But this too inescapably sets the stage for imperial demise by both institutionally empowering the periphery and weakening the embedded interest of the metropole in maintaining empire.  Whether this built-in tautology is the fault of the theory itself or a more basic illumination of the political realities of long term imperial domination is for someone with much more knowledge regarding the histories Doyle takes on than myself to resolve.

Of most substantial interest for today’s scholar of empires, however, is whether Doyle’s work can provide any useful insight into the political realities of today.  Namely, the question should be posed, can Empires tell us anything of about whether or not there is today an American empire.  In this regard, the book falls substantially short.  While Doyle provides a tantalizing passage at the end of the work suggesting that societies like the United States that manage to reverse the direction of imperial domination, achieve “authentic independence”, and build a metropole in their own right have the clear capacity and potential to become imperial powers, there is no discussion about what an American empire might look like.

One certainly cannot fault Doyle for failing to anticipate the specific dynamics of international politics several decades into the future, but it is more than a little surprising that he devotes no space in the book to even the discussion of the American relationship with either the developed West, the developing world, or even the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Was or are any of these relationships ones of formal or informal empire or are they indicative of hegemony?  Is there a substantial difference between informal empire and hegemony, and if so, what are the implications of this difference?  While he makes a clear differentiation at the beginning of the book between empire as exercised by the Athenians and hegemony as exercised by the Spartans, the idea of hegemony reemerges near the end of the book essentially as a transitional synonym for the informal variety (359).

One analytically useful difference does becomes clear however in the absence of an explicit discussion of more modern examples of hegemony.  Although both hegemony and informal empire are characterized by Doyle as including the ability of the metropole to exercise a degree of control or influence over peripheral political systems, hegemony appears to be a more restrained form of control endemic to isolationist powers.  Rather than Sparta failing to establish empire because of a lack of resource, necessary systemic prerequisites, or peripheral resistance, Doyle argues it was because it “lacked a transnational society” (81).

With this differentiation in mind, one can make some headway with regard to the question of American empire to which Doyle is silent.  While he clearly succeeds in demonstrating that empire results only from the necessary confluence of multiple systemic, metrocentric, and pericentric endowments and preconditions, the line between empire and hegemony may be largely one of intentionality.  In short, if the United States authentically (whatever this might mean) argues that it does not seek empire, then perhaps there is no American empire.  Certainly the author would take issue with this vast oversimplification of his rather complex and detailed study, but lacking a clear and explicit analysis of the different observable implications of hegemony versus informal empire in the contemporary era, the question of empire itself is again reduced to mere politics.


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