Eric Hobsbawm. On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

When Eric Hobsbawm writes about empire and the United States, people with strong interests in peacemaking should pay attention. The nice thing about his 2008 book, On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is that it is short, sweet, and to the point. This book includes four concise essays, totaling 91 pages–small, with lots of white space. So it’s a quick read. That does not mean that it’s lightweight, though.

Hobsbawm, who was born in 1917 and still remains a keen interpreter of current events and their historical contexts, compares the American empire with the British empire. As his classic one-volume history of the “short twentieth century,” Age of Extremes shows (along with many of his other works), he is not fan of the British empire. But he sees the American empire as even more problematic.

However, On Empire is not a polemic so much as a brief but perceptive taking account of the recent past, present, and possible future of America’s militaristic imperialism. Hobsbawm argues against the efficacy and moral legitimacy of “humanitarian armed intervention.” He points out that with the emergence of ever-stronger drives for self-determination among the world’s people, “would-be empires can no longer rely on the obedience of their subjects….[Hence,] there is no prospect of a return to the imperial world of the past, lel alone the prospect of a lasting global imperial hegemony” (pp. 12-13).

The impossibility of the U.S. sustaining its global hegemony should be encouraging news. However, Hobsbawm (who indeed does think it is good news) also points out the bad news: “There is now…a complete absence of any effective global authority capable of controlling or settling armed disputes” (pp. 24-25). That is, we have no basis for optimism in the foreseeable future that we have much hope of solving the violence problem.

This book is not a call to arms so much as a pessimistic but insightful snapshot of our current situation. It’s readable and seems trustworthy.

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