Global Policy Forum

Former Empires and Comparative Analysis


Picture Credit:

Throughout world history, empires have held sway over large geographical areas and subjected numerous peoples to their military power, rule and collection of economic tribute. These empires have sometimes lasted centuries, with different forms of administration and diverse ways of incorporating and dominating their subjects. In addition to such factors as military might, superior communications and effective systems of rule, empires have deployed ideology to insure support in the heartland, build confidence among the troops and administrators and generate acquiescence among the subject peoples.

Imperial powers have used different justifications for expansion. Always, the weaker targets of empire have been described as inferior, corrupt and less civilized. Other humanitarian and religious rationales have also been mobilized to defend the imperial project. For the British Empire, it was the "white man's burden" to civilize the Africans, while the Ottoman Empire insisted that its rule served to protect Islam. This section looks at previous empires and asks how they compare to the current US role in world politics


GPF Perspectives

British Colonialism and Repression in Iraq

See this Global Policy Forum section on British colonial rule in Iraq, which began in 1917.

Empires in World History (October 2005)

This document provides a selected list of empires-ancient, pre-modern and modern times. It shows how empires have existed throughout history and in every world region. Some have vanished quickly while others have lasted for centuries. The list is chronological. (Global Policy Forum)


2010 |2009 |2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004
 2003 | 2002 | 2001 | 2000


Monopoly Imperialism: How Empires Can be Bought and Leased (May 21, 2010)

Theoretically, the concept of Empire is diverse, ranging from states to religious organisations to multi-national organisations. This article highlights these varied forms of Empire by arguing that imperial powers and Empires are not necessarily synonymous. Using the example of the United States, focus is drawn to the correlation between purchasing territory and Empire, called "monopoly imperialism," and the political sway it still holds in modern society. (Social Europe Journal)


Will history repeat itself in Afghanistan? (July 15, 2009)

This article compares the ongoing British military operations in Afghanistan with three British invasions in the past. History suggests that Britain has neither the military capability, nor the political will, to complete or attain victory in a conflict in the country. However, military historian Dr. Huw Davies argues that in recent years more and more attention has been paid to "cultural dimensions" of such operations, so military planners hope (again) that this time they have the formula for success. (BBC)

America Right or Wrong: Anglo-American Relations Since 1945 (February 13, 2009)

Since the end of WW2, the UK enjoys a "special relationship" with the US, which John Newsinger calls a "willing subordination." While Great Britain was striving to maintain its Empire in the Middle-East, the US had no interest in supporting British dominion over this oil-rich region. On the contrary, the US systematically refused to support Great Britain in its conflicts with Egypt (Suez) and Iran, resulting in the end of Britain's monopoly over Iranian oil. Consequently, the UK resolved to ally with the US to protect its global interests and directed its foreign policy to align with the US.' (Mostly Water)


Reading the World, Rewiring Institutions (October 15, 2008)

The author of this article contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the invasion of Iraq were two major turning points in history. After the Cold War the expansion of the West was possible because Russia was in a "geopolitical coma." Instead of strengthening the global system, the US decided to "go its own way and rely on its own strength and opportunities." The invasion of Iraq shows how weakened international systems are unable to deal with emerging challenges and the restructuring of power. (openDemocracy)

Don't Know Much About History (August 4, 2008)

The Pentagon's 2002 "Military Advantage in History" report examines the US as an imperial power, and makes recommendations for how the US can maintain its military advantage while decreasing its vulnerabilities. The report states that in order for the US to achieve enduring world dominance, it needs to adapt and transform its military to changing circumstances, as the Roman Empire did. But, historians doubt the accuracy and quality of the report, and some argue it is not appropriate to draw parallels between ancient armies and modern times. (Mother Jones)

Tibet, Palestine and the Politics of Failure (May 9, 2008)

Tibet and Palestine failed to achieve full independence because of the way imperial powers retreated from their colonies in the 1940s, and triggered "convulsive change" that supported some independence movements at the expense of others. Britain's sudden exit from India left a nationalist government in no position to defend Tibet from Chinese expansionism. Likewise, Western powers consistently undermined Arab unity before abandoning Palestine to Israeli power. (OpenDemocracy)

The Future of American Power (May-June 2008)

The US and the former British Empire have much in common. According to Fareed Zakaria, however, the US can overcome its economic difficulties and can continue shaping the world in its interest, if it overcomes its political dysfunctions. (Foreign Affairs)

Australia's Hidden Empire (March 6, 2008)

This New Statesman article argues that Australia has copied the tactics of US Westward expansion and created an "imperial network," which stretches "from the Aboriginal slums of Sydney to the ancient hinterlands of the continent and across the Arafura Sea and the South Pacific." As US settlers massacred Native Americans, Australian rulers decimated an Aboriginal population and subsumed their land. More recently, the government has forced access to oil off the coast of East Timor, outside Australian jurisdiction, and entrenched its military in areas of interest, from Papua New Guinea to Iraq.

Tibet, China and the West: Empires of the Mind (April 1, 2008)

In this OpenDemocracy article, the author puts the China-Tibet issue in a historic perspective, considering their respective notions of sovereignty. During the first half of the 20th century, Tibet was de facto independent as China did not seek absolute control. But as China grew wary of Western Empires, the country's nationalistic ideas increased. To create one strong bloc against US, European and Japanese Empires, China fully integrated Tibet. This way, nationalism became a means of legitimizing full sovereignty over Tibet.

Just like America, China Is Building a Multi-Ethnic Empire in the West (March 25, 2008)

This Guardian article asks how China's claim on Tibet differs from the US's rule over Texas two centuries ago. Both nations co-opted outer territories to gain strategic gateways to trade routes and monopolize natural resources. The article notes that "large empires are maintained through a combination of force and law": Like the US, China exercises force and law over its provinces, largely without meaningful popular resistance.

Taiwan's Peaceful Independence (February 4, 2008)

This China Post article argues that Taiwan could attain "peaceful independence" through a "unification referendum." The author suggests that China design a plan, specifying the conditions of unification, which the people of Taiwan can then vote on. Using the British Empire and the US annexation of Texas as examples, the author concludes that China could adopt Taiwan "as a dominion first" and later include Taiwan in a "Chinese commonwealth", together with "Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Macau and Xinjiang."


The Archbishop of Canterbury (December 2007)

The religious head of the Church of England Dr. Rowan Williams compares the US with the British empire. Williams argues that it is one thing to accumulate territory as the British did in for example India, "administering it and normalizing it." It is quite another to accumulate control through "a quick burst of violent action," as the US did in Iraq. (emel)

Collapse of an Empire (November 26, 2007)

In his book "Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia," former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar argues that the growing "nostalgia for the Soviet era" among Russians is "ill informed, and dangerous." Gaidar says that USSR was, by definition, an empire, which was bound to collapse due to its unstable political and economic system. (Brookings Institution)

Apocalypse Now? (October 29, 2007)

Chalmer Johnson's book Nemesis compares the US to the Roman Empire, and says that the US is bound to meet the same fate as its Roman counterpart. Just as Julius Caesar's imperial adventures and attack on the constitution ultimately caused the fall of the republic, the Bush administration's expanding military interventions and attack on civil liberties will destroy the "American republic," Johnson argues. (The Nation)

The Diagnosis of a Dying Republic (September 25, 2007)

This libertarian LewRockwell article discusses the US "empire" and the essence of its "warfare state." The article argues that an empire often promotes the economic interests of a very small elite, while ignoring the interests of the general public. This makes empires unsustainable in the long run. By comparing the US with the Roman and the British empires, the article concludes that the US must either give up the empire and restore the original republic or see it vanish, as did the Roman counterpart.

Varieties of Imperial Decline - Honduras and Miranda (July 30, 2007)

This ZNet article argues that the US faces the same "imperial decline" that Spain experienced centuries ago. Recognizing that US political and economic partnership is not essential for prosperity, Latin American governments increasingly band together under Cuba and Venezuela's left-wing leadership. The article states that Venezuela, unlike Washington, has offered "solidarity-based, preferential oil deals and help with electricity generation" to countries in the region, including Honduras. As Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, echoing the attitudes of many of his Latin American counterparts, opts for regional collaboration, Washington continues to lose authority in Latin America.

"Are We Rome?" (June 7, 2007)

Cullen Murphy's book, "Are We Rome?" likens and contrasts the Roman Empire and today's debated US "empire." Murphy argues that the two empires' individual residents as well as their professed ideologies do differ. The US, unlike Rome, obsesses over privatization of power and conflict, which leads to corruption and mismanagement. However, a more holistic view shows that the US, like Rome, maintains global dominance in the military and the cultural realms. Murphy argues that the US must get rid of its ethnocentrism and decrease its military to avoid Rome's fate, though he does not necessarily encourage the US empire's continuance. (Salon)


The Roman Empire Is Falling - So It Turns to Iran and Syria (December 7, 2006)

This Independent piece compares US President George W. Bush's quest for dominance in the Middle East to that of the Roman Empire, noting that the US "empire" faces "collapse and catastrophe" if it does not enlist the help of Iraq's neighbors to bring stability and security to the region. Even the Iraq Study Group acknowledges that "the ability of the US to influence events within Iraq is diminishing." However, as the author suggests, the US has been unable to influence events in Iraq for years, and its failures have only enflamed sectarian violence and provoked an insurgency.

The Will to Undemocratic Power (September 2006)

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US and some European nations have increasingly concentrated presidential and governmental power by taking liberties away from their citizens. Using terrorism as an excuse, the leaders of these states justify measures such as domestic surveillance programs and decreasing the independence of the judiciary. A historical analysis shows that European countries implemented similar authoritarian measures during the peak of European colonialism, which leads the author to conclude that colonial ambitions still exist among Western nations in the 21st century. (Le Monde diplomatique)

British and American ‘Imperialisms' Compared (June 26, 2006)

This thorough History News Network article compares and contrasts British and US imperial conquests and diplomatic justifications for empire. US prison abuses in Abu Ghraib have "close parallels" with former British prison camps in Kenya. British international naval bases were justified as trade enhancers, just as American bases are "not colonies [but] outposts." Even with a full ruling class abroad, the British could not sustain their empire. By comparison, the US diplomats abroad will be less effective at preventing imperial collapse.


Canada's Shame, Empire's Profit: The Caribbean Slave Wars 1788-1807 (December 21, 2005)

While the British loyalists in England and Canada claimed that their fight in the Caribbean was "a gentleman's war over principles," it was actually a fight over the control of slave plantations and natural resources. The British Empire deployed more than 25,000 troops in the Caribbean, mostly slaves brought from Africa, to secure its interests against a revolt for freedom. With the overthrow of democratically elected leaders, such as Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti, imperial meddling in the Carribbean remains very much a part of today's world. (Seven Oaks)

The Wealth of the West Was Built on Africa's Exploitation (August 20, 2005)

This Guardian article argues that the political and economic instability of contemporary Africa is a direct result of the "colonial despotism" that followed centuries of slavery. Although the British empire developed its economy through the slave plantations and the wealth extracted from Africa, it has not faced up to "the dark side of its imperial history." The article also argues that even though the G8 countries discussed debt relief initiatives for Africa, no one has considered the real debt that Europeans owe to the continent.

Recasting Colonialism as a Good Thing (July 5, 2005)

France is just one of an increasing number of European countries trying to claim that colonialism was a positive thing, writes Inter Press Service. The right-wing dominated French parliament passed a law demanding that French educators emphasize the "positive role (played by) France overseas, especially in the Mahgreb region." Although dismissed by most teachers, this provoked outcry in Algeria, victim of brutal oppression by French colonists. Similarly, some British historians, exemplified by Niall Ferguson, are rewriting their colonial history as an example of nation building which should inspire imitation.

Britain: Imperial Nostalgia (May 2005)

British opinion leaders have again begun to romanticize the "achievements" of their colonial empire. Ignoring the bloody crimes and violent history of the building and dismantling of the British Empire, some are even unashamedly calling for a new imperialism – one built on "human rights, markets and good governance" (Le Monde diplomatique)


Dien Bien Phu, Symbol for All Time (July 2004)

The defeat of the French empire at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam was an inspiration to the repressed and colonized across the world, the country becoming a model of resistance to Algeria and others in the French Union. Le Monde diplomatique looks back at the fall of the empire, and the battle which "marked the end of the colonial period and the beginning of the era of third-world independence."

History and the Hyperpower (July 2004)

This Foreign Affairs article argues that the US constitutes an empire, demonstrating the growing acceptance of this concept in mainstream policy-thinking. It explains how the US has become a new hybrid of empire, drawing lessons from military mistakes of the Roman and British empires.


The Eternal Return: Imperialism and 'Globalization' Revisited (December 2003)

According to this essay, the system of Imperium, characterized by power at the center, has not changed significantly since the late 18th century when it was represented by Britain. Today, the concept of imperialism is just as relevant with the exception that global economic expansion lies in the hands of a US "Empire." (University of Sussex)

The Scourge of Militarism (September 12, 2003)

This article looks at the US military expansion and argues that the government should learn from Rome's imperial experience. Imperialism and militarism slowly undermined the Roman constitution and ultimately led to the collapse of the Roman republic.(Mother Jones)

Casual Imperialism (August 16, 2003)

Professor Vijay Prashad compares British colonialism in India to the current US occupation of Iraq. He concludes that the US occupation constitutes a "casual" form of imperialism, a type of indirect colonialism. (People's Weekly World)

Imperial History Repeats Itself (July 3, 2003)

Post-war US troops in Iraq remain vulnerable to attacks by people struggling under foreign rule. Washington's solution resembles that of London's at the beginning of the 20th century: call for reinforcements from other countries that did not take part in the attack. (Guardian)

The Perils of Empire (April 20, 2003)

The British 20th century imperialism and the US neo-conservatives' expansionist policy of today are strikingly similar. The British too, wanted to diminish French, Russian and German influence in the region. They sought secure access to Middle East oil, and to establish military bases. (Washington Post)


The American Empire (October 16-18, 2002)

This article argues that the US is an empire, but one of reluctance and denial. It provides a concise account of the history leading to the rise of US hegemony in the world. In addition, the article provides comparisons between the US role in the world and past empires such as the Chinese, Roman and British variants. (Asia Times)


An Empire Five Times Over (January 1, 2000)

Historical analyses of empires assert that an empire has either characteristics of a broad geographical range, colonies, conquests, coalitions or universal identity. Does the US fit into any of these descriptions? (Globalist)


Empire (2000)

In this preface to "Empire" published in 2000, authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the sovereignty of nation states has declined and been transformed into a new form of global sovereignty which they call Empire. The Empire is similar to what others call globalization – the borderless and all-powerful exchange of economic and cultural production. Hence, it is very different from the days of European colonial imperialism, entirely tied to the sovereignty of the nation state. (Hardt & Negri)



FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.