When Empire Meets Nationalism (Review)

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Niccolo and Donkey
The driving force behind empire

Asia Times Online

Dmitry Shlapentokh

December 17, 2010

When Empire Meets Nationalism by Didier Chaudet, Florent Parmentier and Benoit Pelopidas

This book is a loose collection of articles connected by a common subject - "empire" - and is most likely inspired by Michael Hardt's and Antonio Negri's book Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000).

The stress of the book is the ideological construction that [​IMG] informs foreign policy, particularly that of the United States and Russia.

The book covers the worlds of the United States, Asia, Turkey, the Middle East as well as the Islamic world. The chapters touch on a variety of and not always well-connected subjects, such as the philosophy of neo-conservatives, Eurasianists in Russia, and modern Turkish ideologists who can be loosely connected with Russian Eurasianists.

These ideologies of empire definitely have some structural similarities, and the authors have reason to put them together. Still, the emphasis on ideology as a mixture of structuralism and post-structuralism is a serious problem, at least in the case of the study of empires as presented in the book. One should remember the social, economic and political context to understand the real meaning and role of imperial ideology. In short, the authors should be fortified by Karl Marx, and one should move from superstructure to base.

[​IMG] Let's start with Turkish "Eurasianism", which is deeply related with emerging neo-Ottomanism. Both ideologies are related to changes In Turkey's position in the modern world. For the past couple of generations, Turkey has knocked on the door of the European Union; the Turkish elite claim that not only is Turkey society basically similar to members of the EU, it could act as a link between Europe and Asia. Here, the Turkish elite played the "Eurasian card"; still, this card has no imperial dimensions.

Later, after the EU stalled on the Turkish bid for membership, some of the Turkish elite appealed to neo-Ottomanism, which should either supplement or replace the traditional post-World War I secular and basically European-centered Kemalizm.

The setting for this approach was not the result of the internal evolution of discourse but, rather, it was deeply connected with economic and geopolitical trends in Europe and Turkey. On one hand, the EU continued to reject Turkey's membership; on the other hand, Turkey increasingly flexed its economic and cultural muscles.

It was at this point that a growing number of the Turkish elite turned to neo-Ottomanism as a response to rejection by the EU. Neo-Ottomanism was not just a response to secular, European-centered Kremlanism, but also a return to Turkey's Ottoman imperial past. The reason for this was the increasing economic vitality of Turkey and the assumption of increasing numbers of the Turkish elite that the country could just turn away from Europe and be a center of power on its own.

These discussions on Turkish neo-Ottoman Eurasianism and on the economic background of Turkish neo-Eurasianists and neo-imperial trends are entirely absent from the reviewed book.

While Turkey is rather marginalized in the book, Russian neo-Eurasianism receives much more attention. And here there are other problems. To start with, the emergence of Eurasianism and its intellectual roots are oversimplified. The authors, for example, note the connection between Russian Eurasianism and Slavophilism as an ideological streak in Russian thought that can be traced to the very beginning of the country's modern history.

The notion is undoubtedly correct. Still, it ignores an important aspect of the story. One should remember that Russian Eurasianism introduced an important model in ideological construction. Russia was not just a Slavic and Orthodox civilization, but also a civilization with considerable non-Slavic ethnic and cultural elements.

This transition from traditional Russian nationalism to Eurasianism is ignored. The most serious problem with the authors' presentation of Eurasianism in Russia is the role they assign to Eurasianism in present-day Russia. To be sure, Eurasianism became increasingly popular in the late Boris Yeltin Russia (late 1990s) as a response to disappointment with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Eurasianism harkened back to the trans-ethnic Soviet people and the mighty state, the geopolitical prowess of which was related in the minds of the populace with economic advancement.

It was at this time that Alexander Dugin, an author discussed in the book and justifiably regarded as the major proponent of the creed, became increasingly popular and by the beginning of the Vladimir Putin era (early 2000s) received an approving nod from the Kremlin.

It is not clear whether this provided the reason for the authors to regard Eurasianism as a present-day major Russian ideology. They also create the scenario for conflict with what Dugin and his supporters regarded as the major enemy - the US. But one should remember that even in the beginning of the Putin era, when Eurasianism supposedly received blessing from above, ideological bellicosity toward the US and related hints were in most cases nothing but empty talk.

By the end of Putin's tenure as president in 2008, far from being a major ideological trend, such talk was basically over and Eurasianism had become a minor ideological trend. The reason was not the evolution of "discursive" interplays, but because ethnic Russians and Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds had become increasingly hostile to one another; and the Russian elite, tightly connected with the West, including the US, because of economic interests, had lost interest not just in empire-building but even in imperial rhetoric.

More interestingly, at least in the opinion of the reviewer, is the authors' approach to American imperialists/neo-conservatives. They observe that the neo-cons emerged not so much from conservatives, but from the American left, and their ideological stand could well be compared to that of Trotskyists.

Still, even here the social-economic context of the neo-cons is basically ignored, which is essential for understanding not just their rise but also their quick downfall. The problem was not President Barack Obama's geopolitical naivety, shyness or even betrayal, as critics assert, but the non-workability of the neo-cons' geopolitical designs, constructed in the same way as the US economy, that is, based on quick financial speculation or printing of dollars.

While not providing much information about imperial ideology or Eurasianism, the book gives an insight into the mentality of French or French-speaking intellectuals. They believe that it is not the trivia of the economy or the production of real goods that creates and runs empires, it is the ideology.

When Empire Meets Nationalism by Didier Chaudet, Florent Parmentier and Benoit Pelopidas. Ashgate; Har/Ele edition (October 1, 2009). ISBN-10: 0754678059. Price US$99.95, 226 pages.