Imperial Nostalgia

Who Did It Better—And Why It Matters

The Ottoman ambassador and his page at a ball, 1838

In bookstores around the world, there are undoubtedly Marxist professors eager to talk at length about the evils of U.S. imperialism. But only in Turkey, it seems, are they quite so eager to hold up Ottoman imperialism as the more enlightened alternative: the American and British empires dominated the Middle East through military force, the lecture goes, purely to exploit its resources. The Ottomans, by contrast, secured the consent of the governed by providing them with stability, justice, and prosperity. Really, in light of the Ottoman government’s inclusive political practices, you could hardly call it an empire at all. 

An American more confident in being able to translate the phrase “arsenal of democracy” might have countered that it was really the United States that had the empire so great that it wasn’t really an empire at all. If anything, the American Empire was an empire of liberty, an empire by invitation, perhaps, welcomed around the world for replacing chaos and want with order and wealth. 

The Ottoman Army marching on the city of Tunis, 1569
The Ottoman Army marching on the city of Tunis, 1569
There is a long history of people championing imperialism as a more civilized alternative to violent instability—and an equally long tradition of haggling over whose empire did it better. Many of these arguments, like those above, depend on selective readings of history that downplay or ignore the role of violent coercion in imperial rule. Sufficiently romanticized, this sort of imperial nostalgia can even be marshaled in support of quintessentially liberal proposals for establishing international order and peace, such as the UN or EU. Consider the career of Otto von Habsburg: born as the crown prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Otto subsequently became an outspoken advocate of European integration, invoking the supposed success of Habsburg rule while serving as president of the International Paneuropean Union and a leading member of the EU’s European Parliament.

But in the face of global instability, others have been drawn to a different, more realist version of imperial nostalgia, one that embraces imperialism’s reliance on violence

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