In This Review

Ending Empire: Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition
Ending Empire: Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition
By Hendrik Spruyt
Cornell University Press, 2005, 326 pp

This insightful book explores one of the great dramas of the twentieth century: how imperial powers left their colonial territories. Why were the British able to relinquish control of their empire without getting caught in protracted conflicts, while others -- such as the French in Indochina and Algeria -- were drawn into long and violent struggles? Spruyt argues that the character of government institutions at the "center" was key. The more fragmented the political system, the greater the opportunities for hard-liners who resisted territorial partition to block policy change. Detailed case histories illuminate the domestic politics of imperial endings. Postwar Britain was an open democracy with a strong executive and extensive military oversight, and so political elites were able to deal with secessionist demands unimpeded by veto groups and entrenched interests. The French Fourth Republic, in contrast, lacked civilian control of the military, and undisciplined political parties provided hard-liners with opportunities to resist changes in the status quo. Spruyt also takes a close look at the unraveling of the Soviet empire -- a surprisingly swift and peaceful divestiture of territorial control.