On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

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On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy

By Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon Books, 2008
128 pp. $19.95
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In this short book of essays, the renowned historian of empire, revolution, and industrialism turns his attention to U.S. power and war in the current era. Over a long career, Hobsbawm has looked deeply into the past to discern its organizing principles and laws of motion. But what strikes Hobsbawm about the decades since in the end of the Cold War is the absence of a coherent and agreed-on form of global political order. It is disorder and the lack of direction that characterize today's global system. Hobsbawm is most eloquent in explaining why empire and hegemony -- the solutions for the problem of order in other centuries -- no longer work. In the past, Western domination was facilitated by the fact that westernization was the only way that weak and backward societies could rise up, creating goodwill toward the West and the loyalty of local elites. But in a globalized economy, roads to modernization no longer run through the West, leading to a diffusion of power and a fragmentation order. Hobsbawm argues that the breakdown of order is also caused by the changing character of armed violence -- in which soldiers, states, sovereignty, and borders are less defined and the rules of war less clear. The book's message is that a single superpower cannot impose order on a world in which the authority of global institutions has eroded and the legitimacy of great-power rule has disappeared. But the question remains: What will provide the basis for global order in the new century? Hobsbawm responds: "Since historians are, fortunately, not prophets, I am not professionally obliged to give you an answer."