In This Review

Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order
Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order
By J. C. Sharman
216 pp, Princeton University Press, 2019
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The imperialism through which France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other European countries came to dominate the globe was not simply a function of superior military technology, naval power, or administrative organization. Europeans were rarely in a position to dominate the world solely by means of their military might. Instead, they subtly co-opted foreign elites by trading with them, hiring them as mercenaries, supporting them in their struggles against local enemies, and, if all else failed, bribing them or blockading their ports. Sometimes the spread of infectious diseases did the work. This adds up to a more nuanced story than one might think, although Sharman does admit that this informal imperialism ran out of steam in the late nineteenth century, when Europe simply rolled over Africa. Anyone even slightly familiar with the historical literature will be baffled by the book’s repeated claims of originality for a thesis that echoes (daringly, without citation) the ideas of Karl Marx, Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, and generations of eminent historians of empire. Yet in an era when great-power competition seems to be on the rise, this book reminds readers that few, if any, modern nations have ever been strong enough to dominate all those around them through brute force alone.