BOOK REVIEW The driving force behind empires
When Empire Meets Nationalism by Didier Chaudet, Florent
Parmentier and Benoit Pelopidas
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
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
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.
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
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
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
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 Yeltsin Russia
(late 1990s) as a response to disappointment with the collapse of the Soviet
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
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
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.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.