Alexander J. Motyl. Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 128 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-12110-1.
Reviewed by Ted Bromund (International Security Studies, Yale University)
Published on H-Diplo (May, 2002)
All Fall Down: Empires, Structure, and Agency
All Fall Down: Empires, Structure, and Agency
Alexander Motyl's account of imperial decay and collapse is strictly structural: he vehemently rejects theories that make room for agents (or, to give them their proper name, people). If you are unbendingly opposed to this kind of international relations theory, you need not bother to read Imperial Ends. On the other hand, if you have the eclectic approach to theory that characterizes many historians, you may, while rejecting much of his work, appreciate Motyl's ambition and find his thesis agreeably provocative.
Though Motyl draws on examples from the Ottoman, Habsburg, Wilhelmine, and Romanov empires, he is centrally concerned with the Soviet Union and with what kinds of relations we can expect to develop between Russia and the non-Russian states that made up the former Soviet Empire. Indeed, Motyl was motivated to write this book because he was frustrated with the failure of international relations theory to deal properly with empires, and, in particular, with the case of the Soviet Union.
As a contribution to the debates on EU and NATO expansion, and to the question of "whither Russia?", this focus is welcome. But it makes Motyl's work less directly relevant to scholars who work on the French, Japanese, American, and British empires, to name only four of the major empires that Motyl largely ignores. There are, in other words, fewer ending empires in Imperial Ends than the title implies.
For Motyl, who is strongly influenced by the work of Johan Galtung , empires are best conceived of as "structurally centralized political systems within which core elites dominate peripheral societies, serve as intermediaries for their significant interactions, and channel resource flows from the periphery to the core and back to the periphery" (p. 21). Empires are thus like a wheel with spokes but no rim: the peripheries talk to and through the center but not directly to each other.
Not all wheels, or empires, look alike, and the differences in their shape, Motyl claims, affects how they decay. Some empires are discontinuous (as in the British Empire, where most of the peripheries were overseas), some are continuous (the Habsburg Empire), and some are hybrids (the Wilhelmine Reich, with peripheries in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific). And finally, some empires are formal (the center makes all the decisions) and some are informal (the center controls only the periphery's external policies).
But according to Motyl, this relatively simple definition of empire poses a problem: empires are systems that work, at least for the elites in the center and in the periphery, or they would not exist. Thus, "an ideally functioning imperial system should, logically and obviously, persist indefinitely" (p. 22). In practice, though, imperial systems rise and fall: Motyl draws on the work of Rein Taagepera  to offer laborious proof of this point, and the related assertion that, once an empire starts to fall, it often keeps on falling.
In a Marxist phrasing that leads to un-Marxist conclusions, Motyl finds that imperial political systems decay because of their own inherent structural contradictions. Motyl rejects the main competing theories of imperial decay--the "agency-orientated, choice-based, intentionalist accounts"--because structural theory is, he claims, at least less bad than emphasizing the role of people, ideologies, cultures, and society (p. 32). In attacking choice-based approaches, Motyl is explicitly targeting rational choice theory, but, implicitly, he also tosses most of the diplomatic history literature into the dustbin.
On the level of theory, Motyl's rationale for this enthusiastic dismissal of a substantial part of the historical profession is obviously correct: people, and everything that comes with them, are complicated. A theory big enough to encompass all the vagaries of human behavior would be a theory of everything. A theory with this kind of bulk would not really be very useful--indeed, one of Motyl's complaints is that too much international relations theory tries to explain everything. The solution is simple: define agency out of the problem by prioritizing structure, which can be summed up with relative parsimony.
Historians will naturally not be very happy with this approach, and it certainly leads Motyl into a few absurdities. He asserts, for instance, that in considering the decay of an empire over hundreds of years, it is "useless to claim that millions of choices mean that choice matters" (p. 33). This is rather like claiming that millions of dollars are collectively of no account because each one of them is not worth very much.
Moreover, Motyl in fact finds it impossible to construct a structural theory that dispenses with agency, which he is forced to reintroduce under another name. Equally ironic is the fact that, while Motyl dislikes theories of everything--which implies that we need lots of different theories--he has no qualms about dismissing theories of agency. That is not the path to theoretical pluralism. And finally, it is worth noting, Motyl's rejection of choice and contingency isolates him not only from the advocates of rational choice theory, but also from his natural allies in the historical profession.
This is a pity, because Motyl's model is worth thinking about. He argues that empires are like (or are functionally isomorphic to) totalitarian states: both have strong centers that control peripheries. Thus, Karl Deutsch's theory of disintegration in totalitarian systems  is also applicable to empires: both kinds of political systems are inherently contradictory. Both ultimately "silt up" at the center because they try to gather information on and to control everything at the peripheries. This leads to decline (the weakening of the core), decay (the weakening of the links between the core and the peripheries), attrition (the loss of political control over portions of the periphery), and, to varying degrees, collapse (or the breakdown of the entire imperial structure).
There are two key transitions in this model: first, the gradual transition from growth to decay, and second, the relatively sharper collapse of the imperial system. Motyl offers no easy formula for predicting when either transition will occur. But broadly, the first transition comes later for empires that are continuous and formal; discontinuous empires cost more to administer and defend, and peripheral elites in informal empires absorb resources that administrators in formal empires can funnel back to the core.
The second transition is less easy to model, for it relies on some precipitating exogenous shock, such as war, plague, mass migration, economic depression, or the death of a charismatic leader. Precisely because the shock is exogenous to the imperial system, there is no way to predict what shock will hit when. Furthermore, shocks will affect different types of empires in different ways. Some empires will be propped up for a short while by a last gasp of hypercentralization, by an ally, or by a favorable geographic position; others will disintegrate comprehensively, or collapse; still others will suffer a partial collapse that leaves open the possibility of later revitalization.
It is this possibility of revitalization that most intrigues Motyl; indeed, one has the sense that this relatively short book was written primarily to justify its last chapter, on the politics of the post-imperial Russian system. This is a depressing but persuasive account of the relative strength of the Russian state--compared to its neighbors--and the resulting likelihood that there will be a "creeping re-imperialization" of the former Soviet empire (p. 103). The expansion of NATO and the EU will further harden this divide between East and West. In this case, the structure of the system gives little reason for optimism.
But how well does the model work overall? It works well in some cases, not so well in others. Motyl's argument that empires, like totalitarian states, end up controlling nothing by trying to control everything, and choking themselves to death in the process, is a good summary of the USSR, which was the totalitarian, controlling empire par excellence. And it seems to work not too badly for the Ottoman Empire, though experts on the Ottomans may well have cause to differ with that assessment. But, revealingly, Motyl does not even try to apply it to the Hapsburg, Wilhelmine, and Romanov empires (pp. 53-66). Nor is there reason to think that it would work if he had tried: it is certainly possible to identify a great many inefficiencies and stupidities in all three of these empires, but is hard to prove they decayed because of information overload.
Motyl does make a brief effort to apply his theory to the British Empire (p. 63). This is not persuasive. The usual causes for the Empire's decline and fall make their appearance: world wars, the rise of the superpowers, and nationalist movements. But there is no way that these can be related to deficiencies in Britain's information processing. Nor does Motyl try to do so, except by arguing that, because empires are systems and systems are stable, wars and nationalist movements must result from a failure to maintain stability, which must be the fault of bad information processing and poor resource allocation. The logic is hard to fault, but it tells us little about the actual British Empire.
In this context, Motyl's emphasis on random events in the transition to collapse is rather refreshing. Bad luck is impossible to model and yet still important. The same, of course, is true of agency, and Motyl makes a valiant effort to limit the importance of his admission that such human phenomena as "the death of a charismatic leader, misguided reform efforts, revolutions, and so on" really do matter (p. 79). But if the death of Alexander the Great, the rise of Gorbachev, or the return of Lenin can destroy an empire, then it is hard to understand why leaders matter nowhere else in the model.
Quite aside from the fact that Motyl finds it impossible to get along without agency, it is hard to avoid the impression that, in his case studies, Motyl has sampled very heavily on his dependent variable. The argument that empires are, structurally, like totalitarian states works for the USSR, which was the empire with which he was most concerned. It does not work very well for most other empires. The British Empire, for instance, devolved a great deal of responsibility for decision-making onto the "man on the spot"; many decisions did not flow through London. Similarly, if the United States post-1945 was (or is) an empire, it is a very peculiar one by Motyl's model: Washington D.C. undoubtedly matters, but the United States does not simply control NATO. The concept of structural isomorphism is convenient for the purposes of theory, but far too simple.
Finally, Motyl's model of the world, though parsimonious, is also not very persuasive. A two empire world does make the occasional brief appearance in Imperial Ends, but by and large, Motyl restricts himself to modeling the structural contradictions inside a single empire. Historically, though, many empires have fallen when they have run into other empires: the French fell to the British and the Russians; the Germans went down to groups of imperial allies; and Japan met its match in the United States. Undoubtedly, all empires have deficiencies, structural and otherwise. But the structure of the international system matters too, in all stages of imperial rise, decay, and collapse. That is not an easy world to model, but it is the one we live in.
. Johan Galtung, "A Structural Theory of Imperialism," Journal of Peace Research 8 (1971): 81-117.
. Rein Taagepera, "Expansion and Contraction Patterns for Large Polities: Context for Russia," International Studies Quarterly 41 (1997): 475-504.
. Karl Deutsch, "Cracks in the Monolith: Possibilities and Patterns of Disintegration in Totalitarian Systems," in Harry Eckstein and David E. Apter, eds., Comparative Politics: A Reader (New York: Free Press, 1963), 497-508.
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Ted Bromund. Review of Motyl, Alexander J., Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires.
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