No longer ruling the waves: Last Night of the Proms Credit: Guy Bell/PA Wire/PA Images

Is this really a post-imperial age?

The absence of formal empires is unprecedented argues a new book
September 2, 2020

The 20th century was an age of decolonisation, resulting in the birth of old countries newly liberated (Poland, Egypt, India) as well as entirely new states (Yugoslavia, Saudi Arabia, Israel). The last immediately recognisable empire became extinct in 1991, Samir Puri says, when the USSR fell.

But for Puri, imperialism remains relevant since the “21st-century world order is a story of many intersecting post-imperial legacies”—a fairly commonplace argument, since few would deny the imperial echoes in China’s scramble for Africa or Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Still, this is a valuable synoptic account, with chapters devoted to America, Britain, the EU, India, Russia, China, Africa and the Middle East.

Latin America’s omission is strange, since Venezuela and Cuba have an explicitly anti-imperialist politics, a response to America’s domination of its “backyard.” Similarly, Puri’s view of the EU as “post-imperial” rather than an empire seems odd, given that it is as integrated as most empires known to history, if not more so, with a common citizenship, currency, legal framework, customs union, border—even a unifying ideology of free trade expansionism.

Puri thinks today’s absence of formal empires is unprecedented; but that no power today explicitly claims to be an empire doesn’t mean empires don’t exist. China has colonised Tibet and India Kashmir, while hiding behind official anti-imperialism. Anti-imperialism was, in fact, one of the original justifications of imperialism; Napoleon invaded Egypt while purporting to “liberate” it.

Before lecturing at King’s College London, Puri, who hails from an East African Indian family, worked at the Foreign Office. As such, his own life has been entangled with Britain’s post-imperial legacy, and his passionate awareness of this is what elevates this book into an exceptional account, both personal and scholarly.

The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped the World by Samir Puri (Atlantic, £20)