‘Informal Empires, Past and Present’:2nd Annual Durham International Affairs Conference
Confirmed speakers: Dibyesh Anand, Dmitry Sidorov and Dmitry Shlapentokh.
DIAC 2008 examined Virtual States: political communities that had many of the attributes of statehood without formal membership of the society of states. DIAC 2009 will examine the enduring question of Informal Empires. Before the rise of international sovereignty, informal empire was one of the commonest forms of political organization. Rome, China, Arabia, Iran, Ottomans, Russia, and Mughals were all empires but were not governed by modern principles such as nationalism or geopolitics but rather social principles derived from ethics, faith, language, and symbolism; though, of course, the political economy of technology, trade and taxes was not neglected. Much of the politics of these informal empires, and certainly their discourse, was concerned with the idea of civilization, and in particular sustaining the boundary between civilization and the barbarians beyond. Thus there was no word for ‘China’ and the Celestial emperor referred to his dominion as ‘All-under-Heaven’ with the implication that anything outside ‘China’ was outside Heaven.
In modernist IR there is an assumption that Informal Empire has been obliterated by the rise of something called ‘international society’ in a kind of Darwinian natural selection. Yet the organisational power of international society may already be passed its zenith. Most of the ‘new’ powers of the 21st centuries are in fact returning powers of Informal Empire. IR is attempting to explain the dual role of these resurgent actors by reference to soft or cultural power, compared with hard or technical power; but this may under-estimate or mis-categorise their significance. Globalisation can itself be seen as a form of ‘informal empire’ and it is no coincidence that problems of co-existence have arisen between the established guardians of international society, especially the United States, and the resurgent powers in this era. So the tensions, and potential contradictions, between informal empire and international society are not only a historical question but also a contemporary one.
DIAC 2009 will examine these questions through consideration of the nature of Informal Empire and its relationship to a modernist, ‘western’ international society. It will also examine the specific experience of some of the resurgent powers as they negotiate between a civilizational past and a globalising future.
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