, Volume 39, Issue 2, pp 119-143

Nation-states as empires, empires as nation-states: two principles, one practice?

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Abstract

Empires and nation-states are generally opposed to each other, as contrasting and antithetical forms. Nationalism is widely held to have been the solvent that dissolved the historic European empires. This paper argues that there are in fact, in practice at least, significant similarities between nation-states and empires. Many nation-states are in effect empires in miniature. Similarly, many empires can be seen as nation-states “writ large.” Moreover, empires were not, as is usually held, superseded by nation-states but continued alongside them. Empires and nation-states may in fact best be thought of as alternative political projects, both of which are available for elites to pursue depending on the circumstances of the moment. Ultimately empires and nation-states do point in different directions, but it is not clear that the future is a future of nation-states. Empires, as large-scale and long-lasting multiethnic and “multicultural” experiments, may have much to teach us in the current historical phase of globalization and increasingly heterogeneous societies.