Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Recently Tim Parsons, Professor of African History at Washington University and author of Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall, stopped by Oxford with his wife Ann. In the following podcast Ann asks Tim a few questions about his book and what empires past can tell us about the present.
Michelle Rafferty: Today we have a special treat here at Oxford. I’m here with Tim Parsons and his wife Ann Parsons, and Ann is actually going to interview Tim. Here we go.
Ann Parsons: Your specialty is African History. What motivated you to write a book about empires worldwide?
Tim Parsons: Well in the past as a social historian of Africa I’ve written books about common people, which means I write about how common people live their daily lives, and in this case, in studying East Africa, I’ve looked at how East Africans, average people, experienced empire. And one of the things that troubled me is in the last ten years we’ve heard a lot about how empires can be benevolent, civilizing, how they were forces for global order and security, and how then the way to solve the problem of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the global war on terror, was that the United States should impose an empire from above, and that this would be the way to restore order to the world. And as someone who has studied empire from the bottom up, that I see the true realities of empire, I knew from the start in 2003 that this was a very bad idea. One of the things that I felt I had to do was make this case, I had to actually talk about empires historically, to go back in time and to see if what I know about the British Empire in East Africa held true all the way back to the Roman Empire because that’s what many of the current proponents of empire now, cite.
Ann: So then what do these historical empires tell us about the present?
Tim: Well, first of all they us that it’s really a very bad idea to cite ancient civilizations as examples for modern American foreign policy. In others words, empires, if we go back 2,000 years to the Roman Empire, if we even go back to the 15th century Spanish Empire in the Americas, yes those empires did last a long time, but one of the reasons why they did is because things were very different back then. The communication was much slower, transportation was much slower, they were largely agrarian societies when literacy was not very widespread, and most identities, which means how people identified themselves, were local and confined to the village level. And in those times it was very easy to conquer many villages and then to impose rule from above. So that made these empires appear much more stable than they actually really were. And what you find out, if you at the history of empire over time, you see that the lifespan of empires gets shorter, and shorter, and shorter, to the point, as I argue in the book, that empires today don’t exist.
Critics on the left of American policy in the last maybe 50 years have branded the United States as a new empire, as the new Rome because they don’t like American foreign policy, because they don’t like the exertion of American force around the world. And that’s a problem I think, because by calling the United States an empire they are missing the true definition of empire. An empire is direct formal rule. They fail to recognize that it’s not the question of whether the United States is an empire or not, it’s that they should point out using empire as a model is a very bad idea because empires are no longer viable.