David B. Abernathy



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David B. Abernathy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires 1415-1980 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2000); pp. 524
David Abernathy, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Stanford University tackles the broad subject of the rise and fall of why European empires over roughly five hundred years. He readily accepts his political scientist colours and the latent risk of making generalisations, as against that of the historian whom he critiques for “failing to identify patterns of human behaviour […]” (p 25). Nonetheless, he acknowledges that each is made better by learning from the other.
He begins his analysis by strictly defining ‘empire’ to be formal political control of the metropole on a territory that lies outside its boundaries, defined as the colony. By constructing the definitions in this manner, he precludes ‘non-European’ empires and polities from his analysis as well as the ‘informal empire’ where control is exercised in a less overt manner. The exclusion of informal influence is explicitly acknowledged by Abernathy, but this limits his analysis. The exclusion additionally prevents an examination of whether the characteristics he identifies in the principal European imperialist nations, are present in similar empires, formal or informal including that of China, Japan, the Ottoman or the United States (noted by its absence).
But his definitions lay the groundwork for his study of power as the relational dynamic between polities. The study is conducted through a framework that Abernathy develops in two parts. The first is a division of the period under examination, into five phases of alternating expansion and contraction (with an ‘unstable equilibrium’ in between) across the New and Old Worlds. The second is the role of distinct, but closely interacting institutions; the public, private profit and religious sectors that operate in the European metropoles. The central thesis of the book is the ‘Explore-Control-Utilise’ paradigm of European imperial powers and the roles of the institutions in each of the phases.
Part II covers the five phases in greater detail; the first expansion from 1415-1773; a phase 2 contraction from 1775-1824; another expansion in phase 3 from 1824-1912, the phase 4 ‘unstable equilibrium’ mentioned earlier from 1914-1939 and the final phase 5 contraction from 1940-1980. Over chapters 3-7 he charts the phases, highlighting, in his view, the prime motivators for each. From economic gain for the first expansion, wars amongst the European nations in the second; the industrial revolution and looming threats of Russian expansion and a European scramble in the third; the multi-pronged impact of the first world war and severe economic depression and nascent national identity in the colonies resulting in the unstable equilibrium in phase 4, to finally a contraction precipitated by inherent contradictions in colonialism and post-war crises in the last phase.
The main part of the book is the examination of institutions, carrying out what he refers to as the “triple assault”. These were the coordinated and at times reinforcing actions of the state, the private sector (both through individuals and later trading companies) and religious institutions through missionaries. Though he draws attention to the role of the same institutions in non-European polities, such as China and the Arab world, the treatment is scant and selective leaving the reader with a less than full understanding of the differences between European and non-European polities, with respect to the desire and capacity for expansion in non-European polities. At times the arguments are contradictory; it is stated that the competition between European states and the “insecurity caused by the dispersal of political power within a single economic and cultural system generated […] nervous energy” (p.206) that was “conducive to imperialism” (p. 206). At the same time, similar threats and conflicts faced by the Arabs and the Chinese during the 13th -16th centuries were apparently grave enough to prevent them from “[…] diverting scare resources to distant places […]” (p. 185). The reason, for such a difference in outlook between these polities is not explored in detail. The implication echoes the Weberian perspectives of David Landes, whose works Abernathy has drawn upon quite deeply.
There are examples of keener analysis when dealing with the control aspect of imperialism and the contraction phases. This may be largely because the historical context of colonial rule is established and, as a political scientist, he is able to examine the forces at work from the perspective of the imperial power and the colonised population within that context. The juxtaposition of the British North American (BNA) and the Indian independence movements, despite other obvious differences is one such example. Abernathy’s principal insight is that control of institutions, primarily the public sector, is the bedrock of imperial dominance. The BNA, in phase 2, was able to demand independence once they captured the public sector, (implying that the private and religious sectors were already within their control). In the case of phase 5 polities, (predominately colonised populations) the capture of public sector was delayed by the abrogation of rights (note 21 p.449), alienation and stratification of society (p.281-286) and failed attempts at accommodation (p.301-302). Ironically, it was through the acceptance of western education (p.334-340) which permitted wresting of control of the public sector by phase 5 polities

The last sections of the book, on his reflection on the legacies of colonialism and surprisingly a moral evaluation, are clear eyed and blunt. The comparison of the various arguments of those advocating the benefits and costs of colonial rule is equally illuminative. Abernathy seems aware of his restricted focus on the European side of the argument and the outcome of such a limitation but while advocating for a greater non-European perspective, does not present it himself in any detail. Such a lacuna is especially clear, considering that The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy by Kenneth Pomeranz published in the same year.


Despite these limitations, Abernathy presents his arguments very clearly through a robust framework in a clear and engaging manner. The book is a great survey work for any scholar, with its rich bibliography and anticipates many of the arguments on the impact of colonial rule over the next decade.

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