This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the “Great Deglobalizing” to the death of Tamerlane, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Great Deglobalizing

Joshua Kurlantzick
Boston Globe

During a seemingly successful trip to Asia in November, Barack Obama announced several breakthroughs. Among them was a promise that the United States and Asian nations would proceed toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a free-trade deal that, if enacted, would create a free trade area with a total gross domestic product of more than $27 trillion. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping also announced a new climate deal, the first between the two powers, which will commit both the United States and China to significant emissions cuts over the next two decades.

The TPP would seem to be just one of many indicators of our growing interconnectedness with Asia, and indeed of the interconnectedness of the entire world. Today, riots in Missouri are immediately broadcast on Al Jazeera in the Middle East; Facebook boasts hundreds of millions of users in India; and a plane crash in Indonesia is tweeted about around the world within minutes. But many deeper trends point in a different direction. Since the late 2000s, despite the superficial connectivity of Facebook and Twitter, the world has entered a period of what you might call deglobalization. [continue reading]

Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

Julian Go
The Disorder of Things

In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? [continue reading]

What Shall We Call Chiang Kai-Shek?

Robert Bickers
Robert Bickers Blog

Tortoise? Leech? Snake? In the later 1930s, and especially during the 1941-45 Pacific War, Chiang Kai-shek was ‘the Generalissimo’, and was routinely and even fulsomely praised by British and US commentators. He and his wife, Song Meiling, graced the cover of Time magazine at least a dozen times. This positive view somewhat declined towards the end of the war — though not in Time — , and then dramatically so thereafter, as perceptions of incompetence and corruption amongst the Nationalist elite started to take root.

Back in 1926-27, however, there was no love lost between British observers and Chiang. His diaries show his own hatred in this period for the British, who had intervened militarily at Canton, where Chiang and the Nationalist Party were building up the revolutionary base from which they would set out on the ‘Northern Expedition’ to unite China. British, as well as French, marines and armed volunteers, had killed over 70 National Revolutionary Army cadets and Nationalist supporters during the 23 June 1925 ‘Shakee massacre’ . Chiang was the ‘Red General’, the British felt, and a Russian stooge to boot, subject in their eyes to the authority of the leading Comintern operative in Canton, Mikhail Borodin. [continue reading]

Death of Tamerlane

Richard Cavendish
History Today

In January the Scourge of God caught a cold. One of history’s most brutal butchers, now perhaps in his seventies, had set out with an army 200,000 strong from Samarqand, his capital, to try conclusions with the Chinese Empire, 3,000 miles away. It was a freezing cold winter, with the country deep in snow and the rivers frozen solid, and the army halted at Otrar in what is now Kazakhstan. The doctors’ efforts to cure their master, which included packing him in ice as the cold turned to fever, failed and it became clear that he was dying. Eventually, surrounded by his women and senior commanders, in a weak, almost inaudible voice he made an eloquent speech, telling them not to weep or run about madly tearing their clothes but to pray to God to have mercy on him.

He died at about eight o’clock in the evening, while icy winds howled round the palace and the tents of his army outside. The Chinese expedition was abandoned and the body was taken back to Samarqand to be interred beneath the dome of the Gur Amir mausoleum in a steel coffin under a slab of black jade six feet long, which was then the largest piece of the stone in the world. An inscription records: ‘This is the resting place of the illustrious and merciful monarch, the most great Sultan, the most mighty warrior, Lord Timur, Conqueror of the World.’ [continue reading]