Book Review – On Empire (By: Eric Hobsbawm)

On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy is a collection of 4 essays that were originally speeches or lectures given by Eric Hobsbawm (which is a name I am constantly afraid of misspelling). The publication date on the book is 2008, so they’re a bit out of date, but they capture that post-9/11 world-feel that is present today, managing to still feel relevant even if the information isn’t quite as accurate anymore.


The layout and restructuring of the book is good, the text is readable and all the necessary changes to convert a lecture to a book are present. The 4 essays themselves are a bit scatter-shot, not really flowing into each other and repeating information (at one point I went through about 10 pages thinking I’d already read everything there), but they weren’t really meant to go together so that is forgivable. And they certainly don’t have the problem far too many books trying to illustrate a historic principle have of explaining again and again what the point is (not over-explaining or stretching out the explanation, but repeatedly stating, multiple times in each chapter the main point without it progressing over the book), which is wonderful. The short, concise nature of the book makes it very readable (and speakable).

Care is taken in accuracy as well; sources for statistics and the like are cited in the rather large (for a book of this size) appendix, and multiple historical events are given to “prove the point”. Though there are several types of people I’m always wary of, and in this book Hobsbawm is two of them: those who only identify problems without proposing solutions, and those who conduct their analysis from only one point of view. Admittedly both of these traits are shared by the majority of historians who write books; the view found in such works never veers much from what one can expect at the outset (after reading the first chapter). It becomes a rather boring read at times when you know much of what is going to be said (without the specific details). And that isn’t helped by the fact that I knew I would disagree with many of those points. I’m not in any particular position to say Mr. Hobsbawm is wrong, or that the basic premise (that it is unlikely the United States has the ability to or should create a world-wide “empire” for preserving peace and the American-way™ etc.) is flawed, as I agree with much of the information put forth. But in other cases I very much disagree, partially in the spirit of the act, that is, the problems without solutions I mentioned earlier. It is one thing to say that US foreign policy should shift from “what we say or war” to something else, but if you’re not going to propose even the smallest of alternatives I would ask why you even brought it up (the answer of course is because he was asked to speak and to analyze, not to solve). Everyone has their own agenda, and I get suspicious of those who aren’t trying to push theirs, and since it doesn’t take an expert to say there’s a problem, why have the expert opinion if it isn’t “more enlightened” than your own?

All that, though, is a bit of a digression from the main point of the book. And if indeed the book was set out to do what I think it was, it did it very well. The writing style is nice and moves things forward without much re-treading of old ground (at least in individual chapters), the facts are well researched, and the argument strong. I certainly enjoyed reading the book, and it was a nice change of pace from many long-winded or under-informed authors.

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