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Further about the problem:

As the nation-state has proved inadequate to solve many of the challenges facing the modern world, forms of multi-national political organization have become increasingly important. Historically empires have been the predominant trans-national form of government. Does the European Union or the unipolar world-order headed by the USA represent a return to empire? Confusion prevails. The tributary empires network is a comparative endeavour to improve our basic understanding of past imperial experience in order better to address the problems and challenges of our future. By analysing the Roman, Mughal and Ottoman Empires, it attempts to throw new light on the character and workings of trans-national government and not least the constraints and limitations of imperial states.

A territory may be conquered by an army, but it cannot be ruled through an army. That is the fundamental paradox of imperial power. Overwhelming superior force does not easily translate into successful peace-time government. Military action is a very powerful, but also a very blunt tool. By the application of violence, it enables a power to impose its will on recalcitrant opponents. But military action also has clear limitations: it represents power in its most concentrated and therefore most expensive form. It can only be used sparingly; it is a last resort. Successful empires have had to develop other ways of governing. Generally they have only been able to impose a very loose and indirect order on subject territories which were normally left to organise as much of their own affairs as possible. In world history, empire represents a very light form of government, the true minimal state, as it were.

But we have forgotten about this. We tend to think of imperial government in inflated terms. This goes for both the detractors and fans of empire. Positively, empire is promoted as a strategy for nation-building in failed states societies. Negatively, it is presented as an all-powerful oppressive structure. Yet, empires have historically been characterised by their weakness and need to compromise with local groups. The imperial order, whether imposed by Rome, the Ottomans or the Mughals, was far from uniform; it comprised a multiplicity of local arrangements. The central government had to accept that regional élites creamed off much of the imperial taxes and diverted them to their own purposes. In a modern perspective, imperial government was ripe with, indeed based on corruption, mafia-like arrangements and even local warlords. Anyone interested in current international problems will immediately perceive the relevance of these issues for understanding the challenges presented by our time. By looking back into the history of 3 of the most influential empires, the project attempts to provide us with a much clearer understanding of the dynamics and constraints of imperial government.