The Age of Empire has ended, then, because states are no longer the primary global actors, and relations between states, the primary determinants of life and death. Perceptive readers will note the irony: For all their differences in tone and approach, Mr. Hobsbawm is not far from Messrs. Hardt and Negri in this unidirectional determinism. The technological and economic innovations of the last century “brought to an end history as we have known it in the past ten thousand years,” Mr. Hobsbawm writes; for the first time, “thanks to the prevailing theology of the free market, states are actually [ceding power] to profit-making private contractors.” Similarly, globalized electronic surveillance “has not made state power and law more effective in these states, though it has made citizens less free.” Echoes, it seems, of the all-encompassing, “purely positive” Empire.
But the age of Empire ends there; in 2008, Mr. Hobsbawm lacks the luxury of either old Marxist or new Theory conviction. Thus the source of On Empire’s instructive modesty, the question that haunts it throughout: Given all this—given the apparent ascendancy of globalization and decline of territorial power—how can we explain a decade in which America has pursued a strategy that, by any measure, looks just like the vanquished imperialism? How can we explain a disaster that shouldn’t be?
Mr. Hobsbawm doesn’t pretend to have an answer, or even a consistent account of the problem. Early on, he writes, “Only one potential imperial power remains.” A half-dozen pages later, “[T]he old era of empires cannot be revived, least of all by a single superpower.” His final essay, “Why America’s Hegemony Differs from Britain’s Empire,” details the myriad incongruities between the contemporary United States and the 19th-century empire par excellence, and yet uses direct analogy to warn against imperial overreach: “Winning big wars proved as fatal to empires as losing them: a lesson from the history of the British Empire which Washington might take to heart.”
THERE ARE MOMENTS when On Empire does hint at an answer, or at least a logical interpretation worth pursuing. We may be experiencing the lag between lived reality and constructed institutions: “[G]lobalization,” Mr. Hobsbawm writes, “stops short when it comes to politics, domestic or international.” In other words, bodies like the U.N. are still organized around territorial countries. In this way, perhaps, America is merely a Tom Sawyer nation-state, yukking it up at its own funeral.
And this too must pass. One senses, however, a conclusion considerably more chilling. One senses—watching a brilliant historian struggle against an unruly present—the specter of a terrifying contingency, an essential randomness that makes any account of “empire” in general nothing more than a comforting fiction.
What if illness hadn’t forced Diocletian to abdicate? What if Constantine hadn’t been raised by a Christian mother?
At the end of “War, Peace, and Hegemony”—originally delivered as a lecture in Delhi—the author throws up his hands. “Frankly, I can’t make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11,” Mr. Hobsbawm admits. “There is no rationale for it.”
Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.