How does an empire work?

If only you knew!

One would be a crucial step closer to solving the mystery that Russian President Putin has set for the world by ordering an attack on Ukraine.

With the rationality assumptions of international politics calibrated for reciprocity, one hardly seems to be able to grasp his actions anymore.

Whether Putin had gone insane was a question that was seriously asked in the world press, as if it were possible to answer it empirically via remote diagnostics.

In this situation, the historian Jörg Baberowski brought the category of empire into play in the FAZ on March 1: In order to understand Putin's politics, one has to underlie a regulatory framework that has become alien to the postcolonial actors in the West.

An empire, but also a state,

who wants to restore an empire or make up for the loss of an empire has different interests than a nation-state.

It is therefore electrifying when, in the commentary on the current war by a respected social scientist, after extensive explanations you come across the summing up sentence: "This is how an empire works."

Patrick Bahners

Feuilleton correspondent in Cologne and responsible for "Humanities".

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Wolfgang Streeck, Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, does not speak of Russia at this point in his essay “Fog of War”, published on March 1 in the blog of the British “New Left Review”.

Yes, in the entire essay he does not speak at all of Russia as an imperial power - and basically not at all of Russian power in the sense of freedom of action, initiative and ideas of order.

Streeck's empire is the American one, and the lesson on how such an entity works is supposedly being learned by "EU-Europeans," especially politicians of Green Party affiliations: "If you allow the US to protect you, geopolitics beats all other politics, and this geopolitics is defined by Washington alone.”

Wrestling at the abyss

Streeck sees Western unity in the face of Russian aggression as an effect of American imperialism. At the outset, he describes the “decline of the European state system into the barbarism of war” as what he wants to explain.

His image of "relentless wrestling on the edge of the abyss, with both sides eventually falling off a cliff" will repel some readers as a scandalous relativization of Putin's unleashing of war.

Streeck calls the Russian attack "murderous," but his wording that it applies to a country with which Russia once shared a common state is skewed.

It sounds as if the invasion made it particularly barbaric - and the restoration of this state unity is Putin's explicit war goal,

Streeck comes close to denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation when he derisively calls Ukraine a house divided between a surprising number of oligarchs.

He recently dedicated a book to international relations at Suhrkamp, ​​with which, as Günther Nonnenmacher summed it up in the FAZ, he presented "a holistic theory" that "aspires no less than to explain the nature of societies and states and the entire state system". .

The European Union is characterized there as an “unfinished and incomplete liberal empire in the stage of its foreseeable failure”, which Streeck, according to Nonnenmacher, has “a dislike that has increased to the point of hatred”.

The inspiration of political theory from class analysis, in its most recent application, is that Streeck jumps at will between interest groups, governments, states and statesmen when identifying actors whom he blames for the “monstrous” development.

Contemptuously, as is known from him, he comments on the "so-called 'quality press'" and the "local commentaries".

The empirical cogency of his statements may be questionable, since he chose the form of an essay.

But one can hardly say that he argues more rigorously than an ordinary editorial.