Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). 600 pp. $39.50 (hardback), ISBN: 9780691153636

Published date01 May 2019
Date01 May 2019
452 Public Administration Review May | J une 2 019
course and my more specialized management
innovation seminar and would encourage other
professors of management and public administration
to consider using the books as well. For practitioners
hoping to make their cities a better place, both books
are a must read.
Barzelay, Michael. 2001. The New Public Management. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Cohen, Steven. 2018. The Sustainable City. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Goldsmith, Stephen, and William D. Eggers. 2004. Governing by
Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector. Washington DC:
The Brookings Institution.
Goldsmith, Stephen, and Susan Crawford. 2014. The Responsive
City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.
San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Osborne, David, and Ted Gaebler. 1993. Reinventing Government:
How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector.
New York: Plume.
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 3, pp. 452–454. © 2019 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.13061.
Reviewed by: Alasdair Roberts
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Krishan Kumar, Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial
Regimes Shaped the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2017). 600 pp. $39.50 (hardback),
ISBN: 9780691153636
Krishan Kumar has written a lively and
insightful study of the way in which five great
empires—those of the Ottomans, Habsburgs,
Russians, British, and French—were governed. He
describes how institutions were designed to hold
empires together and the mentality of imperial elites.
A little more than a century ago, the usefulness of this
study would have been obvious. At that time, most
people were subjects of empire. Even the United States
experimented with empire: leading American universities
set up programs to prepare young men for colonial
administration. However, that world collapsed long
ago. Most European nations gave up their colonies after
World War II, and the last empire, the Soviet Union,
expired in 1991. A study of empires might have interest
for historians. But what relevance could it have for the
practice of public administration today?
Kumar offers a compelling answer. These five empires
faced a common challenge—governing large populations
of extraordinary diversity. Empires might have
disappeared, but the problem of “managing diversity and
differences” (p. 476) has not. The leaders of modern-day
states wrestle with polarization, populist uprisings, and
secessionism. They have more in common with the rulers
of empires than they may realize.
Indeed, the age of empires may not be entirely behind
us. Kumar observes that some modern countries
are really “empires in disguise” (p. 235). We treat
modern-day China as a conventional state, but
until 1912, it was known as an empire. India and
China have populations three times larger than the
British Empire at its peak, while the United States
and the European Union match the British Empire
in population. Jefferson called the United States an
“empire of liberty,” and observers have described the
European Union as “a kind of neo-medieval empire”
(Wood 2009; Zielonka 2006).
Kumar says that we sometimes have a misconception
about the durability of empires. Empires, Charles
Maier has suggested, “are epics of entropy” (Maier
2006, p. 76). Kumar does not deny that all the
empires he examines have collapsed. No empire, he
acknowledges, has a “remit to exist forever” (p. 212).
But we could say the same about any political form
of political order. The question is how long the day of
reckoning can be deferred—and all of these political
orders had impressive lifespans. The Habsburg
Empire, mocked as a “ramshackle realm” (May 1951,
p. vii), survived for almost 600 years, the British
Empire also for centuries.
Kumar finds a remarkable commonality in the way
that these empires were governed—both in the
mentality of rulers and in forms of rule. The most
important common feature is the sense of a broader
mission. Empires were not concerned merely with
Alasdair Roberts is director of the
School of Public Policy, University of
Massachusetts Amherst. His most recent
book is
Can Government Do Anything
(Polity Books, 2018).

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