Empire in Asia

A New Global History

From Empire to Nation

Book Cover

Book Title

From Empire to Nation: The Rise to Self-Assertion of Asian and African Peoples. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960


Emerson, Rupert


In this book, Emerson explores the aftermath of World War II: rapid decolonization in Asia and Africa against the backdrop of a burgeoning world order. With the establishment of the United Nations, and with it, the (theoretical) acceptance of the principles of democracy and self-determination, the vast overseas empires of France, Britain, the Netherlands, and other European powers were quickly dismantled, though not without violence and bitterness. It was not only that Europe was forced to beat a moral retreat from imperialism in the face of socialist or liberal doctrines; it was also no longer possible for them to retain their empires. The peoples of Asia and Africa had been roused by a shared dislike for imperialism into a nationalist fervor that reached its peaked in 1945, after the war. Through discussing workings of nationalism within the new international structures of the 20th century and the tension it shares with remaining European colonial attitudes, Emerson traces the Afro-Asian movement from empire to nation.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book was published in 1960, during the time of intense decolonization, and when Asian and African anti-colonial nationalism was at its peak. Emerson thus focuses on the 15-year period between 1945 to 1960, but allows himself to tread back well before 1945 for historical context—for instance, World War I also marked years of radical decolonizing efforts, this time in the land empires of Europe. As readers in the 21st century, we may find some of Emerson’s remarks outdated or irrelevant, but his analysis provides a first-hand account of the overwhelming changes experienced by the immediate post-war generation. The United Nations, 12 years into its existence, also figures a fair amount in this book as Emerson discusses its institutional and legal roles in decolonization.

Emerson’s approach is broad and theoretical; rather than providing blow-by-blow details of case studies, he examines various themes from a bird’s eye view. Examples of such themes include comparisons of nationalism with democracy and Communism, nationalism in non-colonial countries, and nationalism and the principle of self-determination as understood in the United Nation Charter.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

To Emerson, imperialism’s greatest impact on the world was cultural diffusion. He goes to pains to clarify that this diffusion was a two-way affair: European colonizers and the Afro-Asian colonies had many profound effects on each other. Yet, Western values and practices, at first vehemently rejected by the colonized peoples, were eventually accepted as desirable and then fervently sought after as proof of “modernity”. Emerson argues that this change in attitude was because Afro-Asian peoples recognized Western superiority in technology and economic ability, and concluded that adopting their strategies was the only way to safeguard themselves against perpetual inferiority vis-à-vis the Europeans. Emerson laments that this diffusion of Western civilization—for which he seems to be a proponent, if a cautious one—is incomplete, and that many Afro-Asian territories had not yet reaped its benefits and remained backward and undeveloped. He also recognizes that, in order for a colony to accept Western systems, an elite class educated in the “modern” ways of the Europeans had to be present, and must be strong enough to push for change in their societies. Without them, the tension between the pursuit of modernity and the maintenance of tradition would be too strong to overcome. These elite classes were often a product of colonial education. Emerson therefore claims that nationalism was imperialism’s “finest fruit” at the same time that it was its “bitterest enemy”.

Emerson also makes observations from what would have been contemporary news in the late 1950s. He remarks that the reversal of imperial values in favor of democracy and other liberal doctrines meant that anti-colonialists could act with more impunity than ever before, while the European powers were increasingly politically hard-pressed to defend their attempts to retain their empires. Despite this, the debris of imperialism remained and made the achievement of independence far more complex than its proponents may have imagined. For one, Western interests in former colonies remained, and Western governments fought to protect them at the expense of the independence nationalists yearned for. For another, the United Nations’ legal recognition of the “principle to self-determination” was too weak for effective invocation—it was only a principle, not a right, and was open to exploitative re-interpretation by various parties for their own purposes. The United Nations itself was disappointingly ineffective in aiding the decolonization project as it did not have the legitimacy to take lasting action. Finally, the Cold War only added more complications, as “self-determination” was used as a moral and political weapon by both the Soviet Union and the United States against each other. Emerson argues, therefore, that the story does not end with independence: with the creation of a new state comes a host of new problems inevitably rooted in the colonial history as well as the profound recasting of the entire world structure.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip