The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Governing the Empires of the 21st Century

Professor Alasdair Roberts in his office

By 2050, 40 percent of the world’s population will live in just four places: India, China, the United States, and the European Union. These “superstates,” enormous in both size and complexity, are the subject of a forthcoming book by Alasdair Roberts, director and professor at the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy.

A scholar of governance, law, and public policy, Roberts was recently awarded the Fred Riggs Award for Lifetime Achievement in International and Comparative Public Administration—the most prestigious award in the field of comparative public administration.

Roberts is the author of eight books. His most recent title, Strategies for Governing: Reinventing Public Administration for a Dangerous Century (Cornell University Press), won the 2021 Book Award from the American Society for Public Administration's Section on Public Administration Research.

Roberts recently spoke about the topic of his forthcoming book, Superstates: Empires of the Twenty-First Century, due out in fall 2022.

To begin, what defines a superstate?

I define a superstate as a polity that is expansive in territory and population, and socially and economically complex. The countries I’m writing about aren’t just a little bit bigger in those ways, they’re an order of magnitude bigger than most other countries. The average population of most countries is around 30 million, while these superstates have populations of at least 350 million. The populations of India and China are around 1.4 billion.

What drew you to write about this topic now, and how have you conducted your research?

I thought there was an interesting opportunity to draw comparisons I haven’t seen before between these four polities. I have studied the vast literature on the politics and history of each, as well as a growing body of scholarly work on the governance of empires, to compare and contrast how each of these systems approach the challenge of governing at scale.

What have you observed about similarities and differences between the U.S., E.U., China, and India and how they are governed?

As superstates, they are all very big, have large and diverse populations, and complex social structures. Whereas many smaller countries are nation-states that share a common culture, language, and sense of history, these superstates are much tougher to imagine as one nation. And governing such a large and diverse system is a truly overwhelming task.

One common element we see amongst the leaders of these superstates is their recognition of the fragility of their countries. No one takes stability for granted. Yet they take very different approaches to try to cope with this fragility. Leaders make two basic choices: how tightly the center should try to control life throughout the system, and how the people choose leaders. In China, the government tries to hold things together through tight central control, keeping the Communist party in charge, and limiting democracy. A very different formula, used by the E.U., is a radically decentralized form of government in which many national governments do the bulk of the heavy lifting, while a very small central government serves to coordinate. The U.S. and India take a middle ground approach.

One question we could ask is, “Who’s got it right?” Or we could also ask, “Is it possible that everyone has it wrong?” Which is to say: maybe it’s just not possible to govern effectively at scale. Never in history, until recently, have we had a country with more than a billion people. By 2050, India will have a population of 1.7 billion!

One axiom of history is that empires always died. Today’s superstates have many similarities to empires of the past, including many of the same problems. What makes us think they will be more durable?

One important contrast you note between today’s superstates and empires of the past is the obligation faced by modern countries to improve life for ordinary people and respect human rights. Say more about how the different superstates approach this obligation.

For all the similarities between superstates and empires, I argue that they are quite different in this regard. When the British were ruling India, it wasn’t their main priority to lift the welfare of the Indian people. Modern states can’t get away with that; they have to provide more services, regulate behavior more closely, and provide higher levels of security. In a way, this makes running a superstate much more complicated. This is even true in a place like China, which receives much criticism for its record on human rights. The Chinese leadership knows that if they want to survive politically, they need to improve the lives of the Chinese people. Even though the government is not elected, public dissatisfaction can be expressed in other ways, like protest and non-compliance with laws. The Chinese government’s defense to human rights critiques against it is that they have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the last generation, giving them the resources to live in dignity. In fact, when you look at Chinese public opinion polls (which should always be taken with a grain of salt), the level of satisfaction with the central government is quite high—even higher than comparable measures in the U.S. Of course, in other ways, China acts like an old-style imperial power in its efforts to crush movements for autonomy in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

The goal of all these superstates shouldn’t just be to survive, but to improve life for their citizens. The conundrum is how to find ways of governing these really big systems while also trying to show respect for democracy and human rights.

If history shows that empires always die, what do you predict will happen to today’s superstates in the future?

In the last chapter of the book, I ask whether these four superstates will exist in their present form 100 years from now. The answer is clearly no. There’s nothing in the historical record that gives us confidence that all four of these empires will survive in their present state. Some of them may crack up; some of them may be governed in radically different ways. History suggests there will be some form of adaptation.

I believe that governing these very large entities requires a recognition of fragility: Leaders must ask every day what is threatening the survival the system, and work to improve and invent new ways of governing to accommodate new threats.

With their different approaches to governing, each of the superstates has distinctive vulnerabilities. For example, the Chinese approach of tight central control is vulnerable if the quality or unity of the leadership breaks down, or if the capacity of the center to exercise control through its massive bureaucracy breaks down. The E.U. system has a certain kind of resilience because the component parts can roll with the punches, but the vulnerability comes if the pieces fly apart. As a liberal democratic system, countries are allowed to simply leave the E.U.—Brexit, for example.

How do you feel about stability in the U.S.?

In my chapter on the U.S., I write that for most of American history, until about the 1930s, people thought of the U.S. as a collection of parts—sections, as they were known at the time. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in the 1920s, described the United States as very similar to Europe, with each of its geographic sections—the North, South, West, Midwest, and Pacific West—like its own European country. That way of thinking about the country, sectionalism, faded after the Second World War, and there was less concern about keeping the peace between different sections of the country. But recently, starting around the 1990s, those old sectional tendencies have re-emerged. Now, we talk about polarization between red and blue states. But we’re also seeing a form of digital sectionalism in the sense that people might be living right next door to one another, but also living in different virtual worlds because they’re consuming different sources of news and communing with different kinds of people. It goes back to the definition of superstates—these are countries in which there isn’t “a people” but “peoples” who have different views about what the good life looks like and the role of government.

I think the political leadership of this country has been caught off guard by this re-emergence of a form of sectionalism, and there is a mismatch between the way the country is governed and the underlying social and economic realities.

What can be done about it?

The first step to preserving the union is being aware that the union is threatened. You can see the political class beginning to grasp this problem, and to appreciate the fragility of the system in a way that wasn’t there 20 years ago.

Assuming these divisions between people aren’t going away anytime soon, we’re going to have to find ways of managing through them. Many people advocate for fixing the problems of misinformation and segmented access to information on the internet. That assumes that we can make big differences of opinion fade away, which might not be possible in the next few decades.

Another solution can be found by thinking about what I call the “Thanksgiving dinner problem.” The secret to a successful Thanksgiving dinner, where you bring together the whole extended family, is agreeing that people won’t talk about a list of hot topics at the dinner table. The analogy for a polarized country is that you limit the number of things the central government is responsible for doing. The shorter the policy agenda, the less there is to argue about. But what if the central government’s work consists of protecting human rights—voting rights, access to healthcare, protection from discrimination—in different parts of the country? There’s a possible conundrum: What if there is a tradeoff between unity and equality of citizenship throughout the country?

Learn more about Roberts in this 2018 Spotlight Scholar profile.

Read about his lifetime achievement award in this story from the School of Public Policy.

By Lauren Rubenstein, Director of Research Communications, UMass Amherst

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy prepares students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.
Contact: Maureen Turner, associate director for marketing and communications, School of Public Policy

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