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Why are some international systems characterised by stable multipolarity while elsewhere conquest produces universal empires? This paper explains this variation through contrasting the conventional story of European balancing with the Ottoman conquest of the Near East and the Manchu conquest of greater China. Both the Ottomans and the Manchus successfully hybridized steppe and sedentary military techniques that gave them the requisite material capabilities to potentially become “world conquerors.” At least as important, however, the Ottomans’ and Manchus’ were able to surmount the legitimation gradient of conquest. The Asian conquerors used cultural statecraft to prevent balancing coalitions, and to encourage bandwagoning and collaboration. Cultural statecraft comprised strategies of co-opting pre-existing symbols of imperial rule, and employing multi vocal legitimacy strategies to sequentially appeal to multiple segmented audiences. In Europe military obstacles but also at least as importantly religious confessional and later nationalist ideational divisions frustrated would-be conquerors. Multipolar anarchy is thus a contingent outcome in international politics, rather than a constant, which can be extinguished by militarily powerful and culturally agile “world conquerors.”


Jason Sharman is the Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, as well as a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. Educated in Australia, Russia and the United States, Sharman's latest books are Outsourcing Empire: How Company States Made the Modern World (Princeton University Press 2020, with Andrew Phillips), and Vigilantes Beyond Borders: NGOs as Enforcers of International Law (Princeton University Press 2022, with Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni).