Both empire and federation are deeply contested concepts. The difficulties surrounding the competing notions of “empire” or “federation” can be rooted in their respective heuristic strengths and weaknesses, but also in their political uses. In analyzing these concepts, recent scholarship has mostly neglected the relationship between empire and federation. Should the two be used as compatible concepts, as complementary categories, or as fundamentally competing frameworks? What implications do these conceptual options have for the larger endeavor of a description of transnational politics? This article systematically addresses this tension through an argument on how intellectual and conceptual histories can contribute to approaching this complicated relationship. As the article argues, overlaps and hybridities between empire and federation can be grasped plausibly by analyzing these polities not only through their institutional features but also as discursive constellations. Through such a lens, it becomes clear why modern politics is populated by numerous political orders both federal and imperial.

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