When one reads history, one of the most glaring differences, but one so obvious it’s little remarked upon, is the fact that in the modern world, it is tremendously difficult, if not impossible, to build an empire. A history of the ancient world reads as a succession of conquests and empires—the Assyrians, the Medes, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander, the Romans, the Islamic caliphates, the Turks, Charlemagne, the Mongols, the Mongols again, and so on. But somewhere things started to gum up, and local loyalties and nationalism made it more and more difficult to conquer territory, and more and more difficult to hold it.
It didn’t happen at the same time in every place. The French might have been the earliest in Europe, under Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. The Swiss followed, with their mountain cantons and pikemen providing the security for a new spirit of independence. Then the Dutch wars of independence, and on down the line. Where old empires had lives measured in centuries, modern ones lasted mere years, as both Napolean and Hitler discovered. By the 19th century, even a devastating military defeat wouldn’t convince the French to cede their claim to Alsace and Lorraine. And the reverse was true of Germany in the early 20th.
The only modern state I can think of that succeeded in building a true land empire was Russia, with its conquests in western and central Asia continuing on through the 19th century, and its effective conquest of much of eastern Europe in the 20th. This rise, and the central role Russia played in the 19th and 20th century, served to obscure somewhat the underlying tide of history, in which the age of empire had already ebbed. For even Russia only maintained their empire through brutal repression.
And yet, after 80 years of repression, murder, famine, and relocation, when they got the chance, the subject peoples rose up and reclaimed their land. The Latvians, Estonians, Chechyans, Ukrainians, et al had already formed their identity, and it couldn’t be altered even under that horrible regime. The nations of the world are past their adolescence, and no longer can be molded to suit the whims of their conquerors.
It’s a lesson that the Israelis have still not learned, with their persistent attempts to colonize the West Bank. China, with far greater resources, far fewer scruples, and none of the direct media scrutiny, is struggling to absorb Tibet. Tamil, Kashmir, East Timor, the Kurds—around the world one sees that the centrifugal forces have gained the upper hand. And now the US is facing the same issues in Iraq.
Robert Kaplan took this idea to its extreme in his book The Ends of the Earth. He posited the withering away of the nation state, at least across much of the Third World, with local identities and trade connections providing the structures of everyday life. It was, in a way, a return to a medieval existence, with large city states straddling the important trade routes forming the nexuses of society.
I don’t subscribe to Kaplan’s view—I think he is over-extrapolating here—but it is undoubtable that the Neocon’s vision of a new empire, a benevolent hegemony taking over and remaking the Middle East for its own good, is swimming against the tide. And doing that gets you nowhere and leaves you exhausted. Which seems like a pretty good description of our Iraq adventure, at least at this point.
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