Empires with Expiration Dates

Empires drive history. But the empires of the past 100 years were short lived, none surviving to see the dawn of the new century. Today, there are no empires, at least not officially. But that could soon change if the United States -- or even China -- embraces its imperial destiny. How can they avoid the fate of those who came before them?

Empires, more than nation-states, are the principal actors in the history of world events. Much of what we call history consists of the deeds of the 50 to 70 empires that once ruled multiple peoples across large chunks of the globe. Yet, as time has passed, the life span of empires has tended to decline. Compared with their ancient and early modern predecessors, the empires of the last century were remarkably short lived. This phenomenon of reduced imperial life expectancy has profound implications for our own time.

Officially, there are no empires now, only 190-plus nation-states. Yet the ghosts of empires past continue to stalk the Earth. Regional conflicts from Central Africa to the Middle East, and from Central America to the Far East, are easily — and often glibly — explained in terms of earlier imperial sins: an arbitrary border here, a strategy of divide-and-rule there.

Moreover, many of today’s most important states are still recognizably the progeny of empires. Look at the Russian Federation, where less than 80 percent of the population is Russian, or Britain, which is, for all intents and purposes, an English empire. Modern-day Italy and Germany are the products not of nationalism but of Piedmontese and Prussian expansion. Imperial inheritance is even more apparent outside of Europe. India is the heir of the Mughal Empire and, even more manifestly, the British Raj. (An Indian Army officer once told me, "The Indian Army today is more British than the British Army." Driving with him through the huge barracks at Madras, I saw his point, as hundreds of khaki-clad infantrymen leapt to attention and saluted.) China is the direct descendant of the Middle Kingdom. In the Americas, the imperial legacy is apparent from Canada in the north to Argentina in the south. The Canadian head of state is the British monarch; the Falkland Islands remain a British possession.

Today’s world, in short, is as much a world of ex-empires and ex-colonies as it is a world of nation-states. Even those institutions that were supposed to reorder the world after 1945 have a distinctly imperial bent. For what else are the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council if not a cozy club of past empires? And what is "humanitarian intervention," if not a more politically correct-sounding version of the Western empires’ old "civilizing mission"?

Imperial Dating

We tend to assume that the life cycle of empires, great powers, and civilizations has a predictable regularity to it. Yet the most striking thing about past empires is the extraordinary variability in the chronological as well as geographic expanse of their dominion. Especially striking is the fact that the most modern empires have a far shorter life span than their ancient and early modern predecessors.

Take the Roman case. The Roman Empire in the West can be dated from 27 B.C., when Octavian became Caesar Augustus and emperor in all but name. It ended when Constantinople was established as a rival capital with the death of the Emperor Theodosius in 395, making a total of 422 years. The Roman Empire in the East can be dated from then until, at the latest, the sack of Byzantium by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a total of 1,058 years. The Holy Roman Empire — the successor to the Western empire — lasted from 800, when Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Romans, until Napoleon ended it in 1806. The "average" Roman empire therefore lasted 829 years.

Such calculations, though crude, allow us to compare the life spans of different empires. The three Roman empires were uncharacteristically long lived. By comparison, the average Near Eastern empire (including the Assyrian, Abassid, and Ottoman) lasted a little more than 400 years; the average Egyptian and East European empires around 350 years; the average Chinese empire (subdividing by the principal dynasties) ruled for more than three centuries. The various Indian, Persian, and West European empires generally survived for between 200 and 300 years.

After the sack of Constantinople, the longest-lived empire was clearly the Ottoman at 469 years. The East European empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs each existed for more than three centuries. The Mughals ruled a substantial part of what is now India for 235 years. Of an almost identical duration was the reign of the Safavids in Persia.

It is trickier to give precise dates to the maritime empires of the West European states, because these had multiple points of origin and duration. But the British, Dutch, French, and Spanish empires can all be said to have endured for roughly 300 years. The life span of the Portuguese empire was closer to 500.

The empires created in the 20th century, by contrast, were comparatively short. The Bolsheviks’ Soviet Union (1922-91) lasted less than 70 years, a meager record indeed, though one not yet equaled by the People’s Republic of China. Japan’s colonial empire, which can be dated from the acquisition of Taiwan in 1895, lasted barely 50 years. Most fleeting of all modern empires was Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which did not extend beyond its predecessor’s borders before 1938 and had retreated within them by early 1945. Technically, the Third Reich lasted 12 years; as an empire in the true sense of the word, exerting power over foreign peoples, it lasted barely half that time. Only Benito Mussolini was a less effective imperialist than Hitler.

Why did the new empires of the 20th century prove so ephemeral? The answer lies partly in the unprecedented degrees of centralized power, economic control, and social homogeneity to which they aspired.

The new empires that arose in the wake of the First World War were not content with the successful but haphazard administrative arrangements that had characterized the old empires, including the messy mixtures of imperial and local law and the delegation of powers and status to certain indigenous groups. They inherited from the 19th-century nation-builders an insatiable appetite for uniformity; these were more like "empire states" than traditional empires. The new empires repudiated traditional religious and legal constraints on the use of force. They insisted on the creation of new hierarchies in place of existing social structures. They delighted in sweeping away old political institutions. Above all, they made a virtue of ruthlessness. In pursuit of their objectives, they were willing to make war on whole categories of people, at home and abroad, rather than merely the armed and trained representatives of an identified enemy state. It was entirely typical of the new generation of would-be emperors that Hitler accused the British of excessive softness in their treatment of Indian nationalists.

The empire states of the mid-20th century were to a considerable extent the architects of their own downfalls. In particular, the Germans and Japanese imposed their authority on other peoples with such ferocity that they undermined local collaboration and laid the foundations for indigenous resistance. That was foolish, as many people who were "liberated" from their old rulers (Stalin in Eastern Europe, the European empires in Asia) by the Axis powers initially welcomed their new masters. At the same time, the territorial ambitions of these empire states were so limitless — and their combined grand strategy so unrealistic — that they swiftly called into being an unbeatable coalition of imperial rivals in the form of the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Why We Fight

Empires do not survive for long if they cannot establish and sustain local consent and if they allow more powerful coalitions of rival empires to unite against them. The crucial question is whether or not today’s global powers behave in a different way than their imperial forebears.

Publicly, the leaders of the American and Chinese republics deny that they harbor imperial designs. Both states are the product of revolutions and have long traditions of anti-imperialism. Yet there are moments when the mask slips. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s 2003 Christmas card asked, "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" In 2004 a senior advisor to President Bush confided to journalist Ron Suskind, "We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.… We’re history’s actors." Similar thoughts may cross the minds of China’s leaders. Even if they do not, it is still perfectly possible for a republic to behave like an empire in practice, while remaining in denial about its loss of republican virtue.

The American empire is young by historical standards. Its continental expansion in the 19th century was unabashedly imperialistic. Yet the comparative ease with which sparsely settled territory was absorbed into the original federal structure militated against the development of an authentically imperial mentality and put minimal strain on the political institutions of the republic. By contrast, America’s era of overseas expansion, which can be marked from the Spanish-American War of 1898, has been a good deal more difficult and, precisely for this reason, has repeatedly conjured up the specter of an imperial presidency. Leaving aside American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which remain American dependencies, U.S. interventions abroad have typically been brief.

During the course of the 20th century, the United States occupied Panama for 74 years, the Philippines for 48, Palau for 47, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands for 39, Haiti for 19, and the Dominican Republic for 8. The formal postwar occupations of West Germany and Japan continued for, respectively, 10 and 7 years, though U.S. forces still remain in those countries, as well as in South Korea. Troops were also deployed in large numbers in South Vietnam from 1965, though by 1973 they were gone.

This pattern supports the widespread assumption that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq will not last far beyond President George W. Bush’s term in office. Empire — especially unstated empire — is ephemeral in a way that makes our own age quite distinct from previous ages.

In the American case, however, the principal cause of its ephemeral empire is not the alienation of conquered peoples or the threat posed by rival empires (the principal solvents of other 20th-century empires) but domestic constraints. These take three distinct forms. The first can be characterized as a troop deficit. In 1920, when it successfully quelled a major Iraqi insurgency, Britain had one soldier in Iraq for every 23 locals. Today, the United States has just one soldier for every 210 Iraqis.

The problem is not strictly demographic, as is sometimes assumed. For the United States is not short of young people. (It has many times more males aged 15 to 24 than Iraq or Afghanistan.) It is just that the United States prefers to maintain a relatively small proportion of its population in the armed forces, at 0.5 percent. Moreover, only a small and highly trained part of this military is available for combat duties overseas.

Members of this elite group are not easy to sacrifice. Nor are they easy to replace. Each time the newspaper reports the tragedy of another death in action, I am reminded of the lines of Rudyard Kipling, the greatest of the British imperial poets:

A scrimmage in a Border Station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

The second constraint on America’s unstated empire is the U.S. budget deficit. The costs of the war in Iraq are proving significantly higher than the administration forecast: $290 billion since the invasion in 2003. That figure is not much in relation to the size of the U.S. economy — less than 2.5 percent of gross domestic product — but it has clearly proved insufficient to achieve the swift postwar reconstruction that might have averted today’s incipient civil war. Other spending priorities, such as the ballooning unfunded liabilities of the Medicare system, have precluded the Marshall Plan for the Middle East that some Iraqis had hoped for.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the American attention deficit. Past empires had little difficulty in sustaining public support for protracted conflicts. The United States, by contrast, has become markedly worse at this. It took less than 18 months for a majority of American voters to start telling pollsters at Gallup that they regarded the invasion of Iraq as a mistake. Comparable levels of disillusionment with the Vietnam War did not set in until August 1968, three years after U.S. forces had arrived en masse, by which time the total number of Americans killed in action was approaching 30,000.

All kinds of pat theories exist to explain the diminished durability of empires in our time. Some say that the reach of the 24-hour news media makes it too hard for would-be imperialists to conceal abuses of power. Others insist that military technology has ceased to confer an unassailable advantage on the United States; improvised explosive devices are the ten-rupee jezails of our time, negating at a stroke the superiority of American weaponry by rendering most of it superfluous.

Yet the real reasons why today’s empires are both ephemeral and undeclared lie elsewhere. Whether we acknowledge them or not, empires repeatedly emerge as history’s actors because of the economies of scale that they make possible. There is a demographic limit to the number of people most nation-states can put under arms. An empire, however, is far less constrained; among its core functions are to mobilize and equip large military forces recruited from multiple peoples and to levy the taxes or raise the loans to pay for them, again drawing on the resources of more than one nationality.

But why fight wars? Again, the answer must be economic. The self-interested objectives of imperial expansion range from the fundamental need to ensure the security of the metropolis by defeating enemies beyond its borders, to the collection of rents and taxation from subject peoples — to say nothing of the more obvious prizes of new land for settlement, raw materials, and treasure. As a general rule, an empire needs to procure these things at lower prices than they would cost in free exchange with independent peoples or with another empire if the costs of conquest and colonization are to be justified.

At the same time, however, an empire may provide "public goods" — that is, benefits of imperial rule that flow not only to the rulers but also to the ruled and, indeed, to third parties. These can include peace in the sense of a Pax Romana, increased trade or investment, improved justice or governance, better education (which may or may not be associated with religious conversion), or improved material conditions.

Imperial rule is not just about boots on the ground. Not only soldiers but also civil servants, settlers, voluntary associations, firms, and local elites can all, in their different ways, serve to impose the will of the center on the periphery. Nor must the benefits of empire flow exclusively to the empire’s rulers and their clients. Colonists drawn from lower income groups in the metropolis may also share in the fruits of empire. Those who stay at home may derive emotional gratification from the victories of distant legions. Local elites may also figure among the winners.

An empire, then, will come into existence and endure so long as the benefits of exerting power over foreign peoples exceed the costs of doing so in the eyes of the imperialists; and so long as the benefits of accepting dominance by a foreign people exceed the costs of resistance in the eyes of the subjects. Such calculations implicitly take into account the potential costs of relinquishing power to another empire.

At the moment, in these terms, the costs of running countries like Iraq and Afghanistan look too high to most Americans; the benefits of doing so seem at best nebulous; and no rival empire seems able or willing to do a better job. With its republican institutions battered but still intact, the United States does not have the air of a new Rome. Although the current president has striven to empower the executive, he is no Octavian.

But all these things could change. In our ever more populous world, where certain natural resources are destined to become more scarce, the old mainsprings of imperial rivalry remain. Look only at China’s recent vigorous pursuit of privileged relationships with major commodity producers in Africa and elsewhere. Or ask how long a neoisolationist America would remain disengaged from the Muslim world in the face of new Islamist terrorist attacks.

Empire today, it is true, is both unstated and unwanted. But history suggests that the calculus of power could swing back in its favor tomorrow.

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