The unravelling of empires

US and western leaders have to find better ways to satisfy their people’s demands. It looks, however, as though the UK still lacks a clear idea of how it is going to function after Brexit, the eurozone remains fragile, and some of the people Mr Trump plans to appoint, as well as Republicans in Congress, seem determined to slash the frayed cords of the US social safety net.

A divided, inward-looking and mismanaged west is likely to become highly destabilising. China might then find greatness thrust upon it. Whether it will be able to rise to a new global role, given its huge domestic challenges, is an open question. It seems quite unlikely.

By succumbing to the lure of false solutions, born of disillusion and rage, the west might even destroy the intellectual and institutional pillars on which the postwar global economic and political order has rested. It is easy to understand those emotions, while rejecting such simplistic responses. The west will not heal itself by ignoring the lessons of its history. But it could well create havoc in the attempt.

Martin Wolf, Financial Times, 6 January 2017

A (southern) summer spent reading the magisterial histories of John Darwin – After Tamerlane and Unfinished Empire – has inoculated me against the false lessons of history pronounced by journalistic oracles, such as the distinguished Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, who I have quoted above. He is not alone in brooding on the dark omens that have filled our contemporary skies. Across the Atlantic, Robert Samuelson from the Washington Post, issues a similar warning. The question of the year, he states, is “whether we’re witnessing the gradual decay of the post-World War II international order, dominated by the economic and military power of the United States.” He in turn summons the old Svengali of American statecraft, Henry Kissinger, who warns that when the international order is moving from one system to another. “Restraints disappear, and the field is open to the most expansive claims and the most implacable actors… Chaos follows until a new system of order is established. (quoted from World Order)”

Are we entering the death of one order, and the chaos in which a new world order will be reborn? Here our prophetic pundits would do well to read Darwin’s work deeply rather than stay within the cocoon of their false assumptions about the “pillars” of the post-war international order.

Darwin’s world-weary, realistic, yet scholarly assumption is that after Tamerlane – who by the time of his death in 1405 had conquered most of the world island of Eurasia but still  had not imposed a single political order amid competing empires – there has been no single international order, no common vision or shared liberal intellectual assumptions between competing empires. Those empires have risen and fallen, waxed and waned, imploded and recovered in response to fickle, changeable circumstances, and in ways that only with the blindness of hindsight seem to be a story of progress or the rise of the West.

Darwin assumes also that empires are the most common form of political order through all of human history. Empire is not a European original sin, as in nationalistic histories of colonial imperialists (something I observed commonly in the history museums of Vietnam). It is not only the ancien regime of Roman or European aristocrats imposing themselves on the third world. Rather, it is rooted in some fundamental human characteristics.

As Darwin explains, “the exchange of information, knowledge, beliefs and ideas – sometimes over enormous distances – has been just as typical of human societies as the eagerness to acquire, useful, prestigious or exotoc goods by trade or by barter.” (After Tamerlane , p. 22) As those goods and ideas – which have included goods and ideas both for making war and declaring faiths – have circulated between societies, they have:

“upset the cohesion of some societies much more than others, making them vulnerable to internal breakdown, and to takeover by others. So a second propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force) has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under the same ruler) has been the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road. (After Tamerlane, p. 23) [my emphasis]

These assumptions lead into a remarkable narrative of contending empires competing with different resources and visions of “modernity”. This story is very different from the accounts of the rise of the West that dominate the economics schools of the world, and seep into the accounts of the globalised world and post-war international order by journalists. Darwin’s story is remarkable for making clear how open the future was to these contending empires, and in a way how late the moment of European domination came. In contrast to complacent assumptions about the pillars of Western thought or the genius apps of Western civilisation (Niall Ferguson), Darwin tells how:

“In practice, and for reasons that we are far from understanding fully, for almost two centuries after 1750 it was North West European societies (and their transatlantic offspring) that mobilised [resources and people] fastest and also coped best with the social and political strains that being mobile imposed. Far-flung empires, and a global economy shaped to their interests, were to be their reward. (After Tamerlane, p. 27)

But that reward was not a permanent prize, not a pillared temple of Western vigour and superior intelligence. One of those far-flung empires – the British Empire whose empire was made of private enterprise, of commerce, Christianity and civilization and whose dominance in the nineteenth century was powered by cotton, coal and capital – would discover in the 1950s and 1960s that it was no longer a world power on a par with the USA and the USSR, and it had been eclipsed by its transatlantic offspring in the bipolar world of the post-war international order.

Another of the far-flung empires – the United States – would draw some stranger lessons from the history of empires. Like a millenarian visionary, it would believe that it had made a decisive break from this tainted history of imperial rule. Darwin is not fooled. Empires are still empires when they are not ruled as the Romans did, nor as the Europeans. Darwin relates the bare facts – the commercial presence, the cultural influence of global media, and more than 700 military bases in over 130 countries of the world. The post-1945 American system of international order was thus imperial in all but name. It was the empire that dared not speak its name, and yet believed itself to be the “indispensable nation.”

Like its imperial ancestors and rivals, the American order owed to chance and conflicts its decades of dominance. “It was the Second World War that made the United States not just the world’s largest economy, but also its strongest. It was the global cold war that made it the world’s greatest military power. These were the assets with which American entered the ‘globalized’ world at the end of the century. (p 504)”

Darwin concludes his great book with some very different reflections on our globalised world than the gospel-preachers of the international financial order. “The economic regime to which we have grown used in the last decade and a half represents an extraordinary moment in the turbulent history of the global economy,” Darwin writes. “It was produced by an earthquake as dramatic as anything in the world’s modern history.” (p 504) The geopolitical collapse of Soviet power and China’s embrace (after Deng Xiaoping) of a market economy created massive new markets. At the same time dramatic changes in transport (air travel and the container revolution) and communications (the Internet and digital communications) created conditions for remarkable growth and integration of economies worldwide.

It also drove a rebalancing of wealth across the world. “The great divergence in wealth and economic performance between the Euro-Atlantic West and most of the rest of Eurasia has given way instead to the ‘great convergence’, which should if it continues restore the balance to the rough equilibrium of half a millenium ago in the next fifty years.” (p 504)

But economic integration is not a bulwark against the building of empires, states and cultures with distinctive values, attitudes, institutions and ideologies. These long-standing human propensities may well surge back in response to the free movement of goods and the dominance of commercial elites. Since I take a long view of the moulding of human cultures and empires, my money is on these deeper drives making a comeback and remoulding our international order in ways that we cannot yet predict.

And is it not this resurgence of difference and diversity, this expression of divergence from the views of the Washington consensus, the Hollywood celebrities, the European technocrats, that we are seeing unfold in the unpredicted events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump, a more assertive China, a more assertive Russia, the dream of a resurgent caliphate that ISIS exploits? Contrary to Wolf then, a reading of After Tamerlane will open the future to good possibilities and bad, but certainly to no one international order, no one set of remedies to cure the ills of the “West.”

Darwin concludes his great book, finally making clear the precise meaning of After Tamerlane, in a final section entitled Tamerlane’s Shadow, with more sober, telling judgements on the constant breaking apart of dreams of a new world order.

“Perhaps this is the point. It might well be true that we are on the brink of a great transformation – in geopolitics, economics and culture – at least as far-reaching as the Eurasian Revolution of the late eighteenth century. If this is so, it can hardly be doubted that its impacts in different parts of the world will vary enormously.”

Rather than a fairytale story of ascendant beliefs in liberal democracy and globalisation, Darwin offers a deep historical understanding of how our world came to be as it is in its confusing disordered state. “The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex.” (p. 505)

And this requires some scepticism towards the apostles of the market and pop culture. “Their effect has been not to homogenise the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade [in the 19th, 20th and 21 st centuries, I might add] have often looked forward to.”

So Darwin sees some similar discontents in a broader and deeper perspective than the worries of the liberal press.

“What we call globalization today might be candidly seen as flowing from a set of recent agreements , some tacit, some formal, between the four great economic ’empires’ of the contemporary world: America, Europe, Japan and China. For them and for all other states and societies, the challenge will be to reconcile their internal cohesion with the disturbing effects of free competition. The strain will be great; the outcome uncertain. But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or perhaps more precisely – in the shadow of his failure. (pp 505-6)

The havoc that we see about us is not caused by “false solutions, born of disillusion and rage,” but the unravelling of empires adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence.


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