The world is going back to normal. For us, the change will be a shock, but in the broad scheme of things, it’s the same old, same old.
After World War II, we experienced an extremely unusual period – a brief pause from the normal course of events. After the war, the United States assumed the role of the world’s leading power – challenged only by the Soviet Union – but while the Soviet Union actively sought to expand its empire – acquiring and tightly controlling client states – the United States did not. One can hear the howls of anti-Americans who see America as an imperial and aggressive power, but the reality is, the United States did not aggressively seek territorial expansion and world dominance – colonial conquest is alien to the American tradition (the sole exception was so benign, a Filipino guerrilla leader wished Americans would be more tyrannical).
During this brief interlude – a blink of an eye in human history – Pax Americana (American preeminence, combined with universal trust in America) maintained general order and deterred major wars of aggression – or reversed it, in the one case since Hitler of a country gobbling up another.
That respite is now over. It was a short spell, this escape from history, in which the most powerful nation in the world did not seek to expand territorially and rule the known world.
Because of this respite from reality, however, we’ve been lulled into the delusion that war is passé. But this post-war period has been the exception, not the norm. As von Clausewitz put it, “War is politics by other means, and politics is war by other means.”
Since the dawn of human history – and even non-human history – entities, by nature, grow and expand. In the ancient world, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander, and Rome marched forth and conquered. Across Eurasia, they were followed by the Huns, multiple empires of Persians, Byzantium, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Prussians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Austrians. From northern Europe came Germanic tribes, the Vikings (and their numerous offsprings in Scandinavia), Teutonic Knights, the Goths, the Vandals, and the Franks. The Portuguese and Spaniards launched the Age of Exploration, and were soon joined by not only the Dutch, the French, and the Brits, but by Germans, Swedes, Belgians, Italians, and Danes. All actively acquired colonies for riches and glory – with varying degrees of good and bad intentions and effects.
And lest one think this is a white man’s game – an exclusively “white” obsession – no area (or time) has been exempt. In the Far East, Japan has officially been an empire since the eighth century and has carried out its share of conquests – inside and outside the archipelago. Japan’s ancient rival, China, has spawned many empires over at least three millenia. The Indian subcontinent has produced the Mauryan, Kushan, Gupta, and Mughal empires. Among Africa’s greatest conquerors were the Kushite, Egyptian, Carthaginian, Numidian, Ethiopian, Mali, Songhai, Kaabu, Luba, and Zulu kingdoms and empires. And in the New World, the Mayans conquered in ancient times, and in recent centuries, the Toltec, Aztec, and Comanches went forth and dominated.
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And now we return to the age of empires, where rulers and nations behave as they always have – aggressively fulfilling personal and national ambitions of glory, power, and riches. And as external aggression is a constant companion of internal repression, we can expect more parts of the world to fall prey to one form or another of servitude and enslavement.
These days, the focus is on Russia – the attempt by the current tsar to restore the Russian empire. But Russia is a bit late to the game.
The Persians began acquiring satrapies, 40 years ago (Qasim Suleimani had a nice little playground to frolic in before his fun was ended). Persian’s neighbor the sultan has directed his attention along the waters of the Mediterranean and to his kinsmen across the Asian steppes.
The emperors of the Middle Kingdom, however, have been the most successful, and they have acquired their great imperium in an unconventional way. All around the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond, the Chinese have gained control through theft, infiltration, debt diplomacy, and straight-out procurement. And, now, China is divvying up Asia and the rest of the world with its junior partners, to fill its desperate need for oil, gold, grain, and women.
So, when America departed Afghanistan in disgrace and humiliation, a year ago, and ceded valuable territory and treasure to its chief enemies, the world took careful note; it saw a country in retreat – weak, irresolute, and unreliable. As nature abhors a vacuum, and weakness is provocative, that has flung the door wide open to those with imperial ambitions – their day has come – this is their chance.