With Tony Blair semi-apologising today for the Iraq war, in an unusual excursion, I’ve spent much of today thinking about the rise and fall of empires.
Why do empires get built? They’re built to make the empire builders rich. Let’s start with the Roman empire that gradually expanded around the Mediterranean sea between about 500 BC and 100 AD. The whole thing was run from Rome, and as the Romans overran new territories, they became colonies that paid taxes to Rome. And the bigger the empire became, the larger the tax revenues became. And that’s why Rome is full of grandiose triumphal arches and circuses and aqueducts. Much of it is still there.
It wasn’t one-way looting by Rome. Because the Roman empire was also a trading empire, and the Romans built roads and bridges and aqueducts which were as useful for trade as they were for military transport. And they installed civilian governments with Roman laws, and encouraged the colonies to adopt Roman customs. And they cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, and instituted a Pax Romana in which trade and industry could flourish. Most of Rome’s military power was kept on the perimeter of the empire. There were a few Roman legions in North Africa and the Middle East, but most of the legions were positioned along its northern borders, roughly along the line of the Rhine and the Danube.
If the Roman empire stopped expanding, it was probably because it was simply getting too big to manage. It took a Roman army 60 days to march from Rome to Lutetia (Paris). Information didn’t travel very much faster. The 454 km between Rome and Paris takes 22 hours at 20 km/hr (horse canter), which probably translates into 3 or 4 days when night time is excluded, and hills are added in. If the Roman empire fell under the control of a single emperor after about 35 BC, it was probably because it needed a decisive leader to respond quickly to events, and not wait for the Roman Senate of Republican Rome to debate what to do. Equally, if the Roman empire was subsequently divided in two (the Western and Eastern empires), it was probably for the exact same reason.
And once the Roman empire stopped expanding, it was probably only a matter of time before it started contracting. The Western Roman empire (which included Rome itself) fell in about 500 AD. The Eastern Roman empire, controlled from Constantinople (Istanbul) lasted another thousand years, slowly contracting in the process.
The Rise of the European Empires
With a few exceptions (Charlemagne), Europe then became a patchwork quilt of nation states for the next thousand years after the fall of the Western empire.
The next set of empires started around 1400, firstly with the Portuguese, who’d gone sailing all round the world, starting in 1415 AD (Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan), setting up trading posts and colonies. The Spanish were close on their heels (Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro ), and between them they divided up the rest of the world between them (Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494). As gold poured in from the west coasts of North and South America, Spain became the richest and most powerful nation in Europe. The King of Spain became the King of Portugal, and also of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Milan, Naples, Sicily.
At which time the British and the French (and also the Dutch) started building their own rival overseas empires. The British empire gradually came to include much of North eastern America, India, Australia. and large areas of Africa. The French empire included another large area of south eastern North America (Louisiana), and much of Northwest Africa, and also Vietnam. The Dutch empire included South Africa and the East Indies. Even Belgium had a colony in the Congo. And Denmark had colonies in Iceland, Greenland, and the West Indies. Italy had Libya and Eritrea.
At about this time the Portuguese and Spanish empires began to decline. In 1765, the American colonies threw off British rule. And a few decades later, much of South America threw off Spanish and Portuguese rule. Perhaps the simplest explanation for the near-simultaneous independence of much of North and South America was that, much like in the Roman Empire, both were simply too far away to be managed effectively from Europe. It took about 3 weeks to sail from America to England, and about 5 weeks to sail from England to America. It probably took even longer to sail to Brazil or Peru. Once Britain and Spain and Portugal had lost their American colonies, there was very little they could do about it (It’s an odd thought that, if the Industrial Revolution had started in Britain 50 years earlier than it did, the British army could have been transported to America far more quickly and in far greater numbers by steamship –16 days from Emgland to America, 13 days to return – than was actually the case at the time).
The Fall of the European Empires
The fall of all the European empires came with the Great War of 1914-18 (aka WW1) and the subsequent great war of 1939-45 (aka WW2). These were global wars precisely because most of the participants were European imperial powers with colonies all over the world. There was a very great deal at stake.
On the one side in WW1 there were the Central Powers of newly unified and industrialised Germany, the Austrian-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, and Bulgaria. On the other side there were the Allied Powers of France, Britain, Russia, and Italy. The most notable non-combatants were Spain and Portugal (as well as their former colonies in the Americas). There was much the same cast in WW2, with Axis Powers replaced by Nazi Germany and annexed Austria, and Fascist Italy, and with the Allied Powers again featuring the French and British empires, the Soviet Union, and the USA (in 1941). The countries that fought these wars were those with most at stake. The rest stayed out if they possibly could.
The real winners of these two global wars were the USA and the Soviet Union. Much of Europe was left either bankrupt or broken. Although nominally one of the victors, the British Empire had become unsustainable, and over the next few decades the Empire was wound up, with India and Pakistan gaining independence in 1947, Canada in 1967, Australia in 1975, Hong Kong in 1997. Equally, Vietnam gained independence from France in 1954, Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, and Algeria gained independence from France in 1962,
The US global empire
After the demise of the French and British influence in the post-war era, there began a Cold War between on the one hand the ‘free’ West under the leadership of the USA, and on the other hand the Soviet Union, Communist China, and their satellite states.
The US ’empire’ did not burden itself with any colonies. Instead, it let countries govern themselves, and acted almost exclusively to promote free trade and to restrict the spread of the power and influence of the Communist East, fighting wars first in Korea, and then in Vietnam, while maintaining powerful military forces in Europe and the Far East.
This continued until the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, at which point US military power became globally unrivalled. It next became embroiled in ill-considered adventures in Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011). Although militarily unrivalled, these interventions by the USA were politically disastrous, because all the countries concerned were left more or less as lawless failed states. This was arguably a consequence of the US policy of solely using its military supremacy to defeat perceived enemies, while leaving the countries involved to themselves restore political order afterwards. This might have been well and good in Europe and Japan in 1945, but it didn’t work in Middle Eastern states which were artificial constructs with little history of political stability except under dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muamar Gaddafi.
The rise of the EU empire.
Over the 70 years after the end of WW2, there grew up in Europe first the European Economic Community, and later the European Union. This was an invitation-only empire, of which much of Europe gradually became members, attracted by the prospect of a European peace within a free trade area.
The EU consists almost entirely of a collection of former imperial states – France, Britain, Belgium, Holland – that have united into a single European superstate. Instead of colonising the rest of the world, Europe has now colonised itself. And in the process it has expanded in the only direction it is able – eastwards. And this has now brought it into collision with the Russian Federation in Ukraine.
At the same time, the EU has metamorphosed from a trading community of sovereign states into a single superstate under the control of an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, bound together in a malfunctioning Euro currency union, and shackled by innumerable laws made in Brussels.
The main beneficiaries of the EU empire have been a European political class which has been more than happy to earn fat EU salaries while ceasing to represent the interests of their own peoples, who are becoming increasingly disenchanted with an empire in which they have little or no influence. Having constructed this empire, the European political elites now have a job on their hands to keep its invitation-only members from breaking away.
The EU also suffers the same problem as the Roman Republic, which is glacial slowness in responding to events (e.g. the Euro crisis, the migrant crisis). The USA seems to have got round this problem by giving the office of President almost imperial executive powers. EU presidents and commissioners have no equivalent freedom of action.
Furthermore the EU empire consists of a number of nation states whose citizens feel a primary loyalty to those states, rather than to the EU. So Britain looks after British interests, France looks after French interests, and so on. And all the countries speak different languages.
The European empire has been stitched together with a series of treaties which now look set to be tested by centrifugal forces tearing it apart. But a new European war would seem to be unlikely, now that there are no longer any overseas empires at stake. If there is to be any war in Europe it is most likely be a low level civil war between the empire and its largely unrepresented subject peoples.
It may be that the European political class will recognise the growing danger of popular discontent, and repatriate a great many government powers (including the power to employ their own currencies) to EU member states, while lifting the burden of EU regulations enacted by Brussels. And while it decentralises powers in these respects, it may centralise the remaining powers into a decisive presidency that can make quick decisions. But there is precious little sign of this happening from a political class wedded to a doctrine of “ever closer union”.
The most pressing current problems are to be found in the mounting numbers of failed states in the Middle East which are now exporting refugees and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. This is the consequence of numerous political blunders over the past century, starting with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that carved the Middle East up into spheres of influence largely independent of the political realities on the ground. This created a number of artificial states which could only be held together by brutal dictators of one kind or other. All this has been exacerbated recently by US-led interventions designed to topple the dictators, but lacking any clear plan as to how to restore order from the ensuing chaos.
When the British finally left India in 1947, after over 100 years of the Raj, they left behind a functioning civil service and a language, both of which remain in use to this day. The same might be said of almost all the former colonies of Britain, including what is now the USA.
If it should ever become necessary for Europe or the USA to intervene in the Middle East, it ought to be on the understanding that if they go in, they should stay in until they have constructed stable states capable of governing themselves without immediately disintegrating into sectarian rivalry. It’s no good just going in, toppling the local dictator, and then getting out. You have to leave behind a functioning government and civil service.