The end of empire is never an edifying sight. It has taken many forms, from the bloodlust, killing and looting in Constantinople in 1453, the fall of the Roman Empire in the East, to the British Empire’s pell-mell shedding of its many colonies, all in the space of a few years in the middle of the 20th century. Annihilation, disintegration, disappearance: these are the hallmarks of moribund and dead empires.
In a rare moment of world history, three empires are heavily invested in a war that one of them, Russia, began by attacking its Slavic neighbour Ukraine. But the acquisitive, domineering and destructive nature of Russia’s invasion is merely a fig leaf behind which lies the truth: Russia is bust as a world power, its current “empire”, the Russian Federation, concealing the reality of that bankruptcy. Russian President Vladimir Putin waging war on Ukraine is a last roll of the dice in a desperate attempt to animate a contemporary version of Imperial Russia. It looks, however, more like Russian roulette.
Looking on are the globe’s superpowers, the United States and China. The unipolar world that stretched from August 1945 when Nazi Germany was defeated to the first decade of the 21st century is now one in which there is genuine bipolarity. At one pole, the US, a febrile and decaying power as eager as Russia is to disguise such a decline. At the other pole, a China made wealthy by Deng Xiaoping’s injunction “Let some people get rich first”.
This is not the sort of wealth that Putin has allowed to flow to Russian oligarchs, who are essentially only curators of state resources and assets, managing them for Putin while being allowed to siphon off enough to make them billionaires. Overall, their takings are a pittance of what the Russian state receives for its gas and oil sales. The Chinese wealth has infiltrated every sector of society: the state, the billionaires and millionaires, hundreds of millions propelled into the urban middle class or lifted out of deep rural poverty.
What the world is seeing and will continue to witness is a tale of three bears: the Russian bear (Putin), the Chinese panda (Xi Jinping) and the American grizzly (whoever is in the White House). With due apologies to JRR Tolkien and his end-of-evil-empire epic, The Lord of the Rings, what is on the world’s stage and certainly on its television screens is a Lord of the Bears saga:
One Bear to rule them all, One Bear to find them,
One Bear to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
(Substitute “Ring/s” for “Bear/s” above and you have the epigraph to The Lord of the Rings.)
A question of time
There is another literary work that has much bearing on the current global situation because it has long been a textbook of statecraft, diplomacy, treachery, military strategy, cunning, and human integrity and nobility as well as human weaknesses, vices and foibles. It is the Chinese “history novel” Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, the oldest complete edition of which was published in 1522.
For 500 years it has been read by the literate and heard by those unable to read. In some ways it is as foundational for the Chinese and their world as was Homer’s Iliad for the Greeks. Both cultures love their respective epics without reserve.
The Iliad begins:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians
Three Kingdoms begins:
Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.
The three kingdoms came into being on the fall of the Han Dynasty, China’s longest and most powerful, which reigned from 206 BCE to 220 CE. The kingdoms of Wei, Wu and Shu then contested for primacy until a new ruling house, the Jin, reunited the realm in 280 CE. It is not fanciful to see in the novel’s lessons on war, duplicity, comradeship and honour, a template for the current three-way struggle to assert power and dominance in the fledgling bipolar world.
But whatever the outcome, the “winner” will need to remember the words of Edward Gibbon, and heed them when the time comes. Writing in his monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon judged:
“The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind. But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.”