Empires should fear history’s lessons in decline

In this week’s Text Messages, raising the spectre of ‘the clash of civilisations’ should not be lightly done when empires have been shown to crumble easily once their ‘artificial supports’ are removed.

Sabre-rattling between Washington and Beijing, muted in the sweetheart phase of the Trump/Xi relationship, has resumed. It is geopolitical business as usual, a return to norms that for much of the past four years were suspended for the most curious of presidential love-ins.

That a United States president could be so enamoured with the old enemies Russia and China was at first inconceivable. But then much about the years 2016 to 2020 in the US was and remains inexplicable and incomprehensible. Now, however, President Joe Biden has righted the ship of state and warning shots are being fired across the bows of the good ship Xi Jinping. 

The headline to an opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper on 2 May went so far as to describe these renewed statecraft hostilities as “Biden and Xi talk of a clash of civilisations”. That was a mighty inference from two quotes in the piece. One had Biden saying, “They’re going to write about this point in history. Not about any of us here, but about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” The other referenced the Chinese politburo’s red-hot catchphrase of the moment: “The East is rising; the West is declining.”

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Clash of civilisations? Hmm. Powers have always clashed, whether in search of land for better grazing and farming and water or in competition for new markets for their products or simply because of the unfortunate human lust to expand. But raising the spectre of “the clash of civilisations” should not be lightly done.

It is 28 years since a paper going almost by that name reset US policy and changed the contours of the world for the worse. Samuel P Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations? in the journal Foreign Affairs (Volume 72, Number 3, Summer 1993). At the time he was Eaton Professor of the Science of Government and director of the John M Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University. The piece arose from the Olin Institute’s project, The Changing Security Environment and American National Interests.

Note, though, that Huntington was being cautious, even suggesting he was being speculative, in adding a question mark to his paper’s title. That little punctuation was largely ignored, however, by hawkish foreign policy wonks who, knowingly and unknowingly, seized on the article as an act of faith in what they saw as the coming clash with the Muslim world.

Bellicose exchanges

Returning to 2021’s “clash”, it’s easy to see that these exchanges between the US and China will become increasingly bellicose and that both side’s speech bubbles disguise a reality at odds with surface appearances. The US is an empire in irretrievable decline. But so is the imperialist People’s Republic of China (PRC).

The sun has set on the American Century and is approaching the zenith of China’s high noon. From here on, opposition to the PRC will be more coordinated and determined, whether through trade, treaties, pacts or economic blocs sharing similar interests, insecurities and ideologies. It is always difficult for players to discern the high point of their game and to realise that the best has come. Biden and Xi will talk as though glories lie ahead; history will show that they are already past.

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Here are three reflections on empire, taking in three of the greatest: Roman, Byzantine and Mongol. They make for cautionary reading about archetypal imperial overreach, the evanescence of power and the hubris that precedes and accompanies its loss and the inevitable fall of all empires.

“The rise of a city, which swelled into an empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflections 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 for so long.” – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (1877)

“The Roman Empire of the East was founded by Constantine the Great on Monday, 11 May 330; it came to an end on Tuesday, 29 May 1453. During those one thousand, one hundred and twenty-three years and eighteen days, eighty-eight men and women occupied the imperial throne – excluding the seven who usurped it during the Latin occupation … 

“That is why five and a half centuries later, throughout the Greek world, Tuesday is still believed to be the unluckiest day of the week; why the Turkish flag still depicts not a crescent but a waning moon, reminding us that the moon was in its last quarter when Constantinople finally fell; and why, excepting only the Great Church of St Sophia itself, it is the Land Walls – broken, battered, but still marching from sea to sea – that stand as the city’s grandest and most tragic monument.” – A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich (1999)

“I have come to the point in our book at which I will tell you of the great achievements of the Great Khan now reigning. The title Khan means in our language ‘Great Lord of Lords’. And certainly he has every right to this title; for everyone should know that this Great Khan is the mightiest man, whether in respect of subjects or of territory or of treasure, who is in the world today or who ever has been, from Adam our first parent down to the present moment. And I will make it quite clear to you in our book that this is the plain truth, so that everyone will be convinced that he is indeed the greatest lord the world has ever known.” – The Travels by Marco Polo, translated by RE Latham (1958). The Khan referred to is Kublai, grandfather of Jenghiz Khan.

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