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Peering Dimly through the Wreckage
The future won't be like the past: it never is.
As I have previously argued, the world is going through one of its occasional tectonic shifts in the distribution of economic, military and political power. Many people understand that in principle, but they often assume that the end-result will be much like the world of the present, only with the names changed. This essay tries to explain why they are wrong.
We all like to read stories about the future, even if we know that they are really stories about the present, with a few tweaks. So, if we are unhappy with the way the world is going, we want to read about how it will get worse, until the consequences we expect or fear actually come to pass. If we’re happy with the present state of the world, we want to read about a future version of it that is just a bit nicer and kinder than our own. Which tendency predominates at a given time is largely a matter of politics, although it’s fair to say that a science-fiction novel set uncritically in a world with values fundamentally different from our own would probably be unpublishable today.
This isn’t an essay about science fiction, but that example usefully sparks the thought that fairy tales about the future are not in fact confined to fiction, and some of the most powerful are told by economists, politicians, experts on “international relations” and pundits generally. Among all these classes, there is a dawning realisation that things are changing, mixed with an incapacity to imagine that the changed future could be different from the present not just in degree or nuance, but in its fundamental nature. (This is why all pundits should be forced to read selected novels from the Golden Age of SF writing.)
So for some time, pundits have been punditing about China replacing the US as some kind of global hegemon, without actually asking (1) whether that comparison even makes sense (2) what “hegemony” means, if anything (3) why China should choose to behave like the United States or (4) what China’s foreign policy objectives actually are, among other important omissions. The pundit community in general seems to believe that the future will still be rather like the present with some names and roles changed (rather as the past is often implicitly assumed to have been), and is therefore easy to understand without the need for boring things like research. This form of temporal colonialism that I’ve called “chronicism” makes any genuine attempt to think realistically about the future impossible, just as it often makes thinking about the past embarrassing. In fact, just as the past was very different, so can we expect the future to be, and probably in ways that we can’t anticipate.
Now, to keep this easy to a reasonable and modest compass, let’s limit our discussion to the military/strategic and economic side, and the political consequences that are likely to result. That’s quite enough to be going on with. And let’s start with the past.
I’ve always argued that any political system is an attempt to use power to organise geographical space. We’ll look at some generic ways that space has been organised in the past, and then ask if they have relevance today, and might have tomorrow. The level of organisation attempted, and the degree of success, depended very much on the detail of geography, and on the technological and political sophistication of those involved. When population densities were very low, political units could exist largely independent of each other. But soon a particularly vigorous leader would arise, and try to expand his power in the region. This point is critical: for most of human history, kingdoms and empires were the extended possessions of a monarch or a dynasty. Even as late as the nineteenth century, only a small minority of the world’s population lived in something that could reasonably be called a nation-state. It was possible, indeed common, in certain parts of the world, to be a subject of one Empire, to speak a language more typical of a second, and identify predominantly with a nearby city of a third. This is one reason why we should be extremely careful about making uncritical assumptions that patterns from the past will be repeated in the future.
As empires of conquest were established, they waxed and waned with the capability of their leaders. A particularly strong emperor (Alexander of Macedon is the best known example) could expand rapidly, whereas a weak emperor could lose most of the possessions gained by his ancestors. Because politics, and in particular the organisation and control of space, does not tolerate a vacuum, what usually happened is that relatively strong actors expanded into areas that were only weakly controlled. In other words “strong” was a relative, not an absolute quality. A classic example is the expansion of the Arabs under the banner of Islam, which historians agree was only made possible by the simultaneous decadence of the Roman and Persian Empires, which left a vacuum that was easy to fill. This pattern of weakness exploited is one that endures up to the present day, and explains much of what we can expect to happen over the next generation or so.
This is why classic empires of conquest, are in general geographically contiguous. If you look at a map of the Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent, it includes a couple of islands (Rhodes and Cyprus) and some purely coastal territories, but it is, nonetheless, essentially contiguous. Empires gained by conquest tended to last (the Ottoman until 1922, the Romanov until 1917) but are not feasible in today’s world. The last time space was organised in this fashion was in 1945, when the Red Army fought its way to Berlin, and the Soviet leadership decided that only by having their forces stay where they were, could they ever be safe from invasion again. But that represented an awe-inspiring level of mobilisation (not to mention casualties) and is simply not conceivable again.
If conquest, or expansion into a vacuum of power, was one way of expanding control over territory, another was dynastic marriage and overseas warfare, which enabled the Hapsburgs, for example, to control territory for a while in Latin America, as well as throughout Europe. But such a massive empire was impossible, and ruinously expensive, to keep together, and the Hapsburgs were progressively forced back to the areas they had originally conquered. Dynastic marriage is no longer a method of gaining territory, but there is an analogue in formal alliances and treaty organisations, as well as purely cynical strategic partnerships on strategic issues, such as those between Iran and North Korea, or Israel and Saudi Arabia. As is the case with NATO, they do not need to be geographically contiguous.
Another model is the deliberate search for territory overseas, for economic, strategic or political purposes. The famously quarrelsome Greeks established colonies all over the Mediterranean to get away from other Greeks, but that required empty space to expand into. Both Greeks and Phoenicians founded cities for trade and extraction purposes throughout the Mediterranean, and this tradition continued up until almost modern times. The “Empires” of western states were mostly established for commercial purposes, such as the control of trade routes, or to have easy access to raw materials. The Spanish and Portuguese search for gold and silver in the Americas is the classic example, but others include Dutch attempts to access the spice trade, and other goods from the East, often in competition with the Portuguese. The original Dutch settlement in the Cape was simply a safe harbour for the East India Company, and it was seized by the British during the Napoleonic Wars as a strategic naval base. The Europeans noticed the existence of a flourishing internal slave trade in Africa and, like the Arabs to the East, exploited it for their own ends. The resulting implantations of presence scarcely merit the term “colonies”: they were really trading stations, exercising a degree of control inland in some cases. There are analogies between these episodes and, for example, the strategic implantations of Chinese companies in Africa today: a trend which will probably be continued.
Exercising formal and direct control over conquered territories was only feasible by a wealthy and organised society: the Persian and Roman Empires are examples of this, as the Ottomans were to some extent later. The possibility of taking control of distant territories reachable only by sea had to await the Industrial Revolution, the growth of state capacity that accompanied it and the development of modern ships and weapons. What we think of today as “colonialism” was largely confined to the period between about 1870 and 1914, and was undertaken for a bewildering variety of reasons: strategic, humanitarian, political prestige, Great Power status, and, in the case of the Belgian Congo, simple greed.
Even then, in most cases the hold of the colonial powers on these territories was fragile, and depended on tiny numbers of soldiers and administrators. Much of the actual control was exerted through coopted locals, and by cultivating local leaders and dividing them against each other. This was control of space, but at one remove, and depended on not only on intimidation by the colonial power, but also a sense of inferiority, and a desire to emulate the colonists, on the part of the colonised. This is a pattern that continues today in post-conflict societies and countries in crisis, where members of a government have to be acceptable to the “international community” and to donors, as well as to those in the region and beyond with a strategic interest. Few politicians in post-conflict states today, for example, can expect decent careers unless they speak English, (though French might be a substitute in certain cases) and have been educated abroad. And local armed forces are organised and financed by outsiders, as they were in the days of colonialism.
All over the world, and throughout history, the real holders of power in many countries have been a neocolonial class. This class may come from the home country, the colony, or more usually a mixture of both. Examples range from the Spanish and Portuguese ruling classes in Latin America, to Quisling regimes installed by the Nazis, to the Communist Parties in Eastern Europe after 1945. What is critical is what happens when the support of the home country is taken away or can no longer be counted on. While the Spanish government was diverted by Napoleon’s invasion, the colonies in Latin America rebelled. When the Soviet Union made it clear that it was no longer interested in supporting Communist regimes elsewhere, those regimes vanished in most cases overnight.
Experience suggests that what happens afterwards can be almost infinitely variable and often very bloody. The colonial elites in Latin America fought among themselves over frontiers and raw materials after independence. After the disintegration of Communist Yugoslavia, the power vacuum was filled by nationalists in Slovenia and Croatia, by Communists who rapidly remembered they were nationalists after all in Serbia, and by competing ethnic organised crime groups in Bosnia. Where regimes installed by departing powers are still supported (as with Afghanistan in the 1990s) they can survive for some time. When not, as with Afghanistan 2,0, they can fail catastrophically. And when outside powers withdraw, there is often violent internal competition to restructure the resulting uncontrolled geographical space. This was the case after the Russians abandoned the Kabul regime, it was famously the case in Angola after the abrupt departure of the Portuguese in 1975. In many other cases also, there are confusing and violent patterns of competition and alliance between different parties during a conflict against an outside power: rivalries in Algeria and in Rhodesia during the respective independence wars are examples, and they can poison politics for decades afterwards.
A final method of exercising control is through influence, and through supporting dissidents and rebels in other countries. This was a traditional method of exercising power in pre-colonial Africa, given the force to space ratios and the difficulty of genuine military occupation, where a powerful kingdom would often be surrounded by tributary states. In independent Africa, the pattern has been repeated, with Libyan sponsorship of rebels in Chad until 2011, and effective Rwandan/Ugandan control over the mineral resources of the Eastern DRC for decades now. During the Cold War, the superpowers (and to some extent China) practised the same tactics, and still do.
We began by talking about hegemony, and it is reasonable to ask which of these models is closest to the situation today, with its roots in the events of 1945 and 1989. The honest answer is, none of them in any major respect, but bits of most of them here and there. Which is to say the present situation is unique.
The key characteristic of US and Soviet hegemony after WW2 was that it was a matter of happenstance: it had not been planned in advance. In 1935, a scenario where, a decade later, US forces would be stationed in Japan and Germany, France would control part of Berlin, British troops would be involved in a civil war in Greece, Russian forces would be in Hungary and Brazilian forces in Italy, would have deserved rejection from any Science Fiction publisher of the era as being too fantastic.
Whilst some of the minor deployments ended (the Brazilians went home, for example) the pattern of worldwide Cold War competition endured, and the situations after 1945 and after 1989 were both quite unique and unrepeatable. They differed from the outcomes of classic colonial wars of aggression because there was no particular logic to them (US troops fighting in Tunisia?), and because they depended, for the most part, on where allied forces had wound up when the fighting stopped. It was explained to visitors to Germany in the Cold War who wondered why NATO forces were deployed as they were, that the British were in the North of Germany and the US in the South, because that corresponded to the pattern of the original landing beaches in Normandy in 1944.
Thus, neither the US nor the Soviet posture after WW2 had any connection, except incidentally, with traditional patterns of empire. Nonetheless, the idea has been around for most of that time that the US is, or has, an “Empire," and this is very unhelpful in understanding where we are, and where we are likely to go. Its ultimate source is probably Lenin’s contention that Imperialism (the variety that then existed) was the “highest stage of capitalism.” The idea was pushed very hard by the Soviet Union after WW2, notably during the Vietnam War, when critics of that War, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Jean-Paul Sartre to the Jefferson Airplane charged that the US was trying to establish an “Empire” in South-East Asia. The term has now come to be generally accepted and widely used, though it’s clear that “Empire” in this context has nothing in common with any actual Empires of history, and is a poor guide to how the future might turn out. In particular, the weary old trope that the fall of America will be something like the fall of Rome is spectacularly inaccurate and unhelpful in understanding what’s going on.
Once more, after 1945, actors expanded into areas of relative weakness, as underlying economic and military realities provided them with new political options. Europe and Japan were devastated and starving, Britain was indebted and struggling, and its retreat from Empire was already beginning. The United States was less objectively strong, than relatively stronger than the traditional powers. Its economy had grown during the war, and its forces were deployed, largely through happenstance, across half the planet. These objective criteria produced a series of political relationships which have endured even as the underlying realities have moved, and which are now in the process of catching up with these changing realities.
In any event, US “hegemony” was always something of a myth. For the last thirty years especially, the US was generally the quantitatively largest single actor in many crises. But if we define “power” as I have, as the ability to get something done, we find that the actual power of the US, in practice, has been far less than is often imagined. Most countries have become quite adept at manipulating the US to get what they want, and by contrast Washington has very seldom got everything it wanted itself. Moreover, attempts to get what it wanted were often by unsubtle exploitation of crude power, which produced, at best, a grudging acquiescence. Although the US has been involved and influential in the management of a great number of modern crises, this is essentially because it has been able to force its way in. In no modern crisis has it ever been said “we’ll consult the US, they are wise and always have useful ideas to offer," but rather “I suppose there’s no alternative to involving the US, is there?” One effect of this is that the international management of crises can be almost entirely taken hostage by internal political disputes in Washington, as was the case with Bosnia, and this is widely resented.
This is an insecure basis for an international system. Partly this is because, as I’ve argued, it relies on memories and ingrained patterns of behaviour without reference to changing underlying realities. This is common in politics, the more so here, because there are no obvious organised alternatives. The present international political and economic system is deeply embedded, and benefits quite a number of nations. It is not obvious that there is another system waiting to be adopted that would be generally supported and objectively better. That’s true of most turning points in history, and radical changes in systems tend to require equally radical, and often violent, changes in the underlying situation.
In addition, many of these underlying changes have been stealthy, and only really visible to specialists, unless you were paying attention. That the West was dependent on imports for most of its raw materials was known, sort of, but it was assumed the market would always provide what was needed. Most things we needed for our daily lives were made in China, and imported through long supply chains, but just how much was only really appreciated with the arrival of Covid, where we also learned, to general surprise, that most pharmaceuticals are made elsewhere. It was vaguely understood that electronics and component manufacture had migrated to China, but not really how much. And the development of whole new fields of military technology and the modernisation of Russian armed forces had been known to experts, but were of interest to few others.
So we’ve arrived at a situation where the West is objectively weak, and living on borrowed political time. The question is, how the consequences of this will play out. That’s a vast subject, and needs another essay, but there are a few things that we can be sure of.
One is that there is no substitute waiting to occupy the political space currently squatted by the Global West and the institutions it dominates. There is no other entity with the globalist, universalist approach of western liberal states: indeed, the fashion is very much for the reverse, with the revival of nationalism and regionalism everywhere. Although there are fears that the world may therefore become more unstable, the opposite is probably true. With the decline of the messianic normative policies that the West has espoused since the nineteenth century, it may once again be possible to resolve disputes locally and pragmatically, on a purely regional basis. The result is likely to be a slow re-regionalisation of international politics. The West’s proposals will no longer be automatically listened to, and the West itself may be crowded out by other actors. In the end, the West has nothing but its historical power to give it political status and influence in the world today, and, as we have seen, that power is now largely based on an illusion.
But perhaps all this seems very cold and scientific. What about ideology? What about the rise of political Islam? What about the alleged struggle between “democracy” and “authoritarianism?” The answer is that it depends on the levels you are talking at. Ideology in itself has never, and cannot be by definition, a major force in international politics on its own. It has to be adopted and promulgated by some powerful political entity. Christianity without Constantine and the Roman Empire, Islam without the Arab tribes and the Ottoman Empire, Communism without the Bolshevik seizure of power, remind us that ideas do not have a life of their own. Space is organised by those who have the power to do so, as much in its ideological as its geographical sense. In the late 19th century, the British and the French brought (different versions of) Liberal ideas to Africa, along with Christianity, “good government," the abolition of slavery and other things, all as part of their establishment of Empires. But it was the economic and political strength of Britain and France that enabled them to create the Empires in the first place, and so disseminate these ideas. It’s not clear that there is any similar messianic trend waiting in the wings today. Political Islam can be vicious and disruptive, but in the end its ability to reconfigure the world is very limited.
So the future will not be like the past. It won’t even be like the future was supposed to be, or how it’s excitedly discussed now. It will be sui generis as all times are, and involve the division of the geographical space of the world into economic, military and political patterns we can for the moment only guess at.