Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 14 April 2024


China, Russia and Iran Are Reviving the Age of Empires

Photos via Getty Images

Western states that lost their overseas possessions have fared well in the Pax Americana. But Xi and Putin want to regain their nations’ long-lost imperial might. 


The ghosts of empire are haunting Eurasia. President Xi Jinping’s China is seeking to reclaim the power and privileges of the great dynasties that once bestrode Asia. President Vladimir Putin is channeling the memory, and the methods, of famous conquerors from Russia’s imperial past. Iran is using proxies, missiles and other means to build a sphere of influence encompassing parts of the old Persian Empire. Not so long ago, much of the world was ruled by empires. If today’s revisionist states have their way, the future could resemble the past.

Empires take many forms, but the term generally refers to a multinational collection of peoples and territories, in which power flows outward from a dominant center. For centuries, global order and disorder were shaped by the clash of rival empires. The big story of 20th century geopolitics was the decline or destruction of the great, formal empires of Europe and Asia, and their replacement by a still-greater, informal empire led by the US. Yet dreams of empire die hard, and the story of 21st century geopolitics — so far — is the quest for imperial restoration by a host of ambitious autocracies that chafe at the liberal international order Washington runs.

That story is also an illustration of how powerful and pernicious historical legacies can be. The onetime empires that adjusted most successfully to the modern world were the ones that eventually got over the loss of greatness. Germany, Japan, the UK and others accepted, however reluctantly, that they were more likely to thrive as members of America’s empire than by trying to resuscitate their own. The ones that are causing the most trouble today, by contrast, are the ones determined to revive the glories — and settle the grievances — of the past.

Empires have existed throughout history, which isn’t surprising given the penchant of the strong to expand at the expense of the weak. Rome once presided over vast swaths of the known world. Modern-day China and Russia are heirs to imperial states that controlled much of Eurasia. The US itself began as part of a British Empire that eventually spanned the globe.

The age of empire reached its zenith in the early 20th century. As historian Richard Overy recountsbefore World War I, Britain controlled an empire of 31 million square kilometers. The French Empire, at 12.5 million, was 20 times larger than metropolitan France. Thanks to rampant imperial engorgement, there were only a handful of independent countries in Africa and Asia — one of which, Japan, was building and empire that would ultimately stretch deep into Asia and across much of the Pacific Ocean.

The worst wars of the 20th century were wars of empire. World War I had roots in the clash between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires for influence in the Balkans, as well as the tensions created by Germany’s desire to dominate Europe and win imperial prerogatives further abroad. World War II erupted when Germany, Japan and Italy sought to conquer huge domains that would make them prosperous and secure.

Empires could be sources of strength: Nearly 1.7 million Indians served the British cause during World War I. Food and raw materials from the British and French empires sustained the Allies’ war effort. The lesson Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan drew from that conflict — and applied in the 1930s and 1940s — was that violent expansion was the key to attaining the land, markets and resources that would allow them to rule a rivalrous world.

Yet bids for greatness often ended in destruction, by bringing down the wrath of countervailing coalitions. The German, Japanese and Italian empires were ruined by the global conflicts those countries started. The winners didn’t fare much better: The two world wars, and the independence movements they unleashed, eventually broke the empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands and other European powers. Russia’s tsarist empire collapsed under the strain of World War I, was resurrected as a socialist empire in the form of the Soviet Union, and then disintegrated again when it was defeated in the Cold War. The age of empire, it seemed, was finally at an end.

The age of formal empire, anyway. The US was an agent of imperial destruction in the 20th century: Its self-interest, as well as its founding anti-colonial ideology, made it uncomfortable in a world of aggressively expansionist Old World states. It helped defeat the Central Powers, the Axis powers and the communist powers. Less violently, and more ambivalently, it used economic and diplomatic tools to hasten the end of the British, French and other European empires during World War II and then the Cold War — erecting an impressive, informal empire in their place.

America was never much of an empire, by European standards. It never had a huge collection of overseas colonies. Once it granted independence to the Philippines, in 1946, it had few vestiges of formal empire left. By that point, however, Washington was undertaking a different imperial project.

If empire is fundamentally about the penetration of one society by the power of another, then it is hard to describe America’s post-World War II statecraft as anything but imperial. After World War II, the US took primary responsibility for managing the global economy, much as Britain, with its navy and its preeminence in international trade and finance, had done a century earlier. The US forged military alliances with countries across Eurasia — turning some of them, such as West Germany and Japan, into de facto strategic protectorates — and built the constellation of overseas military bases that would allow it to project its might into the far corners of the world.

Washington intervened, with varying degrees of subtlety, in the domestic politics of countries from Western Europe to Southeast Asia. It used its unmatched power to discourage military aggression and nuclear proliferation, oppose communism and support (albeit selectively) democracy, and otherwise set the global rules of the road. And thanks to the likes of Hollywood and Coca-Cola, America attained cultural dominance, as well. In its global power, and its global ambition, the US exceeded any empire of the past.

This project was motivated mostly by self-interest, namely the need to contain the Soviet Union and otherwise shape the world in ways that would make the US itself prosperous and secure. Like all imperial projects, moreover, it featured some brutal, amoral measures, such as the coups, counterinsurgencies and support for some repressive rulers in what we now call the Global South. The need to combat communism even led Washington to assume the role once played by European powers in places like Vietnam — and to end up fighting the same revolutionary movements that had once challenged those powers.

Yet the American empire was, nonetheless, exceptional. Influence often flowed inward: It was formed in part because so many countries in Europe and Asia were desperate for Washington’s patronage and protection amid the chaos of the early Cold War. Wealth often flowed outward: In the 25 years after 1945, America’s share of global GDP dropped dramatically, and US officials deemed that development a success because Washington’s allies were the greatest beneficiaries. In fact, countries that had once ruled enormous empires — Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Italy and others — decided they were better off becoming members of America’s.

This was an astonishing development. It required onetime imperial powers to reduce their ambitions and redefine their national identities. It was possible because their own empires had been devastated by war and its aftermath — and because the US delivered many of the benefits those empires had once provided.

The US provided its allies in Europe and Asia with protection against their enemies. It assured them access to the markets, resources and sea lanes needed for economic growth. Until 1945, it was commonly believed that security and prosperity required imperial expansion. In the 20th century, Washington made a world in which countries — even America’s recent enemies such as Japan — could survive and thrive without building hulking empires of their own.

Not everyone has gotten out of the imperial game, however. US influence may seem benign to America’s fellow advanced democracies, the countries that have benefitted most handsomely from American investment in a relatively liberal, peaceful world. Imperial legacies are more easily confronted in democratic societies, which tend to be more skeptical — these days — of the coercion empire-building often involves.

Yet the American empire looks far more threatening to some of Eurasia’s autocracies, which see liberal values as threats to their own regimes — and view US power as a barrier to reclaiming the imperial privileges they once enjoyed. Across Eurasia, then, empire — with varying degrees of violence and formality — is making a comeback.

Exhibit A is Putin, the most egregiously and explicitly neo-imperial ruler of the lot. The Russian president proudly styles himself as a great conqueror in the mold of the tsars. His closest advisers, as one Russian official quipped, are “Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.” Putin makes no secret that his goal is to rebuild a Russian Empire on the territory of the former Soviet Union — whose collapse he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” — and avenge the humiliations Russia suffered after its parent state fell apart.

For a quarter-century, Putin has been fighting the wars of the Soviet succession — a series of conflicts, in places from Chechnya to Moldova, meant to reverse the contraction of Moscow’s power within the post-Soviet space. Today, he is pursuing the outright conquest of Ukraine and its incorporation into Russia — the most naked act of neo-imperialism Europe has seen in generations, and one Putin justifies through near-continual references to Russia’s imperial past.

Russia and Ukraine are “one people — a single whole,” he has declared, which means the former can do to the latter at is pleases. As historian Jeffrey Mankoff writes in his brilliant book, Empires of Eurasia, Putin views the negation of his neighbors’ sovereignty — of their identity as independent states — as the prerequisite to reasserting Moscow’s control over them.

Visions of empire are alive and well in Beijing, too. Like Russia, China is a country with a grievance: It styles itself as the victim of European, Japanese and American imperialism, during the “century of humiliation” stretching from the onset of the Opium Wars in the 1830s to the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. But now China is strong, proud and desirous of recreating a quasi-imperial domain.

Beijing seeks a sphere of influence — what some analysts describe as a latter-day version of the old Chinese imperial tribute system — in the Asia-Pacific, so it can command deference from smaller states nearby. It is rebuilding old patterns of influence within mainland Eurasia, through projects such as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, while brutally pacifying its internal borderlands — namely Tibet and Xinjiang, which sit between the Han core of the country and this imperial periphery. And while China isn’t trying to conquer foreign countries, as Russia is, it has unresolved territorial disputes from the Himalayas to the South China Sea.

The imperial echoes are impossible not to hear. Beijing bases its claim to the South China Sea on arguments about the reach and influence of the Han dynasty two millenniums ago. The Community of Common Destiny, China’s concept for a post-American global order, is derived from the imperial Chinese concept of tianxia, or “all under Heaven.” Chinese leaders and propagandists often tout not just the country’s rise, but its rejuvenation — the idea, as the state-run news agency put it, that the “Middle Kingdom” is “set to regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world.”

Eurasia’s third revisionist power, Iran, has its own imperial tradition: It is the descendent of both the Persian Empire and the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled until 1979. And although Iran’s ayatollahs gained power by overthrowing the Pahlavis, they are trying to revive some of its old patters of influence.

Tehran’s rulers, writes Mankoff, envision a “greater Iran” that includes “not only Mesopotamia but also the Caucasus and much of Central and South Asia.” This doesn’t require asserting direct political or military control over the region — Iran is far too weak for this. Rather, Tehran is using proxies, special operations forces and other asymmetric tools to degrade its neighbors’ sovereignty and shape events from Yemen to the Levant. Meanwhile, it is developing the military tools, from ballistic missiles to an advancing nuclear program, that would facilitate the drive for regional dominance by helping it push rivals — namely the US and Israel — out.

Every empire has its ideology, and there is a strong religious component to Iran’s project. In the years after the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini asserted that an Islamic movement bearing the blessing of Allah “cannot limit itself to any particular country.” Today, Iran has made enemies of much of the Muslim world, but still claims primacy over its Shiite populations. Modern Iran, writes historian Kelly Shannon, “has always seen itself as the home of once-great empires” — a self-perception that continues to underpin its foreign policy today.

What right do Americans have to complain about this? After all, the influence Russia, Iran and China are seeking is fairly modest compared to the influence the US itself exerts.

The real issue is that not all forms of empire are created equal. America’s empire has hardly been without its sins, but it has nonetheless helped make the world freer and more prosperous than ever before. A world of rising autocratic empires wouldn’t be so pretty — and we are presently getting real-time reminders of how bloody and brutal the creation of such empires can be.

As part of Putin’s quest for empire, Russia is destroying Ukraine and brutalizing its population. As Hamas’s horrific attack on Oct. 7 and its aftermath have demonstrated, Iran and its proxies have repeatedly plunged the Middle East into chaos. China’s neo-imperial project involves ruthless repression of its Uyghurs. If Beijing were to try to use force to consummate its ambitions — by bringing Taiwan under its control, for instance — it could trigger a catastrophic Sino-American war.

These 21st century bids for empire endanger America’s liberal order, by threatening to revive a world in which empires expand and conquer in more coercive, violent forms. Yet they also threaten to bring blowback for the would-be empires themselves.

In recent years, Beijing’s assertiveness has made it a widening circle of enemies, and provoked technological and trade restrictions by the US and its allies that threaten to undermine China’s future growth. Even if Putin eventually seizes all of Ukraine’s Donbas region, he will have paid a price that is totally out of proportion to whatever benefits he gets from ruling its ruins. Iran’s bid for empire has led to sanctions, isolation and economic misery, which is one reason why a regime so ambitious abroad has suffered recurring rounds of revolt at home.

It’s pleasing to think that historical memory makes us wiser. But across Eurasia, rulers and regimes that can’t let go of imperial legacies that are causing the world, and their own people, a great deal of grief.

More From Hal Brands at Bloomberg Opinion:

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
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