DECLINE OF EMPIRE
The concept of empires and their rise and fall has been a personal topic of interest and a discussion among historians and scholars for centuries. Among the most influential works on this subject is the writing of British military historian Sir John Bagot Glubb (also known as Glubb Pasha), who proposed a six-stage model of empire decline.
It’s been years since I first came across Glubb’s work—The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival and I have written about it several time at the Mastermind Century Group, but it sure seems like it is time to review—at least from an American perspective.
Glubb defines an empire as a state that has a centralized government and exerts control over a number of territories and peoples beyond its own borders. He views empires as a form of political organization that has existed throughout human history and that has been characterized by a number of common features, including the use of military force to expand and maintain control, the development of a centralized bureaucracy to govern the empire’s territories, and the exploitation of the empire’s subjects for the benefit of the ruling power.
Glubb believed that the decline of empires was a natural process that followed a set pattern of stages, including growth, achievement, and finally, decline and decay. He believed that empires often suffered from internal decay, such as a loss of moral values, and external factors, such as over-extension and military defeats.
Glubb outlined six stages of the decline of empires in his theory of the life cycle of empires. These stages are:
- The Age of Pioneers: This stage is characterized by a sense of optimism, energy, and expansion as the empire expands its territories and increases its power.
- The Age of Conquest: The empire reaches its peak of military power and conquers new lands. At this stage, the empire is at its strongest and most prosperous.
- The Age of Commerce: The empire becomes more focused on trade and commerce, and its wealth increases. However, the empire also becomes more materialistic and less concerned with ideals such as honor and duty.
- The Age of Affluence: The empire becomes wealthy and decadent, with a focus on luxury and pleasure. This stage is characterized by a loss of moral values and a decline in the military power of the empire.
- The Age of Intellect: The empire becomes more focused on intellectual pursuits and knowledge, but also becomes more fragmented and disunited.
- The Age of Decline and Collapse: The final stage is characterized by a loss of power and a decline in wealth and military strength. The empire becomes vulnerable to external threats and eventually collapses.
These stages are not a linear progression, and some empires may experience stages out of order or skip stages entirely. However, Glubb’s theory provides a general framework for understanding the decline of empires and the factors that contribute to their downfall.
He used this model to examine the decline of the Arab Empire, but it has been applied to other historical empires as well, including the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union. Glubb believed Empires appeared to last about 250 years. I might take exception to that, as it is all in how one chooses to measure said empire (see diagram for Glubb’s timeline). How does one define the beginning of an empire? If the US is an empire–where does our 250 years start? I have a slightly different measure of empire—but either way, it does not detract from Glubb’s six stages.
In the case of Glubb’s main study the Arab Empire, he identified several factors that contributed to its decline, including the loss of unity, the rise of religious and ethnic rivalries, the decline of economic and military power, and the increasing influence of European powers in the region. He argued that the Arab Empire was unable to adapt to the changing circumstances of the modern world and that it was eventually replaced by European colonial powers.
EMPIRE CASE STUDIES
The Chinese Empire has a long and storied history, spanning thousands of years. It has had ups and downs, but continues to exist and expand. It is one of the world’s oldest civilizations and has played a significant role in shaping the world as we know it today. The earliest Chinese dynasties, such as the Xia and the Shang, emerged around the 21st century BCE and were followed by the Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties, among others. The Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, saw significant cultural, economic, and political growth, as well as the construction of iconic landmarks like the Forbidden City. The Qing Dynasty, which lasted from 1644 to 1912, was the last imperial dynasty of China and saw further territorial expansion and economic development. Despite being replaced by the Republic of China in 1912 thru 1949 when the CCP came to power, the influence of the Chinese Empire can still be felt today in areas such as art, architecture, science, and technology.
The Roman Empire is often considered one of the greatest empires in world history, and it lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD, a span of over 500 years (or 2×250 years by Glubb’s measure). The decline of the Roman Empire is typically attributed to a combination of factors, including military overspending, economic instability, and internal political decay, among others. The invasions of the Germanic tribes, the collapse of the western empire, and the eventual fall of the Roman state marked the end of the Roman era.
The Arab Empire, also known as the Islamic Empire, lasted for approximately 600 years (or 250x 2.5 by Glubb’s measure), from the 7th century to the 13th century and was a vast empire that emerged from the Arabian Peninsula. It was founded by the prophet Muhammad and his followers, who quickly established Islam as the dominant religion and culture of the region. The Arab Empire expanded rapidly, and within a century, it had conquered territories stretching from Spain in the west to India in the east. During its peak, the Arab Empire was a center of learning and cultural exchange, with contributions to fields such as mathematics, science, and medicine. The Arab Empire declined and eventually fragmented into smaller states over time, with the Ottoman Empire being the last of the Arab-Islamic dynasties to rule over a large part of the Arab world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I marked the end of the Arab Empire and the beginning of a new era in the region’s history.
The British Empire was one of the largest and most influential empires in world history, spanning over 400 years, from the early 16th century to the mid-20th century. The decline of the British Empire was a gradual process that was influenced by a range of factors, including economic decline, political instability, and increased competition from other world powers. The loss of key colonies, the decline in naval power, and the increasing burden of military spending all contributed to the decline of the British Empire.
The Soviet Union, also known as the Soviet Empire, existed from 1922 to 1991, a span of 69 years. The Soviet Union was established following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, and it emerged as a major world power in the mid-20th century. The Soviet Union exerted political, military, and economic influence in Europe and beyond through its control over its satellite states in Eastern Europe and its international alliances and partnerships. However, by the late 1980s, the Soviet Union faced serious economic and political challenges, including widespread corruption, declining productivity, and growing popular discontent. The Soviet Empire officially ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics and became the Russian Federation.
The concept of an “American Empire” is a matter of debate and interpretation, and there is no universally agreed-upon definition or timeline for its existence. However, many scholars and observers argue that the United States has maintained a global presence and exercised significant political, military, and economic influence in the world since the late 19th century. The United States emerged as a dominant world power following its victory in World War II and has since played a leading role in shaping global politics and economics, as well as in projecting its military power abroad.
THE QUESTION OF EMPIRE
Is America an empire? Is China an empire?
The term “empire” is a matter of debate when applied to the United States and The PRC. Some scholars and commentators argue that the US has imperialistic tendencies and acts like an empire in the world, particularly in terms of its military and economic power. This view is often based on the US’s large military presence in many parts of the world, its role in shaping global political and economic systems, and its history of interventions in other countries.
On the other hand, some argue that the US is not an empire because it does not have formal colonies or territories, and that it exercises its power and influence in the world primarily through diplomacy and economic means, rather than military conquest.
Ultimately, the question of whether the US is an empire depends on one’s definition of an empire and one’s perspective on the US’s role in the world. There is no clear consensus on the issue, and it remains a topic of debate among scholars and the general public.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is not officially considered an empire by its government or by most scholars. The PRC is a sovereign socialist state with a single-party communist system of governance, and it views itself as a republic.
The term “empire” typically refers to a state with a multi-ethnic population and a central government that exercises control over a large territory, often through military means. While the PRC certainly has a large population and territory, it does not fit the traditional definition of an empire in the sense of ruling over multiple distinct ethnic groups as subjects.
However, some have argued that the PRC exhibits certain imperialistic tendencies, such as territorial expansionism, and may have imperial ambitions. These debates are ongoing and controversial, and there is no consensus on the issue.
Going back to Glubb’s definition of empire: as a state that has a centralized government and exerts control over a number of territories and peoples beyond its own borders, with common features, including the use of military force to expand and maintain control, the development of a centralized bureaucracy to govern the empire’s territories, and the exploitation of the empire’s subjects for the benefit of the ruling power. The exploitation becomes an issue, but I will leave that up to the reader to consider.
AND…CAN AN EMPIRE RETURN?
It seems clear Glubb’s stages can be applied to the decline of American dominance in world affairs, arguing that the United States is currently in the later stages of decline, such as the Age of Intellect or the Age of Decline and Collapse. I would argue that America’s strategic competitor China is in a similar position. The main difference is China has been at this game much longer than America. It is also interesting to ponder which power is in a more rapid decline.
The question—what can be done about it—certainly there is no guaranteed method for extending Glubb’s six-stage arc of decline, as the decline of an empire is a complex and multifaceted process that is influenced by a variety of factors, including economic, political, and military factors, as well as demographic changes and technological advancements.
However, here are some general steps that a nation could take to try and extend the six-stage arc and delay or prevent decline:
- Maintain a strong military: By maintaining a strong military and staying ahead of potential threats, a nation can ensure its continued security and stability.
- Foster economic growth: By promoting economic growth and stability, a nation can ensure that its citizens are financially secure and that its economy continues to thrive.
- Maintain political stability: By maintaining a stable and democratic political system, a nation can ensure that its citizens are content and that the country is not subject to sudden political upheavals.
- Invest in education and research: By investing in education and research, a nation can ensure that its citizens are well-educated and that the country continues to lead the way in technological and scientific advancements.
- Foster cultural unity: By promoting a sense of cultural unity and shared values, a nation can ensure that its citizens are united and committed to its continued success.
- Foster international relations: By fostering positive relationships with other nations and engaging in diplomatic initiatives, a nation can ensure that it remains a key player on the international stage and that its interests are protected.
Ultimately, the ability of a nation to extend the six-stage arc and prevent decline will depend on a number of factors, including the quality of its leadership, its economic and military strength, and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. No single strategy or set of strategies can guarantee success, and nations will need to find the approaches that work best for them in order to maintain their prosperity and stability.
It’s difficult in today’s politically charged environment to not make this a left or right issue—and it’s not. The binary thinking is definitely part of the declines acceleration. If one to apply a nonpartisan view it becomes more a leadership equation. Is there a leader that can unify the nation around a seven-point plan.
To extend the six-stage arc of decline and maintain global leadership, the United States can take several steps:
- Address economic imbalances: The US needs to address economic imbalances, such as income inequality, and maintain economic stability to avoid financial instability and debt problems.
- Invest in education: The US should invest in education to maintain its competitiveness and leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
- Modernize infrastructure: Upgrading infrastructure, such as transportation and communications, can help the US stay ahead of the curve and support economic growth.
- Strengthen international partnerships: The US should strengthen its relationships with key international partners to maintain its global influence and prevent the rise of rivals.
- Address military overstretch: The US should avoid overextending its military and pursue a more sustainable military strategy to maintain its military power and prevent fatigue among the armed forces.
- Foster political stability: The US needs to maintain political stability and avoid political polarization, which can undermine its ability to maintain global leadership.
- Address social and environmental issues: Addressing social and environmental issues, such as climate change, can help the US maintain its leadership role in global governance and maintain its reputation as a responsible global actor.
Interesting to note—if the US or China were to aggressively follow the above plan—the decline of empire might not be arrested, but it could be slowed. (In China’s case one could add an eighth: Improve human rights and transparency: Improving human rights and transparency can help China build trust and respect among the international community and enhance its reputation as a responsible global leader).
In conclusion, the rise and fall of empires is a complex and multi-faceted process that is influenced by a range of economic, political, and cultural factors. Glubb’s model of empire decline provides a useful framework for understanding the key stages of this process, but it should be remembered that all models are inherently limited and subject to revision and refinement. Nevertheless, the study of empires and their decline remains a vital and ongoing field of inquiry, providing valuable insights into the forces that shape the course of world history.