Chaos Reigns When A Great Empire Declines

This painting by Thomas Cole, called Destruction, is part of his Course Of Empire series and depicts the sack and destruction of a great city following the decline of a glorious empire.  History teaches that the end of empire is often accompanied by division, civil strife and conflict.

This painting by Thomas Cole, called Destruction, is part of his Course Of Empire series and depicts the sack of a great city following the decline of a glorious empire. History teaches that the end of empire is often accompanied by division, civil strife and conflict. Is this what we are seeing in the world today?

Disorder seems to be erupting all around the globe. Wars burn in Europe, the Middles East and Africa while tensions grow between China and Japan and on the Korean peninsula, as civil unrest festers in many other places.

It was not supposed to be like this. The end of the Cold War was – in Francis Fukuyama’s famous words – meant to be the end of history. We were to have a New World Order, policed more of less benignly by the US as the sole superpower acting in league with its western allies.

But American leadership, in the wake of the Iraq and Afghan wars, seems absent from the world stage. Vladimir Putin is taking full advantage of this power vacuum to push his vision of a greater Russia with ever increasing confidence. Similarly, the jihadists of the Islamic State have been able to make huge inroads in the chaos of the civil war in Syria and in a divided Iraq left unprotected following the withdrawal of American forces.

Many blame war weariness among the electorates of the West and indecisiveness on the part of US President Barrack Obama; and there may be some truth in all this. However, there are much bigger forces at work here: long term historical trends that point to even greater challenges ahead.

We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of US supremacy providing opportunities for some – such as Putin’s Russia and Islamic State – to grab power and seize territory while, frighteningly, setting the scene for a major struggle to replace America as the pre-emminent global power and overturn the West as its dominant culture.

Indeed, these events can be seen in the context of the long term decline in the influence of western civilisation as a whole – which has been the major geopolitical force in the world for much of the last millennium. This decline may have begun a century ago with the First World War and the Russian revolution. It was put into suspended animation by the nuclear stand-off of the Cold war and masked for a while afterwards by the emergence of America as the only global superpower. But the signs of decline have now, arguably, re-appeared as evidenced by the growing turbulence we see in the world around us.

Rome’s fall brought chaos and war…

The collapse of the western Roman Empire provides an example from history of what may be happening today. The Roman Empire was a power that had ruled the known world for centuries, either directly or through a collection of military alliances, commercial ties and client states. Historians argue over the causes, but the western Roman Empire fell in a drawn out process that lasted for hundreds of years, bringing division, civil strife and many, many wars, culminating in the Vandal sacking of Rome… In short, it was an extended period of global chaos.

Looked at in this way, in the context of a declining empire, the events of recent history can be viewed as part of the inevitable and growing disruption that accompanies the fall of a great global power.

Factors that contribute additionally to potential future instability include technological change, the new and violent jihadist ideologies, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Russia’s new expansionism, the increasing power and confidence of China and the growth of the world’s population. Any one of these is significant in itself but taken together they constitute a recipe for global disruption for years to come.

Western governments will need to take a long, hard look at their approach to foreign policy and defence in this dangerous new world. We shall need to pick our fights carefully; for, as we have recently seen, it will not always be clear who to support and there will be huge uncertainty over military outcomes. We shall need to be increasingly vigilant in protecting our vital national interests and in maintaining the means to do so. This will be no place for disarmament, ethical foreign policies and global do-goodery – this will be a world for cold-hearted, hard-headed realists.

If it is the case that we are living through the changes that accompany the slow motion unraveling of the old established world order, then we could be in for many more decades of global upheaval; and, most worryingly, the worst may be still to come.

And increasing chaos could be the way of the world for the rest of our lives. Prepare yourselves.

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One Response to “Chaos Reigns When A Great Empire Declines”
  1. wolsten says:

    and possibly not the best time to be splitting the union?


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