If we want to see the political landscape in a very simple nutshell, at the moment there are three empires that split the planet into three different worldviews. One is the United States, another is China, and last is Russia.
Of course, besides these three, there are a lot of other countries in the world, and some of them are actually quite ambitious and may become empires in their own right in due time.
However, at the moment, most competition and friction is around these three, and they are separated also by three different “organizational elements”. That is, they have distinct ways in which they see their empires developing in the future. The clash or synthesis of those worldviews and their ambitions will shape the world in the next few years.
The weakest empire of all, in theory, is the Russian empire. It is the successor of the Soviet Empire, yet it is vastly reduced in territory, wealth, and ideological reach.
Still, it has two strong points. It has large energy resources (oil and gas) and a massive nuclear arsenal. These two elements would have been undermined, though, if the present Russian leadership didn’t play the world imperial game in extremely astute ways. The Russian empire in fact managed to hark back to its own direct ancestor, the Byzantine empire and its strategies to maximize its strengths.
The Byzantine empire managed to stay on top of the world for centuries despite its relative weakness by playing enemies and friends against one another. It was possibly the first comprehensive juggler of the system of balance of power. By playing and scheming with all other contemporary powers and fighting only limited wars, it managed to survive its western brother, the Roman empire, which collapsed late in the 5th century.
In a similar way, now the Russian empire seems keen on playing anybody against everybody, and in this way, it can be at the top of the game. Just like the old Byzantine empire, even now the Russia has influence over the world. Its modern tsar, President Vladimir Putin, has friends in many democratic and non-democratic countries, and Moscow manages to have sway well above its weight.
Therefore, although it is the smallest of the three competing empires, perhaps it is the one that currently manages to pull the most strings. Undoubtedly, it played a role in the elections that chose the present president of the United States, Donald Trump. Although in the recent Mueller report the FBI said that Trump wasn’t personally involved with the Russians, certainly many people on his staff were.
Moreover, despite the fact that Russians didn’t directly get Trump elected, by simply having a hand in the US elections, they proved they could manipulate a foreign election in an unprecedented fashion in the history of the United States.
Russia has influence in China by pulling Beijing closer to Moscow with a series of arms deals and its supply of energy and raw materials. Although Moscow has serious geopolitical and strategic concerns about Chinese encroachment in Siberia, Russia seems able to cling closer to China and also possibly influence the Chinese way of thinking about the world in an “anti-Western” fashion, forgetting that Moscow is also part of the “western world”.
These anti-Western ideas that spread in Beijing mirror some of the anti-Chinese and conservative ideas the Russians spread among the alt-right in Europe and in America. That is, Moscow is playing the pure Byzantine diplomacy: pitting a possible enemy against another possible enemy and waiting for the result.
The second empire is the Chinese empire, presently under Xi Jinping. This empire has managed to grow extremely quickly in the past 40 years thanks to the goodwill of the United States, which granted credit, free-market mechanisms, military protection, access into its own domestic market, and technological transfers. All these elements were coupled with Chinese ingenuity and hard work. However, China was apparently hoping to have some kind of free ride, or it was oblivious to the fact that sooner or later Beijing was due to pay a price for all the free meals it got.
The price was, according to US ideas, to join the league of nations supporting US order. That is, China was to become a free market and a freer political system. This has not happened so far, and presently it doesn’t seem likely it will happen any time soon. Conversely, it looks like China is set to establish its own empire according to its own rules.
The set of rules have not been declared, nor are they very clear, but apparently they hark back to the times of the Han or Tang dynasties. Then the Chinese reached out to Central Asia, at times even established some form of control over Central Asia, and formed a system of vassal states gravitating around the central empire, which dictated the terms to all satellites.
There is no theory about the new Chinese empire. In Beijing there are plenty of opinions swirling around. Looking at the situation, some foreigners tend to believe that the new Belt and Road Initiative is an imperial outreach in which the whole world has to be subordinated to Chinese wishes and needs, and its ultimate goal is the enrichment of China and the distrust for any other foreign power, system, or encroachment.
Unlike the old American empire or the Soviet empire, the Chinese empire does not have an ideological outreach; it doesn’t want to preach some truth about how the world should be organized, how another country is to set its own affairs in order, or how trade and values should be used in the world. It may look more tolerant than other empires keen on spreading and imposing rules and values to others.
Yet there might be another way of looking at this behavior. China’s imperial system, looking at it from the outside, only tries to establish trade relations – win-win as the official jargon claims: you make a profit; I make a profit. In this trade, however, the quantity of profit split by the two parties may be different, and the Chinese, being good merchants, want to end up with the biggest share. Still they make sure some profit is also left to the other party so the other partner will come back to the table.
But in the end what happens to the other country, and how is its profit used? Whether it is squandered by the corrupt leaders or used to develop the country is none of China’s business, interest, or curiosity. In terms of an ideological and value system profile, China simply doesn’t care about what happens to the world. As long as a bargain is clinched, as long as the Chinese tradesmen have their own profit, and something is left on the table for the other party, what happens to the other country is not important.
This solves the old western puzzle of imposing democracy to countries unwilling or simply not ready to accept it, but creates other issues. The lack of Chinese interest in other people’s political system gives rise to the use of corruption, bribes, and strong-arming weaker partners who can be brought to the table for crumbs.
The lack of a higher commonly shared value system, that is, may create dangers in the medium- and long-term for many countries doing business with China. They can be squeezed out of profit and become more subservient to Chinese needs. It may become a new Chinese-style colonial system, according to critics. In fact, this is a growing concern for countries that are actually dealing with China: China gets its own and simply doesn’t care about the others.
Moreover, there may be a nationalist spin on Chinese ventures in the world. China doesn’t even allow foreigners to become Chinese. Russians and Americans, the other two empires, make a point of drawing in and promoting foreigners within their empires, giving them responsibilities and entrusting them with internal and external duties. Stalin was a Georgian after all, and both Kissinger and Brzezinski, the two masterminds of the US Cold War, were born and raised in Europe, not in America.
China, unlike the other two empires, gives and restricts powers to its own majority ethnicity – the Han. In the Standing Committee there are only Han ethnic people. Only Han ethnic people have become leaders of the country. Any other minority can move up to the ladder, but only up to a certain point, and mainly for symbolic reasons.
This mindset creates a system of concentric circles. At the center, at the core, there is the communist leadership, then there are the communists of the party, then there are the Chinese people, then there are friends and allies, then there is everybody else, and at last there is the enemy. All these circles have further subdivisions and build a pyramid in which nobody is equal to anybody else.
But can this system work when it practically puts the whole world at the service of the Chinese leadership? Will the world be willing to serve the Chinese state for a decreasing share of income? Looking at history, this looks quite unlikely, also because at the moment, China is in a world which it doesn’t own. In fact, the world, or most of it, is controlled by the US empire.
The present American empire has been built by two and a half world wars. The first war was the World War II, which created a vast network of logistical bases, points of influence, and knots of power by which the Americans went definitively out of their own borders and de facto replaced and expanded the former British empire. The US did it by starting from strong ground (see for instance Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, 2019, and A.G. Hopkins’s American Empire: A Global History, 2018), but the empire came out of hiding actually after 1945.
The second war was the Cold War, which was won in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet empire. Here the American empire expanded even further, it reached into some parts of the former Soviet empire in Europe, and also in Asia and Africa. The half war, which in some ways is still ongoing, is against Muslim fundamentalism. This was largely a failure for many reasons. But, in any case, it established a foothold of American presence in Central Asia, in Afghanistan; and in the heart of the Middle East, in Iraq. These two footholds are quite wobbly, and the success of the war is questionable. However, it stretched in many ways the global reach of United States.
The economic returns on these recent wars in the Central Asia and the Middle East have been disastrous. Losses and lack of economic benefits from these wars also helped trigger the 2008 financial crisis in the United States. This brought a sense of crisis to the American empire that felt it was giving to the world too much and receiving too little. This sense of being cheated by the world – and namely by China, which was growing in the past 30 years at a faster pace than many other countries around it – also contributed to a sense of loss in the United States.
The notion of “America First” comes out of the idea that America is somehow paying too much to keep the world running. That is, America feels it is being cheated by rivals but also by friends and allies. United States is paying too much for NATO, whereas other allies don’t pull their weight, or America is facing a trade deficit whereas other countries like Germany have a trade surplus. All is unfair to America.
Most importantly, in this situation, the American empire seems to have lost a sense of itself. Is America just the country of “United States of America” or is America an empire?
In fact, despite the optics of internal politics in Washington, the reality is that most of the world follows American rules, and only America can destroy America. Only if America doesn’t care about the European Union could the European Union fall into the hands of the Russians, the Chinese, or some African state in the future. Only if America doesn’t care about Latin America or Asia could those regions spin out of control. Only if America keeps listing enemy after enemy, big and small, China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela et cetera, a confused cobweb of priorities entangles her.
USA in line with the world
Looking at America from the outside, the essential problem is that America is losing sight of its real power, which is the power of its network, alliances, and value system that at the end of World War II claimed that the interests of America were the interests of the world, and the interests of the world were the interests of America. This combination, the alignment of interests between America and the world, in theory puts America ahead of any other empire, which cannot claim the same kind of alignment.
In fact, the USSR had the same kind of claim. Communism was to be the ideal solution for all the world’s problems, and in fact for about 50 years the clash was about which solution for the world’s problems was the best, communism or the free market? At the end of the day, even the Russians came to believe that the world could run better, including their own country by free-market principles and not communism. Modern Russia or China do not have a universal claim for their empires.
If United States now gives up this ideological/ideal outreach, it is giving up on its empire and its own essence. The United States is not a nation dominated by an ethnic group; it is an ideal made up of many people coming together to improve their own lives and the lives of all the people around them. It is an empire based on an ideal. In this way, if United States gives up on this ideal, it is lost.
Looking from outside, this is what is happening. The United States is losing focus on what it is and its alliances. It pits itself directly against China in a trade war. However, the United States loses sight of all its European, Asian, African, and Latin American allies, friends or even half friends who may sympathize with America about China or Russia because the idea of a common goal for the world is more appealing than feeding the selfish interests of other countries.
If the United States converts into just one more selfish country between other selfish countries, then it loses its reach and also breaks down internally because each ethnic group or interest group in the US would just seek its own small interest, not a wider concern.
In a way, America is the heir of the Roman empire at the height of its power. At the time of Emperor Caracalla (who reigned between 198 and 217 AD), the Roman empire granted citizenship to all people living in the empire. Citizenship was first a privilege of free people of Rome. Then it was extended to the people of the Italian peninsula, and then it was expanded to all free citizens of the empire. In fact, the Roman empire was built on a system of alliances, in which Rome was the center and different allies had different sets of agreements with Rome.
In some ways, the modern American empire looks like the Roman empire: there is a central country, America, and a system of different alliances. But just like in Roman times, if Rome didn’t take care of and nurture those alliances, those alliances would break down and the former allies would try to expand their own interests or ally themselves with some foreign power. This is the danger presently to the United States.
The dangerous triangle
This goes back to China and then to Russia. Is China in its present trade negotiations confronting the United States just as a country or the United States as an empire? The Chinese may think that if they are confronting the United States by itself, then this match could be handled.
The match would certainly be difficult, but after all the Chinese are fighting on their own ground, in Eurasia, where they have land under their control. The US is outside of there, and geography gives Beijing an objective advantage. Moreover, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) can raise immense amounts of money, supported by the state, which has a strictly controlled financial system, impervious to financial attacks or crises from abroad. This money can finance SOEs projects abroad well beyond the capabilities of American companies, checked by the restrictions of their stock exchange, the limits of US state interventions in the economy, and the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission).
Perhaps China could manage to pull it off. China could pick allies one by one, start discussing different kinds of alliances, and set up its own order by basically saying, what does America give you? I’ll give you something more.
If it is only trade benefits, China now and in the future may have more trade and economic clout than United States now. After all China, with its unified population, is potentially the single largest unified consumer market in the world. In theory, it could be twice as big as the US and EU put together. This promise of riches, and the actual pull of Chinese resources, may outweigh America.
If the United States is not just a country but also an empire, however, things are different. If the United States controls or influences a vast number of countries, its economy, population, and technological outreach far outmatch whatever offer the Chinese could make. And the Chinese, being chess players, may agree more easily to a compromise, and perhaps even joining the “American empire” and its value system, provided some of the interests of the ruling Chinese elite were protected. If China is conversely alone vis-à-vis the United States, China may think differently and have different strategies.
Probably the same is true with the Russians. If the Russians are surrounded by a clear American system and their rights for survival and thriving in the future are granted, perhaps chief strategist Vladimir Putin could come around and change his attitude.
At the same time, if the US and China clash, Russia would be the objective winner. While the US and China may have an interest in avoiding a tough confrontation, Moscow has an objective interest in this happening, especially if the friction drags on for some time and the whole US imperial system wears down. Yet even more than Russia, others may have a bigger stake in the game of mutual weakening and elimination. The list of ambitious empire is long, starting with heirs of big and small imperial traditions. All may have an interest in the breakdown of the present order, and even Russia, in theory poised to be the big winner of the game, may end up losing much of its present clout.
In other ways, it goes back to the old Delphic maxim, γνῶθι σεαυτόν, know yourself, which in Chinese would be 知彼知己, know the other and know yourself, as Sunzi said. If America loses sight of itself and its empire, then it may be in for very bad times. If it doesn’t, things could turn better for itself and perhaps also for the world.
In all of this, there is the old problem of all empires: overstretch. Is America overreaching? And what should it do to limit or control this overreach? These are perhaps also part – maybe a crucial part – of America’s current fears.