The trite answer to the question of why empires fall is that they become victims of their own success, growing too large, too corrupt, and too exhausted to fend off energetic newcomers. Whether this will be America's fate has become an urgent issue in today's increasingly unstable, multipolar world.

With the just-concluded G7 summit exposing the group's diminished status, it is appropriate to ask where power lies in today's world. The United Nations has 193 member states (the most recent, which joined in 2011, is benighted South Sudan), all of which are, as Secretary-General António Guterres put it in 2016, technically committed to "the values enshrined in the UN Charter: peace, justice, respect, human rights, tolerance and solidarity." But while each gets one vote in the General Assembly, nobody would dare claim that each country carries equal weight.

Instead, the five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom - reign supreme, each wielding a veto over whatever the other 192 members might want. That is why Israel, owing to US support, can blithely ignore countless UN resolutions, and why Syria, owing to Russian and Chinese support, handily escaped sanctions for its use of chemical weapons a decade ago.

Owing to the disproportionate power they wield, the "Permanent Five" share an old, decidedly British sense of empire. While the authors of two recent books on empire, Lawrence James and Nandini Das, offer no thoughts on how the UN might - or indeed should - be reformed, I suspect that they would agree.

In The Lion and the Dragon, James, a prolific historian of the UK's role in world affairs, follows Britain's relations with China from the nineteenth-century Opium War until the return of Hong Kong and today's tensions over Taiwan. And in Courting India, Das, a professor at the University of Oxford, concentrates on the very beginnings of the British Empire and its covetous reach into what was then the Mughal Empire in India.

What this history shows is that empire is still very much with us. Though Americans, proud of throwing off the rule of King George III, tend to bristle at the idea, their own military, technological, and commercial power is as imperial and pervasive as Britain's territorial dominance ever was. As James notes, we can thank the post-World War II Pax Americana for the mostly stable international relations that prevailed during the aptly named Cold War with the Soviets (and their own empire).

A perennial question, especially during periods of geopolitical upheaval, is not just how empires emerge, but how they fade. Though Britain and France still indulge their memories of empire, they have long since accepted being "middle powers" at best. Ever since the Suez crisis of 1956, when the threat of US sanctions forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from Egypt's Suez Canal, Britain has supinely followed America's lead in international relations. (UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson's refusal to send troops to Vietnam in the 1960s is the exception that proves the rule.) At the same time, France has sought comfort in the collective embrace of what became the European Union.

As for the other members of the Permanent Five, Vladimir Putin's Russia is on a hopeless quest to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union (the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century, in his estimation) and recreate the empire of Peter the Great; and China already sees itself, with some justification, as wielding global influence to rival that of the American empire.

China's pursuit of superpower status is born of not just current economic and political realities, but also its deep-seated resentment over the "century of humiliation" (1839-1949) that it suffered at the hands of European (and Japanese) imperial powers. Of course, similar sentiments also animate Putin's revanchism, as well as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dismissiveness of diplomatic overtures from post-Brexit Britain. In William Faulkner's oft-quoted words, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past."

Passage to India

The trite answer to the question of why empires fall is that they become victims of their own success, growing too large, too corrupt, too exhausted to fend off energetic newcomers. As the Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun argued in the fourteenth century, empires are like living organisms: they grow, mature, and die.

As Das's wonderfully researched book shows, the Mughal Empire was almost mature when the British arrived in the 1600s. Its Muslim rulers, with their roots in Central Asia, are fascinating figures. Emperor Jahangir, a generous patron of the arts, was addicted to opium and wine, whereas his wife, Nur Jahan, wielded significant political influence. The emperor's son, Shah Jahan, was a "king of the world," whose love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is permanently commemorated in the Taj Mahal. Mughal India was both a place of immense wealth and a bastion of religious tolerance (unlike Europe, with its centuries-long Inquisition against Muslims, Jews, and heretics).

By contrast, the British Empire was barely in its infancy when its clash with Mughal India began. In Courting India, Das paints a vivid picture of the experiences - mostly endured, rather than enjoyed - of King James's ambassador, Thomas Roe, at the Mughal court. But more than that, she also offers a rich description of Jacobean England as it was emerging from the first Elizabethan age and jostling for power with Portugal, Spain, France, and Holland.

Roe's own journals are a major primary source, but so, too, are the cultural interpreters of the period, from William Shakespeare to the poet John Donne (a friend of Roe). Theirs was an England full of energy, seeking its fortune in the Americas and the Indies. However, it was nowhere close to as sophisticated as courtiers like Roe seemed to believe.

Indeed, Roe was almost a caricature of the Englishman abroad. He refused to learn any language that might have helped his mission (be it Farsi or Turkish), and he insisted that he and his staff wear English wool and silk, even through the Indian summer. While he eventually came to admire the pragmatic tolerance of Mughal society, he remained convinced of England and Protestant Christianity's superiority. Never would he have allowed himself to "go native."

Roe was answerable not only to King James but also to his financial backer, the East India Company, which had been granted its charter by Elizabeth I in 1600. This meant that he was constantly tussling with the miserly company for money (its traders were always jealous of him), as well as struggling to quell, or at least make excuses for, the riotous behavior of English sailors in India's ports.

The Century of Humiliation

Two centuries later, the East India Company, as it appears in James's book, would still be clinging to the same assumptions that Roe had held. The superiority and integrity of Christian Britain went unquestioned, and still stood in stark contrast to "Asian greed and despotism." The biggest change, in the meantime, had been the collapse of the Mughal Empire.

Mughal India, the wealthiest place in the world at the end of the seventeenth century, was steadily enfeebled by internal dissent and Persian and Afghan invasions. In 1857, the East India Company formally dissolved the empire, setting the stage for Queen Victoria to establish the "British Raj" and direct rule over the Indian subcontinent the following year.

To paraphrase Ibn Khaldun, nineteenth-century Britain was no longer an infant with imperial ambitions; it was now an adult with all the energy and ruthlessness needed to extend its reach around the world. As such, the British lion had no misgivings about disgracing the Chinese dragon. Looking back on this period, it is easy to see why Chinese President Xi Jinping is so determined to expunge the century of humiliation from the national memory.

That century began in 1839 with the First Opium War. When China tried to block imports of East India Company opium from Bengal, Britain responded with all its (industrialized) military might. By 1842, British warships and soldiers had crushed all opposition and compelled China's Qing emperor to sign the Nanjing Treaty. That opened China to international trade and ensured that British citizens in "treaty" ports would be subject to British, not Chinese, law. Another consequence of the war was that Britain took possession of Hong Kong, which it would hold until 1997.

Whereas Das describes India principally through Roe's eyes, James is keen to present a balance between British actions and Chinese reactions. In doing so, he stresses that China was not reacting only to British imperialism. After all, this was a time when "a spirit of predatory imperialism ... pervaded the foreign ministries of Russia, France, Germany and China's near-neighbor, the newly industrialized Japan." Seized by their own commercial ambitions, all four "regarded China as a land mass to be partitioned and shared out in the same way as contemporary Africa."

But these other imperial projects hardly give Britain a pass. In arguing that "Britain was reluctantly sucked into the complex geopolitics of great-power empire building in the Far East," James simply is not convincing. Britain, the world's leading naval power and the home of the Industrial Revolution, was already adept at the game of geopolitics and quite prepared to protect its interests in China, not least because that would also protect its interests in India.

By the eighteenth century, the Qing Dynasty had expanded from its Manchu roots and established an empire extending from Mongolia and Tibet to the Pacific. But by the nineteenth century, it was too exhausted to withstand the pressure not only from the other imperial powers but also from its own people.

The century of humiliation always refers to foreign interventions, but equally important were domestic embarrassments such as the 1850-64 Taiping Rebellion - in which some 30 million people died - and the 1899-1901 Boxer Rebellion. The dynasty's "Mandate of Heaven" was clearly slipping from its grasp. It finally came to an end in 1912, when the Western-educated Sun Yat-sen, following a brief revolution, established the "Republic of China."

Remember Thucydides

Today, that title applies only to the island of Taiwan, whereas Xi presides over the "People's Republic of China," which was established in 1949 with the victory of Mao Zedong's Communist Party over Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. Since the 1970s, most countries - including both rival Chinas - have embraced the fiction that the ROC and the PRC refer to a single country.

But there is a constant fear that Taiwan could formally declare its independence and destroy the fiction, thus provoking an invasion from the mainland. If President Joe Biden is to be believed, the US would then come to Taiwan's rescue and the South China Sea would witness a Sino-American war with far-reaching regional and global consequences.

Given his focus on Britain and China, James understandably devotes only a handful of his final paragraphs to US analysts' "bleak" prognosis of a future war over Taiwan. Moreover, throughout the preceding chapters, he deals deftly with other instances when conflict erupted between rival regional powers. These include the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, which led to Japanese occupation of Taiwan; the Russo-Japanese war of 1904; Japan's bloody expansionism in the 1930s; and, of course, Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought America into World War II.

The big risk today is that China and America could end up at war as much by accident as by design. Graham Allison of Harvard University has famously warned of the "Thucydides trap," an allusion to the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta, the incumbent hegemon, was "destined for war" with the rising power, Athens.

In a world that has created so many multilateral institutions - from the World Trade Organization to the G20 - it is tempting to dismiss Allison's argument as alarmism. But over the past 500 years, there have been 16 instances of an incumbent power facing off with a rising power, and war was avoided in only four of them, the most famous being America's rise to replace Britain as the leading world power in the early twentieth century.

Notably, James recalls that China was "stunned" by Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union. The message pushed by Chinese state-controlled media was that the UK had surrendered to "a losing mindset." Clearly, the current Chinese leadership has no intention of showing weakness.

The good news is that political and military leaders on both sides of the Pacific are aware of the risks. As Xi said in 2015, on his first state visit to America, "There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves." The bad news, however, is that all countries are prone to "miscalculation."

Was it a mistake, for example, for imperial Britain to endorse Zionism with the 1917 Balfour Declaration? Given all the Middle East wars that followed the establishment of Israel, some may very well think so. But try telling that to the survivors of the anti-Semitic pogroms of the nineteenth century and the Holocaust.


Almost a half-century ago, John Bagot Glubb, a British general who commanded the Jordanian army from 1939 until 1956, published a book entitled The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival. His thesis was essentially the same as Ibn Khaldun's, only with the added claim that almost all empires rise and fall over a period of roughly 250 years. Putting aside the obvious flaws in Glubb's arithmetic (the Ottoman Empire certainly did not "end" in 1570), the core idea should not be dismissed too casually. After all, historians now give the Qing Dynasty a lifespan of 267 years, and the Mughal Empire of Das's book began to lose territory after only two centuries.

A pessimist might point out that today's China began with the Communist victory in 1949, and that America's quasi-imperial power began 201 years ago with the Monroe Doctrine. Time may not be on the side of those who place their trust in America to protect democracy and "liberal Western values."

From Project Syndicate

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