Empires come and empires go – what of those in our own times?
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
I recently chanced across an article by Leo Nicolletto drawing on a theory of the reasons behind the rise and fall of empires compiled by Sir John Glubb, a British soldier, scholar and author of the twentieth century who served extensively in the Middle East as well as in Europe. In particular, Nicolletto cites Glubb’s work “The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival” published in the late 1970s when the British Empire itself was well and truly over and the Commonwealth established in its stead.
His article is entitled “John Glubb and Avoiding the Fate of Empires” and is published at https://quillette.com/2020/09/30/pasha-glubb-and-avoiding-the-fate-of-empires/. Its interest lies not merely as a history lesson but as a source of understanding for our contemporary world.
(In passing, I make every attempt to read, consult and become informed by a wide variety of sources and try to take everything on its merits; it does not suggest I agree or subscribe to anything or everything from a particular source. More on the importance of conscious plurality of sourcing another time.)
Whilst, as Nicolletto says, Glubb is a creature of his time, it would be a crude caricature to paint him as a Colonel Blimp type character. He was not especially watery eyed about the demise of the British Empire, but saw it clearly following a similar pattern to other empires past.
In short, Glubb saw a common progression through various stages and an overall lifespan of 10 generations or roughly 250 years. The sequential stages, simply put, start with an Age of Pioneers, Age of Conquests, Age of Commerce, Age of Affluence, Age of Intellect and finally Age of Decadence. Rather than reproduce Nicolletto’s articulation of the movement between stages, I’ll leave you to read his article for yourselves because, especially in its later stages, he draws unmistakeable parallels with what he refers to as Western hegemony, seen as empire. He also makes some observations on China.
In superimposing Glubb’s model onto the contemporary West, Nicolletto identifies a tipping point into the decadence stage and then adds suggested policy prescriptions to mitigate and perhaps prevent. His stance is in fact what he terms a progressive one rather than reactionary and it comes across as a balanced survey and set of conclusions – you can decide on this for yourselves.
The most telling thing for me is Nicolletto’s observation that “human life is so short in the scheme of civilisations that we tend to overemphasise the importance and length of our own era, while past ages blur together”. I would add to this that for too many people history seems to have started in 1945 and that all else before is unworthy of study, let alone merit. On the contrary, a measured and objective look back at the grand sweep of history would seem essential for orientation today.
So I commend a read of his (somewhat long read) article and perhaps a broadening of our collective perspectives on what is often seen in terms of the Thucydides Trap of the near inevitability – and by some people's reckonings – desirability of the eclipse of the West by China in the twenty-first century.