Wars are historical hinges. And misbegotten wars, when serving as culmination points of more general national decline, can be fatal. This is particularly true for empires. The Habsburg empire, which ruled over central Europe for hundreds of years, might have lingered despite decades of decay were it not for its defeat in World War I. The same is true of the Ottoman Empire, which since the mid-nineteenth century was referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” As it happened, the Ottoman Empire, like the Habsburg one, might have struggled on for decades, and even re-formed, were it not for also being on the losing side in World War I.
But the aftershocks of such imperial comeuppance should never be underestimated or celebrated. Empires form out of chaos, and imperial collapse often leaves chaos in its wake. The more monoethnic states that arose from the ashes of the multiethnic Habsburg and Ottoman empires often proved to be radical and unstable. This is because ethnic and sectarian groups and their particular grievances, which had been assuaged under common imperial umbrellas, were suddenly on their own and pitted against one another. Nazism, and fascism in general, influenced murderous states and factions in the post-Habsburg and post-Ottoman Balkans, as well as Arab intellectuals studying in Europe who brought these ideas back to their newly independent postcolonial homelands, where they helped shape the disastrous ideology of Baathism. Winston Churchill speculated at the end of World War II that had the imperial monarchies in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere not been swept away at the peace table in Versailles, “there would have been no Hitler.”
The twentieth century was largely shaped by the collapse of dynastic empires in the early decades and by consequent war and geopolitical upheaval in the later decades. Empire is much disparaged by intellectuals, yet imperial decline can bring on even greater problems. The Middle East, for example, has still not found an adequate solution to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, as evidenced by its bloody vicissitudes over the past hundred years.
All this should be kept in mind when considering the vulnerability of China, Russia, and the United States today. These great powers may be even more fragile than they seem. The anxious foresight required for avoiding policy catastrophes—that is, the ability to think tragically in order to avoid tragedy—has either been insufficiently developed or nowhere in evidence in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. So far, both Russia and the United States have initiated self-destructive wars: Russia in Ukraine and the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. As for China, its obsession with the conquest of Taiwan could lead to self-destruction. All three great powers have in recent years and decades clearly demonstrated bouts of uncommonly bad judgment when it comes to their long-term survival.
Were any or all of today’s great powers to dramatically weaken, confusion and disorder would increase inside their borders and around the world. A weakened or embattled United States would be less able to support its allies in Europe and Asia. Were the Kremlin’s regime to wobble because of factors stemming from the Ukraine war, Russia, which is institutionally weaker than China, could become a low-calorie version of the former Yugoslavia, unable to control its historic territories in the Caucasus, Siberia, and East Asia. Economic or political turmoil in China could unleash regional unrest within the country and also embolden India and North Korea, whose policies are inherently constrained by Beijing.
Today’s great powers are not empires. But Russia and China bear the traces of their imperial heritage. The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is rooted in impulses that existed in both the Russian and the Soviet empires, and China’s aggressive intentions toward Taiwan echo the Qing dynasty’s quest for hegemony in Asia. The United States has never formally identified as an empire. But westward expansion in North America and occasional overseas territorial conquests gave the United States an imperial flavor in the nineteenth century, and in the postwar era it has enjoyed a level of global dominance previously known only to empires.
Today, all three of these great powers face uncertain futures, in which collapse or some degree of disintegration cannot be ruled out. The suite of problems is different for each, but the challenges confronting each country are fundamental to that power’s very existence. Russia faces the most immediate risk. Even if it somehow prevails in the war in Ukraine, Russia will have to confront the economic disaster of being decoupled from the EU and the G-7 economies unless there is a genuine peace, which now appears unlikely. Russia may already be the sick man of Eurasia, as the Ottoman Empire was of Europe.
As for China, its annual economic growth has been slowing from double digits down to single digits, and it may soon reach low single digits. Capital has fled the country, with foreign investors selling many billions of dollars in Chinese bonds and billions more in Chinese stocks. At the same time that China’s economy has matured and investment from abroad has diminished, its population has aged and its workforce has shrunk. All this does not augur well for future internal stability. Kevin Rudd, the president of the Asia Society and former Australian prime minister, has noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping, through his statist and strict communist policies, “has begun strangling the goose that, for 35 years, has laid the golden egg.” These stark economic realities, by undermining the standard of living for the average Chinese citizen, can threaten the social peace and implicit support for the communist system. Authoritarian regimes, while they present the aura of serenity, may always be rotting from within.
Empires form out of chaos, and imperial collapse often leaves chaos in its wake.
The United States is a democracy, so its problems are more transparent. But that does not necessarily make them less acute. The fact is that as the federal deficit climbs upward toward insupportable levels, the very process of globalization has split Americans into warring halves: those swept up into the values of a new, worldwide cosmopolitan civilization and those rejecting it for the sake of a more traditional and religious nationalism. Half of the United States has escaped from its continental geography while the other half is anchored to it. Oceans are increasingly less of a factor in walling off the United States from the rest of the world, which for over 200 years helped provide for the country’s communal cohesion. The United States was a well-functioning mass democracy in the print-and-typewriter age but is much less of a success in the digital era, whose innovations fed the populist rage that led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Owing to these shifts, a new global power configuration is likely taking shape. In one scenario, Russia declines precipitously because of its misbegotten war, China finds it too difficult to achieve sustained economic and technological power under a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that increasingly reverts to orthodox Leninism, and the United States overcomes its domestic turmoil and eventually reemerges, as it did immediately after the Cold War, as a unipolar power. Another possibility is a truly bipolar world in which China maintains its economic dynamism even as it becomes more authoritarian. A third possibility is the gradual decline of all three powers, leading to a greater degree of anarchy in the international system, with middle-level powers, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia, even less restrained than they already are, and European states unable to agree on much in the absence of strong American leadership, even as the continent is threatened by a chaotic post-Putin Russia on its frontier.
Which scenario emerges will depend to a great deal on the outcome of military contests. The world is witnessing what a major land war in eastern Europe is doing to Russia’s prospects and reputation as a great power. Ukraine has exposed Russia’s war machine as distinctly belonging to the developing world: prone to indiscipline, desertions, and poor to nonexistent logistics, with an exceedingly weak corps of noncommissioned officers. Like the war in Ukraine, a sophisticated naval, cyber, and missile conflict in Taiwan or in the South China Sea or the East China Sea would be easier to start than to end. For example, what would be the strategic aim of the United States once such military hostilities started in earnest: the end of CCP rule in China? If so, how would Washington respond to the resulting chaos? The United States has barely begun to think through these questions. War, as Washington learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a Pandora’s box.
No great power lasts forever. But perhaps the most impressive example of endurance is the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from AD 330 to the conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, only to recover and survive until a final Ottoman victory in 1453. This is doubly impressive when one considers that Byzantium had a more difficult geography and stronger enemies, and consequently greater vulnerabilities, than Rome did in the West. The historian Edward Luttwak has argued that Byzantium “relied less on military strength and more on all forms of persuasion—to recruit allies, dissuade enemies, and induce potential enemies to attack one another.” Moreover, when they did fight, Luttwak notes, “the Byzantines were less inclined to destroy enemies than to contain them, both to conserve their strength and because they knew that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally.”
In other words, it is not just a matter of avoiding major war whenever possible but also a matter of not being overtly ideological, so as to be able to consider today’s enemy tomorrow’s friend, even if it has a political system different from one’s own. That has not been easy for the United States to do, given that it sees itself as a missionary power committed to spreading democracy. The Byzantines wrote an amoral flexibility into their system, despite its putative religiosity—a realistic approach that has become more difficult to accomplish in the United States, partly owing to the power of a sanctimonious media establishment. Influential figures in the American media incessantly call on Washington to promote and sometimes even enforce democracy and human rights worldwide, even when doing so harms U.S. geopolitical interests. In addition to the media, there is the foreign policy establishment itself, which, as the 2011 U.S. military intervention in Libya pointedly demonstrated, did not fully learn the lessons of the collapse of Iraq and what was even back then the ongoing intractability of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Biden administration’s relatively measured response in Ukraine—inserting no U.S. troops and informally advising the Ukrainians not to expand their war into Russian territory—may mark a turning point. Indeed, the less missionary the United States is in its approach the more likely it is to avoid disastrous wars. Of course, the United States does not have to go quite as far as authoritarian China, which delivers no moral lectures to other governments and societies, gladly dealing with regimes whose values differ from Beijing’s when doing so gives China an economic and geopolitical advantage.
War, as Washington learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a Pandora’s box.
A more restrained U.S. foreign policy might be the recipe for the long-term survival of American power. “Offshore balancing” would at first glance serve as Washington’s guiding strategy: “Instead of policing the world, the United States would encourage other countries to take the lead in checking rising powers, intervening itself only when necessary,” as the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt put it in Foreign Affairs in 2016. The problem with that approach, however, is that the world is so fluid and interconnected, with crises in one part of the globe migrating to other parts, that restraint may simply not be practical. Offshore balancing might be simply too restrictive and mechanical. Isolationism thrived in an age when ships were the only way to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and took days to do so. Presently, an avowed policy of restraint might only telegraph weakness and uncertainty.
Alas, the United States is destined to be embroiled in foreign crises, some of which will have a military component. That is the very nature of this increasingly populous and interlocked, claustrophobic world. Again, the key concept is to always think tragically: that is, to contemplate worst-case scenarios for every crisis, while still not allowing oneself to be immobilized into general inaction. It is more an art and a brilliant intuition than a science. Yet that is how great powers have always survived.
Empires can end abruptly, and when they do, chaos and instability ensues. It’s probably too late for Russia to avoid this fate. China might pull it off, but it will be difficult. The United States is still the best positioned of the three, but the longer it waits to adopt a more tragic and realistic shift in its approach, the worse the odds will get. A grand strategy of limits is crucial. Let’s hope it begins now, with the Biden administration’s war policy in Ukraine.