Empires can rise and fall quickly. After World War I, the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman, and Russian Empires abruptly collapsed amid military defeat, rising nationalism, and revolution.
Yet on the eve of World War II four new empires suddenly grew out the wreckage of old Europe and Asia. A weak Italy under Fascist Benito Mussolini in just a few years grabbed much of East and North Africa, as well as the Dalmatian coast. Hitler’s so-called “Third Empire” carved off Austria and strips of Eastern Europe — and planned to go to war for more. The Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic states and southern Finland. Japan declared first Manchuria, and then Southeast Asia, part of its new “Co-Prosperity Sphere.”
But by the war’s end in 1945, the Japanese and Italian empires had collapsed. So did the Third Reich — and soon the British Empire as well. The Soviet implosion in 1991 was expected by very few.
We are now in an equally turbulent age of rising empires — mostly due to a new American indifference and passivity. Or, to put it more exactly, President Obama believes that his own legacy rests with avoiding all confrontations overseas, withdrawing as many troops as he can, and cutting the defense budget as much as Congress will allow so as to use the funds to address supposed inequality at home. If chaos results abroad, he can either blame his predecessor, George W. Bush, or assume that his successor will have to deal with what he wrought — or both. Obama is running out the clock of his presidency on the premise of Après moi, le déluge.
The Iranian theocracy fancies itself the reincarnation of the ancient Persian Empire of Cyrus and Xerxes. A soon-to-be nuclear Iran, through its operatives, now controls portions of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and, soon, Yemen — and dreams of overturning the Sunni sheikhdoms in the Gulf. If you assert that administration talking points come right out of Tehran — as Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey recently did — Obama will characterize such objections not as principled differences, but as cynical attempts to please “donors” — a veiled reference to rich Jews whose money, Obama apparently believes, distorts policy. I think the administration’s policy toward the new Iranian Empire is something like, “They probably won’t get the bomb until 2017.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin has added parts of Ukraine to his earlier land conquests in Georgia and Crimea. He dreams of updating 19th-century Czarist Russia. Putin’s next target will probably be half of Estonia, a NATO country, whose implosion would render the postwar alliance null and void. Putin is dangerous not just because he runs an autocratic nuclear state and has dreams of restoring 19th-century imperial Russia under Orthodoxy and a new czardom, but also because he has developed a perverse delight in gratuitously humiliating Barack Obama, by exposing his sermonizing platitudes as both hypocritical and impotent.
Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan dreams of reviving the Ottoman Empire. He flexes Turkey’s new muscles in both the Arab and the Mediterranean worlds, as he slowly strangles Turkish democracy. Erdogan’s foreign policy is based on a pathological hatred of Israel and claims of a special multicultural relationship with Barack Obama. Erdogan certainly rejects the secularized vision of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and he seems to wish to see pro-Western Arab dictatorships replaced by more revolutionary Islamist governments that will look to Turkey for spiritual guidance.
The new terrorist Islamic State has grandiose schemes of recreating the medieval pan-Arab caliphate. After carving off much of Syria and Iraq for their new theocracy, the jihadists plan to topple the rich Gulf sheikhdoms and grab the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Islamic State grew out of two laxities. First, no Western power tried to organize a non-Islamist alternative to the bloody pro-Iranian, pro-Hezbollah Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad, which was on the verge of falling during the Arab Spring four years ago; instead, Western nations may well have ended up arming and abetting ISIS thugs. Second, for the price of a cheap 2012 reelection talking point, the U.S. fled from Iraq in 2011, after enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure had achieved, in the words of Barack Obama, a relatively stable and secure Iraq that might have been, in the words of Joe Biden, the administration’s greatest achievement. Supporters of Obama claim the Iraq War created ISIS; in fact, the disintegration of Syria and the abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Iraq did.
China has terrified almost all of its Westernized neighbors — Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. It is trying to recreate its own version of the imperial Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere through cash, mercantilism, threats, and the overstepping of borders. Its defense build-up and new aggressive foreign policy reflect a hunch that America’s old Pacific and Asian allies are no longer securely beneath the American defensive umbrella, that they recognize their vulnerability, and that Chinese money and threats are more relevant than U.S. platitudes and indifference.
There are several common denominators to the grandiose visions of these five would-be empires. All are anti-democratic. They are certainly anti-American. They are bullies who pick fights only with entities deemed smaller and weaker than themselves. And they have all been empowered by the recessional of the lead-from-behind United States from the world stage. In other words, they believe their aggrandizement is either ignored by an Obama administration that feels deterring them is too costly and unpopular, or tactically condoned as the inherent right of countries to adjudicate politics in their own spheres of influence, without an intrusive American global cop sticking its post-colonial, imperialist nose where it has no business.
There used to be a dominant American-led West that sought to encourage abroad constitutional government, market capitalism, and human rights. The so-called New World Order that followed the Cold War was backed by U.S. economic muscle, an overpowering military, and advocacy for freedom. America showed a fierce loyalty to its longtime friends in Europe and the Middle East and no tolerance for outlaws like Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and the Iranian theocracy. It had a special concern for the proverbial small and vulnerable countries and peoples such as Israel, the Kurds, Taiwan, and Greece. Now, Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Islamic State, and China have taken note that this is no longer the case.
Obama is abetting five new empires that believe their reactionary autocracy, anti-Americanism, and growing military power should earn them greater material rewards and global influence. To paraphrase the Roman historian Tacitus, where Obama has helped to create chaos, he calls it peace.
We are witnessing empire-building unlike anything seen since the 1930s and early 1940s. What is different this time around is not just the older themes of American isolationism, indifference, and appeasement, but also a new, bizarre twist. The Obama administration feels almost as if these rising suzerainties have a more legitimate right to carve out regional empires than the United States has to stop them.