All things considered, this is a good time to start talking about the geopolitical big picture. As I type these words, the Russo-Ukrainian war is still under way. The assault on Kyiv seems to have been put on hold so that the Russians could focus on clearing Ukrainian defenders from the Donbass region, while pitched battles rage in the south of the country, where Russian forces are pushing north along both banks of the Dnieper River. After a month of hard fighting, Russia has seized close to thirty per cent of Ukraine’s territory and shows no signs of backing down, and sanctions from the US and its client states in Europe and the western Pacific have done nothing to dissuade the Russian government from its course.
Meanwhile blowback from those sanctions is becoming a massive economic fact worldwide, and it’s by no means certain that Russia has lost anything as a result. India, the fifth largest economy in the world, has just finished making arrangements to trade with Russia outside the SWIFT interbank system, settling deals in rupees and rubles rather than US dollars. China, the world’s second largest economy, already has such a system in place. Shortages of diesel fuel and half a dozen other Russian-sourced commodities are setting off economic crises in various corners of the world, while the specter of a global food shortage is becoming increasingly grave—Ukraine is the world’s #3 exporter of wheat, while Russia holds the top spot in that category and also supplies the world with much of its fertilizer. The US and Britain have both tapped their strategic petroleum reserves in an attempt to keep oil prices down, but it remains to be seen whether that will be more than a stopgap measure.
It’s common just now to see these events as a temporary roadbump on the route to a future of business as usual, or to blame them on the supposed personal villainy of Russia’ds President Vladimir Putin. Such evasions are as easy as they are hopelessly mistaken. They betray, among other things, a stunning ignorance of history, since this is hardly the first time that an era of economic globalization has shattered under the pressure of geopolitics. Several thoughtful writers have already noted the parallels between the present crisis and the collapse of Victorian economic globalization a century ago.
The comparison’s exact. In 1913, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out in his deservedly famous work The Economic Consequences of the Peace, a wealthy Englishman eating breakfast with the Times open before him could buy and sell assets around the globe as freely as his equivalent in the United States in 2013. The pound sterling was the indispensible global currency in those days; the Victorian era’s worldwide telegraph network filled the role of the internet, sending orders to buy and sell across seas and continents at the speed of light. Free-trade agreements far more inflexible than the current examples erased barriers to investment and exploitation. The British army and navy, backed by state-of-the-art military technology, provided the backstop for it all. The only cloud on the horizon was the rising power of Germany, which wasn’t willing to settle for second-class status in a world run primarily for Britain’s convenience and profit.
Then 1914 came, a terrorist shot the heir to the Austrian throne, and one after another, most of the nations of Europe went to war. Free trade couldn’t survive once geopolitics took center stage: every combatant nation had to slap on currency controls to keep desperately needed funds from fleeing to neutral countries, and neutral countries responded accordingly, while sanctions and countersanctions among the contending alliances shredded the trust that made global trade work. By the time the war finally wound down in 1918, the global economy of the Victorian era was shattered beyond repair. Attempts to restore some semblance of it in the 1920s helped set the stage for the global economic disaster of 1929. Once the Great Depression hit, free trade was utterly discredited in the minds of most people, and fifty years passed before the United States set out to copy Britain’s imperial strategy for its own benefit, leading to our present situation.
Britain in 1913 was the world’s richest and most powerful country. Britain in 1918 was a half-shattered economic basket case, so close to bankruptcy that it was never able to pay off its First World War debts to the United States, and so strapped for ready cash that when Ireland rose in revolt against British rule, the British government crumpled and let go of its oldest and most thoroughly looted colony. It took only four decades after 1914 for the rest of the British empire to come crashing down, reducing Britain from its previous status of global hyperpower to the ignominious role of US client state propped up mostly by money laundering operations in the City of London. That’s what happens to nations that get too dependent on economic globalism.
Could something similar happen to the United States? Of course it could. Right now, according to credible estimates, the United States extracts something like US$1 trillion a year in unearned wealth by way of the dollar’s role as global reserve currency and medium of big-ticket trade. That’s what gives the US government the ability to throw around trillions of dollars it doesn’t have on international adventurism and domestic pork-barrel projects. If that goes away—if the US government can no longer run up debt, and has to pay for its expenditures out of its own income—most of the facade of American prosperity will come crashing down, the colossal corporate-welfare programs that support big business in this country will run out of cash, and US global hegemony will be a thing of the past.
We may be seeing the opening rounds of that transition right now. Visit a grocery store here in the United States and the week-over-week price increases in many products are far higher than the official (and heavily doctored) rate of inflation. While you’re there, notice how many shelves are bare, or have had products spread out across them to conceal shortages—you know, the way things happened in the Eastern Bloc countries before they collapsed. The wheels are coming off the dollar-denominated (and -dominated) global economy as we speak, and the consequences will include drastic redistribution of wealth between nations—and between classes within nations. That wealthy Englishman Keynes imagined at his breakfast table in 1913 was a lot less wealthy in 1933, and by 1953 he was a good deal less wealthy still.
All this is worth watching, especially though not only for those of us who live in the United States. As I noted earlier, it’s beginning to see some discussion on the fringes, which is where you find straight talk about unwelcome realities these days. I’d like to take a step further back, however, and look at what’s happening in the cold light of a broader historical shift.
I mentioned the British Empire a few paragraphs back. In 1500 the idea of a British Empire would have seemed absurd, had anyone imagined it at all. In 1500 those people elsewhere who paid any attention to Europe at all thought of it as a bleak, damp, mountainous subcontinent stuck onto the western end of Asia, inhabited by a clutch of little nations mostly notable for their odd religious beliefs and their propensity for murderous internecine warfare. As it had been since ancient times, Europe was on the fringes of the civilized world: a belt of great imperial nations slicing across the southern end of Asia, through the Middle East, to West Africa.
(West Africa? Yes. West Africa had cities before Europe did, and was a major center of urban literate civilizations when most of Europe was inhabited by illiterate Germanic tribes who thought Roman ruins must have been built by giants. In 1500 West Africa was dominated by the Songhai Empire, a sprawling political entity that ruled most of the westward bulge of Africa south of the Sahara, extending from the great cities of Timbuktu and Gao west to the Atlantic. Until 1591, when the Songhai Empire broke apart after a disastrous defeat in a war with Morocco, it was larger, richer, and militarily more powerful than any nation in Europe. The fact that you’ve probably never heard of it, dear reader, says quite a bit about the essentially parochial nature of modern Western education.)
The Chinese Empire, the Mughal Empire in India, the Persian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Songhai Empire: those, and a few dozen smaller nations scattered around their flanks, from Japan in the far east to the Wolof kingdom in the far west, were the civilized world. Europe was on the periphery, and the smart money—if anyone had been placing bets—would probably have assumed that its quarrelsome little statelets would shortly be swallowed up by the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. That nearly happened, too: if European forces hadn’t won the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 and withstood the two Ottoman sieges of Vienna in 1526 and 1683, chances are that much more of Europe, and quite possibly all of it, would have been conquered by the Turks.
One of the commonplaces of history, however, is that peoples on the periphery innovate while peoples in the core repeat the same motions. That’s what Europe did. Europeans didn’t invent gunpowder, cannons, or long-distance deepwater sailing vessels—the Chinese had all of those centuries before they trickled west to Europe—but once these technologies arrived, those bellicose European countries pushed them further than anyone else had yet gone. By 1500 tall ships capable of crossing oceans were putting out from every port on Europe’s Atlantic coast, armed with cannon superior to anything else afloat.
Trade was the first item on the agenda—trade with India and China, to get access to Asian luxury products without paying the exorbitant markups charged by Turkish and Arab middlemen—but the discovery of the Americas changed everything, especially after Old World diseases wiped out 95% of the New World’s native population and left the field wide open to European colonization and settlement. It took less than two centuries for Europe to impose a new economic structure on the planet, as European navies and merchant fleets monopolized international trade, and European colonies in the New World worked mostly by slaves imported from Africa turned out fantastically lucrative crops of tobacco and sugar for sale around the world. European armies followed in the wake of the merchant fleets, invading and seizing most of the planet in history’s most spectacular orgy of conquest.
The economic consequences of that era of slaughter and plunder are relevant for our present purpose. In 1600, India was the wealthiest nation on earth. In 1900, it was one of the poorest. That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because the British Raj stripped India to the bare walls and sent the proceeds home. The astounding wealth that financed Britain’s global military presence and littered London with so much monumental architecture came from the ruthless exploitation of India and dozens of other countries. The same thing is true of most other European countries and capitals. Most talk about the world’s undeveloped countries these days goes out of its way to avoid acknowledging that the Third World’s poverty was caused by European expropriation of every scrap of movable wealth that wasn’t nailed down.
It’s the aftermath that matters now. In 1947 India forced a bankrupt and battered Britain to grant it independence. In 1949 China threw off a weak Nationalist government dependent on Western powers. In 1979 Iran—that’s what Persia is called these days—got rid of an American puppet-shah. Turkey managed to maintain a precarious independence after the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by France and Britain in 1918, and is well on its way to recovering its historic dominance over the eastern Mediterranean. West Africa’s still a basket case, but that’s largely because French and US troops are keeping it that way. (The last thing anyone in NATO wanted, once the oil crisis of the 1970s hit, was another oil-rich region getting expansive ideas of its capacity for international influence, the way the nations of the Persian Gulf did.)
That is to say, the civilized world is recovering from the impact of Europe’s temporary rule.
The consequences can be traced easily enough in economic terms. As already noted, even given the distortions of the wildly inflated financial sectors of Europe and the United States, China today has the second largest economy on the planet. India has the fifth, and it’s the fastest growing major economy in the world. Iran’s still laboring under harsh sanctions, but it’s become a regional economic power with a booming industrial sector; once the sanctions binding it crack—and they’re cracking—expect it to become a major economic, political, and military force. The rest of the old belt of civilized nations, west from the Iranian border to the Atlantic coast of West Africa, is still a little behind the curve, but give it another hundred years and the natural economic advantages of the old civilized belt will likely win out.
And Europe? Sclerotic, fussy, entitled, clinging to the shabby dignity of an age of empire that’s fading in history’s rearview mirror, and weighed down by demographic contraction that’s been accelerating for a century, Europe is the past, not the future. William Butler Yeats saw it a century in advance: “What discords will drive Europe into that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilization?” The European Union fulfilled his prophecy to the letter, and is proceeding to finish up Yeats’ grand historical cycle by sinking into a final incoherence out of which, in time, something wholly new—and wholly unacceptable to the conventional wisdom of Europe-as-it-is—will be born.
It’s always that way. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the twentieth century’s great master of mythic narrative, crafted a fine poem titled “The Hoard” that draws on ancient insights into the cycle by which empires and civilizations rise and fall. It follows a splendid treasure from one owner to another, dwarf to dragon to human king, carrying the curse of decay and doom with it. The treasure, as Tolkien knew well, is the hvarena, the treasure of sovereignty out of archaic Indo-European lore; it’s the gold of the Rhine—some rich Roman’s hoard, perhaps, in the original sequence of events—which helped drive murderous feuds in the post-Roman Rhineland, inspired the greatest of all cycles of German and Norse legend, and provided the central theme for the last truly great work of Western opera, Richard Wagner’s tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelung. Tolkien’s words make a fine epitaph for Europe in its decadence:
The swords of his thanes were dull with rust,
His glory fallen, his rule unjust,
His halls hollow, and his bowers cold,
But king he was of elvish gold.
That’s the curse of power. Every nation, like every generation, passes from a youth full of ideals and high hopes to an old age defined by the exact mathematical consequences of its actions. The old belt of high civilizations had its own burdens and its own decadence to pay for, and paid for them. Now, its strength renewed, it’s rising, while the bill for Europe’s age of dominion is being totted up patiently by old Father Time, for payment in full. It shouldn’t be surprising, after all, that the nations that dominated the world during the preindustrial era should be in line to dominate it again as the industrial age winds down.
This, finally, is the wider context in which the Russo-Ukrainian war and its attendant economic convulsions need to be understood. The great question of early twenty-first century geopolitics was whether Russia, with its immense fossil fuel, mineral, and agricultural resources, would align with Europe or with rising Asia. It would have been quite easy for Europe and the United States to have brought Russia into a pan-European structure of alliances and economic relationships. All that would have been required is a reasonable attention to Russian concerns about national security and a willingness to put long-term goals over short-term profiteering. European and American leaders turned out to be too inept to manage those simple steps, and as a result, the question has been settled: Russia is turning east, throwing its resource base and its political support to China, India, and Iran. That didn’t have to happen, but it’s too late to change it now.
And the United States? We did what peripheral powers often do in ages of decline, when the imperial center begins to fold. We grabbed the reins of empire in 1945, when Britain was too weak to hold them any longer, and tried to make the same gimmick work for us. It didn’t work very well, all things considered. Now we’ve backed ourselves into the same trap that caught Britain in 1914: lethally overcommitted to an unaffordable global empire, hopelessly dependent on a global economy that’s cracking at the seams, and unable to realize that the world has changed. The next few decades will be a rough road for us.
That said, it’s the European age that’s ending, not the American age. The American age hasn’t begun yet. The United States these days is a Third World country catapulted by a chapter of historical accidents into a temporary position as global hegemon. Its Europeanized elites, in the usual Third World fashion, are a small minority maintaining a tenuous temporary mastery over restless masses that don’t share its ideals and its interests, and are beginning to sense their potential power. America is still young, and pregnant with the future; centuries from now, long after the European veneer has been thrown off, she will give birth to something else wholly new, and it will inevitably be even more unacceptable—and indeed wholly incomprehensible—to the conventional wisdom of Europe-as-it-is.
But of course that conventional wisdom will no longer exist by then. If history follows its usual track, by the time the future high culture of eastern North America begins to emerge, the age of European global dominion will be a distant memory, and Europe itself will have spent many centuries in its pre-imperial condition: a fragmented, impoverished, bellicose region on the faraway fringe of the civilized world. Its peoples and cultures, for that matter, may not have much in common with those residing there now. Nearly all the nations of Roman Europe went out of existence in the post-Roman era, swamped by mass migrations from elsewhere. At the beginning of the Common Era, the ancestors of today’s Spaniards lived in Ukraine and the ancestors of today’s Hungarians lived closer to China than to Hungary. In the same way, a millennium from now, many of the people who live in Europe may trace their ancestry to today’s Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa, and the historic nations of Europe will be forgotten, erased by tides of migration and conquest that establish new boundaries and new polities.
History is no respecter of persons, and it has a particularly harsh way of treating those who think their sense of entitlement matters in the great scheme of things. That’s worth keeping in mind, as we move deeper into an era of convulsive change whose consequences most people haven’t yet begun to gauge. Over the months to come, we’ll talk more about that, and about the consequences that are likely to follow from it.