On Declining Empires: Part One

A recent issue of The Economist includes a special report on France with a provocative undercurrent suggesting that France is a country in decline. Although most of the articles in the report avoid explicitly stating that thesis – and I can’t say the authors actually use the word ‘empire’ in these articles either – that’s certainly the idea. France was a great empire and has a history of political and philosophical global influence, and now it has degenerated to the point that it no longer warrants status as a country of consequence on the global stage – or possibly even on the European stage. There’s another vital claim accompanying this argument, however, and it’s all the more provocative: the French have no idea that their empire and clout have vanished. Paris, according to the British (or at least the authors writing for this British magazine) is in complete denial about France’s decline.

If the subtext of the articles seems true (and the notion that the French haven’t noticed a French decline strikes me as plausible at worst), the great irony is to read such suggestions in a British publication. The assumption by The Economist’s writers that they can objectively judge the decline of French relevance is perverse; these same writers fail to notice that their own United Kingdom has undergone a still greater decline since the 1940s. Essentially, the pot has published a special report hinting that the kettle is black.

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After thinking about this for a few days, permit me to offer a thesis that is usually – but probably not universally – true. Empires can either decline or collapse, and if an empire declines, that decline is unlikely to be noticed by those who reside at the empire’s very center. For example, the German Empire collapsed. Germany lost World War I, and everyone knew it, even those who lived in Berlin. Germany’s colonies were seized, Germany’s borders reduced, and the German people made to suffer so profoundly that the advent of World War II was virtually guaranteed. This is one model for the end of an empire.

The other model, however, is one of gradual decline, and it’s one that has many examples. As I wrote above, the British Empire folded years ago, and I’m certain that the Canadians, Australians, Indians, and Pakistanis know this. I’m not sure, however, that the residents of London and Birmingham have caught on yet, as evidenced by the arrogant moralizing prevalent in British news (like when they sit in judgment over French decline). It seems like many who reside in England – and possibly Scotland and Wales as well – have missed the fact that they are no longer a global power “entitled” to judge the world. Consider that when extremists rant, the UK frequently doesn’t even warrant a mention – we typically hear about the U.S. and the West. Today, the UK has completed the journey from global power to another face in the European crowd. The mighty have fallen, whether they know it or not.

This has happened in other places and times as well. Ancient Athens declined slowly, and by the time of the New Testament we find that although the whole world has become Roman, there remain a group of Athenian philosophers carrying on the tradition of Greek philosophy as though Athens retained relevance (see Acts 17:21 for details). The Roman Empire, for its part, slowly degenerated into an empire of two halves, with the eastern capital Constantinople ensconced over the western capital Rome in the hierarchy. In time the ability of the east to put down barbarian hordes in the west declined, and eventually the Western Roman Empire existed in complete anarchy, whereas the Eastern Roman Empire was known as Byzantium but still regarded itself as the Roman Empire. Once again, an empire declined – a fact the people of Rome knew very well – but the people at the center of that empire – in this case the Constantinopolitans – were oblivious to that fact.

This happens outside of geopolitics as well. In the world of sports, the 2010-11 Lakers are the most recent example of this – they had won two consecutive NBA titles (and contested a third), but everyone outside of Los Angeles knew they were finished before that year’s playoffs. The empire had decayed, but the Lakers didn’t notice until the Dallas Mavericks – the eventual champions – proved it by emphatically eliminating them from the playoffs.  Los Angelinos were the last to know.

In religion, the massive building projects of the Roman Catholic popes right before the Reformation are another example. The popes were commissioning great art and massive projects rather than tending to their concerned flock, because those at the center of the Catholic church failed to notice the decay that was so evident to those in Northern Europe. Even then, the struggle with Martin Luther could have been defused or averted – it dragged on for years – but those in Rome didn’t see the problem, and the Catholic empire could never recover from the subsequent acceleration of decline.

In politics, sports, and in religion, history testifies that when empires decline those at the center are the last to know. If my thesis is correct, it raises an obvious question: which empires are decaying around us unnoticed? What empires might be devolving in such close proximity to us that it’s hard to gain appropriate perspective?

I imagine you can think of several candidates, and in part two of this meditation (posting Friday), I’ll look at two such candidates and their symbiotic relationship. In the meantime, however, feel free to add examples that I’ve neglected in the comment section.

Continue to Part 2 here.

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