Ion Grumeza

Author, historian, educator, and philosopher

The Making of Empires

Opinion Page Submission
The Washington Post

The Making of Empires
By Ion Grumeza

Today, the United States of American remains the only global power, while its military strikes are perceived by the rest of the world as purely imperialistic expansion. With fifty states united by the same flag and language, the U.S. is the only empire in history to rule on the principle of freedom and justice. Its armies occupied the aggressive Germany and Japan and forced them to write peaceful constitutions. Its GIs gallantly fought in Indo-China to stop the spread of the Communist empire, and thus, America survived the Cold War, emerging more powerful than ever. Like any global power in any time in history, the U.S. found itself in the unenviable position of policing the world, ironically including former Communist countries.

A major problem is that in the name of fighting international terrorism, Americans forcefully “liberate” nations that refuse to change their secular ways of life. In spite of well-intentioned economic and humanitarian help, those nations that happen to be Muslim feel pushed into an old-fashioned colonial system, with imperial troops ready to fire at any provocation. The entire American “imperial package” misses one important ingredient, an emperor, but not a Capitol in Washington, which is the unofficial capitol of the world. Contrary to other imperial powers, the U.S. is the only one to lose, and not to gain money with its military conquests. This demonstrates its financial and economic power as a backup for its military might.

An empire, by definition, is a large state formed of many ethnical nations held together by a sovereign government. The word “empire” comes from the Latin “imperor/emperor,” which means a victorious general. It shows what an empire is about: a military force occupying distant lands. The building of an empire originates with the personal ambition of a megalomaniac leader, his need to solve a financial crisis by plundering other nations, or the vital control of peace in a bellicose and threatening area. Both ancient and modern empires functioned by means of a strictly enforced hierarchy to provide an orderly life to diverse skin colors, races, religions, and caste systems. Subdivided into province, colonies, dominions, and states, an empire must be skillfully governed in order to hold them together.

The Persian, Egyptian, and Roman empires, as well as other global powers, were built on the painful expense of many tribes and nations held by force of arms or economic gains into an imperial submission. This complex geo-political action generated the word “imperious” and it meaning of domineering, commanding, or arrogant attitude. Its later sister word, “imperialism,” describes nearly the same imperial qualities: the extended power of domination of one country over others.

Long-lasting empires such as the Chinese and British functioned on solid military, economic and social principles, as opposed to short-lived empires hastily put together by their meteoric leaders. Alexander the Great, who founded some 70 cities in Asia alone, Attila, Genghis Khan, and Hitler conquered vast foreign lands and built empires that ended with their deaths.

One of the longest-lived empires in history was the Ottoman Empire, much blamed for almost everything that went wrong in the Middle Ages and Modern era. Yet, it deserves a brief disclosure of its longevity secrets. Its Islam religion was very tolerant of others, and even the expelled Jews from other countries found a safe and prosperous shelter inside the Ottoman Empire. The wisdom of the Porte, the sultan’s government, protected capable and useful foreigners who administered its vast territories. In fact, the sultans were half-foreigners, for their mothers—beautiful harem girls—were not Turkish. Moreover, the sultans’ Praetorian Guard was formed by the Janissaries, foreign boys raised in fanatical devotion to their masters.

But most importantly, the conquering Ottoman soldiers, just like the Roman legionnaires, rarely mingled with the local religions or joined the social lives of the natives. Their punitive actions were focused on quiet revolts, showing the flag, installing the highest bidder on a provincial throne, and collecting taxes. To adopt the Koran teachings was a tempting option for the servile kings and their opportunistic functionaries, allowing them to advance up the Turkish administrative ladder.

The British, in their greedy conquests, learned many lessons from the Ottomans and creatively applied them to their colonies spread over one-fifth of the globe. Each time the arrogant officers, clerks, and even Christian missionaries tried to impose their way of life on the natives, they were slaughtered by the rebellious nations.

To their historical credit and contrary to their many faults, imperial eras produced past civilizations that still astonish us with their imposing pyramids, temples, lasting roads and cities, and art masterpieces. After failing in his imperial mission to unite Europe under French ruling, Napoleon bitterly concluded that “empires were built only to be destroyed.” But the history of making empires went on.

The Soviet Empire was the effect of the ruinous Imperial Russian which lost is power in World War I, and of a new Marxist-Leninist “religion” imposed by the semi-gods from the Kremlin topped by a red star. After World War II, the victorious Red Empire engulfed the eastern-European nations and became a Communist Empire held together by terror, bribery, and impenetrable, guarded borders. It collapsed under its own imperialistic ambition to extend beyond its economic and military capacity.

Third millennium imperialism may be masked by different names and perform with different rules, but it is built on the same principles of divide-and-conquer, of crushing any revolts, and of forcing subjects to adulate the emperor. In absence of a declared emperor, the adulation of the imperial culture suits the empire just as well. Hopefully that culture will learn from the many valuable lessons of history, particularly what made the empires happy, prosperous, strong, and long-lasting.

© 2003 Ion Grumeza