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A Tale of Two Empire

The study of empires reveals that empires can be established on different foundations. A few of the possible foundations are political, economic, and religious. A more interesting study of empires is how they were organized. This analysis shows that the way in which an empire was organized, as well as its nature, depended on three factors. These factors are not arbitrary but are based on real world politics. The three forces that shaped empires were:



Politics-based empires rely on diplomacy, for the spread of legitimacy. Studies of empires reveal that empires can be established on various bases, depending on incentives and on a mixture of coercion and free association. In some cases, it can only be exercised via a massive number of bodies of military and civil servants who control a massive number of subjects. For other empires, the power to rule comes from a charismatic leader, who uses force to impose his authority. Imperialism is a political concept; and in fact, the United States has long been considered an empire by international standards. Imperialism usually has a nationalistic orientation and, therefore, involves the use of force.


Economy-based economies depend on agriculture and shipping to create markets for consumer goods. Examples of such empires include Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and the national state of Mexico. All these examples were either pre-modern or, in the case of the Soviet Union, post-modern. The prerequisite for any economy to become an empire is industrialization. Industrialization means development of technology to the point where there is the potential for production of all kinds of products. For example, in the case of China, steel became a vital element in the development of the Chinese economy.


Another aspect of empires is how they were organized in terms of their political loyalties. Empires tend to be ruled by a single political party aristocratic autocrats or landlords. Although there were instances of minority rule for instance, in the case of the Qing Dynasty in China but, generally, the center of power was one group with a clear political agenda.


empires have always had a complex relationship with the periphery. The periphery provided necessary raw materials and labor, which the core state did not have access to. Additionally, the periphery was often politically unstable, beset by internal conflicts or with weak governments. In terms of security, an imperial core state had to maintain a large standing army, its navy being the world’s largest.


Today, China is in the throes of a rapid development that has the potential to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. China’s emergence as a global economic power presents an opportunity to think about what went wrong with the empires of the past. What lessons can we draw from the failures and triumphs of the Chinese economy? The United States, for example, has not enjoyed the same level of success in its industrial revolution as China has achieved-and perhaps, it would have if it had not left China under communist rule for over a century!


History, especially world history, is littered with Empires that collapsed, one or two within a century. What lessons can we draw from the fact that most empires were short-lived? Are we too quick to look at how the Chinese managed their economy and concentrate only on the political system? Was the collapse of the Japanese Empire a sign that democracy failed in Asia or was it just a passing phase?


Today, China is an increasingly important player in the international economy-not as dominant as the United States but no less important. China’s rise as a major power can no doubt be seen as a testament to the triumph of complexity over simplicity-and perhaps, a blueprint for other nations struggling to manage the politics of globalization. The success of an empire is also a tale to tell, but one that should be tempered by realistic expectations about politics and economics. Only by looking objectively at an empire can any meaningful study be made of its political systems, its culture, its economy, its people, their history, and their futures.

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