Niall Ferguson may be correct. History becomes bloodiest, he writes, when an empire is coming to an end. But we won’t find out for sure in our lifetimes.
In his new book “War of the World,” the British historian attempts to make sense of history’s bloodiest century. In his telling, both world wars were part of a greater struggle that actually lasted from 1914 until (at least) 1953. That war was, in his words, “a succession of head-to-head collisions between the world’s empires played out in the critical conflict zones at either end of the Eurasian land mass.”
Ferguson’s certainly correct that the history of the 20th century centers on the destruction of empires. The Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Romanov and Ottoman empires were all destroyed during the 1900s, along with the Nazi and Soviet empires that followed.
But the final empire to fall, the Soviet Union, was probably the most evil of them all. And yet it ended without us “firing a shot,” as Margaret Thatcher put it. So is it possible we’re entering a new era, one in which empires crumble (or fade away, as the British Empire did) without triggering massive violence?
To know for sure, we’ll need to witness the end of the planet’s final empire, the American empire. Yet we won’t know for decades whether or not the collapse of our empire will be bloody or peaceful, because our empire, which is unique in history, will be around for years and years.
The American moment is nowhere near an end. We’re actually just getting started on our “empire,” which of course isn’t a traditional empire because it’s not based on military or even cultural dominance, although we certainly enjoy both of those.
Our power and influence is based on the power and influence of our ideas, and those ideas are on the march. Peter Schramm is living proof.
Schramm’s the head of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University. He and his family fled Hungary’s communist regime and came to the United States in 1956. Why all the way to the U.S. instead of nearby West Germany? “Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place,” Schramm’s father explained to his 10-year-old son. That thought has also inspired millions of others, from scores of countries, in the past two centuries.
Schramm’s grandfather had spent seven years in a labor camp for the crime of owning an American flag. Yet today, Hungary is a free country and a member of NATO and the European Union. That’s a victory for American ideals, making Hungary something of a satellite -- not one held in orbit by American military might, but by the power of the American concept of liberty.
Of course, the U.S. doesn’t get the credit it deserves. As the left-wing British newspaper The Guardian reported on Nov. 3, “America is now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbours and allies.” That reportedly includes our friends in North America, with “62 percent of Canadians and 57 percent of Mexicans saying the world has become more dangerous because of U.S. policy.”
Ah, but actions speak louder than words.
Canadians know they owe their security to the United States. We’ve protected them for decades, and that’s allowed them to cut their military to the bone. “Canada’s military is lean, even by modern standards, with 60,000 regular troops and 20,000 reserves,” the CBC reported on Oct. 26. Canada’s used the savings to fund a lavish welfare state, including “universal health coverage” (meaning it’s equally bad for everybody).
But if Canadians truly feared the U.S., surely they’d arm themselves to protect themselves from us, and the rest of the world which we’re supposedly making more dangerous. As for Mexicans, forget the polls -- they’re voting with their feet. So many millions of Mexicans have come here in recent decades that Congress voted to build a wall to stop them. Clearly these immigrants are inspired by us, whether or not they’ll admit that to pollsters.
Ferguson notes that the present era is much more peaceful than most of the 20th century was. “Can this state of affairs be relied upon to persist?” he asks. “May we look forward in the 21st century to nothing more than localized disorders as opposed to a new War of the World?”
He seems optimistic, noting (as other authors, including Thomas P.M. Barnett and Gregg Easterbrook, have) that -- even counting Iraq and Afghanistan -- the number of global conflicts is declining.
Expect that positive trend to continue as we make our way through the next 100 years or so, and enjoy a second “American century.”