Empires solve a multitude of problems. They lay a blanket of authority over rival peoples and belief systems. They institute common standards and languages and clear the way for trade and travel across vast geographies. The early 20th century was a world of empires – Habsburgs in middle Europe, Romanovs across Eurasia, Ottomans in the Middle East. Britain, France, Portugal, and Belgium had carved up Africa and Asia. Even the United States was in the empire business, managing territories it wrested from Spain at the turn of the century (the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico) and indirectly managing Latin America through influence and intervention.
Pax Imperialis was at its height in 1910. In “The Guns of August,” historian Barbara Tuchman describes the funeral that year of Edward VII of England, which was attended by nine kings riding three by three and adorned “with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.” Seventy nations were gathered in a show of order and honor. But “on history’s clock,” she wrote, “it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
In a Monitor cover story (read it here), historian Gerard DeGroot describes the Great War that those sovereigns and their generals blundered into four years later – 100 years ago this August – the shattered empires left behind, and the many ways we are still sorting through the wreckage. Take a subject in the news today: Ukraine. Internal differences of language, religion, and affinity can be traced to the empires that overlaid its territory before World War I. Hryhoriy Nemyria, a former deputy prime minister of Ukraine, describes his country as still dealing with having been “the periphery of peripheries of three powers” – Russia, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
The Europe of the 21st century may seem fixed and settled, its frontiers barely noticeable. But that is a recent phenomenon. The farther east Europe goes, the less remains settled, the more “borders and people don’t match,” notes Dan Hamilton, a specialist on transatlantic relations at Johns Hopkins University. That mismatch is true in much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
One hundred years is not much time to rebuild from the great political earthquake of 1914, especially with the aftershocks that followed. In many ways, 2014 is a year in which history has insisted it be reviewed, if for no other reason than the coincidence of significant anniversaries. Seventy-five years ago, Hitler invaded Poland, touching off World War II. Seventy years ago was D-Day, which President Obama, amid the new challenges posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, will mark next month in a speech likely to signal continued American support for a “Europe whole and free.” Those words, by the way, come from a speech by former President George H.W. Bush – exactly 25 years ago – just months before the Berlin Wall fell.
From the vantage of 2014, the age of empire is a distant memory of plumed hats and crimson sashes. Also from this vantage, the age of mental empires based on ideology or religion is, if not fully over, at least approaching sunset. What we must not allow is economic or nationalistic empires to take their place.
The terrible destruction and lost lives of two great wars and a dozen other 20th-century conflicts can be redeemed by a 21st century in which the varied peoples of Earth voluntarily, thoughtfully, peacefully, and modestly govern themselves.
John Yemma is the Monitor's editor at large. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.