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When Christians focus on this or that local conflict, they often are completely unaware of larger trends and trajectories related to the “great powers” that have a direct bearing on foreign affairs, trade, migration, civil unrest, treaties, and actual war. They are like sheep described by David Mitchell: “Up the hill, sheep bleat, oblivious to human empires rising and falling.”
The rise and fall of empires is nothing new, and can be traced back to the earliest histories of humanity.
Ancient empires such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Athens, Sparta, and Macedonia all had their day in the sun. Mighty Rome (and its eastern continuation we in the West call Byzantium) had its days of glory, but it too fell. (Not a surprise to Marcus Aurelius, one of the empire's more philosophical emperors. He said "Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”)
In more recent memory, the fall of European, Japanese, Ottoman (Turkish), and Russian empires have shaped the world in which we live. As has the rise of the post-Cold War American empire, often coined the period of the Pax Americana.
But there are current trends and trajectories that point to the rise of new empires. Being aware of important mega trends is critically important for an informed understanding of the actions of nations and the weighing of claims of justice.
The Rise of Powers
Much has been made of Russia’s economic and military resurgence, its taking of Crimea, and its contribution to the low-grade destabilization of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Is this all a manifestation of a neo-imperial dream of Vladimir Putin, a sort of return to the glory days of the Soviet Empire, or is it a defensive reaction to the duplicity of NATO? Or both?
For 500 years Europe cowered in fear of the mighty Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Its demise at the end of the First World War led to a much weakened and secular nation. However, President Erdoğan has displayed neo-imperialist trajectories in his foreign policy in the Middle East, Cyprus, and in North Africa. His recent turning the church of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque reflects his desire to move Turkey away from its secular identity and towards a neo-Ottoman Empire that is seen as a powerful and resurgent defender/promoter of Islam.
Events in both Russia and Turkey are noteworthy, but the largest geo-political developments lay elsewhere in India and China.
The rise of India as an economic power is readily apparent, and as its economy grows its military will too. It has border tensions with both China and Pakistan that tie down enormous resources, but actions such as its development of a blue-water navy moves it towards a being an important middle power in the Indian Ocean and Asian subcontinent.
China is the only nation that has the potential to be a superpower in a generation or so. Its large population, significant industrial base, economic growth, surging nationalism, and rapid developments in military technology – not to mention the world’s second largest military budget – all point to an important power on the rise. Its humiliation by the West in the mid/late-nineteenth century provides a visceral motivation to never again be subject to foreign powers. Its claims in the South China Sea, dispute with Japan over islands, and threats towards Taiwan do not bode well for its neighbors, but all are actions congruent with a rising power eager to flex its new-found muscle.
The Decline of Powers
Europe is now basically a regional power, although, as its presence in Afghanistan demonstrated, its collective strength through NATO has a significant degree of global reach.
The United States is still by far the world’s superpower. By virtually every measurement the military might of the US is unmatched. Its spending is larger than the next 8-10 countries combined. Its nuclear and conventional forces are modern, well maintained, and well trained. Its technology is highly advanced. However, the amount of national debt is so alarming that one wonders how US spending on its military can be maintained – an important consideration since modern empires have often fallen as a result of economic collapse rather than military defeat.
One can only hope that the rising and declining powers - especially China and the US - avoid the “Thucydides Trap.” In his history of the war between Sparta and Athens, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides stated that the shifts in power between Athens and Sparta led to fear, uncertainty, and eventually military conflict. The status quo had been rapidly changing, and the only way out for both nations seemed to be war: it was trap they could not escape.
As for modern Christians concerned with war, peace, and justice in international relations, they need to step back and be aware of the larger geopolitical motivations that drive foreign policy. It is not a matter of looking for bizarre conspiracy theories to explain what is going on behind the scenes, it is a matter of asking what is motivating nations/empires to act as they do in light of real and pressing strategic considerations. It is having one’s eyes wide open – and not being mindless sheep oblivious to what is going on around them. It is, in the words of Oliver O'Donovan, being a "deliberating public" that is able to witness thoughtfully to a rising or declining nation in conflict.
(This is blog post #8 in the series entitled “Christians, War, and Violence: Reflections on Possible Futures.”)
 NATO promised to not advance into eastern Europe if Soviet Russia withdrew its troops from East Germany and Poland. Russia withdrew its troops, and since that time NATO has repeatedly broken its promise by admitting numerous eastern European nations into NATO.
 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (London: William Collins, 1988).
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