Revisionist historians are quick to criticize empire – exploitive, racist, self-serving, and often brutal – but neglect to mention the spread of civilization for which it was responsible. The Roman Empire covered most of the known world and under its governance less-developed regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe adopted Roman systems of civil management, laws, language, science, and the arts. Roman roads opened colonies to commerce and trade. Aqueducts brought water for irrigation. The concentration of wealth in urban areas facilitated the construction of public architecture (e.g. amphitheaters) and temples, and cities from the Eastern Mediterranean to England grew in size and importance.
The Persian Empire was no less impressive and like the later Roman Empire covered a vast territory from India to Greece.
[Under the Persian Empire] trade was increased throughout the kingdom. Weights were standardized weights, official coinage minted, and universal laws implemented.
The Persian leaders…imposed a 20 percent tax on all agriculture and manufacturing. They also taxed religious institutions, which despite their wealth had previously not been taxed.
The Persian kings — especially Cyrus and, later, Darius I (522-486 B.C.E.) — developed a model for the administration of a large empire… Justice was administered fairly and evenly among all diverse subject peoples….
Cyrus built the foundations of a courier, or mail, system. Darius I built a communication network that connected most of the empire. A 1,600-mile-long royal road was built from Sardis to Susa, one of the administrative capitals. Along this road, were numerous places for lodging, where royal couriers could obtain fresh horses and supplies (www.ushistory.org)The British Empire, while less extensive than either the Roman or Persian Empires, was no less influential. India alone benefited from the legacy of a British Civil Service, systems of laws, and an extensive physical and communications infrastructure. The Indian Railways were extensive, well-run, and essential for both the management and growth of the country. The United States, Canada, and Australia – three of the strongest and most prosperous of Western democracies – were based on English jurisprudence and system of governance and principles of the English Enlightenment.
In India the Maurya, Gupta, and Chola Empires were responsible for bringing or consolidating elements of civilization – social structure, language, religion, philosophy, science, art, and architecture to rural populations.
The Gao and Ghanaian Empires, while leaving very little in the way of public buildings, temples, monuments, and infrastructure, were influential in the spread of religion and social order.
There is no doubt that the goal of imperial rulers was to expand their territory, power, and influence; and to mine their new colonies for raw materials, strategic access, labor, and capital. They had no interest in spreading civilization per se, but acknowledged it as a secondary objective. The Spanish Conquest consisted of both military victory over indigenous populations and victories for Christ. Religious conversion was not an end in itself but a way of more easily controlling and assimilating native populations. Spanish influence – religion, architecture, social mores and organization – still dominate Latin America.
The last of the great empires – or their latter-day incarnations – have seen their day. The British pulled back from ‘East of Suez’, granted independence to their African colonies, and for the first time in centuries remained within its original borders. The Soviet Empire lasted a short few decades, and despite the efforts of the Shah of Iran to restore Imperial Persian, his reign was short-lived and unsuccessful.
Not surprisingly there is a new interest in empire today. Although Vladimir Putin may not expressly use that term, his annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and persistent autocratic measures to tame and fully assimilate the restive Muslim republics of the Caucasus and far east, are measures leading to the restoration of Russian hegemony. Putin has on many occasions stated that the so-called ‘nation state’ is a fiction, a concept created by the West for its own political and economic interests. National borders mean nothing, and a more salient type of sovereignty – one based on history, ethnicity, and geography – will ultimately take its place.
China is not a classic empire, but its vast size, large population, and autocratic desire for hegemony (neutralizing the Uighurs) and the return of all Chinese lands (i.e. Tibet, Taiwan); and its growing influence in Africa and Asia characterize it as such.
ISIS understands this perfectly well. In its desire to create a radical Islamic caliphate ISIS ignores national colonial boundaries and the rule of secular law on which nations have been built.
Although all of these imperial claims, movements, and ambitions are roundly criticized in the West, European and American observers overlook their appeal – a centrism which dismisses ‘diversity’ as seditious and values the establishment of an unequivocal cultural authority.
The West is outmatched by these neo-imperialists because in its persistent defense of liberal democracy, it fails to acknowledge the desire for extra-national identity and hegemony. More and more of the world’s Muslims, whether in France, Bangladesh, or Saudi Arabia, increasingly see the rule of God taking precedence over any other. The secular state has no legitimacy unless it is subsumed within or replaced by the religious one.
Ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Crimea, or elsewhere in the diaspora, are increasingly demanding an inclusion within an expanded Motherland and Putin is accommodating them.
Many other political jurisdictions – Scotland, Quebec, Catalonia among others – do not want to join a larger empire, but want a homogeneous mini-empire within their own borders. Each separatist group claims that there is a certain cultural, social, and historical center to their enclave – one that is being impinged upon, insulted, or diminished by the larger nation of which they are apart.
Finally, America is passing through an era of identity politics in which every minority group – blacks, Hispanics, LGBT, etc. – feel that they are misunderstood, put upon, and discriminated against; and although they say they claim only equal rights, they are separatist at heart.
What do expansionist empires, separatists, and minority groups in a pluralistic society share? A belief that they have unique, absolute, and unassailable cultural centers. Secular or democratic concerns are nuisances and irrelevant. World over, individuals want less to belong to a secular, individualistic, pluralistic society; and more to belong to a cultural unit which reflects, respects, defends, and expands their interests.
In the early days of the Republic, established and organized on the principle of freedom – i.e. the freedom to speak, act, and assemble according to one’s own beliefs – but within a context of community. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ had nothing whatsoever to do with satisfying venal, personal desires; and everything to do with acting ethically and morally within a common social context.
We have strayed far from that ideal. We have gone far beyond simple intolerance to a demand for separatism. Pluralism has been replaced by ‘diversity’. Living respectfully together in a society of great variation is outdated and anachronistic. Such pluralism means complaisance and acceptance and adherence to principles which may have had value in 1776 when American society was homogeneous, rural, agrarian, and simple but not now.
Great empires ruled the world with authority, strong cultural and religious centers, a belief in the righteousness of their expansionism, a willingness to use force, but a reliance more on religious authority and punition for control. Empires were willing to fight to defend their territory and to conquer and exploit those who threatened it.
Pluralistic societies like America, are coming apart at the seams because of parochial demands from every subgroup in society. America no longer has a cultural center. The absolute moral authority of religion has been dissipated and dissolved. The principles of the Enlightenment which characterized the new Republic – rationality and reason within a divine context – and which were indeed exceptional, have also been so twisted and distorted that it is no wonder that America is laughed at for its cultural arrogance and sense of entitlement.
Europe is only a little better off. Countries like France, Denmark, and Poland which have always valued a unique Christian, European heritage and unshakeable values are flummoxed by immigration. Their center, they say, is coming apart and must be defended. Yet, trapped within the EU and democratic socialism, they have no idea what to do. The European Union is as weak as it ever was and does not know how to respond to threats from the new world order.
If Europe is to survive, it must look to Empire. It cannot flounder amidst calls for a repeal of the secular state, religious separatism, and ethnic identity. In the face of a militant, expansionist, and committed Islam, it must reassert its Christianity, its cultural history, and its Greco-Judaic roots.
Likewise America must stop its slide into a contentious ‘diversity’, an emphasis on individual rights, and a demand for ‘inclusive separatism’ – taking all the benefits from a liberal democracy but contributing little.
It like Europe must reassert its Judeo-Christian principles which are, after all shared by Islam and all other religions. Reassertion of one set of values does not mean destroying all others.
America is being corroded by ‘diversity’ and losing its moral, ethical, and political way. We are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with a world which is becoming more militantly homogeneous, assertive, and committed.