Monday, December 19, 2005

The Cycles of Empire

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire from 1481-1683

I've written about 5 different beginnings of the promised Baudrillard piece but, perhaps by virtue of the depressing effect contemplation of French Existentialism has on my mind, my thoughts end up going in circles. William James defined philosophy as an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly so I think I'll just need to be a bit more stubborn to tease some clarity out of Baudrillard's message. In the meantime I thought to comment a bit on the President's speech last night.

As one who loves to read History, I've found the ahistorical perspective of most of the public discourse, including the President's most recent speech, disheartening in the sense that the debate has no context (which, by the way is Baudrillard's point, ideas which bear little to no relation to the world of experience are seen as true in their own right). Additionally the administration tenaciously clings to the old sound bites as if they were sacred hymns. This further obfuscates any chance of reasoned debate for how can one debate that which is improperly defined. This war is not a "war on terror", which is a tactic, not an opponent, nor, in my view, is it a war against "radical" Islam but rather against political expressions of Islam. Seen in that light, it is a War that the West has been losing since the end of WWI.

Consider these facts. By the end of WWI, when the Ottoman Empire was "wiped off the map", while the Persian Empire became a paper tiger, political autonomy for Islamic people reached its nadir. Western powers ruled, either directly or indirectly, albeit in many instance tenuously, much of the Middle East, Northern Africa, what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, as well as the Malaysian peninsula and Indonesian Archipelago. The Islamic faith, while still a spiritual guide to millions, had virtually no political voice.

Since 1920, slowly but surely, political Islam has made quite a comeback. As European powers gave up on their experiments in colonialism, Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan, among others, have regained their political voices. The Russian expansion into Islamic territory has mostly been unwound. America too, has been, from this perspective, fighting a losing battle for political control. The "success" of Saudi Arabia, by which I mean the ability to persuade that nation to recycle their export earnings into US securities markets, should be seen in the context of the loss of control of the Shah's regime in Iran, Saddam's regime in Iraq, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. In each of those three countries, the trend has been towards greater political expression of the Islamic faith. Both the Shah and Saddam tended to be more secular, Western leaning rulers. Their replacements have proven far less so.

Before I get called a defeatist lets consider this from an even broader perspective. Both Islamic and Christian (and Buddhist, Hindu et. al.) Empires have been rising and falling for thousands of years, one following another in this seemingly endless quest for control. Political Islam has already gone through the expansion and contraction cycle twice (depending on how you qualify things): initially under the Caliphate with its numerous manifestations (Omayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid) and secondly as the Ottoman Empire. At the point of greatest expansion, the Ottoman's reach into Europe almost encompassed Vienna, the battle for which in 1683 was the beginning of the end for that Empire.

The graph above shows the expansion of the Ottoman Empire from 1481-1683 to give some sense of the rise and fall of these political entities. One could, of course, make similar graphs of the Spanish, French, British and American Empires. Interestingly, for those who think that history might have some lessons to teach us in the present, the initial Crusades were, ostensibly an attempt to rule the first tribe of nomadic Turks, the Seljuks, who had moved into Anatolia. The less public reason was that the Western Popes wanted to take over Byzantium, whose Bishops refused to admit the supremacy of the Pope. After fighting the west on and off for many decades, and losing quite a bit initially, a second tribe of Turks, the Ottomans, learned how to win, as you can see above.

Sometimes, as Frank Herbert of Dune fame argued, fighting people over decades makes them "hard" as they say in the military. All of which is to warn that the initial aim of the Popes, to impose supremacy on Byzantium ended up creating the conditions, including the western sacking of Constantinople, which paved the way for more than 5 centuries and counting of Islamic rule in what is now called Istanbul.

In my read of all this history it seems to me that, contra the views of Bush or Kissinger, Empires seem to grow fastest and remain stable longest when they fight the least. That is, when the organizational form of the expanding empire is, in fact, a much better form, usually as a result of intellectual decadence of the empire in decline, it takes less coercion to win converts. Roman expansion is a fine example in that the Romans would come in, depose the elite, if they opted to fight, and then build roads, bring the new territory into the Roman commercial sphere and in the process improve the material well-being of a good chunk of the population. As the expansions tended to become exercises in exploitation, either for resources or slaves, resistance increased. This is, in my view, the most glaring error of the current War in Iraq.

While there are likely many causes to the current problems, one key element, in my view, which has yet to become a feature of the public debate is the functionality of the organizational form we are trying to export. What are we going to teach these new "democracies" of which the President speaks so fondly, how to borrow other's people's money without paying it back? Greenspan keeps talking about the economics of Adam Smith, but it seems to me that our model is more like Tom Sawyer's exercise in whitewashing the fence. Heck, if we can't rebuild New Orleans, what are we going to do with Baghdad? Usually if you want to teach someone something you should first make sure you know how to do it better than they can.

ps While researching this piece I came across this Cambridge University Journal abstract which caught my attention:

Between 1854 and 1881, the Ottoman Empire went through one of the most critical phases of the history of its relations with European powers. Beginning with the first foreign loan contracted in 1854, this process was initially dominated by a modest level of indebtedness, coupled with sporadic and inconsequential attempts by western powers to impose some control over the viability of the operation. From 1863 on, a second and much more intense phase began, which eventually led to a snowballing effect of accumulated debts. The formal bankruptcy of the Empire in 1875 resulted in the collapse of the entire system in one of the most spectacular financial crashes of the period. It was only six years later, in 1881, that a solution was found in the establishment of the Ottoman Public Debt Administration that would control a large portion of state revenues. The new system restored the financial stability of the Empire, but profoundly modified its rapports de force with Europe by imposing on it a form of foreign control that would have been unthinkable only ten or twenty years earlier.

Funny how external debt leads to bankruptcy and then eventually foreign (creditor) control in a form unthinkable but a few years prior. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, it took 70 years from the first foreign loan until the Empire was wiped off the map. Maybe there's something to this self-sufficiency stuff after all.