For six centuries or more, history was, above all, the story of the great game of empires. From the time the first wooden ships mounted with cannons left Europe’s shores, they began to compete for global power and control. Three, four, even five empires, rising and falling, on an increasingly commandeered and colonized planet. The story, as usually told, is a tale of concentration and of destruction until, in the wake of the second great bloodletting of the twentieth century, there were just two imperial powers left standing: the United States and the Soviet Union. Where the other empires, European and Japanese, had been, little remained but the dead, rubble, refugees, and scenes that today would be associated only with a place like Syria.
The result was the ultimate imperial stand-off that we called the Cold War. The two great empires still in existence duked it out for supremacy on “the peripheries” of the planet and “in the shadows.” Because the conflicts being fought were distant indeed, at least from Washington, and because (despite threats) both powers refrained from using nuclear weapons, these were termed “limited wars.” They did not, however, seem limited to the Koreans or Vietnamese whose homes and lives were swept up in them, resulting as they did in more rubble, more refugees, and the deaths of millions.
Those two rivals, one a giant, land-based, contiguous imperial entity and the other a distinctly non-traditional empire of military bases, were so enormous and so unlike previous “great powers” — they were, after all, capable of what had once been left to the gods, quite literally destroying every habitable spot on the planet — that they were given a new moniker. They were “superpowers.”
And then, of course, that six-century process of rivalry and consolidation was over and there was only one: the “sole superpower.” That was 1991 when the Soviet Union suddenly imploded. At age 71, it disappeared from the face of the Earth, and history, at least as some then imagined it, was briefly said to be over.
The Shatter Effect
There was another story lurking beneath the tale of imperial concentration, and it was a tale of imperial fragmentation. It began, perhaps, with the American Revolution and the armed establishment of a new country free of its British king and colonial overlord. In the twentieth century, the movement to “decolonize” the planet gained remarkable strength. From the Dutch East Indies to French Indochina, the British Raj to European colonies across Africa and the Middle East, “independence” was in the air. Liberation movements were launched or strengthened, guerrillas took up arms, and insurgencies spread across what came to be called the Third World. Imperial power collapsed or ceded control, often after bloody struggles and, for a while, the results looked glorious indeed: the coming of freedom and national independence to nation after nation (even if many of those newly liberated peoples found themselves under the thumbs of autocrats, dictators, or repressive communist regimes).
That this was a tale of global fragmentation was not, at first, particularly apparent. It should be by now. After all, those insurgent armies, the tactics of guerrilla warfare, and the urge for “liberation” are today the property not of left-wing national liberation movements but of Islamic terror outfits. Think of them as the armed grandchildren of decolonization and who wouldn’t agree that theirs is a story of the fragmentation of whole regions. It seems, in fact, that they can only thrive in places that have, in some fashion, already been shattered and are failed states, or are on the verge of becoming so. (All of this, naturally, comes with a distinct helping hand from the planet’s last empire).
That their global brand is fragmentation should be evident enough now that, in Paris, Libya, Yemen, and other places yet to be named, they’re exporting that product in a big way. In a long-distance fashion, they may, for instance, be helping to turn Europe into a set of splinterlands, aborting the last great attempt at an epic tale of concentration, the turning of the European Union into a United States of Europe.
When it comes to fragmentation, the last empire and the first terror caliphate have much in common and may in some sense even be in league with each other. In the twenty-first century, both have proven to be machines for the fracturing of the Greater Middle East and increasingly Africa. And let’s never forget that, without the last empire, the first caliphate of terror would never have been born.
Both have extended their power to shake whole societies by wielding advanced technology in forward-looking ways. Two American administrations have employed remote-controlled drones to target terror leaders and their followers across the Greater Middle East and Africa, causing much “collateral damage” and creating a sense of constant fear and terror among those in the backlands of the planet whom drone pilots refer to as potential “bugsplat.” In its robotic manhunting efforts Washington continues to engage in a war on terror that functionally promotes both terror and terror outfits.Your support matters…
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