Sir John Glubb was born in 1897. He served during the First World War in France, then joined the Iraqi Government under British rule in 1926. During World War II, he commanded the Jordan Arab Legion and fought against pro-Nazi Germany and Vichy regimes in Iraq and Syria.
Originally published in 1978, The Fate of Empires should be required reading for every American. In fact, I think it should be a requirement for graduating high school.
Its author, Sir John Glubb, points out that the only thing we learn from history is that men never learn from history. And he explains why, in part, by saying that the history we learn is often propaganda. We’re often taught the periods of prosperity, and forego the periods of failure and disgrace. That, he implies, leads us to not learn the lessons we should, and it’s why we will commit the same mistakes again.
If there’s one lesson, in particular, that we should all learn about history, then it’s about the fate of empires. There have been many empires, and while Glubb points out that empires don’t begin or end on a certain date, they all share one thing in common. From the Assyrian empire which lasted roughly 247 years, to the Roman republic of 233 years, to the Ottoman Empire which lasted 250 years, or the British empire which also lasted 250 years; the lesson learned here is that empires have expiration dates. The average lifespan of empires is about 250 years, from birth to collapse.
He points out that the Assyrians fought with bows and spears, and the British fought with ships and artillery, but the lifespan of both empires was about the same.
This “remarkable similarity” expands through the course of human history, or the history of empires, as it were. This year the American Empire turns 242. We are younger than the average by almost a decade. And while Glubb points out that the average lifespan of empires is just that — an average — in the end, all empires collapse. I think the evidence deserves some due diligence in our thinking about the future.
Glubb writes that all empires have an outburst period, from which they break out rapidly, often due as a characteristic of a unique idea or culture. From there, that “daring initiative” manifests itself into exploration, pioneering, and ultimate expansion. Exploration and settlement turn into commercial expansion, which creates wealth for the burgeoning empire, and it runs parallel to an age of conquest. The merchant sees the accumulation of wealth as a driving force; the military leaders and soldiers see glory and honor in conquest, and the two seem to reinforce each other.
This leads to the age of affluence, where the culture becomes less courageous and less pioneering; their initial exuberance is diminished, and their society becomes comfortable. Glubb writes of this age, “Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country.”
This leads to what Glubb calls High Noon. “Enough of the ancient virtues of courage, energy and patriotism survive to enable the state successfully to defend its frontiers. But, beneath the surface, greed for money is gradually replacing duty and public service.”
He continues: “The nation, immensely rich, is no longer interested in glory or duty, but is only anxious to retain its wealth and its luxury. It’s a period of defensiveness, from the Great Wall of China, to Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish borer, to the Maginot Line in France in 1939.”
Once an empire has progressed through the Age of Pioneers, the Age of Conquests, and the Age of Affluence, it enters into the Age of Intellect. Glubb writes, “[E]very period of decline is characterised by this expansion of intellectual activity.”
He continues: “The full flowering of the Arab and Persian intellectualism did not occur until after their imperial and political collapse. Thereafter the intellectuals attained fresh triumphs in the academic field, but politically they became the abject servants of the often illiterate rulers.”
Glubb describes the inadequacy of this age, a loss of strength which sparks civil dissensions. “Another remarkable and unexpected symptom of national decline is the intensification of internal political hatreds.” Instead of dropping political hatred and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to save the empire in decline, the nation threatens only itself.
Another problem for empires in decline: “One of the oft-repeated phenomena of great empires is the influx of foreigners to the capital city. Roman historians often complain of the number of Asians and Africans in Rome.” Glubb cites several empires that, in their later stages, welcomed very diverse groups of immigrants with open arms. A survey of history shows that while the nation is affluent, all the diverse groups appear of equal loyalty — after all, they’re all enjoying the nation’s wealth. “But in an acute emergency, the immigrants will often be less willing to sacrifice their lives and their property than will be the original descendants.” The Roman Empire created new citizens in order to expand the tax base at the same time it was devaluing its currency to meet its obligations — classic late stage behavior.
Throughout human history, this last and final stage of empires in decline is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, the welfare state, and the weakening of religion.
This essay — it’s only 26 pages — was written in 1978, but could describe the current era in America. We’re a nation deeply divided among many fault lines, and our divisions are growing. There’s evidence that the Right is moving farther right and the Left is moving father Left. That’s been happening slowly over the past 20 years, and more rapidly in the last decade, according to an October 2017 Pew Research report. Could America be in the Age of Intellect, and could it be our last stage before collapse?
Always Out Front,
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What about the Byzantine Empire?