Old Empires Rise Again

China, Turkey, Russia, India, Brazil—the great powers of old are staging a comeback.

There is much talk these days of a collapse of the Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states. That system recognized the sanctity of borders and posited that what states did within their borders was their own business. It is argued that this historic system has been undermined by Western interventions that brought down Slobodan Milosevic and ensured the creation of Bosnia and then Kosovo, as well as the dethronement of Saddam Hussein and, less than a decade later, of Muammar Qaddafi. Also contributing to this destabilization, in the view of some, have been the creation of new states and statelets, whether in the Caucuses or South Sudan. But to interventionists of both the neoconservative and liberal varieties, such developments are not a bad thing at all.

As in many other such situations, however, the reality is far from simple. First, regime change hardly began with Milosevic or Saddam; what were the fall of the two Napoleons in 1815 and 1870, respectively, if not regime change? Both world wars also brought regime change, as well as the creation of new states.

On the other hand, one development that hearkens back to the era when the Treaty of Westphalia first came into force in 1648, and which has received far less attention, has been the growing triumphalism of several empires manqué. In East Asia, China is increasingly flexing its political, economic and military muscles as a commanding power to which others must perform the kowtow ritual of subservience. In the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey is exploiting its newfound economic and political prowess to extend its influence over the many states that once constituted the Ottoman Empire. And Russia is drawing upon the power and influence it derives from its energy resources to pursue a neo-czarist policy in Europe and in the outlying regions of the old Russian Empire. Nor should one overlook the influence in South Asia of India, whose economy dwarfs that of its neighbors and where the Moghuls once were the dominant force, and Brazil’s inheritance of the Portuguese Empire’s mantle in Africa, facilitated by its own increasing economic clout.

The imperial legacies of these states have provided impetus to their nations to cut a greater figure not only within their regions but also on the world stage. When visiting these countries or meeting with their elites, one senses a growing sense that they are reverting to their traditional roles as major powers. The dynamism that even the current economic downturn cannot quell has led these states to band together to seek a greater say in the G-20, the United Nations and other international institutions. It has also prompted a significant degree of cooperation among themselves.

There are naturally rivalries and friction among and between these five states. Turkey and Russia compete for influence in Central Asia and the Caucuses. Russia continues to fear Chinese encroachment in Siberia. India and China watch each other warily across their common border, compete for influence in Myanmar and have conflicting relationships with Pakistan. Brazil and China vie for influence in Africa.

Nevertheless, all believe that the United States, and even more so Europe, no longer should monopolize decision making for the international community. They reject the post-World War II settlement as outdated and will not automatically accept American leadership on any given issue. It is noteworthy that Turkey is the only one of the five that has contributed to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and that none of the five contributed forces to the coalition in Iraq. Again, Turkey was the only one of the five to participate in any way in the Libyan operation, and its primary contribution, made with the utmost lack of enthusiasm, was to forego blocking the rest of NATO from mounting its offensive against Qaddafi.

There is no indication that the sense of empire, and of the entitlement that accompanies it, is waning in any of these five countries. On the contrary, it seems to get stronger with each passing year. Washington policy makers, currently obsessed with that other imperial legatee, Iran, would do well to recognize that there is more to these states than impressive economic growth, military expansion and political influence. Americans are known for their lack of historical sensitivity. They will need all the sensitivity they can muster in order to deal successfully with states whose claim to a greater role on the world stage is motivated as much by past glory as by present success.

Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He was named the DoD's coordinator for Afghan civilian reconstruction in 2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.