Although there were only about two million Mongols in the whole world, they subsequently conquered most of the Middle East, Russia, and China under Genghis Khan’s descendants. During their heyday, they suffered few setbacks except for their failed invasion of Japan and the 1260 C.E. Battle of Ain Jalut against the Egyptian Mamluks. How were the Mongols able to accomplish these feats? Despite their small population, the Mongols were able to field large and mobile armies against their enemies because they carried their herds with them and could sustain themselves off of horse blood. In an era before refrigeration, it was logistically difficult for a Chinese rules to field a comparable army.
The Mongol conquests killed millions of people but afterwards established a brief era of peace and prosperity as trade spread across their large expanse. In the long run, however, the Mongols proved inefficient at administering their empire, which eventually split into four khanates before each one eventually fell apart or further split.
The British Empire
The British essentially made the modern world. British institutions of representative democracy inspired French Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu to devise theories of modern government that influenced other modern European states. The main characteristics of the United States— a commitment to liberalism, the rule of law, civil rights, and trade— were inherited from the British and spread throughout the world. Most of these characteristics evolved organically throughout the long history of England, rather than being the result of some master plan.
These characteristics were also instrumental in helping the British Empire grow, thrive and hold whatever territory it controlled. Moreover, its example was widely emulated, whether for its financial prowess or its naval strength. At its peak in the early 20th century, the British Empire stretched across almost a quarter of the world— the largest of any empire in history. This feat was made possible more because of England’s organizational feats and financial prowess rather than through a huge army. For example, the British conquest of India was mostly undertaken by Indian troops in British pay who choose to serve the British because of the regular salaries and benefits offered by them. London also demonstrated a remarkable ability to handle multiple wars at once. And while they sometimes lost battles the British rarely lost wars.
So how does the United States of America match up with all these behemoths? The United States is certainly the world’s most powerful nation ever, militarily speaking. It combines the British ingenuity for trade with a more deeply held liberalism and continent-sized resources. Like the Romans, it has an attractive culture. Like the Mongols, it can wield total destruction. Like the Arabs, it has spread a universal ideology across the globe. Like the Persian Empires, America combines different cultures and links together regions.
For all these reasons, America has a long future ahead of it as a great power. Yet, America also needs to keep in mind the faults of previous empires if it is not to repeat them. Despite its overwhelmingly strong military, Rome fell. Internal divisions and squabbling can kill even the most powerful empires. The Persians were conquered not because they were weak but because their leadership failed. Although the Mongols could win wars, they could not win the peace and ultimately they failed to establish themselves permanently anywhere. The Arabs spawned a successful civilization, but the positive aspects of it were taken over by newcomers who relegated the Arabs to subservience. And finally, the British were exhausted in trying to uphold their interests, global order, and European system, trying to do too many things at once, while also burning themselves out.
In the triumphs and faults of previous empires, there are lessons for America today.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an assistant editor at the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@AkhiPill. This article first appeared several years ago.