The Shift

In the historical sense of the word, the United States is not an empire, if you exclude peccadilloes like Puerto Rico and Guam. There are only five of these ‘little sins’ that are permanently inhabited, and the US has designated them unincorporated territories—by and large, they probably fall into the Trumpian ‘shithole country’ definition, as evidenced by the current administration’s treatment of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria—even the name is Hispanic, for chrissakes!

But the definition of ’empire’ that held true for Rome, Baghdad, Spain, and Britain is no longer valid. In the good old days, the historical context was simple—a nation with possessions beyond its conterminous boundaries technically qualified as an empire, all the more so if  those possessions were seized forcefully from their current but not necessarily rightful owner.

This definition held true as long as the ruling power had administrative rights over the subjugated territory. By that definition, a small country located at the edge of western Europe holds the record for the longest-lived empire in the history of the world.

The Portuguese king John I, whose wife was Philippa of Lancaster, eldest daughter of John of Gaunt—Jean de Gand, so-named because of his birthplace, Ghent—conquered the city of Ceuta in 1415. King John’s son, Prince Henry the Navigator, was the great promoter of the golden age of maritime discoveries, and Henry’s nephew, the Perfect Prince, took that work and exploded it into an empire that reached from India to Brazil.

The fruits were gathered mainly by his two successors, Manuel I and John III, by which time the empire reached parts of Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, and the Portuguese had colonized the small island of Macao in the South China Sea.

Macao was the last European colony to be returned to China, in 1999. Towards the end of this video of the ceremony, you will spot the current president of the United Nations, then prime minister of Portugal.

The Portuguese empire lasted five hundred eighty-four years. It is most unlikely that any empire on this earth will ever beat that record, not least because massive empires of subjugation will not reappear.

We could explore the possibility of empires in space—these are the domain of science fiction, popularized by movies such as Star Wars. In his brilliant exercise in clairvoyance, Profiles of the Future, Arthur C. Clarke sets forth his predictions. Unlike the video below, his book doesn’t stray into the concept of enslaving chimps—I would rate that as morally untenable for society—let’s just keep on slaughtering our companions from other species in the usual way.

In the book, which is an obligatory read, Clarke discusses intergalactic empires. There’s a chapter entitled Space, The Unconquerable, where the visionary who gave us the communications satellite and all of its consequences pours ice-cold water on Star Wars.

The first sentence reads ‘Man will never conquer Space.’ The obstacle is distance, and therefore time. A conversation with someone on Mars is possible, but your words will take three minutes to reach that planet, so when you say “Hi”, the reply will arrive six minutes later. The difference between solar space and stellar space is enormous. Clarke’s analogy?

Imagine a world in which the closest object to you is only five feet away – and then there is nothing else until you’ve traveled 1,000 miles.

In practice, the ruler of some intergalactic empire could rule nothing—his orders would take decades to arrive, and resistance would take an identical time to be reported. This model became obvious within the great empires on our planet—in the days of sail, news of battles won and lost in Asia could take years to reach Europe, and colonial rule mutated into colonial autonomy.

Empires today are about economic control, albeit with a latent threat of violence—as evidenced by nuclear weapons proliferation. And in that context, the shift is clear. More than one Briton has told me, sotto voce, that a key reason for voting Brexit was that they could not abide a Europe economically owned by Germany.

The US and China have clearly grasped that the battle for empire is an economic one, not a nuclear confrontation. Putin, who understands Russia plays in the economic little league, ranking number twelve in the world, right next to Spain, opts for arms. The Moscow Times, in an article published on July 13th 2018, claims Russia is the sixth world economy, leapfrogging half a dozen places from official numbers—I don’t link fake news, just like they didn’t link any true news.

Economic empires, just like their historical predecessors, cross borders. Britain may own Gibraltar (they hate hearing it said like that), but Spain owns Heathrow Airport. France may have lost Trafalgar and Waterloo, but the French energy giant EDF owns four British suppliers, including London Electricity. China’s Three Gorges Corporation is using Portugal’s EDP to develop renewable energy in Brazil—in a way, they want their own Macao, but this time as a gateway to the West.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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