Posted by: cousindampier | 21 May 2011

Russia and America, Revolving Around Europe

Note: this is an accumulation of thoughts after having read John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000.   Which is a fascinating book.  

1783 is a marked year in human history.   In Paris, peace accords were signed between Great Britain and the newly formed United States of America.  This opened the century of the American frontier, as settlers moved over the mountains before the revolution was complete.

Among the other elements of importance this peace treaty marks, the frontier is often overlooked. After the upheavals of the Seven Years War, from 1756 to 1763, Britain essentially closed the American frontier, marking the boundaries of her American colonies at the Appalachian Mountains.  With British control thrown off, this boundary ceased to matter.  French power was smashed in the interior during the Seven Years War, and with Spanish power confined to the southwest and Caribbean, no force was poised to stop this flood.

Nearly simultaneous to these events, the Russian frontier was thrown open in dramatic fashion.  In 1774, Russia and the Ottoman Turks signed the Treaty of KuchukKahardji, granting Russia a foothold on the black sea at Khersan.  In the same year of the end of the American Revolution, Russia annex the Crimean Peninsula, securing the southern flank of the Empire against the Turks, throwing open the Caucuses and Siberia, and seemingly poising Russia to move further down the Black Sea.

The year 1814 overshadows 1783 in regards to the establishment of a new paradigm in Europe, due to the Congress of Vienna and the end of Napoleonic France.  But 1783 secured Europe’s future of empire-building over the next century, by expanding the definition of Europe.  Due to the Russian push east, and the American push west, Europe faced no frontier crisis, no enemy at the gates.  The only element which could destroy Europe was inter-European conflict.

The main Eurasian Empires at the end of the 18th Century were the Ottoman Turks, Persian Safavids, Mughal, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch (in Indonesia) and relatively recently-arrived British, who controlled Bengal from 1757 on, which gave enormous leverage into China and control of the Indian Ocean.  Discounting the Dutch and British, each of these Empires faced a frontier crisis.

The Mughal were threatened by Central Asian tribes, and would be brought down by them.  The Chinese always faced the threat of an immense frontier, hard to control.  Ottoman Turkey had three frontiers to worry about: in Europe, with the Safavid Persians, and in North Africa.  Persia faced the Turks as well as Central Asian tribes, and Japan faced the threat of an Eastern Eurasian world dominated by China.

Europe had none of this.  The neo-Europe which formed in the second half of the 18th-Century – with the population of the American continent, the discovery and colonization of the Pacific, the capture of Bengal and the smashing of French primacy, which  allowed Britain nearly free control of the seas – left a core of European Empires, untouched by frontier crises.

Europe had the potential to explode all on her own.  The French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic Wars meant Europe was at war from nearly 1789 to 1814.  This crises, however, proved to be a paxin the making.  The Seven Years War, which resulted in the end of French domination of European affairs, created no new context by which European affairs were to run.  With no new peace, Europe was bound to war sooner rather than later.  The Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Era in 1814, created a pax, which would last for nearly a century.

It is the memory of the generation lost to war, in addition to the lack of threat Europe faced on her frontiers, which allowed Europe to spread far and wide in the 19th Century.  As Darwin points out, there was a general peace with many exceptions.  The Crimean War, Italian and German Wars of Independence, and American Civil War are among the latter, but no catastrophic European War broke out, destroying the system created at Vienna, until 1914.

America and Russia, in a sense, were European buffers.  With American determination to chart an independent course from Europe – and with Britain content with establishing an empire based more on economics than on possession of territory – the Americas were largely left out of European expansion.  Spain, already established in the Americas, would lose her Empire by the end of the 19th Century, and most of it before 1850.  The rest of the Americas, excluding Canada, was proclaimed by President Monroe to be unique and separate from Europe; an American zone of affairs – though this edict required the Royal Navy to keep others away.

Russian expansion, and state creation, followed a strangely similar pattern.  Alexander II became Tsar in 1855, and during his reign, Russia expanded into the Caspian regions of Central Asia and to the Amur River in East Asia.  The Russian frontier even closed at a similar time – around 1890, when construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway was begun.  But this external energy was then transferred to other regions – securing a warm-water port, and influence in Central Asia.

This all ended in 1914.  World War I destroyed the European system, though it was not complete until after the Second World War.  Like the Seven Years War, the peace of World War I left no new system, so a second war was fought, which created two new systems – the communism of Russia and the liberal-democratic system of America and Europe.  This was only resolved in 1989, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

But was any new system created from this long conflict?  Politically, no.  The democracy of the North Atlantic states emerged victorious.  Economically, yes, and this was the focus of the new order created.  The global market of goods is the system which took hold and spread rapidly was the winner.

A lot gets written about the emergence (or, more correctly, re-emergence) of Asia.  In the long view, which Darwin covers very well, this is part of the cycle back to the equilibrium of super-states.  In addition to the powers of Europe, Turkey, Iran, India, China, and Japan all have strong imperial histories.  All were – and are – super-states in their regions; all have at one point been empires.

America remains the question.  It is new.  It is not unique, in the sense of territorial acquisition.  All relatively homogenous states have sought territory.  But, like England, America has sought to expand economically largely instead of territorially.  The question remains, what will she do next? Because in addition to that economic power, America has those Enlightenment roots.  It has the streak of idealism, personal choice, and de-centralization which were part of her culture from the founding.  It is not a perfect past, but it is a past of arguing, working, and striving for some form of perfection.

The wane of American power is an absurd notion to bemoan.  Better to create new ways to use American influence than to declare it already gone.


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