The Return of Empire?

As old political structures show signs of weakening, the world order as we know it is changing. Traditional powers, the former colonial juggernauts like Britain and France, and to some degree the U.S., are witnessing a waning of their influence around the world. New forces are rising, but are they, like their predecessors, exhibiting imperial tendencies?

Adnan R. Khan: What does it mean to be an empire in the 21st century?

Ilter Turan: Let us go back to what Empire meant earlier in history and then ask whether it is appropriate to apply the same term to the 21st century. Historically, what we are talking about are states that conquered the territory of other peoples, taxed them, exploited and transported resources from them to their own country, etc. These were the old empires. This system no longer exists. What has replaced it are countries that exercise economic and political domination over others. Some may also already possess or acquire cultural influence and/or employ some military assets as a way of wielding power. The of overseas or land based territorial empires trying to grab territory from others is long gone.

Adnan R. Khan: The common theme here seems to be economics – economic exploitation, resource extraction, labor exploitation, etc. That’s what empires of the past were after and that seems to be what today’s powerful nations want to protect for themselves. So is it really any different?

Ilter Turan: If today’s arrangements are to be characterized as being imperial, we would have to agree that economics is the most important means of dominating other societies. There are a few societies, such as Russia, where economic domination is strongly backed by the use of force. But even that empire relies more on economic and cultural integration than direct use of excessive force.

Adnan R. Khan: What do you make of China? It does seem to be projecting its power outward, though again more economically and culturally than in terms of territorial expansion. Can its behavior be considered imperial? And what about the traditional powers – France and the UK, and to a certain extent the U.S., all seem to nowadays to be in retreat. How do they see this expansion of China and a more robust and confident Turkey?

Ilter Turan: China and Russia have both developed some territorial claims. China has been laying claim to some islands in the South China Sea. Russia invaded Crimea which is territorial acquisition. People suspect Russia may have other targets. But other than that, China, for example, is trying to project economic power through the Belt and Road initiative. Russia, on the other hand, deploys military force in such places Syria, Libya, Armenia while trying to increase its economic clout by building gas pipelines and granting selective access to its markets. In short, Russia and China have both become militarily and economically much more powerful than they were at the end of the Cold War. Though the scale is much more moderate, Turkey is also more of an economic and military power these days than in earlier times.

All three countries are able to wield greater influence on the economies of some societies much like what the U.S. was doing after WWII or what the EU, and particularly some of its members such as France, are aiming to achieve under current circumstances. Russia and China and to lesser extent Turkey are intruding into territories that the former colonial powers somehow consider to be rightfully their own playing grounds, as in the Middle East for example, and find it disturbing that others are also becoming more active players in those areas.

Adnan R. Khan: People these days talk a lot about the end of one world order and the emergence of a new one. Can we call this emerging new order something approaching a new imperialism?

Ilter Turan: I think we still don’t know what kind of an order is actually emerging. But It’s clear that it is no longer going to be possible for the former dominant powers to wield as much influence as they have in the past. This calls for a readjustment in many areas, including a reconsideration of how the world is governed, how the global economy will be organized and what kind of security arrangements will need to be made. Let us hope that it doesn’t take a war to make these adjustments because in the past, war has constituted the major way of bringing about fundamental changes in the global system. Currently, however, the costs of war have gone up so much that trying to change the world order by such irrational means would be destructive not only of those who are trying to prevent change, but also to those who are striving to bring it about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.