History of Power — Part 2

What Were the Most Dominant Empires and How Did They Achieve and Maintain Their Power?

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard.

Part 1 is available here!

3. According to Joseph Nye, there are several types of power. Who had the strongest military power? Was a country/empire able to influence others with their economic power? And is soft/smart power (the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce) something that has been gaining importance only in recent centuries?

Joseph Nye’s famous concept of ‘soft power’ is quite interesting and popular but is certainly not entirely original in its principle. Old Chinese traditions, such as Lao Tzu’s teaching, argue that water, which is fluid and soft, will eventually overcome the rock, rigid and strong. This was immortalized in the saying ‘What is soft is strong’. However, while this might be true for long-lasting concepts and processes, it certainly evades the grasp of the modern human, increasingly impatient, trapped by tight schedules, bombarded with information, lured by temptations of all sorts.

The strongest military, in terms of manpower, has been reserved (quite expectedly) for the Chinese, for millennia. The Russians used their manpower quite successfully (along with their winter) in the Napoleonic and World Wars. The aforementioned Mongols used skill, discipline, and strategy — some even say that it was the Mongols who invented the operational art of war, which is, according to others, a much more recent (19th-century) invention. And, as we mentioned previously, the Mongols attracted some merchant elites, providing a huge intercontinental market and offering trading benefits.

The Mongol cavalry is also an example of how skill, organization, and discipline can compensate for numbers. There are more than a few examples, such as the Spartan and Macedonian phalanx, the Roman legion, English bowmen, and others.

Nonetheless, trained units and the technology they are equipped with come and go, while certain cultural imaginaries remain for centuries and millennia. And there were so many examples in which the conquering elites chose just to blend into existing cultural frameworks rather than promoting their own. This is the soft power you refer to, the sophisticated, intricate fiber of a civilization’s reach and legacy. The Romans adopted many threads from the Greeks, Etruscans, Celts, Egyptians, Persians, and many others. As we said, Greco-Roman and Christian foundations are embedded in the very core of the European idea and civilization. This is exactly why there was a Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages as well, and why new imperial capitals all aspired to become ‘the new Rome’.

Soft power came embodied in a variety of shapes, such as literacy, identity, literature, legal and economic institutions, and so on. The elements developed by religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam have also been crucial in shaping the values of a larger part of the world’s population. Apart from these, I have also been much impressed with some Australian, American, and African native cultures’ attitudes towards the environment and the beings we share it with: they were the true guardians (not owners) of the land they lived on.

This century has seen the combined use of both types of power: smart and (more or less) sophisticated soft power, and hard power behind the scenes, whose scary shadows appear to remind us of the fact that superpowers have an ever-more-efficient military arsenal no one should be so reckless as to provoke.

4. Those who are studying economics on the world level are not surprised by the rise of the West in the last century, but in the broader scope of time, in China, this was perceived as a short-term fluctuation. What were the longest periods of domination by a particular entity?

The West had its 500 years of world dominance, from the Age of Discoveries to the 21st century. Portugal and Spain were the first to begin expanding, and the English, French, and Dutch followed. The Atlantic sea empires used the conjuncture and took the best from a world that was still huge, remote, and full of wonderful riches — there to be taken by those who had skill and military power. The United States used the momentum it had gained during its expansion in the 19th century and became a superpower in the 20th century. Over the last several thousand years China has been a ‘dormant’ giant: in retrospect one can acknowledge its superiority in terms of both its population and the level of its civilization.

However, in the global world of today, China has become a true global superpower within just a few decades. In the late 1990s, China’s imports and exports made up a bit over 3% of global trade. Within 20 years, in 2018, it rose to a staggering 12%, leaving the US in second place, with 11.5% of global trade. Not only that but, as Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School, has recently summed up: “The world is dependent on China for manufacturing”.

In ancient times, one of the most impressive and long-lasting civilizations was Egypt. From the time when King Menes united Upper and Lower Egypt, around 3100 BC, till the conquest of Alexander the Great (in the 320s BC) the country was one of the most dominant and most fascinating human cultures. Apart from the fabulous architecture and engineering, the legacy of Egypt includes amazing achievements in the fields of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and other sciences. The calendar we use is related to the one they used, while the paper we read from has its ancestor in papyrus leaves from the Nile basin.

5. What influences on our everyday lives today have roots in ancient civilizations? What technological, artistic, or scientific discoveries shaped our way of life?

I like the quote that goes something like: “History is about choosing our ancestors”. This means that we have 2x4x8x16… male and female members in our ancestral line, but we always ‘prefer’ some over others. And by this, I mean their (perceived) influence on our own identity. The world has seen so many different types of societies, governing models, (con)federations, intercontinental empires, and small yet successful city-states such as Athens, Florence, Dubrovnik, or Singapore. They have all used some advantages, such as geography, political structure, or trading skills to extract the maximum from the circumstances in their space-time framework. Also, their leaders were considerate enough to choose their ‘ancestors’ — i.e., the role models they shaped their present and future upon.

There are many things in our lives that we cannot choose, and many that have been chosen for us. Let’s say we have some 30.000 US$ set aside and we want to buy ourselves a nice electric car. I mean, they have indeed increasingly developed into something desirable over the last couple of decades. However, it took them a while to get a chance on the market because gasoline cars were invented much earlier, right? Wrong. Both were produced in the 1880s, but for one reason or another, the gasoline version was preferable.

During my freshman year at university, I read a few novels by Graham Greene (thank you, Raymond). In one of these (in The Third Man, I’d say) — and it still resonates in my memory — one of the characters ‘argues’:

“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

What does this say about the circumstances of development? True, wars and conflicts generated innumerable precious inventions: the will to survive generates spectacular ideas. However, does this mean that the Swiss today desperately miss something the Italians have? In terms of their quality of life, of course, not in terms of Italy’s sandy Mediterranean beaches or the number of UNESCO cultural monuments, which I am sure most Swiss citizens can visit regularly, in their (electric) cars even, within just a few hours.

From the 21st century point of view, it is easy to neglect the impact geography had on the historical balance of power. For most of its history, Europe was, in the words of Andre Gunder Frank, “a distant marginal peninsula” of Eurasia. You should also remember that the most important world empires were exclusively positioned in the northern hemisphere, within those ‘lucky latitudes’ that supported agriculture and other conditions crucial for social and political upgrades.

It is only after the living conditions had been acquired that the transfer of knowledge, discoveries, and other factors began shaping societies in the way we read in history books. It may sound complex, but the further you go back in history, and the more you expand the holistic picture, covering a range of aspects such as geography, technology, and political and economic thought, the more accurate you become in reconstructing the causes for the ‘rise and fall’ of some concepts. Moreover, you discover they do not move in these two dimensions (up and down), but rather most of them circulate, returning to the stage in improved, adapted models, according to the challenges of the time.

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…