The defining characteristic of the early 21st century can best be described as; “The Empires Strike Back.” This is all about the four empires (Russian, Chinese, Iranian and the Islamic Caliphate) that are trying to reconstitute themselves and causing trouble for each other and the rest of the world in the process. For many people this is something of a shock, because in the 1990s all the talk was of “the end of empire.” That’s because in 1991 the last of the great empires, the old Tsarist Empire dissolved as the Soviet Union came apart. This meant that half the population of that empire went off and formed 14 new countries (or reconstituted old ones the Russians had conquered). For the last decade Russian leaders have made no secret of the fact that they want to rebuild this empire.
China has been doing the same. The old Chinese Empire fell apart in 1911. Actually the Chinese Empire had been falling apart for over a century before that and the 1911 revolution was the blow it never recovered from. But in the 21st Century recovering lost bits of the empire has become very popular in China.
The Iranian Empire has been around for thousands of years but was constantly being torn apart because of revolutions and civil wars and occasional overwhelming invasion. Thus the very empire-minded Iranian monarchy succumbed in 1979 to revolution and a religious dictatorship that is now trying to expand Iranian imperial power in the name of Islam as well as Iranian nationalism.
Which brings us to the growing popularity of Islamic radicalism which is inspired, in part, by the century’s old desire to restore the ancient Caliphate (one civil/religious leader for all Islamic peoples). The original caliphate lasted, despite many civil wars and rebellions, from the 7th to the 10th century. By then the factionalism within the Moslem world made it impossible to maintain the unity of the original caliphate. So for over a thousand years the impossible dream of many Moslems has been to reconstitute the caliphate.
Another problem with all these imperial wannabes is that cultural diversity has long been a source of internal problems and trying to absorb more minorities is a sure recipe for eventual failure. Iran as it is currently constituted is only about 50 percent ethnic Iranian. These rest of the population is Turkic, Arab and various smaller ethnicities. These minorities are often the main source of internal problems. Even Russia, after losing half it’s (largely non-Russian) population in 1991 is still about twenty percent non-Russian and these minorities are constantly being accused of disloyalty. Even China is only 90 percent Han Chinese (as is about 20 percent of the human race) and non-Han minorities are not well tolerated. One reason the Islamic caliphate has such a hard time reconstituting is that the spread of Islam caused lots of local mutations. There’s no Islamic “pope” or generally recognized religious authority to decide which local flavor of Islam is a little too eccentric to be considered real Islam. Thus the only viable method of restoring the caliphate is via force and that has never proved to be practical. The current generation of Islamic radicals believe that, because they are on a Mission From God, there will some form of divine intervention to make it all happen.
Many believed the 20th century was the end of empires. World War I ended with the demise of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. In the 1920s the new communist government of Russia (rebranded as the Soviet Union) reconstituted most of the old tsarist empire. Hitler came to power in the 1930s and then spent a disastrous decade trying to reconstitute the German Empire. After World War II most European countries with empires realized these imperial artifacts were very expensive luxuries and by the 1970s they were all gone. Britain was the first to dispose of its empire, having gone over government accounts towards the end of the war and realized that the empire had been a money loser for decades but no one bothered to make an issue of it. But in 1945 Britain was broke from the expense of two World Wars and really had no choice.
The Chinese Empire had officially cased doing business in 1911 and several parts of it, like Tibet, soon asserted their independence. But many Chinese never forgot the imperial glories. The Chinese government, like their counterparts in Russia, Iran and the Islamic world are calling for the return of past glories and power in order to distract people from more immediate realities (corruption, bad government and a long list of related complaints).
The big problem all four of these empire building efforts have is with each other. Not only does China have claims on Russia, but Russia has claims on territory (the five new states that used to be the Soviet holdings in Central Asia) that China has a growing economic interest in. These five Moslem “stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) do not want to be part of any new Russian empire and prefer doing business with China. That’s yet another point of conflict between Russia and China. Then there are the longstanding disputes between Iran and Russia over Azerbaijan and control of the Caspian Sea. Russia and Iran have never really been on good terms and many of the hardline Islamic radicals running Iran see Russia as the enemy simply because Russia is now openly Christian (the Soviets were openly atheistic, which was nearly as bad). Religion is an even bigger issue between Iran and the caliphate crowd. Iran believes that it, the leader of Shia Islam (10 percent of Moslems) should lead the new caliphate. That bothers al Qaeda and other Sunni (80 percent of Moslems) caliphate fans. This is more than just a religious dispute, for oil-rich Arab states across the Persian Gulf from Iran fear that Iran seeks to control the Arab oil one way or another, in addition to the most sacred Moslem holy places that the Saud family has controlled since the 1920s. To further complicate matters both China and Russia have problems with Islamic terrorism.
Then there are the nukes. Since 1945 there has been a nuclear peace. That means the mere presence of nuclear weapons has restrained the major powers from military adventures that, in the past, they would have casually entered into. It remains to be seen if the risk of accidental or unintended nuclear war is worth the gain of some lost real estate. Indications are that the inhibiting effect of nuclear weapons is wearing off, especially as more nations obtain these weapon. The major powers continue to get more involved in traditional demonstrations of military power. Gunboat diplomacy was risky enough in the past when major power military units confronted each other in far off places over minor issues. Today, these obscure disputes have the potential of escalating into the kind of nuclear nightmare that most people are justifiably terrified by. This limits the activities of empire builders if both sides have nukes and remain rational. You can’t always rely on that last item.
In short, the 21st century is not a good time to build, or rebuild, an empire.