Is it more typical for a great power to collapse rapidly or fade away slowly?

(This question straddles the line with Factual, because I’m interested in historical citation, but as there may be some disagreement about terms and conclusions, I’m choosing this forum to start. I have no objection to relocation.)

(Also, this comes from thinking about Russia’s current misadventures, but it’s not specifically a Ukraine thread.)

In the wake of the failure of the Soviet Union, as Russia contracted into a dysfunctional kleptocracy, it feels like the conventional wisdom was that Russia had turned a corner and was beginning a slow slide into the lower tiers of global power. Their political vision narrowed and their prospects for economic reinvention were dim, and the burden of supporting endlessly greedy plutocrats meant limited capital for broader reinvestment, among other factors. When Romney said in his debate with Obama that Russia was still a major threat worth paying attention to, there were chuckles of condescension at his obsolete “Cold War” thinking. History, these people said, demonstrated that Russia was inexorably becoming an also-ran, if it wasn’t already, and true wisdom was in looking elsewhere, mostly to China, for a new adversary.

But people with that viewpoint were surprised to realize that Russia’s leaders were not unaware of their own decline, and that they had no intention of allowing themselves to drift slowly down the ladder of global relevance. They remembered their days of empire, and they had a plan, however ill-considered, to rebuild themselves and recapture their lost glory. Obviously, this is all still unfolding, and it’s unknown whether, looking back from the future, these events will have represented the Russian bear regrowing its teeth or throwing itself off a cliff in a desperate last grasp at a fading vision of power.

There are lots of threads containing speculative predictions on Russia’s near-term prospects. That’s not what this is about.

Rather, I’m looking at Russia’s realization that it was looking down a road toward a greatly diminished fate, and its conscious choice to reject that fate and try to reclaim something of its historical prestige, and I’m wondering: Historically speaking, how have different countries reacted in similar situations?

No one ever wants to decline; every empire resists its deterioration and tries to stave off its fall. But how they do this varies from case to case. Sometimes, the empire is powerless to arrest its slide, and it simply dissolves, bit by bit, over decades, or longer. And sometimes, the empire seems to have a sudden awakening to its plight, and undergoes what you might call a political panic attack, flailing helplessly and burning itself out in just a few years. Conventional wisdom, again, would seem to say that Russia’s current spasm is an example of the latter, but we need to wait to see how it plays out.

For comparison, as another example of the latter, I’m thinking about the Ottomans. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they were certainly reduced in greatness from their historical zenith; their reluctance to adopt technological and political innovations from elsewhere had put them at a disadvantage on the global stage, and they were on the path to slow marginalization. Nevertheless, they were still fully viable as a major regional empire. That was, at least, until a couple of disastrous wars leading to the loss of much of their Western territory, at which point they seem to have fully woken up to the reality of their circumstances. After some internal struggles, they chose to ally with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians in World War I, at least in part to connect with who they saw as the stronger party in the conflict in order to benefit from an eventual victory. It was a choice that blew up in their face, leading to the end of the Ottomans as an imperial entity. Essentially, they went from being diminished but still powerful to being functionally eliminated in the space of about ten years.

Contrast Portugal, one of the most dominant powers in Europe during the age of exploration. At their peak, they controlled vast swaths of territory and set the standard for how to use the sea to establish and network their colonies. And then, over the next three centuries, their empire simply rotted away. There was never a period of rapid contraction or an outright defeat comparable to the Ottomans; there were long stretches of political infighting which weakened their influence outside their borders, and they lost their colonies to independence one by one, but all of this happened piecemeal, in a process of gradual decay. Looking back, it’s clear that they were never going to be able to hold everything together; as a small country, they over-extended themselves and wound up with an overly diffuse empire that ultimately came apart. But unlike the Ottomans, there isn’t really a clear “it’s now or never” moment. The closest is probably their wars in Africa in the twentieth century, as they tried to hang onto their last few colonial territories, but even that feels like just an imperial epilogue to the British having torpedoed Portuguese ambitions in Africa several decades earlier.

So, that’s my question. If we accept these as examples of “crash and burn” versus “slow crumbling,” and look back over the historical record, which is more predominant? As an empire starts to realize that the sand of power is trickling between its fingers, is it more common for it to futilely try to plug the gaps one by one until all the sand is gone, or to dash the whole thing to the ground in a final convulsion before their failure?

I think it’s incorrect to describe The Ottoman Empire as collapsing rapidly. Its final days may have come quickly, but its collapse happened over centuries.

It depends on how you define the terms :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Han China. Slow decline over decades. Ended in the now famous civil war popularized in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms video games.

Imperial Rome. Slow decline, starting IMHO with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and splitting the empire.

Mongol Empire. Rapid, due to having an exceptionally bad method of transferring power upon death of the Khan.

Spanish Empire. Slow decline after losing their Spanish Armada to the British.

British Empire. Fairly rapid after WWII rendered them unable to maintain the empire.

Soviet Union. Rapid due to Gorbachev’s deciding to peacefully wrap up the whole thing.

United States. Harder to judge objectively due to not being an outsider. I’d like to blame Bush Jr. mishandling the response to 9/11/2001, bit that just probably accelerated a trend started shortly after the fall of the USSR due to Clinton not taking steps to maintain US dominance. Still dominant militarily but IMHO future historians (if there are any) will look on 1/6/2021 as a good candidate for the end.

ETA. Present day China. TBD.

Since we were asked about historical examples in comparison to Russia, I was immediately drawn to the era of Justinian of the Byzantine era, who manages to partially restore the Roman Empire through reconquest of the West. It also used recover of the classic borders, religious pretexts, and similar notions as the basis, but was actually handled by some of the best soldiers of the age.

Still the rights and cultures of the areas under the conquest were broadly stomped in an effort to build the strength of Orthodoxy, which is highly reminiscent of all the restoration of Soviet paraphernalia in the captured areas. As well as the fact that areas conquered were lost rather quickly once the main troops left and the remaining second tier troops and corrupt officials sparked uprisings.

There was a specific reason that General Pershing sent US soldiers to their deaths only a few hours before an already agreed upon armistice: the German Empire had to know it had been defeated, or else it would reorganize as soon as possible and strike back.

When the USSR fell, the West preferred to see it as the vindication of capitalism over socialism, instead of over authoritarianism and militarism. The West celebrated by de-regulating its capitalism, and increasing its own authoritarianism and militarism.

The Russians only adopted “if you can’t beat them, join them,” and retained what had rotted their old regime.

Nice list. Would you be wiling to add rough estimates as to length of time each empire was dominant? I’m often surprised at how little I know about how long various historical empires lasted. Centuries or millennia? And often think of such things when considering the US’s 250+ year experiment.

Aztecs and Mayans would be pretty good examples of “rapid”, no?

It’s often stated that dynasties (as opposed to empires, which can rely on more complex dynamics so long as they prevail) seldom last beyond 200 years. The exception was the Ottomans, because they took the drastic remedy of strangling all male offspring save one upon the death of each sultan.

Whether the Soviets were ever a great power has been debated since the end of WWII. They poured most of their wealth into their military and that gave them nuclear bombs and the ability to deliver them anywhere. North Korea is gradually closing in on that status, but few would call them a great power. If it were not for Putin’s ability to use nuclear weapons he would not have started the war and the west would not be so cautious in opposing him. The economic sanctions prove how weak a power Russia is outside off its military and some raw material exports. Are they a great power or a Taliban with nukes?

I’m going to disagree with the first part and agree with the second part of this sentence. The other military adventures of the Russian military were largely successful (Crimea, Chechen conflicts, Syria) all with conventional forces. Given Putin’s expectations (and the world’s for that matter), Ukraine was going to fall in a matter of days, with some holdouts needing a few weeks at most before being bombed into submission.

The fact of the matter is, Russia has always had a huge non-nuclear military, but only now are we finding out about it’s logistical support’s threadbare nature.

But absolutely, if it weren’t for the nukes, I think there would have been substantially more direct intervention, including the air defense requested repeatedly.

Back to the OP though, yes, I believe we can consider Russia to be a great power. NOT to the degree they considered themselves to be, but both their conventional military, nuclear forces, and substantial economic power (even if it’s only linked to raw resources) indicate that. I do feel that they had long lost the power to effectively project their conventional military power, and current events show that even maintaining it may be a stretch, but the power is there nonetheless.

I think this is really central to how the answer to the question has changed. Would Rome have ever slid into obscurity if they could have nuked the Visigoths? They would have declined, sure, but for a nuclear power to become irrelevant on the world stage they have to decline so far that they can’t make effective use of their nuclear arsenal any more, which is a much much lower bar than what it meant to be a great power through most of history.

To be fair, they only need to be able to launch one nuke and have it reach its target for the nuclear deterrent to remain effective.

And don’t forget the Russians are still one of a single-digit number of spacefaring countries with the ability to put people into orbit.

Add the British Empire to the list of great powers that have faded…

I don’t think we can judge at this point in history.

The USA still maintains the most powerful military in the world along with the largest economy. China is a close second, but with a much larger population. The EU and Britain are also very large and NATO seems more close than ever, thank to Putin. So collectively, “the West” would seem to dominate.

I don’t think you can say the USA has “collapsed” unless we dissolve into our component states or are significantly overshadowed by some other entity.

But as I recall, World War I and II rapidly changes the geopolitical landscape for a lot of empires. WWI saw the end of the German, Austria-Hungry and Ottoman Empires. Russia because the Soviet Union (to collapse later).

A consistent thread in the dissolution of empires is getting drawn into military conflicts they were ill-prepared to handle. The wider the war, the greater the risk, and the more rapid the dissolution.

The West i.e. NATO didn’t establish dictatorships or boost their armed forces; as to military spending, the reverse occurred.

“NATO members significantly reduced defense spending, downsized their forces, and underinvested in modernizing their forces following the Cold War. However, Russian aggression against Ukraine shook the alliance; NATO leaders agreed in Wales that defending Europe would be a top priority and committed to spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024.”

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. Saddam invaded Kuwait the next August. A ten-month “Peace Dividend,” then we get nailed back up on Eisenhower’s “cross of iron.”

I had the impression that it was waning well before the war, and the war was just the final nail in the coffin.

I’d argue that the vast majority of great powers basically wane away, unless they’re some sort of confederation bound together by personal loyalty instead of a nation-state. Those tend to fracture back into their constituent parts on the death of the head person.

I would argue that sans nukes, what we’re seeing in Ukraine is proof that the Russians are in no other way a great power. Economically and militarily, they’re third rate at best, even if they do have numbers on their side. But they’ve got nukes, which changes the game. I would even go so far as to say that there are great powers, and then there are nuclear-armed powers in their own tier, which is defined by the possession and ability to employ nuclear weapons. And maybe even two strata within the nuclear states- those with ICBMs/SLBMs and those without. I mean, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, but if the US got into it with Pakistan , the US could nuke Pakistan at will, but the reverse is not true, due to Pakistan’s lack of any sort of weapon system that can reach the US.

How are these connected?

Now ask me a question in good faith. I’d extend that respect to you and I should get it in return.

Maybe your point is that the USA will always need to be the arsenal of Democracy. Is that what your objection by amputating my paragraph meant? It’s not like I couldn’t see that POV, especially now when we’re Ukraine’s best hope. But because the US is less and less active in addressing income inequality, the cost for that arsenal is carried by people who can’t afford it.

Wouldn’t the USSR be comparable to the napoleonic empire? It was a central nation with a bunch of satellite nations that were under its thumb, who didn’t really like the central nation. So the empires fell apart pretty quickly once the other nations were able to declare their independence.

My impression is that the majority of empires have faded away though it would be interesting to read a systematic analysis. And the reason is obvious. An empire, pretty much by definition, has enough scale both in terms of military resources and land that it becomes difficult to defeat very quickly.

I find it interesting that three of the most dramatic counter-examples are from the same region: Persia. The Achaemenid , Sasanian and Khwarazmian empires were all destroyed very quickly. I have wondered if there is something in Persia’s geography which explains this.