(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?