After Russia has begun to reclaim the Ukrainian lands of its former territory, and with news that Germany may begin to re-arm itself, hot-take-havers on both sides have begun to fantasize about the return of the Age of Empires in Europe. Russia is going to fill out its former Tsarist / Soviet borders, Germany will become the neo-Prussians threatening all of Europe, perhaps coming to another clash over Eastern Europe, and so on and so forth.
This is all total fantasy, stemming from the media -- including social media -- being primarily based on emotional tribalistic reactions, emotional management (soothing a loss, or hyping up the team for a win), and other group activities divorced from factual analysis, historical knowledge, and the like.
What follows is a whole bunch of posts in one place. Should last awhile, but if anything else occurs to me, I'll add more posts in the comments section.
* * *
The blogosphere ecosystem was host to both forms of online discourse, but it turns out most of it -- both the suppliers and the demanders -- was proto-social-media. Once Twitter et al became viable platforms, 90% of the blogosphere creators and commenters abandoned their academic or analytical "brethren," and the results are plain to see. Utterly clueless fantasies spun by all sides, for the emotional management of their team within a broader societal battle. At worst, see-through propaganda; at best, info-tainment for LARP-ers.
The reason I keep driving home the model of ethnogenesis and imperiogenesis, as popularized by Peter Turchin in War and Peace and War, is that it helps clarify not only some piece of the past that was not already covered by the model, but the present situation as well. Without a proper long-term perspective, you are helpless to make sense of what's going on now and is likely to unfold in the near-to-medium future.
So, will the current situation in Ukraine lead to the formation of new expansionist states -- empires? Well, what causes a people to cohere so powerfully that they not only fend off invaders, but begin and sustain expansions of their own? It is finding themselves at the meta-ethnic frontier between themselves and a highly different Other, one that is an expanding state in its own right. If they are quickly taken over, due to lying close to the core of the expanding state, that doesn't allow them enough time to feel the effects of the frontier. They are rapidly made into subjects, and adapt accordingly. However, if they are pressed up against for a long time, that forces them to view themselves in strong Us vs. Them terms, and to have the time and resources to organize themselves accordingly, without becoming quickly dominated by the expanding Other.
When this external pressure eases up, the response from the newly cohesive society does not immediately go away. There is hysteresis, where the response lasts for a long time after the initial catalyst has gone away. The logic is that the catalyst could re-assert itself after a lull or temporary setback -- so, best to keep your response active, even if idling, until the catalyst has been absent for a very long time.
Still, at some point the initial reason for your large-scale cohesion and expansion has gone away for a long time, and the empire finds itself losing cohesion, unable to expand further, and then outright contracting and falling apart. This also shows long-term effects, where they cannot immediately form a new expanding empire even if some new group of invaders poses a new meta-ethnic frontier for them. Rather, they will simply be over-run by the new invaders during imperial decline.
This model contradicts the progressive view of history, where everything goes in a new direction with no possible cycles to unwind the progress. It also contradicts the spergy models of cycles, where responses are rapid and frictionless and not prone to long-term momentum, allowing for efficiency, optimization, and other sorts of Homo Economicus behavior. Nevertheless, that's how history works. It is not "irrational" or "sub-optimal" -- it simply is doing the best it can do, and if it produces bad side-effects or falls short of some utopian ideal, then so be it. Real life is marked by uncertainty and variance at large orders of magnitude, and that is why processes with hysteresis are adaptive -- they keep you the individual, or the society, from being caught off-guard by a temporary lull or fluke, and instead keep things going for a long while just to be certain.
* * *
What is the invading force that has thrown a long-term meta-ethnic frontier upon Western Europe any time recently? The answer is: none. The US empire helped to defeat one moribund empire in Europe -- Germany -- but the other moribund empires were on their way out the door as well. America simply swept up what was falling apart: the empires of Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Ottoman, and Spanish (and the unified Italy, which was still not an empire). The only empire to escape incorporation into the expanding American empire was Russia, which like the US was still expanding or about to reach its maximum extent during the mid-20th C.
If the Russian empire had been losing its territorial gains throughout the 19th C., as were the Spanish and Ottoman empires, or had already maxed out its gains and would begin losing them to, e.g., decolonization after WWI -- as was the case for the British, French, German, and Austrian empires -- then it, too, would have been in a wobbly state after WWII, and almost surely would have been folded up into the American empire as well. But Russian expansion didn't hit the wall until several decades later, beginning with their invasion of Afghanistan circa the 1980s, when their state was already starting to come apart, and would ultimately break down entirely during the '90s.
Luckily for the Russians, however, the American empire could not scoop up the collapsing Russian / Soviet empire, because America's expansion had already hit its own wall, beginning right after WWII. The Philippines -- won by defeating Spain in 1898 -- declared independence with zero pushback from America. Our invasion of northern Korea failed to place it under our control. Cuba (the other big prize from 1898) declared independence in the late '50s, and we have never recovered it despite massive pushback from Washington. Then there were the string of failed Asian land wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. All our Latin American proxies were defeated by nationalists by the late '80s and afterwards. Iran overthrew the American puppet and has never been under our sphere of influence since the '80s. Nor has Iraq, despite decades of pressure. Afghanistan was never under US control, and the Taliban recently kicked us out altogether. Ditto for our attempts to control Libya, Syria, Venezuela, and other former and future members of an Axis of Evil.
If we couldn't even scoop up a minor Central American country like Nicaragua, in our own backyard, what chance did we have of scooping up the former Russian empire, on the other side of the world?
Our failure to expand by force is not contradicted by the growth of NATO after WWII. After all, most of the core were added right away. The additions that would actually pose a threat to Russia -- in Eastern Europe -- were not added until 1999 and later. We did not conquer the new NATO members by force, as we had Germany during WWII. Both parties voluntarily agreed to an alliance, which is not territorial expansion by force. It's more accurate to call these new NATO members "tributary states" or something, not proper members of the American empire like Britain, France, and Germany.
And sure enough, America is not about to lift a finger to militarily defend Eastern Europe, nor will it allow its tributary states of the former Warsaw Pact use their own militaries to enter a war against Russia. Rather than being an all-powerful unified front, NATO has revealed itself to be weak, unwilling to counter Russian expansion, and barely held together. This is not a demand for it to magically will itself into an all-powerful status, just an objective assessment of its impotence, lack of cohesion, and absence of enthusiasm to fulfill its stated purpose. It could not have turned out any other way, since it is the vehicle in Europe of the American empire, which has been stagnant or outright declining as an empire since its peak during WWII.
Maybe if the Soviets had invaded and occupied England by surprise in 1950, we and NATO would have gone to war over it. But Russia invading Ukraine in 2022? No shot, bucko.
So much for the idea that America's NATO presence would present a meta-ethnic frontier in Europe, to force some of them into newly expanding states to counter America. Then there's the matter of the duration of time -- NATO has only been around for 70-odd years, and in Eastern Europe for scarcely 20. That's not enough time to produce imperiogenetic effects, and its duration is not going to last much longer anyway. With the failure to unite and counter Russia in 2022, it is de facto over as a threat to any nation in Europe, whether Eastern or Western.
* * *
That only leaves Russia as the potential source for causing imperiogenesis in other nations in Europe. But the Russian empire has been contracting since circa 1990, and is not anywhere near clawing back its losses in the Central Asian Turkic lands, let alone the former possessions of the Lithuanian empire (in its Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth incarnation), or of the Austrian empire (except for Lvov in Western Ukraine, as seems likely). Russia taking back Ukrainian land is merely recovering parts of Russia that broke off during imperial disintegration. It's no different than if Texas breaks off during American imperial decline, and some American strongman eventually recovers it for America, while failing to re-take more recent and far-flung possessions like South Korea and Japan after they eventually break off from our empire. See the previous post about Ukraine being integral to Russian ethnogenesis.
And no, contra some fantasies within the right-wing info-tainment sector, the large-scale influx of non-Europeans will not force any European nation to cohere more strongly, to repel them and begin expanding again. These immigrants are 99% slaves from nations conquered by Europe or America, and 1% brain-drain status-strivers, brought in by the will of the ruling Euro elites in both cases. Although they are highly different culturally, they are not unified amongst themselves, even remotely, as though they were a confederation of tribes choosing a single shared leader and advancing on targets in Europe.
In a few hundred years -- or maybe sooner -- they and their descendants will not be in Western Europe at all, just as the Eastern Mediterranean DNA signature in the Italian peninsula disappeared after Rome went through its Crisis of the Third Century, which ended it as an imperial power and attraction for slaves and status-strivers. Local elites will be even less unified than they are today, making the organization of a multi-national slave ring impossible. If you cannot organize your own local institutions effectively, you will be unable to organize more difficult enterprises, like multi-national ones. That means the end of Europeans conquering others through war, but also the end of Europeans importing slaves by the millions.
Slave importation is not a simple, unorganized "open the floodgates" operation -- it is a highly coordinated and networked enterprise, with multiple layers of administrative and bureaucratic structure. When the glue that holds these structures together starts to lose its strength, the institutions come undone, especially at the periphery of the empire where contraction begins, such as trafficking slaves from distant lands.
To take a more modern example, Constantinople had a massive non-Turkish population during the Ottoman era, especially drawing from Greeks and Armenians and Saharo-Arabian Muslims (and a smaller number of Bulgarians and Jews). These days, 100 years after the Ottoman empire collapsed, those groups are more or less absent compared to Turks. Istanbul has lost the attractive power of Constantinople under the Ottomans, as well as the administrative ability to incorporate a double-digit percentage of multi-national foreigners. (Only one longstanding non-Turkish group remains, the Kurds, and mostly in the rural east, far from the core of Istanbul.) That will not change, no matter how much anyone in Turkey may pine for the bygone days of their capital's ethnic heterogeneity. Cosmopolitan opulence, endless cheap labor, exotic sex slaves, and vibrant foreign cuisine -- crave it all you want, it's not coming back after your imperial heyday is over.
* * *
To wrap-up things up, let's take a clear-headed look at Europe on the eve of WWI, the period that is currently tickling the fantasies of the info-tainment sector. In case you guys forgot what you learned in high school history class (everything), remember the acronym "MANIA"? The causes leading to WWI -- Militarism, Alliances, Nationalism, Imperialism, Assassination.
The key one is imperialism, i.e. these were not mere countries or nations, but expanding empires, all pressing against each other, vying for the high-risk / high-reward game of war as an empire. If you're a little podunk nation of no consequence, you can't win that much in war, and you'll likely lose anyway. So why bother with a WWI-level war? Incursions, clan feuds, whatever. But not a continent-wide cataclysm like WWI.
The reason that war, and its aftershock of WWII, was so unique in European history is that Europe had never had so many expanding empires all jockeying for territory at the same time. There were no rival empires to the Romans when they were expanding in Europe (only to the east, like the Persians). Most of the Middle Ages saw only one empire in the West -- France. There was also a Muslim empire in Iberia, which however did not threaten anyone other than France. And in the east, there was the Avar khaganate, the Byzantine empire, the Bulgarian empire, and the Kievan Rus, by the close of the 1st millennium. None of which were threatening Western Europe. The various Turkic and Mongol empires never threatened Western Europe either. Nor did the Lithuanian empire (Grand Duchy) that arose during the late Middle Ages.
The empires of WWI all had Early Modern origins (Britain, France after the Hundred Years War, Prussia / Germany, Austria, and Russia), or perhaps the end of the Late Middle Ages (Spain and the Ottomans). These largely Early Modern empires arose as reactions to the expanding empires of the Middle Ages -- Spain against the Muslim empire, the Ottomans against the Byzantines, Russia against the Mongols and the Lithuanians, etc.
Since all of those Early Modern empires blew each other up during WWI and WWII, with Russia staggering through Midcentury, there are no more European empires jockeying for territory these days. And to reiterate the original point, there are no replacements for the forces that gave birth to those Early Modern empires -- no new Bulgarians, Mongols, Lithuanians, Carolingians, Capetians, or Emirate / Caliphate of Cordoba.
Empires do not "assume new, less military / territorial forms" -- they simply contract and collapse, unable to control other societies by force. German banks exploiting Greek workers through the EU system does not make Germany an empire, nor does the international vogue for French, Italian, and Spanish cuisine make them empires either. Their former expansions have been contracting ever since WWI or before, and that will not reverse for many centuries at the earliest (assuming a new threat appears long-term on their borders, after they have already hit rock bottom internally).
Let's consider the two specific cases that the info-tainers are obsessing over -- the Russians and the Germans.
Russian ethnogenesis and imperiogenesis are rooted primarily in the invasion of Turko-Mongol empires, all of whom have been pacified by the Russians (and the Chinese) for centuries. The Ottoman pressure to their south has been absent for a century. And the Lithuanian threat to their west has been a void as well. If anything, the American expansion into Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, has been an attempt to stimulate Russian expansion all over again, by reincarnating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth threat to Russia's wide-open western border. But the reality of NATO impotence in Eastern Europe is already rapidly becoming clear -- they're no Grand Duchy of Lithuania -- and the duration of the threat has only been around for 20 years, unlikely to last even a century. So, no, Russia will not reconquer Eastern Europe as they did under the Tsars.
German imperial origins are even shallower, beginning only during the 1600s (vs. the late 1400s for Muscovite / Russian expansion over their invaders). Most of the Germanic lands were a fragmented black hole of cooperation, left in the wake of the collapse of the Frankish empire during the Middle Ages, whether of the Carolingian apogee, or of the later Ottonian eastern rump kingdom. Both of those were finished by the late Middle Ages, and by that time the Holy Roman Empire was not expanding, and was not a centrally governed state.
Rather, German imperiogenesis came from the east, among the Prussians, who expanded westward to unify Germany. Sidebar: the Prussians were never a threat to Eastern Europe, which from the Early Modern period onward has always been under Russian control. And before that, it was the province of the Lithuanians, Bulgarians, Kievan Rus, and various Turkic and Mongol invaders. Viewing the Germans and Russians as some sort of eternal enemies is ignorance, owing mostly to the American fixation on WWII-themed info-tainment, one of the few times the two nations were locked in deadly battle.
In any case, the Prussians only began expanding during the 17th C., first by unifying with Brandenburg in eastern Germany, and then liberating themselves from being a fiefdom of Poland, culminating in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701. Their formative experience was the expansion of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on their borders, and there has been a void in that region ever since the contraction of the Russian / Soviet empire. So there will be no new Prussians. And since there is no new Britain or France on the western side of Germany, it's not as though the Rhinelanders are going to turn Germany into a new expansionist empire either.
Reality check: the only long-term source of empires in Western Europe has been France, whether the Gauls, the Franks, the Capetians, or the Bourbons. Ditto for the renaissances that coincide with imperial expansion -- not caused by the military expansion itself, but owing to a common source, namely the high degree of cohesion and cooperation, whereby the elites patronize unprofitable cultural production and culture-makers devote themselves to such unprofitable endeavors that may not even be realized within their own lifetimes, for the greater good of the whole people and nation.
So, the only nation to keep an eye on for the return to the Age of Empires in Europe is France. And just like the other former empires of the WWI era, they are dead and buried as an expanding force. There may be nationalist sentiment brewing, which will eventually allow them to recover their sovereignty from the American empire / NATO / EU, but that is not the same as intense solidarity coming from lying at a meta-ethnic frontier for centuries. Although breaking free from their American overlords, they would not become a newly expanding state against their neighbors.
Rather, the situation would look more like the Balkans, where in the wake of Ottoman and Austrian imperial collapse, none of the member nations can cohere strongly enough to expand against the others, notwithstanding a long-term regional power -- Serbia -- enjoying greater sovereignty than the others (who became vassals of the American empire). France will become the Serbia of Western Europe when the American empire collapses.
The political / military Balkanization of Western Europe will be accompanied by a new cultural Dark Age in Europe (and obviously in the imperial core of America). The original Dark Age spared France, which enjoyed the Carolingian Renaissance, and the later peak of Capetian culture under Louis IX. But that was back when France was an expanding empire, birthed by its status on the frontier with the Roman empire. No more Romans, no more Carolingians or Capetians. This time around, France too will fall under the Dark Age.
Westerners derisively ask what the Arabs have created, invented, or discovered since the late Middle Ages. Already, we can begin to ask that about ourselves, and the joke will only sound more mordant as time goes on and the reality becomes obvious.
The silver lining, though, is no more WWI or WWII-level cataclysms. We're going to adapt to sub-imperial status, where nobody cooperates on a massive scale, whether for militaristic expansion or for transcendent cultural production.