If it is not China, it is Russia or Iran or Turkey: dangerous states with ambitions far beyond their borders and memories far beyond our histories.
We expect certain behaviour of great nations. We expect them to respect their borders and others’, to grant equal respect to all settled nations, big or small. We expect them to respect their own people too of whatever tribe or tongue. We are outraged when China does not respect these norms, nor Russia, nor Persia, nor (increasingly) Turkey.
This is a moment in time. The West has had relative peace for three-quarters of a century after millennia of continuous bloodshed . Peace has brought prosperity beyond imagining. This period of time has been a new world such that the old is itself inexplicable to the upcoming generation. We have settled the world as it should be and demand that it remain. Others disagree.
The west has declared the norms for the whole world. For China though, with a civilisation stretching back millennia, the states of the west are mere children, and they see that the children have imposed their ideas on others for their own convenience.
The borders of the world were defined by the Empires of the West. All nations of ambition have in the past ages expanded as they could, swallowed neighbours, reformed failing cultures around them, found sparsely inhabited lands and colonised them. The great, enduring Asiatic empires were China, the Ottomans, Persia and Russia, each with its own age of expansion, consolidation and corruption. Persia and China were great civilisations when the English were a scatter of hut-dwelling tribes in the damp fens of north Germany. They faltered, and in the case of China it drew inward, disgusted at the state of the world it could see at its fringes.
The Western expansion is natural to us. We swept the oceans and settled the farthermost shores. We drew the borders of the whole world and defined what is acceptable, the universal concept of international law, the jus gentium taken from our history, religion and philosophy and our Westphalian conception of the autonomy of states. Then we stopped. We insisted on respect forever for borders we drew. We, the West, called an end to empire and the End of History itself.
China awakes. She finds that while she slept, the children of the world made rules. Had China not paused for a while in her natural expansion, China might have trodden where the western states do.
You might imagine an ambitious statesman looking out from the old Imperial capital of Peking, heir to the Emperors, seeing the almost empty land of Australia, say, and thinking that if the Yuan dynasty had not looked inwardly, it might have been their junks finding the Great South Land. Now white people live there but sparsely. Then he might wonder why history must stop where white people say it should, conveniently at our maximum expansion. The British and the Russians took advantage of China’s weakness to hem her in, and now, with those forces withdrawn, expect the Chinese to remain where they are. Should two centuries of weakness in four millennia of civilisation define them forever? Then they may wonder why this particular moment of time should be their eternity. It is not by their rules.
Iran, or Persia, is an empire older even than China’s, humbled repeatedly by outsiders but always counting herself the elder. To be scolded by the Americans, people of a state with less than two and a half centuries behind it, is insulting.
Closer west is Turkey, founded as an empire in the age of the Crusades, swallowing and adapting the Byzantine Roman civilisation it supplanted. For centuries the Ottomans ruled all north Africa and Arabia and south-western Europe, to be overtaken and cut down only in the Industrial Age. Thus they may be wondering what would have been had Turkey had the tools of industrialisation first. It is a hundred years this year since the empire was liquidated at Sèvres. Resentment is not lost in what is a brief time for such an old empire. When we read that the new Turkish government is sending guns and men to Syria we assume that they are concerned for their borders, but they are making the war longer, not securing peaceful bounds. When they send guns to Libya, then we may see that Libya was Ottoman territory until just over a hundred years ago, as was Syria. They may see it as theirs still in that same sense that we would resent any foreign country gaining political or cultural hegemony in India.
We live in a moment of time. In this time we have seen that by peace and the standards developed in the West there has been unprecedented prosperity and welfare. We cannot however assume that all other nations, the older nations with their own cultures and histories, see it the same way nor see any reason to stop their history.
- Persian Fire: The First World Empire by Tom Holland
- A History of Modern Iran by Ervand Abrahamian
- Iran: Labyrinth of Imagination by Maria Luisa Gaetani d’Aragona
- By Jung Chang:
- Mao: the Unknown Story
- The Travels of Marco Polo
- An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith: