Empires Past, Present, and Future

Scholars, scientists, economists, and various “think tanks” often engage in predicting the future. More often than not, they are wrong. Their forecasts may be based on long-range economic trends; breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology; political shifts and alliances; military buildups; demographic developments; population explosions; even climatological change. In my opinion, these factors, even in combination, have been and will continue to be notoriously inaccurate signposts for what will happen in the long term.

A scrutiny of past history might well be a better guide, but this in itself reveals how often the experts have been wrong in fore- casting events. Despite widespread expectations, the world did not end as A.D. 1000 dawned. Who could forecast, at the end of the first millennium, the rise of the Mongol and Islamic-Turkish empires, the significance of the purchase of Manhattan Island, the astonishing growth of the human race, the amazing multiplication of human wealth, or the forays to other planets in the solar system? On a more modest scale, who could predict how a tiny nation like Japan would make a huge mark on the world economy or how communism would take hold of half the globe in forty years and how it would come apart at the seams in less than a decade?

Cultural Traits as Predictors of the Future

This book has not been written as a foray into futurology. I believe, however, that if one were to attempt to forecast certain trends in the twenty-first century, the most reliable guide would be the scrutiny of cultural patterns, not just as we perceive them but as they have revealed themselves in history.

Cultural behavior is not accidental or whimsical. On the contrary, it is the end product of millennia of collected wisdom, filtered and passed down through hundreds of generations and translated into hardened, undiscussable core beliefs, assumptions, values, and persistent action patterns. The enduring structures of human society, which transcend and outlive political change, give us some indication of what our future will be.

By focusing on the cultural roots of national behavior both in society and in business, we can forecast and calculate with a surprising degree of accuracy how people will react in the future. They are not likely to change their way of life drastically in a short time span like a century. Deeply rooted attitudes resist sudden transformation of values (or alliances) when subjected to pressure or expediency. The Chinese today behave very much as Confucius advised them to long ago. Post-perestroika Russians exhibit behavioral traits strikingly similar to those recorded in tsarist times. Reliable guidance for guessing what will happen in the coming century is likely to be found by examining the social history of culture—the cultural achievements of different civilizations—which is more significant than political boundaries or military exploits. We should be concerned less with the particular events of history than with broad movements—for example, massive migrations or the spread of the world’s religions, the advent of historically significant tools and artifacts, the domestication of different animals, the establishment and permanence of agriculture, the eventual industrialization of large parts of the globe, and the IT Revolution.

By offering a short list of famous predictions that seem preposterous today, I hope to dispel any doubt that forecasts based on scientific breakthroughs, technology, economic trends, and so on simply aren’t reliable.

The following quotations are statements or predictions made by individuals of considerable eminence in the fields of philosophy, science and medicine, business and industry, exploration, transportation, entertainment, and political and military affairs. These people included recognized experts (Foch, Watson), professors, bankers, surgeons, leaders of industry, two prime ministers, and a king. While nobody is infallible, it is not unreasonable for the man (or woman) in the street to assume that such people, by virtue of their privileged position or special knowledge, would be able to produce a fairly accurate forecast of events. For different reasons (miscalculation, shortsightedness, lack of imagination, political expediency), they could not and did not produce accurate forecasts.

Famous Forecasts

  • “All men are born good.” (Confucius 500 B.C.)
  • “So many centuries after creation, it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” (King Ferdinand of Spain 1486, before Columbus’ voyage)
  • “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxsia.” (Irish professor 1835)
  • “Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground and try to find oil? You’re crazy!” (U.S. executive 1859)
  • “The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” (Western Union corporate memo 1876)
  • “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t understand how to use the English language.” (Publisher’s rejection letter 1889)
  • “The horse is here to stay. The automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” (a banker advising Henry Ford not to invest in the Ford Motor Company 1903)
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” (French military strategist Marshal Foch 1911)
  • “The wireless has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” (Friends of RCA founder 1920)
  • “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” (MGM executive 1929, about Fred Astaire’s screen test)
  • “I have no political ambition for myself or for my children.” (Joseph Kennedy 1936)
  • “Hitler has missed the bus.” (Chamberlain1940)
  • “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” (IBM Chairman Thomas Watson 1943).
  • “For the majority of people, the use of tobacco has a beneficial effect.” (Los Angeles surgeon 1963)
  • “No woman in my time will be Prime Minister.” (Margaret Thatcher 1969)

Past Empires

Eurocentric and Americentric, we see the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese empires as dominant events in world history and culture. In fact, they were not very durable, especially in modern times. The British lasted 200 years in India; 170 years in America;100 years in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; and a mere 80 years in Africa. The French managed 100 years in Africa and Indochina and 229 years in Canada. The Dutch held on to trading posts for 250 years in Indonesia, and the Belgians ruled the Congo for 80 years. Italy with 50 years in Ethiopia and Germany with 35 years in Africa were the shortestlived colonists. The Portuguese and Spanish, ostensibly in search of souls, did somewhat better in Africa and South America, with 450 years each. The Mongols did well to rule a stretch of land from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea for 500 years.

The empires that exhibited substantial durability were the Roman, which in theory lasted 1,650 years but lost its Western half early on, the Islamic Arab-Turkish (1,200 years), and the Chinese (2,100 years and in a sense still going strong). It is perhaps noteworthy that the empires founded for purposes of prestige (the Italian and the German) were the shortest-lived. Those based on resources, raw materials, and trade (British, French, Dutch, Belgian) did only a little better. The toughest empires were those based on or inspired by an idea—Spanish and Portuguese Catholicism or the Islamic faith. The Chinese empire—or civilization—probably owes its longevity to the fact that it has been mainly inward-looking.

Impending Chinese Dominance

Much has been written about the growing hegemony of China and its impending dominance in the twenty-first century and beyond. Samuel Huntington, as I mentioned earlier, warns against possible Chinese triumphalism in the twenty-first century in view of the country’s huge population, considerable territory, and rapid technological advancement. But do we not tend to exaggerate the likelihood of Chinese expansion or aggression? We should remember that for most of recorded history, China has been the largest, most populous, and most advanced country in the world.

During the millennia of its existence, China has shown little inclination to conquer others for any length of time. It was the Mongols who rode into Europe (twice), not the Chinese. Moreover, China, less interested in internationalism than most of us, has never formed a lasting alliance with another country. China trusts itself and is only half-concerned with the fate of others. Strident in its claims on Taiwan—yes—and unbending and implacable on the issue of Tibet—true—but China sees these as its own territories, close to home. China has shown little inclination to interfere with the fate of its neighbors—Russia, Korea, Japan, and India. International communism led to Chinese military involvement on behalf of North Korea and to an uneasy aligned relationship with the Soviet Union, but there were no cultural ties to cement these alliances. Chinese “punitive incursions” into Vietnam, politically motivated, had little to do with any lasting desire to acquire Indo-Chinese territory. Although the Chinese display no fondness for their Japanese neighbors and scream for apologies for Japan’s having invaded China in the past, still China does not indicate an intention to counterpunch in Japanese territory any time soon.

Confucian, patient, self-sufficient, inward-looking, the Chinese will most likely pursue a twenty-first century cultural path of traditional self-containment, domestic consolidation and control, and continued industrial and commercial development. In the last respect they will be greatly aided by the wisdom, experience, and energetic activity of the Overseas Chinese, “whose club they joined” with the reacquisition of Hong Kong and good relations with Singapore. The Chinese global communication network (through people) is second to none and reduces need for aggression abroad.

Future Alliances Who Wants China?

East and Southeast Asia

The Chinese inclination or disinclination to expand and dominate is one thing. The attitude of other nations is another. Will other Asian nations ally themselves with China to resist the West? The cultural record suggests otherwise.

Japan. Japanese culture has been going strong for 2,000 years and has no reason to change course. The Japanese people learned all they needed to learn from China about 1,500 years ago, when they adopted their religion (Buddhism); their writing system; styles in painting, music, architecture, pottery, and other artifacts as well as the teachings of Confucius. When Japan opened up shop (after its self-imposed isolation from 1600 to1853) during the Meiji era, it was to the West that Japan rushed in its quest for modernization. We all know the success of that choice. Apart from the hiccup of 1935 to 1945, Japan seems well-set to maintain the status quo of its distinguished position vis--vis the West and its status in variousWestern cultural and financial institutions. In spite of the disparity in size, Japan’s economy is well ahead of China’s and is likely to remain so for the next decade or so. Furthermore, Japanese culture has diverged immensely from that of China since the sixth century and its very strength enables Japan to enjoy an independent role in Asia and in the world.

India. Will India team up with China against the West? Even more unlikely than Japan. India may soon become more populous than China and has its own culture of four thousand years, which is arguably richer and more varied than the Chinese. Buddhism originated in India, not in China. The Hindu religion has more adherents than any other. Economically, India has a lot of ground to make up but is likely to progress most quickly in alliance with the West. English is India’s only truly national language and is descended from an Indian language—Sanskrit—in any case! The sharing of an Indo-European language mindset with many Westerners suggests that India will face away from China rather than toward it.

Korea. The well-known Korean trait, hahn, precludes warm relations with anybody who is not Korean. The fact that the Korean peninsula, with its vulnerable location between China and Japan, has maintained its territorial integrity for two millennia suggests that Koreans will continue to go their own way—working hard, exporting vigorously, and trying to maintain their position in the world economies. When reunification takes place, as it must during this century, it will give them additional economic clout.

Other Southeast Asian Nations. Who are the other candidates for alignment with China? The Vietnamese regard China as their natural enemy and have sustained a mutual hostility for over a thousand years. They have had their own dreams of empire, lording it over the Laotians and the Cambodians. The Vietnamese say today that their favorite foreigners are Americans, and they are anxious to pursue reconciliation with the Americans, albeit at their own snail’s pace.

Thailand and the Philippines are influenced more by the United States than by China. The large number of Thai and Filipino students at any one time in the U.S. (often aided by American grants) carries a certain assurance of continued American closeness with those countries.

Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Brunei are all largely Muslim and share few cultural tenets with China. It is hard to imagine them firmly aligned with a Confucian culture, whose work ethic and discipline they do not share. It may well be half a century before Indonesia can achieve a position commensurate with its huge population (220 million), especially as the nation has severe internal difficulties at this writing. A breakup of this scattered nation of three thousand islands is by no means impossible, given the population’s dislike for the dominant Javanese prevalent on the large islands such as Sumatra and Borneo. If this happens, the separate entities will probably form a type of federation similar to that of Malaysia but with more regional autonomy.

Islamic States

The Islamic states, which often join China in criticism of Western morals and U.S. foreign policies, are poor candidates for an alliance with China. Lacking a core state (with the largest—Indonesia—out on a distant limb), the Islamic states will find it hard to coalesce as a political force. Even the Arabs have great difficulty speaking with one voice. The different creeds of Iran, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, and so on in the Muslim world reduce Islamic influence to being a cultural entity like Christianity or Buddhism, spanning many frontiers but lacking political unity. Iran and Iraq, both Muslim (but of different sects), fought each other viciously in recent times. Such divisions in allegiance are not restricted to Muslims. Christian Europeans fought against each other in two world wars.


As we continue to look further afield, the prospect of a sinicized world fades markedly. Russia, in the fullness of time, must end up in the EU. Where else can it go? Most Russians are of the European physical type, they speak a European language, and almost all of their cultural heritage is markedly European—their literature, art, sculpture, painting, music, ballet, theatre, and architecture. Russia’s Asian empire was huge but brief in tenure. Siberia remains for the time being, but it is too vast for Russia to allocate the resources needed to develop it. The mind-numbing distance between Moscow and Vladivostok suggests that the Russian Far East will probably become a separate political entity in due course. The region already enjoys a certain autonomy and commercial ties are currently being established between local entrepreneurs and the nearby Japanese.

After the dismantling of the Soviet Union, there was a Turkish move to set up a Turkic trading bloc with five ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. This idea would naturally evaporate with Turkish accession to the EU. Oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan are currently nonaligned in the confusion resulting from Soviet dismemberment and the profusion of natural resources. Kyrgyzstan borders China (this might possibly cause her to lean eastward), but the other republics are likely to be tempted by Western oil companies and remain as wild cards in the future world order.

The European Union

In the twenty-first century Europe itself remains the great enigma. The EU will have little alternative but to gradually extend its membership to all the continent’s 28 countries, plus Turkey for good measure. The union is unlikely to be a cohesive political force before the end of the century. We must not forget that it took the United States approximately 150 years (1776 to 1920) to achieve political significance. Economic cohesion came first, as it probably will in Europe (with lowering of tariffs and regional rationalization of production). The obstacles to rapid European unification are of course cultural. Europe has 28 distinct cultures and 35 languages, not to mention a host of antipathies. Some of these have cooled (e.g., Germany and France), but others are still not far from the boiling point (Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia).

Nevertheless, one can assume that, given an entire century, a tougher EU can emerge, but it may well be a close thing. Who will be the last entrants—Albania? Macedonia? Kosovo? Georgia? Armenia? If Turkey joins, would Israel become a candidate?

The Pacific Rim

The Pacific Rim, as discussed earlier, is an attractive concept economically. Culturally, however, it is a nonstarter, as the nations surrounding it have different mindsets and agendas. The Rim may well, however, prove a useful mechanism for technological cooperation and cultural exchange. Australia’s proximity to parts of Asia has encouraged successive Australian governments to woo Asian leaders with a view to achieving integration with that continent through increased bilateral trade. This worthy initiative has been received with less enthusiasm than it deserves. Again, culture is the guide. Technically, Australian raw materials, minerals, and food production are a perfect fit for Indonesian and Japanese consumers. Culturally, the Australians are blatantly Anglo-Saxon and very blunt blokes at that. Australian schoolchildren are making brave attempts to learn Japanese and other Asian languages, but the British cultural core of tea, beer, cricket, rugby, golf, tennis, the monarchy, and fish and chips makes an Asian veneer hard to come by. New Zealand, too, has a geographical remoteness problem and will be wise to foster close relations with Australia in the coming decades.

The chart on the next page summarizes the cultural traits that are most likely to persevere and lead to possible alliances in the future.

The Prevailing Cultural Characteristics and Possible Alliances

Country or Region

Persevering Cultural Traits

Future (optional) alliances



Work ethic, collectivism, harmony, face, duty, and obligation

U.S. and Korea

Powerful ties in trade and industry


Hinduism, sense of spiritual superiority, growing nationalism, and feeling of power.


Democracies counterbalance China and Islam


Cultural traits mirror those of Western Europe


Western heritage and proximity


Sense of intellectual superiority, collectivism, strong families, self-centeredness

No permanent alliances

Self-sufficiency, sheer numbers


Work ethic, competitiveness, energy, face, obsession with survival

U.S. and Japan

Powerful ties in trade and industry

Latin America

Catholicism, Iberian characteristics

U.S. and Canada

Geographic, Western heritage

North Africa

Muslim, French, and British influence


Proximity, shared labor market

Sub-Saharan Africa

Varied tribal

Internal, continental (loose and shaky) arrangements with EU

Continued dependence on Europe, familiarity with Europeans, relative proximity


British, with U.S. influence


Rejected by Asians

Central Asia


U.S. and Russia

Joint exploration (oil and gas)

S.E. Asia


ASEAN, with Indonesia

Counterbalancing China


Muslim (Liberal)

ASEAN, Australia (unlikely)

Natural market for ASEAN products, too far from main Islamic countries for effective alliance

Islamic States (Middle East)


Mainly cultural and spiritual

Countries are too dispersed geographically for effective commercial or political alliances

Most Nation States to Survive

I see the twenty-first century as witness to the formation and continuing existence of huge trade blocs and associations such as the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, MERCOSUR, and so on, but I do not en- visage any real coalescing of cultures. They are too strong, they are blueprints for survival, they have stood the test of time. Cultures coincide to a large extent with the nation-state within which they dwell, and who would predict the disappearance of any of these? Taiwan may well be incorporated into the PRC. Some of the smaller African states might at some point unite, although the precedent set by North African Arabs is not too promising. I feel confident that Japan, India, China, Russia, and the other major powers will remain intact during the remainder of the twenty-first century. I do not see Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, or anyone else, for that matter, surrendering their national status or cultural identity. There will probably be even more nation-states and cultures than there are today. Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Macedonia, Namibia, and East Timor are recent newcomers! Perhaps Chechnya or Aceh will be the next. There are sixty-odd autonomous republics inside the Russian Federation alone (several of them anxious to get out). We should not make the mistake of thinking that small nations can be easily subjugated or eliminated. History has proven that countries with one million people or more can defend themselves vigorously against huge opponents. The Russo-Finnish War of 1939 to 1945 is the best example. Others are the conflicts involving Israel, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, and Vietnam. Estonia, the smallest of the three tiny Baltic states, proved to be the toughest in demanding independence. As I have suggested, the European Union is likely to survive to 2100, but it is hard to say in what form. It may well be a multicultural union where each member nation has “national state rights” like the U.S. states’ rights, but stronger.

Political Systems

Just as the study of cultural traits in history foretells a predictable path for nation-states in the twenty-first century, it also indicates that political issues and ideas on the best ways to govern are by no means settled. Francis Fukuyama, in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1993), offered the theory that political development has run its course, that Western-style democracy has triumphed as the best political system. This is by no means apparent at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

There are few democracies in Asia, mainly because Asians don’t feel comfortable with them. Asians see Western democracies as having double standards; they prefer hierarchical systems. Although India has the world’s largest democracy and Japan appoints her government by electoral means, these two states are not democracies in the Western sense—not India, because of the huge gap between rich and poor; and not Japan, because of factional strength in Parliament and the collusion between politicians and big business. Filipino democracy lives on after Ferdinand Marcos but hardly functions efficiently. In Europe the Nordic democracies seem to be healthy. Britain boasts the oldest Parliament, but an awful lot of bickering can be observed there, now more apparent by virtue of TV. African democracies are fragile, the unfortunate peoples of that continent first having had their old traditions dismantled or obliterated by their colonial masters, then having been abandoned before they had sufficient familiarity with Western institutions to enable them to develop a workable alternative.

The United States

The U.S. version of democracy naturally comes under closest scrutiny (on account of the country’s prominence) and in many ways is viewed with misgivings by Asians and Europeans alike.

Of common concern is the general razzmatazz of the American political scene, its domination by the media, its Hollywood-influenced presentation, its focus on “good looks” or abundance of hair in presidential candidates, its manipulation of statistics, its background of criminal influence (the Mafia) and assassination, its facile slogans, its disregard for intellectuality, and its frequent oversimplification of vital issues. Why do Americans call their intellectuals “eggheads” and generally refuse to consider them for the Oval Office? Why do they reelect presidents of doubtful morals (Nixon and Clinton)? How can they allow economic success to blind them to more significant issues?

These questions do not imply that the American democratic system or leadership is totally flawed. We should all be grateful for the role of the United States in defending freedom and human rights. The task of world policeman is a thankless one. Nonetheless, it seems that the U.S. could do itself better justice, present itself to the world in a better light, and improve the image it sends out in innumerable films and TV broadcasts. Is America really like LA Law or Dynasty or Dallas?. We who know the U.S. know it is much better than that. But many Asians, Africans, and Europeans don’t. Even South Americans, closer in geography, consider themselves culturally superior to the yanquis. The British, along with the Germans and Scandinavians, are probably America’s best friends but have the uneasy feeling that they are witnessing the decline of a civilization before it has reached its peak.

At all events, the American course of action, its might as a superpower, and the incredible resilience of its economy will be key factors in the unfolding of all our destinies in the twenty-first century.

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108

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