Stages of Historical Power

I have been mulling over this concept for quite a while – that there might be clear patterns of the rise and fall of societies and empires throughout history. For the most part, I dislike generalizations, especially when it comes to history; however, there is something to be said about our own biases towards seeking the familiar to better understand that which is seemingly random.

Dan van der Vat’s The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919 is an outstanding, yet unfinished book: in keeping with my tendency, I donated my annotated copy to a friend before completion and the appreciation that the dog-eared pages would have to be revisited in a new iteration. In establishing the events leading up to the challenges between the established Royal Navy and the fledgling German Imperial Navy at the turn of the 20th century, van der Vat effectively encompasses the complexities of the various factors of the growing antagonism between the two nations:

The Germans, who had launched fourteen battleships since 1900, were temporarily thrown into disarray by the birth of the dreadnought. […] Then in November 1907, on the basis of another amendment to the Fleet Law, they announced that they would build three a year to Britain’s four. The British were thoroughly alarmed, having failed earlier in the year at The Hague Peace Conference to get anything out of the Germans on disarmament or at least a reduction in the tempo of the naval arms race.  (Pg 47-48)

Though this angle seemingly focuses on one aspect of national power – naval strength – things are rarely easily simplified. The growth of any military, regardless of it being land forces or a fleet, is dependent on the facilities, infrastructure, domestic and imported raw materials as well as the financial resources available. In this instance, it was not only the creation of a fleet, but the direct challenge such a fleet represented to the British Empire.

So the timeless cycle becomes apparent – as a nation grows, so does the imperative to produce the means of protecting that growth and the supply lines inherent to the expansion from other nations who have either lost the resources and influence or are envious of the benefits which they bring.

This, along with a recent article – “Not Another Peloponnesian War: Great Power Collaboration?” – got me to thinking about the rhythm of human nature and conflict. Jack Bowers writes about the “Thucydides Trap” that China might be for its potential adversaries.

Much like the slow road to the First World War, much of what China has been up to recently might be somewhat familiar to those with an interest in history:

The trust between them is eroded by the newcomer’s growth, the hegemony becomes fearful at its relative decline in power, and war becomes a case of not if, but when.


The Athenians became ruthless in the control they exerted over their client states. They grew wealthier and more powerful than anyone ever dreamed was possible, and many resented their power.

Naturally, I started pondering the idea of how this has progressed throughout history. After all, if there are similarities between present-day China and the rise of Nazi Germany, the beginning of Imperial Germany, the rise of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Greco-Persian Wars… and, in all honesty, any and all major wars throughout human history… then perhaps there can be some sort of predictive pattern… right?

As with any idea, this one is a work in process where I may not be venturing off into completely uncharted territory. Previously, I have hinted at Sir John Glubb’s The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival as an idea of how empires rise and fall; this theme of the possible convenience of historic examples has even been directly addressed in “History and Repetition” from last year:

If it does, then where would the fault lie? After all, history is the culmination of the actions of individuals within a nation, within a certain set of norms, and part of a larger network of interconnected and varying pasts. If this is were to be the case, then it would reflect on a poor education in history itself and a tragic level of civic apathy on the part of the people involved.

My own thoughts on the cycle of historic power are similar to those of Glubb’s. Where he broke down the distinctions of an empire as “Ages” of Pioneers (outburst), Conquests, Commerce, Affluence, Intellect, and Decadence, I have come to speculate that there might be another way to look at the aspect of power throughout human history.

Chaos – with the creation of any society or nation, there is often a period where previous conflicts have resulted in disorder within the group or region. It doesn’t take much to appreciate recent examples of post-Soviet Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban – a strict religious group which gained regional power and influence as they set out to restore their own version of “order” to the lawlessness which ravaged the country following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Likewise, the legitimacy of the party within Germany during the interwar years took advantage of the harsh repatriations and restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty as well as the looming threat of Communism and wounded national pride. This is not to imply that there are absolutes – post-Second World War Germany and Japan rose from the ashes of their aggressive and destructive former regimes to become significant industrial and financial entities. Such is the problem with broad generalizations and assertions; as with any comparative speculations, there are always exceptions.

Tension – keeping with the previous examples, Germany at the end of the 19th and into the beginning of 20th centuries as well as former empires such as Greece and Persia in the 6th century shared a progressive level of diplomatic tension due to trade considerations, diplomatic failures, and a need to exploit natural resources within their sphere of influence as well as maintain safe and unmolested lines of communication.  

Breakout – there is always a tipping point where nations reach a “point of no return” when it comes to maintaining what they have against the desires of external nations. For Germany, that point came in 1897, when Tirpitz pushed for – and achieved – the approval and funding for a building a naval force capable of directly challenging the Royal Navy. Another example might be suggested by the 1987 UNESCO request for China to build meteorological stations on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea – igniting the diplomatic and military tensions in the region which continue to this day.

Momentum – once a course of action has been established, the journey towards inevitable conflict has commenced. Tirpitz’s Fleet Laws led to the formation of the High Seas Fleet – and the reactionary reinforcement of the British navy. Like the adage of “action and reaction,” arms races become a concept of self-perpetuation: there is rarely a financial or numerical goal other than “better” or “more” and being on the wrong side of either easily justifies the allocation of finances and resources to remedy any shortcomings… which leads to the same response of an adversary. The inertia of this cycle may or may not lead to armed conflict; in the case of the former, the cycle reverts to “chaos” for the losing side, whereas the victor often continues on to the next stage…

Complacency – in American conflicts, this has been quite clear in the 20th century. Both World Wars were followed by periods of time when the various treaties and local threats which filled the regional power vacuums were dismissed as a result of either weariness of the major conflicts or a wariness to slide into yet another expensive and bloody conflict. The rising threat of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was largely disregarded by political leaders and the opportunistic growth of the Communist Part in Korea (and Vietnam) following Japan’s defeat lead to conflicts which, had sufficient attention been given and deliberate political pressure been applied, may have retarded the growing influence of disruptive ideologies in those areas.

Decline – following complacency, inevitably, is the erosion of confidence in the political establishment which, once victorious, cannot prevent internal differences of policy, administration, and leadership from becoming counterproductive in exactly those same areas. Nazi Germany followed an accelerated decline following the turn of their military fortunes in 1943 after their defeats in Stalingrad and Kursk. Slower declines might be suggested in the aftermath of the American withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973 and the similar draw-down of American troops in Iraq in 2011.

Implosion – there is only so far a society can go when it comes to post-conflict stresses. The result, whether it is the culmination of a civil war, the election of a charismatic and energizing leader who can easily capitalize on the emotions and fears of the electorate, the establishment of drastically different laws/social norms, or a financial crash – these elements are often the spark in a fuel-rich environment… which returns the whole process to square one: Chaos.

I love van der Vat’s explanation of Tirpiz’s concept of “risk theory”:

Germany should be strong enough on the high seas to be capable of inflicting serious damage on the worlds most powerful fleet, even in a losing battle. This strength would deter the leading naval power because its own fleet would be so reduced in such an encounter that its world maritime supremacy would be lost and the basis of its power destroyed. (pg 29)

It would seem that this pattern is evident in many contemporary and historical examples – the idea of deterrence resonates with the inevitable angle of “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War being the apex of the notion.

Perhaps this is what we are seeing today, with China, Iran, North Korea, and even Russia. Progressive antagonism – a means to push the limits almost to the point of conflict, then backing off in either probing to find where our boundaries are or – like teenagers – the hopes that any gains established once that boundary is found, can be claimed as a form of acquiescence to the demands of the powers-that-be.

We shall see… There will be more on this thread in the future.


The issue with lapses in posting is that big ideas tend to consolidate, so when I actually do find the inspiration and time to write, it might come across as trying to take a sip from a fire hose. That problem vexes you, the reader, as much as it does me. My apologies.

However, since you have made it this far, I ask you to share this – and any of my posts as freely as you would like. Circulation and feedback keep me going; the more of either, the more I am compelled to write – especially since this is a hobby which generates no income other than the ideas you give. Thanks for hanging in there for these…

3 thoughts on “Stages of Historical Power

  1. I haven’t finished this yet, only the first two paragraphs, so I may have more to add later.

    Dave’s rule about loaning people books is that I will buy somebody their own copy rather than give them mine (I assume that any book loaned ain’t coming back). I have been known to drag people to the book store and buy it for them so as not to lose mine. Of course, with Amazon now it’s easier, and with Kindle, the space my library occupies is shrinking, but still… there is something about a hardcover book full of notes and papers stuck inside it and underlinings that I just love…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sometimes, I am inspired to do nice things on the spur of the moment – this was one of those times…
      It gives me reason to revisit this idea, though… Who knows? I may be entirely incorrect in many of my conclusions – but I needed to take advantage of the time I had to write…


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