The history of international politics and warfare can be divided into four primary eras. Each distinct era represents changing ways in which power and influence functioned and were best utilized by the nations in these periods. Recognizing these unique eras gives us insight into how nations have risen and fallen throughout history as well as what it is that brings about strong nation states and international entities in our own modern day and age. These historical eras are not defined by dates but rather by the rising and falling of different systems of thought and dominance among the nations. What worked in one era would not be the key emphasis in the next even though certain aspects might be carried over and assimilated into the trends and factors of the new era or age of history.
Age of Conquest
The age of conquest extended from the times of the ancient Persian empires and peaked with the Spanish conquistadors. This age was synonymous with the sacking of cities, the destruction of empires and the ravaging of conquered lands and peoples. The conquistadors themselves established their power throughout much of the western hemisphere following Columbus’s voyages at the end of the 15th Century. At its peak, no other nation or people group could touch the accumulated power of Spain.
Central to the ideas that drove the age of conquest was a complete disregard to any long term impact, positively or negatively, upon the conquered lands and people. The age of conquest was not about establishing settlements or expanding governing systems. It was about looting. Like a piece of fruit being squeezed dry in an iron grip, the conquerors sought to drain the lands and people they conquered of all resources as fast as possible. They were merciless in their transactions.
The age of conquest was also one of immense discovery as the conquerors pushed further and further into the unknown. This explorative drive was not for the benefit of learning however but once again driven by a hunt for more treasure and power. From the Mongol Horde to the Spanish Conquistadors, those nations who best adapted to the rules of this great and violent game of power during the age of conquest found themselves with the fullest treasuries, the largest armies, and the greatest security at home.
Age of Military Power
The age of military power flowed inevitably out from the age of conquest but the rules of influence and power shifted in this new era. Power and influence among the nations was no longer predicated upon an ability to merely extend force for short periods of looting and pillaging. Power and influence were built upon a capacity to extend military force for long term domination and control of other peoples and lands. The age of conquest robbed other nations of their treasures. The age of military power took the treasures but then maintained dominance over the people for long term systematic robbing and looting. It was called imperialism and colonialism. The most powerful of nations during this era were those who could deploy force most efficiently and effectively for long term economic returns.
From Africa to Asia and Latin America the nations of Europe dominated this era with century long colonization projects. Nations like Belgium were just a brutal as any conquistador through their colonies in the Congo and other locations but this brutality was one of extended domination and enslavement so that the resources of the nation and the people could flow into Dutch coffers not through one expedition alone but through annual returns which came to prop up the European nation’s budget and economy.
No nation was more effective in the age of military power than Britain whose effective use of its military and especially its naval force built up an imperial empire which at its peak saw the sun both rise and set on its dominions. Like the age of conquest, the conquered people were of little consideration in the minds of the powerful except insofar as they maintained a steady annual flow of financial prosperity to the ruling nation.
Age of Politics
The age of politics was partially a response to the imperialism of the age of military power and partially an adaptation. Much of the 20th Century was defined within the terms of the age of politics as a struggle between Communism and Democracy, but there was also Fascism, Socialism, and others. The age of politics was an era of ideas and a movement of the masses. The words and ideas of men long dead, from Karl Marx to Thomas Jefferson, took on a sacred validity as governments and leaders exercised idealistic convictions to benefit their own efforts in expanding power and influence. Power became dependent upon legitimacy among the people and the right to legitimacy was often earned but just as often forced. In prior ages men fought, killed and died because the king ordered them to do so. In the age of politics they did so out of conviction to a set of ideas.
Unlike the prior eras it was no longer conquest or profits alone that fueled a drive to warfare but a rallying around the banner of freedom, opposing tyranny, honor of the Fatherland, or freeing the working class. The nations and leaders who could best espouse their political ideologies managed to extend the reaches of their influence and power further into the world. The means for this extension remained based in military strength but the military strength was now founded upon political ideals. The age of politics was one of revolution in which men like Fidel Castro, Mohandas Gandhi, and Gamal Nasser could secure power among their followers even without a strong military.
The benefits of power also continued to be economic, but the harsh edge of the “white man’s burden” which imperialism was infamous for was no longer tolerated. Warfare was based on ideas. The best political ideas gained the greatest economic rewards.
This was the era in which American global power came of age and many of our current arguments, ideals and values are still rooted in the rules of this age. The problem is that the world has once again change and we are in a new era of history.
Age of Economics
It is economic strength that won the Cold War and economic weakness that lost the same war. The US and the Soviet Union certainly fought many proxy wars with their military but the ultimate terms of victory and defeat were defined upon economic grounds. Similarly, the strongest entities of this current era are those whose strength is based upon economic terms, not upon military strength or political ideals. In many ways the age of economics supersedes the nationalism and even the nation state organizational system of the age of politics. Alliances and unions from the European Union to the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) carry influence on par with the US, and Japan. Military strength is still important and always will be but in the age of economics it is less important how many battleships a nation can put to sea and more important how great is the nation’s GDP. GDP means power. That power can manifest as armies or as new trade agreements.
The rise of China over the last decade and a half has been defined in strictly economic terms. They have won no wars. Their political ideology is a hybrid of state controlled capitalism that would have never been allowed during the age of politics. The potential of India’s strength is consistently forecasted in economic terms not military. Pakistan and India both have nuclear weapons and yet that is no longer a measurement of power. The rise and threatening decline of the EU has not been based upon territorial grounds or military gains or losses but singularly upon economic terms.
Understanding the unfolding of history in this light gives us a certain insight advantage in understanding the past as well as the present. We understand how the Soviet’s “age of military” style in managing the USSR could not withstand the age of politics and the transition into the age of economics thus its mechanisms for collapse were built into its dysfunctional relationship with the outside world. We understand the origin of the vast lexicon of ideologically oriented rhetoric in the American political system that found its greatest victories in the age of politics as well as the ineffectiveness of this same rhetoric to confront issues and realities in the age of economics. A war hawk is no longer as threatening as a trade obstructionist and the potential of an economic collapse in the EU is more concerning to global order than Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power.
There is an order to strength and effectiveness in every age and understanding this order decodes the mysteries of why one empire falls and another rises, why one system works and then suddenly becomes impotent. The nations of the world have always operated in schemes of self interested pursuit of power but the manner by which that power is obtained, utilized and enhanced is prescribed by the rules of the age.