How’s that for a clickbait title?
It is often the case that a single ethnic group or culture is the core around which empires form, and the driving force which shapes and sustains them through the early-to-middle phases of expansion. This why so many empires derive from ethnonyms, rather than simple geographic extent. There was no Mediterranean Empire but a Roman Empire, no Mesoamerican Empire but an Aztec Empire, no East Asian Empire but a Chinese Empire, etc. Empires are formed by people dominating their neighbors in some way or another. Is this simply the nature of empire and ethnicity—to expand into the lands of other peoples and transform both self and other—or is there a “sustainable” nation-state model that can be created and maintained for as long as possible without becoming an empire?
I think this has more to do with the civic values of the state than the nation itself. A state which practices a caste system—or any kind of visible, political, and spatial social stratification—will see few reasons not to expand, as expansion is lead by the elite caste and it increases the pool of those who can be subjugated and exploited for labor. A society with equality before the law faces different problems entirely—can conquered or annexed people be integrated into the nation, either culturally or biologically? What about immigrants or existing minorities? In both scenarios the emphasis shifts from the nation that comprises the state to the new people being absorbed into it. This absorption can and must change the character of society to some degree.
The paradigmatic examples of this are, of course, the Roman Empire and the 19th century United States of America. Rome expanded in every direction it could, absorbing the other Latin peoples of Italy, the Celts, and the Iberians. They began to speak Latin and adopt Roman culture and civilization. However, although they were conquered, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and other distant and well-established groups could not be absorbed. Educated Romans began to speak Greek, and many Middle Eastern and North African customs and religious practices found their way into Roman civilization, most famously, Christianity and the cult of Mithras. And despite extensive cultural contact with the Germanic tribes, the Romans remained a separate amalgamate of peoples. When the Empire was partitioned, it split into a Latin West and a “Byzantine” East, which was predominately Greek but included Egypt and the Levant. The United States followed a different pattern of expansion, although it brought up the same complications. Much of the North American continent was populated by indigenous people. It was the exception and not the rule that they were treated fairly by the colonizing Europeans, as sometimes happened in the French settlements. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, the American Indian was cleared from as much valuable land as possible by Europeans and European Americans. In his absence came hordes of European colonists everywhere from Ireland to Sweden to Germany to Poland, who over time became “White Americans.” They were like Romans in the sense that they had a variety of origins, but were united under a language, culture and institutions. It could also be argued that the proliferation of varieties of Christianity among Americans somewhat resembles the varied pagan traditions of the Romans, but I digress.
Historically speaking, in the Deep South, ideas about expansion were radically different from those in the North. While both favored the expansion of America, some historians see the North as pursuing a more idealistic expansion—America as a city on a hill whose values are a light that will permeate to world—while the South wanted to physically expand American territory to spread those values. Today we perhaps see those among liberals and conservatives, respectively. But more materially, the slave-holding aristocracy wanted more land, and therefore more slave states and slave labor, to generate more wealth and to ensure the survival of the institution of slavery in the United States. Southern Senators and adventurers entertained the idea of annexing Cuba or even more of Mexico in order to establish slave plantations and extend the Deep Southern caste system. And speaking of Mexico, conquering northern Mexico brought many non-white people—or people of color as is sometimes self-designated as a means of lumping non-whites together politically—into a white-majority empire, as would the annexations of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.
Again there is that question of racially and culturally disparate elements. The colonial annexations were all islands, so their influence was limited until the age of mass immigration, but the annexation of Mexico and growth of the American empire shifted the demographics of the mainland, and established a trend of an increasing Hispanic/Latino population. We all know that the Romans never assimilated the Germans, who went on to found their own states atop the Roman ruins, and that the more homogenous Greek/Hellenic eastern half of the empire survived another millenium. The Roman state became the Roman Empire, and the thirteen Anglophone colonies became the United States of America. The ethnic core conquered and at the same time lost part of itself.
Both the United States and Rome eventually expanded their notions of enfranchisement or citizenship to include virtually everyone, something unheard of in a Classical democracy and certainly a republic of any kind pre-19th century. With the Romans, it enabled taxes to be levied on more people. And indeed in our own time, the debate over illegal immigrants/undocumented workers/dreamers—notice how every single phrase is loaded—usually takes on an economic tone. Pluralism and imperialism as state policy historically prove too great a contradiction to last. The Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Arab caliphates, the Ottomans, Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Union; all multi-ethnic states disappear while the more homogenous endure. How old is England? How about France? Spain? Denmark? Portugal? Japan? Korea? They’ve all outlasted the empires that they’ve either ruled or been surrounded by, and they are all countries which have large ethnic and cultural majorities. The United States may one day break along cultural and/or ethnic lines, given the population distribution. No one should assume that this will last forever.
White Americans are projected to lose majority status some time in the 2040s. Obama subaltern Joe Biden jumped the gun at a White House event, happily saying that the shift would take place by 2017. One could hardly imagine a Roman emperor giving a speech like this, or indeed, a high ranking official in any country telling the majority they should be happy they’ll be a minority. There’s tolerance and then there’s… anti-tolerance?
On the other hand, some people theorize that many Hispanics and Asians will assimilate into being “white,” which would be interesting to say the least. Would there then be a divide between ethnocentric white people, white people inclusive of culturally “white” people, and people who are neither? Only time will tell in Obama’s America.
[Inspired by “The Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival“ by Sir John Glubb. I like to think I’ve added something original in focusing on the United States but if not, whatever.]