Some empires change outward appearance over time. For instance, the British Empire has morphed into the American Empire; the Russian Empire went from the czar to the communists to Vladimir Putin; not to be undone, the Chinese Empire also had a flirt with the communists before returning back to oligarchic rule; finally, the European Union today looks a lot like the former Holy Roman Empire.
Some Empires shrink back to their original territory. I am thinking of the former French, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese Empires. These were the losers in the struggle for imperial conquest. Each one had its day, only to be eclipsed by a rival empire: the French, Dutch, and the Spanish lost out to the British, while the Japanese were crushed by the Americans.
Perhaps, the world's greatest empire, the Roman Empire, did not disappear altogether but simply shifted its focus from military conquest to the struggle to control men's souls. Taking into consideration the expanse of the Roman Catholic Church's assets and revenues, the fear of god is as much a potent force to subjugate a population as is a Roman legion.
At the heart of each empire, regardless of the manner in which it is constituted or the means employed, is the desire to reduce people to subjects, which is to place them under the power of another, the king, plutocrats, oligarchs, or a sovereign assembly.
The means of maintaining empire consist of using military conquest or the threat thereof, ideological domination that excludes alternative ways of thinking about organizing a society and its economy, and religious zealotry. Most often, a ruling elite will make use of more than one of these methods to maintain its ironclad grip on the reins of power.
As a Canadian citizen, I live in a country that is a vestige of the British Empire. As a result, I am subject to the laws of Parliament, a most undemocratic elected assembly, that provides oligarchic rule in which its adopted laws must receive the Royal Assent from a representative of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, before they come into force.
Only in rare circumstances are people capable of escaping the clutches of those who want to expand or maintain an empire without a massive amount of bloodshed.
For instance, the wars in the Middle East followed the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the retreat of European colonialism, plunging the region into successive bloody conflicts between rival factions. The same can be said of the Balkans, whose peoples had the misfortune of being subjected to repeated imperial conquests of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires.
To make matters worse, "a drowning man will clutch a dragon." Taking advantage of a people's desire to escape the repression of imperial occupation, despots first seize power and then extract a nation's wealth for their own purposes. This was the case in Libya Iraq, Syria, and Romania.
But there are exceptions. The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) were able to escape from Soviet rule without armed conflict just before the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Similarly, Tunisia, the pearl of the Arab Spring, having been freed from French colonial rule, overthrew a despot and has become a democratic nation.
It should be noted, however, that each of these countries is rather small with regard to territory and possesses a highly homogeneous population, making it much easier to channel the desire to create an autonomous state.
Today, we are witnessing the Ukrainian struggle to create an autonomous state from a former empire. Historically, they have been the victim of successive imperial conquests. As well, in seeking independence from Putin's Russia, they must also deal with their own recent history of widespread corruption throughout their newly minted political system and the ethnic divisions that exist within the present Ukrainian borders, due to the melding of national groups into a single political entity, a throwback to the old divide and rule mentality of former empires. Moreover, given the recent austerity measures adopted by the European Union, which reflects the domination of a neoliberal ideology that rewards financial elites at the expense of the common people, alignment with a competing empire may simply mean changing one set of problems for another.
The overwhelming challenge for the Ukraine resembles the struggles for the creation of veritable democracies in other former colonies, both in the developed and developing world. The question that needs to be asked is whether it is possible to dismember existing nation states that were born out of imperial expansion into smaller democratic nations, where the principles of democracy trump the politics of nationalism.
This is not an easy task since those who maintain empire, for the most part, control the media and the use of state-sanctioned coercion. It is extremely difficult to mobilize a population to confront the oppression from within; it is even more so to move toward a political system that is based upon the fundamental equality of its citizens and to have this equality reflected in the political process.
But this is the challenge.
Previously, we could think that it was just a matter of time, quite often a very long time, before an empire collapsed. Today, we can no longer afford to wait such long time because the economic exploitation of the planet brought upon by ever-improving technological advances threatens the planet's ecosystem. In the face of catastrophic climate change, there will be no place to take refuge. All humans, the powerful and the powerless, will have to confront the possibility of a massive die off.
Importantly, only smaller political entities that provide government of, by, and for the people are up to the challenge of making the necessary changes to effectively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
Empires by their very nature are geared for continual economic expansion because it is only through expansion that those who rule can attempt to satisfy their need to ostentatiously display their wealth. In reality, this need is unsatiable, and those who have their hands on the hands of the steering wheel give no second thought at the possibilty that they are driving us off the cliff. If anything, they are pressing even harder upon the gas pedal.
Consequently, our shared future on the planet will either go in one of two directions: the breakup of the existing empires established in the twentieth century into smaller democratic nations, or the planet-wide devestation of the planet's ecosystem.
No wonder more and more films like Interstellar, depicting humans fleeing earth in search of other habitable planets, are making their way to the cinemas worldwide. The theme has become part of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century.