Faced with imperium’s passage from Babylonia to Persia, Isaiah (the second) gloated at the former’s demise: “Get down, sit in the dust... sit dethroned on the ground... sit silent, retire into darkness... never more shall they call you Mistress of Kingdoms!” (Isaiah 47:1-5)
It was in line with the Bible’s general treatment of superpowers as subjects in God’s kingdom, ones whose every misstep is registered and will in due course be punished with ringing defeat, much the way God would reward a just emperor, “treading down nations before him” and granting him “treasures concealed in the dark,” as the same Isaiah said of Persia’s Cyrus (45:1-2).
God’s role in the rise and fall of empires is a matter of faith, but empires’ balancing of power and justice is a matter of fact that raises a tough question: are evil empires doomed to fall, and are just empires destined to last?
The question’s relevance emerged this week in full force as China and Russia shunned the gathering of world leaders in Glasgow to seek ways to combat global warming and climate change. Are Beijing and Moscow walking down Babylon’s path? Are we supposed to do anything about that, and if so what?
THE MOST evil regimes really did not last. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan lasted less than two decades, as did also Pol Pot’s genocidal rule in Cambodia. The Soviet Union, with its purges, gulags, mass deportations and religious persecution, lasted hardly 70 years.
Spain’s genocides in America, and its expulsion of its Jews and Muslims, were less than 100 years old when its armada was sunk en route to England, a blow from which imperial Spain never recovered.
Conversely, the empire of political tolerance that Spain’s British enemy established and the US succeeded thrives to this day. Similarly, the culturally tolerant Ottoman Empire lasted four centuries, and the religiously pluralistic Roman Empire lasted more than twice that length.
Likewise, the ethnically tolerant Persia lasted more than two centuries after restoring the Jews to their land, whereas Babylonia fell less than 50 years after exiling Judah’s Jews. Assyria, which invented ethnic cleansing, fell less than a century after exiling nations – including Israel – across the Near East.
Even so, such poetic justice, with all due respect to the biblical prophets who insisted on its existence, has been flawed at best.
The just empires were such only relatively, offering tolerance to some, but much intolerance to others. Worse, the evil empires may have fallen sooner than others, but that was no consolation for the millions they killed.
Moreover, the empires that chose tolerance thought less of morality and more of stability, less of responsibility, more of gain. The quest for imperial responsibility is a modern Western concept, and has often been a tragedy of paternalism and naïveté.
“Take up the White Man’s burden,” urged Rudyard Kipling of the American nation as it stormed the Philippines, “Send forth the best ye breed / Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need / To wait in heavy harness / On fluttered folk and wild / Your new-caught, sullen peoples / Half devil and half child.”
As seen in 1899, imperial responsibility was a matter of choice. It all changed in 1945, when Empire suddenly assumed the ability to destroy the world.
Horrified by the thought that the atomic bomb would be dropped on humans, some of the scientists who invented it told US president Harry Truman that such an attack would compromise America’s “moral responsibilities.”
It took the Bomb’s flattening of two cities for the concept of imperial responsibility to mature. Ultimately, the idea of imperial responsibility produced American-Soviet arms-limitation deals which reflected the imperial rivals’ realization that they bore joint responsibility for the planet’s survival.
Now this inter-imperial understanding is dead.
THE THREATS of global warming can no longer be ignored.
With average global temperatures rising last decade by 1.09°C according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and with meteorological disruptions piling while wildfires rage from California to Australia through Siberia, it is clear that industry’s emissions are risking the future of the planet.
China’s industry is the world’s leading polluter, with 28% of global carbon emissions, and Russia is the fourth (after the US and India) with 5%. The two do not formally deny the problem. China claims it is planning to retreat from its coal production beginning 2026, and Russia says it will become carbon neutral by 2060.
However, diplomats doubt the sincerity of these vows, noting that China is building 60 new coal-fueled power stations, while post-communist Russia has made fossil-fuel exports its major source of income.
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping used the pandemic to excuse their absence from the Glasgow Conference. Few believe this. More likely, Russia and China see the international effort to reduce carbon emissions as a Western plot against their economies.
It follows, that the free world must change its paradigm and shift the war on climate change to a small forum in which Beijing and Moscow will not feel isolated. Such a forum would include six members, which are collectively responsible for some three-quarters of the greenhouse effect: China, America, Russia, the European Union, India and Brazil.
If these six will collectively carve a path, the rest will follow. Most crucially, once in such an intimate forum Xi and Putin might understand what Leonid Brezhnev understood when he faced Richard Nixon: that what they were dealing with was not their empires’ longevity, but the planet’s survival.
Maybe then Xi and Putin will understand that if they don’t think universally and historically, they will lead their empires and everyone else’s to the aftermath of Isaiah’s Babylon: dethroned, silent, retired into darkness and sitting in the dust.
The author’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.