Most students of European history, especially those who focus on the nineteenth century, know the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe”. People today don’t get the impact of that moniker: then what it meant was that the “sick man” was about to assume room temperature and then the question was “how to dispose of the corpse”?
How did the Ottoman Empire, which at its height turned the Mediterranean into an Ottoman lake and controlled a vast territory from Algiers to Tabriz, end up in this state? The first answer is simple: a long term of very poor leadership, i.e., weak sultans. And of course the Ottomans had a long list of enemies, both within the Islāmic world (Persia, the Arabs) and outside (almost every European power). As the Ottoman Grand Vizier Fuad Pasha put it:
Our state is the strongest state. For you are trying to cause its collapse from the outside, and we from the inside, but still it does not collapse.
Internally the Ottoman system itself was often inhuman, but it worked, and compensated for some very weak sultans and those who hung around them, especially the harem and the Janissaries. Externally, the situation is more interesting. As the powers of Europe, especially the UK and France, surveyed the situation in the Middle East, they realised that the collapse of the Empire would create a power vacuüm into which other powers, especially the Russians, could come in and threaten their links to Asia, Australia and East Africa. The Russians were the biggest threat; not only was control of the Bosporus central to expanding their naval footprint, but also their pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox appeal in the Balkans gave them a leg up over, say, the Austrians. So these powers found themselves at times nibbling away at the Empire (Greece, Cyprus) but much of the time propping it up to keep the Russians out (thus the Crimean War). In this way the “sick man” was kept alive longer that he normally would have expected to live.
It’s common to compare the course of the United States with that of the Roman Empire, but what about the Ottoman? The key weakness of the U.S. at this point in history is weak leadership that doesn’t live in reality, something the Ottomans were well familiar with. But are we being propped up?
The answer to that is “to some extent”. Let’s consider our situation with the Chinese. Back in the last decade, when we were borrowing so much and importing the stuff they made, people would say that they’re going to “call the note” and take us over. That idea was ridiculous because a) their trading partner would hit the wall, crashing their exports and b) it would take the main reserve currency with it. Both of these would make repayment of the debt impossible. Currently the Chinese are using their new-found financial power to expand themselves throughout the world.
But there’s another thing to consider, one that is more important now than before: if they do crash the place, who’ll pick up the pieces? The world has become a more prosperous place overall; our shrinking part of the world pie is not only because we are less prosperous, but because others are more.
But our retreat, like that of the Ottomans, leaves a power vacuüm. A gradual retreat is easier to manage, not only for us but for everyone else, because it enables various global systems to transition more smoothly and makes the resolution of the power vacuüm that results much easier. Getting back to the Chinese, their digital incursions show that they are in a position to crash the place. But a gradual American retreat, I think, better suits their purpose; it makes it easier to deal with other potential competitors along the way. (One of those is, of course, Russia; the current warm relation between Moscow and Beijing is metastable, as anyone familiar with its history knows).
So we lumber on. At some point things are going to come to a head. The process is reversible, but until we boot our sybaritic and egotistical elites that reversal isn’t going to happen. Short of that we continue to be the sick man of North America, and we’d do well to take some lessons from the last one across the pond, even though we, as Fuad Pasha said about his own country, are the “strongest state”.