The New Great Powers: Lessons for the Future from the Bronze Age

The geopolitics of the world over the centuries has gone through numerous different iterations and each epoch brings with it different geopolitical circumstances, challenges and demands. Our current epoch has seen the last generation live with a uni-polar world power state centred on the USA. Before this, in living memory, the world spent several generations becoming accustomed to a bi-polar world with the US facing off against the USSR.

This history has led many people into a set of assumptions based on these geopolitical circumstances which in turn influences our thinking when it comes to how states conduct business in our world. However, the uni-polar power of the US appears to be dissolving and by the middle of this century the geopolitical circumstances we find ourselves in will be very different and require a different set of assumptions.

If we take a longer view of world history, we can find plenty of examples from which to draw upon for new assumptions about the coming different geopolitical arrangements.

The last time the Western world found itself in a uni-polar state was during the height of the Roman Empire[1], with no challengers to its power in Europe and North Africa and the various Persian empires unable to offer any serious competition to its hegemonic power. With the technology of the day not allowing sustained communication between Rome and the polities further to the east, Rome existed almost as an island unto itself, the closest any state has perhaps been to an absolute uni-polar power.

From the fall of Rome, arguably right down until the end of the 19th century, the world would see the rise and fall of many great empires, but no uni-polar powers. A state of flux and change thus persisted. Again, like Rome, this is not a helpful example from which to draw our assumptions.

The period that looks most like the world we are heading towards is that of the late Bronze Age Near East.[2] During this period a system of several Great Powers, eyeing each other greedily, but balancing each other out, developed. Despite the occasional outbreak of violence, each power largely offset the other, thus necessitating a balanced Great Power system requiring delicate diplomacy, almost constant high-level communication, and multilateral rules and conventions to evolve. It is worth exploring a system such as this to glean what assumptions we can about how geopolitics may work in a future Great Power system.

Egypt[3], the Empire of the Hittites[4], Babylon[5], Assyria[6], Mitanni[7], Elam[8] and possibly even Mycenaean Greece[9], all stood facing off against each other, too powerful to destroy one another but none powerful enough to dominate the others. This led to an uneasy peace with each Great Power forced to treat with the others on equal terms, whilst subtly attempting to gain any advantage they could.

Each state was presided over by a Great King, a title whose mutual recognition became the mark of Great Power status, much like the possession of nuclear weapons does now. Each of the Great Kings would be in almost constant correspondence with each other, the 14th century BC letters found in Amarna, Egypt provide a great source of information on high level correspondence for the period. The Amarna letters[10] show that intermarriage and gift giving was common between the various royal dynasties. The Great Powers developed a shared diplomatic language for addressing each other, the Great Kings referring to each other as Brother and second-tier rulers were referred to as servants, a reflection of the position these sub-kings held in each Great Power’s zone of influence.

Great Power status, however, cold not be assumed and the position was clearly negotiable. One telling symbol of this status is from a Hittite King of the 13th century BC listing kings that were of equal status to him, in which he names the Kings of Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and of Ahhiyawa, possibly Mycenae (Greece). However, before the clay of the writing tablet had dried the scribe had scratched out the name of the King of Ahhiyawa, possibly showing the loss of this great power status in the eyes of the Hittites and maybe demonstrating that Ahhiyawa was a borderline Great Power.[11]

As stated above, the reason for the development of this system was the realisation that each Kingdom needed the other and to attempt to overcome a rival would likely cause the collapse of the entire system. This was not only a political and strategic reality, but also based on economics as a sophisticated trading network developed between the Great Powers. This has been evidenced through numerous examples including royal records, seemingly showing a reliance from all the other Kingdoms on gold from Egypt, and further through the discovery of a shipwreck at Uluburun[12] off the coast of Turkey from about 1316 BC. The shipwreck was carrying enough copper and tin to make ten tons of bronze, as well as ebony and ivory from sub-Saharan Africa, glass from Syria, cedar from Lebanon and weapons from Greece and the Levant.[13] The ship had likely stopped at every port along its route, and the crew was probably as mixed as the ships contents. This one example shows how interconnected the world of the late Bronze Age was, and there are many more examples to draw on. The more the Great Powers relied on the intricate trading networks which were developing, the less tempting it was to rock the system.

The political and strategic nature of this relationship and the economic wealth that was up for grabs did, however, make rivalries inevitable. An arms race developed between the powers from about 1400 BC, and the Hittites and Assyrians divided Mitanni between them from 1350 to 1320 BC[14]. The period also saw its own version of a cold war as the Hittites and Egypt vied for control and influence in the Syrian city-states. This cold war, however, did eventually turn hot, with the famous battle of Kadesh occurring in 1274 BC as a result[15].

A sophisticated system had thus developed which allowed these large states to exist together and work towards mutual benefit. Although the states competed on the margins, each looking for a small competitive advantage, and violence was common and sometimes devastating to cities and regions, large existential type wars seem to have been rare. Each state recognised that such events threatened to bring the entire system down and the potential rewards were not worth the risk.

When the system was finally brought low it was not due to the Great Powers turning on each other, but a combination of various natural and man-made factors ranging from earthquakes to climate change and migration. The causes of this Bronze Age collapse[16] are myriad and have eerie echoes for our own system, but they are beyond the scope of this piece.

As US power becomes increasingly less dominant toward the middle of the century, it seems unlikely that any other power will be able to rise to take its place. The US will not be gone or even diminished, but its strength relative to other world powers will be lessened. Even China will not be able to completely overawe competitors due to its own unique geopolitical circumstances.

As such it seems that the world will move to a situation which we have not seen since the late bronze age and has never existed on a global level. Several large and successful states, likely the US, China, the EU, Russia, India, Brazil and possibly Indonesia (although this list is speculative and certainly not exhaustive) will emerge as Great Powers each looking to gain influence over their regions and each attempting to compete with each other on a global scale. However, it looks doubtful that any will have the strength to dominate the globe in the hegemonic fashion of the US or even the UK at its height.

This being the case, for mutual benefit and protection, these new Great Powers will be forced to find a way of interacting with each other and the rest of the world. This will be necessary to avoid all out competition and the potential existential threats and mutually assured destruction which would come with it. Although in the margins of power, fierce competitions with their rivals are likely to intensify.

It is a world where each power is likely to begin to develop their own sphere of influence, centred around their core territories. Where the edges of these spheres and territories meet, there will likely be intense and extended competition conducted with all methods short of war. We are already beginning to see these types of conflicts emerge in Ukraine[17] and the South China sea[18], to name two examples.

The cyber domain will be the territory upon which much of this competition will take place, an untamed and little governed zone upon which the new Great Powers will look to compete for advantage over their rivals.

However, there will be positives to this new arrangement. An expansion of stable and successful states will see the ungoverned spaces of the world quickly swallowed up, bringing with it the stabilising affects which come with such an expansion of power. Further, an increased emphasis on international organisations will be necessary in order for the new Great Powers to be able to communicate and work together in an effective manner. In fact, our civilisation has a step up on our bronze age predecessors, with many of the multilateral organisations and practices which will be required already established.

Assuming the above state of play is where the geopolitical environment is heading, we can develop a set of assumptions the West can adopt to gain an advantage in a new multi polar world.

As an already highly developed region and having the advantage of possessing two of the possible poles already used to working together, the West finds itself in a unique and potentially advantageous position.

To press this advantage, the West needs to learn to use the multinational institutions it has been key in establishing. Recent years have seen the decline of the effectiveness of the UN, and more recently the WTO, as the West has increasingly turned its back on such organisations and revisionist powers have sort to use the structures of these institutions to their own advantage. Rather than allow this to continue, the West needs to once again come to the fore in these forums, which it was instrumental in establishing, and leverage this position to drive and shape the future global system.

The first step towards doing this would be to establish the EU as a full Member in organisations such as the UN, with a permanent seat at the table. A task which should be attainable with the assistance of both the US and the already established EU Member states with their own seats, a permanent EU position on the UN Security Council being the most obvious first step, an idea which has been increasingly floated in European circles.[19] Although this would mean the US perhaps ceding some of its own relative power to do so, the long-term gains are worth this short-term loss.

Following on from this point, the two Great Powers of the West need to begin to rely more heavily on each other as equal partners, accepting that they will have differences on certain issues, but general long-term goals are ones in which they both share an interest and a stake. This will mean the EU stepping up to take responsibility in areas it has typically relied on American power for and the US learning when to step back and allow its new equal partner to take control. Functioning as a relationship of equals rather than the alliance dominated by the US juggernaut that both parties have become accustomed to, an issue I have tackled in a previous article.[20]

As a first step, the untamed wild west of the cyber domain, should be the first task the new partnership challenges. An objective the EU has recently stepped up to, setting the standard and groundwork for further development.[21] Taking the lead in this area by creating and enforcing a secure and well governed framework withing the cyber world and using the weight of two of the leading voices in the new great power system to enforce it, the alliance will gain a significant first mover advantage in what will be the predominant domain of competition in the new age of Great Powers.

In a geopolitical environment such as this, the states of what we call the West will need to leverage every advantage they can in order to maintain their competitive edge. We are fortunate in that two of the likely leading powers of this system are already at the heart of the core Western system with a history of collaboration. Exploiting and growing this relationship to the full will allow the US and the EU to set the agenda as this Great Power system develops.

[1] Mark, Joshua J. “Roman Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 22 Mar 2018. Web. 06 May 2019.

[2] Marc Van de Mieroop, History of the Ancient Near East: Ca. 3000–323 B.C., Blackwell Publishers, 2nd edition, 2006 (first published 2003)

[3] Mark, Joshua J. “Egyptian Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 25 Sep 2017. Web. 07 May 2019.

[4] Mark, Joshua J. “The Hittites.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 01 May 2018. Web. 07 May 2019.

[5] Mark, Joshua J. “Babylon.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 07 May 2019.

[6] Mark, Joshua J. “Assyria.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 10 Apr 2018. Web. 07 May 2019.

[7] Mark, Joshua J. “Mitanni.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 07 May 2019.

[8] http://www.iranchamber.com/history/elamite/elamite.php

[9] Cartwright, Mark. “Mycenae.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 02 Sep 2009. Web. 07 May 2019.

[10] Scoville, Priscila. “Amarna Letters.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 06 Nov 2015. Web. 07 May 2019.

[11] Morris, Ian, “Why The West Rules For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future”, Profile Books, 2011 (first published 2010), Pg197

[12] Cartwright, Mark. “Uluburun Shipwreck.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 12 Sep 2017. Web. 07 May 2019.

[13] Morris, Ian, “Why The West Rules For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future”, Profile Books, 2011 (first published 2010), Pg200

[14] Mark, Joshua J. “Mitanni.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Apr 2011. Web. 07 May 2019.

[15] Mark, Joshua J. “The Battle of Kadesh & the First Peace Treaty.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 18 Jan 2012. Web. 07 May 2019.

[16] Cline, Eric H., “1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed”, Princeton University Press, Revised edition (September 22, 2015)

[17] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28969784

[18] https://thediplomat.com/2016/06/what-does-the-nine-dash-line-actually-mean/

[19] https://www.ft.com/content/84fb634a-f326-11e8-9623-d7f9881e729f

[20] https://medium.com/@lewisdambra/the-new-rome-805a871c946e

[21] https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/network-and-information-security-nis-directive

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Lewis D'Ambra

Lewis D'Ambra

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.