How to Run a Successful Empire

Running a successful empire is difficult. Some impressive empires including those of the Mongols and Napoleon fell almost instantly.

Conversely, some rickety empires including the British and the Ottomans stuck around for centuries. Hence, it is hard to tell how long modern empires such as the People’s Republic of China, the European Union, the United States of America, and the Republic of India will last.

Importantly, history offers some interesting lessons on how to run a successful empire. Intelligent leaders can learn these lessons by studying some of history’s successful empires.

Tips for Running a Successful Empire include:

1. Make few demands on the people in the home country

One reason the Roman Republic collapsed was the heavy burden it placed on Roman citizens. In particular, Roman men of the First Century BC were subject to continuous military service that made normal lives impossible. That fueled civil unrest that brought the Republic down.

In contrast, the Roman Empire which relied on small professional armies often recruited from outside the empire lasted for centuries. Unlike the Republic, the empire put few demands on its citizens at home.

Similarly, the British Empire which had no conscription before World War I, lasted for centuries. Instead, the British relied on a volunteer army, foreign mercenaries, and impressment. Impressment is the select conscription of individuals with specific skills. For example, the Royal Navy impressed professional sailors during the Napoleonic Wars.

Yet the Napoleonic and German empires that relied on conscription to build mass armies collapsed after a few decades.  Similarly, the US war effort in Vietnam which relied on the draft ended in under 10 years. The US war in Afghanistan, which relies on the volunteer military will be 20 years old in 2021.

2. Govern through proxies and puppets

One reason why the Ottoman Empire lasted for over 600 years, roughly 1400-1920, was that the Sultans did not try to rule much of the empire directly.

Instead, the Sultans relied on puppets and allies such as the Mamelukes and the Khedive Muhammad Ali in Egypt to rule much of their empire. The puppets were cheaper than ruling directly and they served as buffers between the Ottomans and enemies such as Napoleon.

In today’s world, the United States uses a similar strategy. Instead of colonizing other nations, the United States finances and supports local leaders. One advantage to this is that the US rarely needs to use military force to enforce its rule. The US dominates South America with almost no military presence on that continent.

In contrast, the Soviet Union which relied on direct military conquest and occupation collapsed almost overnight between 1989 and 1991. Notably, the direct US military rule in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a disaster.

Historically, the British dominated India by supporting many local leaders, mostly hereditary princes. Keeping India divided and poor, kept it in the empire.

However, in time the Indian people began to view the princes as corrupt frauds which hastened the Empire’s end in 1947. The princes had no popular support when the Indian Republic swept them away after independence.

3. Religion is one of the Strongest Binding Forces

Empires based on religion often last the longest. For example, the Sunni Muslim Ottoman Empire stood for over 500 years.

One clever Ottoman move was for the Sultan to assume the role of Caliph, or head of Sunni Islam. Hence, the Sultan was both Emperor and Pope. Sunnis who rebelled against the Empire became heretics as well as revolutionaries.

Similarly, the Byzantine Empire endured in one form or another for nearly 1,000 years because they based it on the Orthodox Christian Faith. Interestingly, the Russian Empire which endured for 400 years roughly 1500-1917) was also based on the Orthodox faith. In addition, the Spanish Empire in the New World which rested on Roman Catholicism lasted for 300 years (1500-1820).

To succeed a religious empire needs to crush rival faiths and destroy or subvert any rival religious establishment. For instance, the Ottoman Sultans appointed the Patriarch or head of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. Hence, the religious leader of most Orthodox Christians was an Ottoman puppet. That action made the Orthodox faith irrelevant and unattractive to many people.

Similarly, many ordinary people in Latin America and even Spain itself came to see the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy or an oppressor. This partially explains the shooting of Catholic priests by revolutionary troops in the Spanish Civil War and the Mexican Revolution.

4. Pick your proxies carefully

The US war in Vietnam failed because of the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government. American officials’ and officers’ failure to see the obvious problems with the South Vietnamese leaders doomed their efforts.

The US has repeated those mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq where Americans are standing by incompetent leaders to the bitter end. Conversely, competent US allies such as General Pinochet, who was corrupt and bloodthirsty, in Chile often succeeded where American military forces failed.

Finding competent allies and proxies can be tough but empires that master the skill can last a long time. Notably, the British Empire in India lasted for almost 200 years because of the Raj’s careful manipulation of local leaders.

5. Learn how to divide and conquer

The British dominated Europe for over 200 years (1700-1900) by carefully pitting Continental powers against each other.

Similarly, the relatively weak Byzantine Empire survived for over 500 years by pitting different powers against each other. For example, Slavs vs. Bulgars and Arabs vs. Turks.

Even the Crusades as a Byzantine effort to pit aggressive European Christian freebooters against their old enemies the Turks. That effort backfired when the Crusaders pillaged Constantinople and dismembered the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade.

6. Know when to cut your losses and run

One reason the British Empire survived so long is that the British pulled out fast after failures.

Notably, the British abandoned their efforts to Conquer the United States during the American Revolution. Instead, they redirected to efforts to India which they could conquer.

Moreover, during the 19th Century, the British were constantly invading and pulling of countries. Places the British invaded and pulled out of included Argentina, Ethiopia, the United States, and Mexico.

Unlike their competitors the French, the British were able to avoid getting bogged down in useless colonial wars. Instead, the British were able to concentrate their forces on the areas easiest to rule such as India.

So yes, you can succeed at empire. Although history shows Empire is a difficult business.