When I traveled with Michelle to Cambodia in 2016, we visited Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world. It is astounding. Ancient temples built a thousand years ago reminding us that there used to be a super power there, the Khmer Kingdom. It was a far-reaching kingdom, a superpower in Southeast Asia. But no more. Now vines grow through the buildings of Angkor Wat. They are a tourist attraction, gorgeous astounding place to visit.
Same goes for the pyramids in Egypt, which are the actual graveyard of the Pharaohs (considering that we talked about Sheol, the graveyard of the superpowers in the previous post). Now we can look at their mummies in museums. But it’s not just the Khmer Kingdom or the ancient Egyptians. Let’s take a quick, very general trip through world history, and we will find that the same end has come for superpower after superpower. How many others are in the superpower graveyard?
Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians and the Assyrians conquered most of the Ancient Near East, and then the even more powerful Babylonians conquered Assyria and Egypt. Eventually the Medes and Persians would conquer the Babylonians. Then came the Greeks, then the Romans, and eventually the Muslims in the middle east. There were other superpowers in Asia, Africa and the Americas. In Europe, for a time the Spanish and the French were quite powerful, then the British became perhaps the first global superpower. Many other European countries wanted to be global superpowers too, colonizing new lands around the globe, often in brutal ways.
Then there are the contenders or pretenders to the throne. The nations that want to be superpowers, but just don’t quite make it.
Comedian Norm MacDonald once remarked that the news tries to scare you with stories about these nations that want to be superpowers. Countries like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. MacDonald asks, “Does that news ever really scare you? Do you ever wake up in the middle of night scared, thinking ‘Ahh, that country across the ocean…I wonder if they’ll get me?’ Probably not.” Then MacDonald says, “There is one country that worries me, though. Not Iraq, not Iran, not North Korea. The only country that really worries me is the country of Germany. I don’t know if you are students of history or not, but in the early part of the previous century, Germany decided to go to war. And who did they go to war with? The world! That had never been tried before. So you figure it would take about five seconds for the world to win, but no…it was actually close. Then about thirty years pass, and Germany decides to go war again. Once again it chooses as its enemy, the world! This time, they really almost win. You’d think at that point the world would say, ‘Listen Germany, you don’t get to be a country any more on account that you keep attacking the world! What do you think you are? Mars, or something?’
While Norm MacDonald’s joke is funny, that’s not quite how it went down. In his book called The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy says that, that in both World War 1 and World War 2, there was a moment when it was obvious that Germany would lose each of those wars. Kennedy suggests it was the same moment in each war. Do you know what Kennedy is referring to?
It was when the USA decided to join the Allied powers in the fight. For all intents and purposes, when the USA entered the war, it was over. How do we know that? Economics. Kennedy looks at the rise and fall of great powers from 1500 to 1980, and he traces the same pattern. Economics win wars. When the USA joined World War 1 and World War 2, we brought an unparalleled economic engine to the war effort. It could be argued that German and Japanese technology and military genius were actually superior to ours. It doesn’t matter though. Economies win the war. They always win. Sure Hitler and Nazi Germany, along with their Axis partners put up a good fight, but they were no match for a massive economic engine that could fight wars on multiple fronts. We could just keep pumping people and equipment and munitions into those battles, and little by little we could wear them down. And we did. It was just a matter of time. This is the story of the rise and fall of the great powers.
Often we talk about these world wars as battles of good miraculously winning over evil. Kennedy disagrees. Does this mean that God has no say in the matter? Are economics more powerful than God? Are we to understand Ezekiel 29-32 only as prophetic oracles of Babylon’s economic ascendancy and Egypt’s economic inferiority and loss?
In the next post we’ll talk about God’s hand in the rise and fall of the great powers.