Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- December 29, 1995
by James Fallows

Imperial Relics

Never having been to the Balkans, I find that my best hope for keeping the participants straight is to remember their connections to three great empires of the past.

The Roman empire was, of course, overrun more than 1500 years ago by assorted Vandals and Huns. But before it fell it had started the process that made much of Europe Roman Catholic, including the Roman Catholic Croatians of the Balkans today.

The Byzantine empire lasted until 500 years ago, based in Byzantium -- which became Constantinople, and now is Istanbul. It split decisively from Roman Catholicism a thousand years ago and thereafter implanted the Eastern Orthodox religion among many Slavic groups, including today's Serbs. And the Ottoman empire, which lasted until just after World War I, was Islamic and made many Muslim converts, notably in Bosnia.

The impact of the three empires overlapped in the Balkans. Therefore, as American GIs try, in 1996, to keep peace among Catholic Croatians and Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Islamic Bosnians, they will be dealing with the consequences of battles fought and ideas expressed in 1096, and 596, and 96 AD.

The right conclusion is not that Balkan life is tangled or that there is a lot of history going around. Rather it is to be impressed, at the end of a year and near the end of a millennium, with the durability of human deeds. Many newsworthy realities of the modern day are the continuing effects of decisions made, or avoided, long before our grandparents' grandparents were born.

Many societies in Latin America, for example, are coping even now with problems of economic inequality and political instability that can be traced to aspects of Spanish and Portuguese society 500 years ago, when they began to explore and expand. The government of modern China, in its negotiations over Hong Kong's status or software piracy, is hyper-suspicious about being tricked or condescended to by Western governments. This attitude has everything to do with the success of the British, French, and other Western governments two centuries ago in tricking and humiliating a declining Chinese dynasty. The main political news in Canada, concerning the status of Quebec, is the legacy of 18th-century struggles between the French and British empires for primacy in the New World. This is not even to talk about the Middle East. Everything about today's America would be different if the economics of the 17th century British empire had not involved trade in slaves.

A sense of the drag of history could make us feel fatalistic, as if every choice we face is limited and preordained. I think it should have the opposite effect. The actions of Romans and Turks who have been dust for a dozen centuries shape our world today. Our lives and actions will, similarly, reverberate long after we are gone. Perhaps their echoes will be the empire of science and space exploration our nation has built, perhaps the worldwide spread of English, or something much better involving trans-ethnic understanding, or much worse, involving the ruin of the environment. In one way or another, our effects will last. There is a point to what we do.

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Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.