Great Continental Empires —
at least since Europe’s Renaissance recovery, seem to have one of two axes of expansion, which when blocked, create parallel axes of paranoia and revenge:
(1) E>W or W>E
(2) N>S [but NEVER S>N]
The former (E to W or the reverse) is by far the more durable or at least self-extensive arrangement. It seems no accident that today’s 1-1/2 superpowers (2 if, as in my view, the Russian colossus remains and will remain viable – thus the Crimea, Ukraine, and Grozny) are in nature latitudinal, or were so during their genesis, expanding over ever-thinning population densities across uniquely broad stretches of prairie or semi-desert, until, as if by some law of physics, they ran up against the Pacific just over a century ago. North to South has been almost a single-case monopoly of the French (into N. Africa), though the Persio-Mongol excursion into and over the sub-Himalayas presents another and longer-lasting case.
(3) Such underlying if never confining uni-directionality however cannot be a feature of while maritime island-expanding empires. The climb “ashore” mainlands of course, but tentatively, since they are by definition radial: they are tempted to expand in all directions. But thus inevitably lose momentum rather more quickly than their “continental” peers: viz. post-7 Years War Britain v/v Germany, France, Spain, Russia (1763 peak then gone by 1918) and of course much more dramatically the would-be Empire of the Rising Sun from the firming of sovereignty over the Ryukyus (1874) to expulsion from the mainland (1945) because it couldn’t decide with or against Russia-in-Manchuria, the French-in-Indochina, Britain-in-India, Republican China-in-Shanghai, and of course the U.S-in-the Philippines. Not even a century to gloat.
If we follow Jared Diamond’s paradigmatic Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), it is the former axis which trammels expansion, at least where it comes at the cost of technologically laggard civilizations. Expanding agglomerates ought to (and DO) flourish by exporting their ecological and bacteriological mix into territories where it is best suited to reproduce, in the process clearing out civilizations which have not condensed the optimal mix for the latitudes in question. One might speculate that (even) radiative Britain flourished on the basis of just such a homo-latitudinal pathway as well, if one pauses to take note of the fact that her truly Anglo-colonized members – the pre-1784 US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Capetown – are all more or less co-latitudinal in absolute terms, and fine herd country into the bargain: cattle and sheep bred in Britain still roam their expanses, once also pulled their plows and supplied their dairy diet.
Questing back as far as memory allows, we cannot but conceive of the European Renaissance empires as desperate responses to prior E>W expansions from the Central Asian land mass: the Turks, then the Mongols: contesting them were the Muscovites and the Habsburgs who moved against them West to East.
On the Northern Europe land mass, the EW channel is multivalent, and still in play. Russia and the German conglomerate have both hefted prolonged eastward “civilizing” drives (Russia’s against Turkic and Moslem laggards; Germany much more decisively (since the Teutonic Knights) against the racially and religiously derided Slavs, even if in the Russian case there were competing (and distracting) pushed south and southwestward into the Ukraine Crimea and Caucasus – then into the Black Sea and Dardanelles. Of course, Slavic resistance hardened and (by 1914) almost put paid to the Austro-German hegemons who had inherited this ancient, Christianizing mission, but the line of contest remained overall East vs West (both ways). Germany has similarly moved bidirectionally, first into the Slavic East, then (later) into the Atlantic perimeter: the Low Countries and of course France. For its part, French expansion after the separation from Anglo-Norman England has been Eastward, but also (like Russia) with a protracted adventure into or toward the Mediterranean. The Russian Westward impetus is still with us, if defensively, as we awake each day to see what has happened in the Ukraine/NATO cold war.
Only one major empire among post-Roman Europe’s many has tried to rule “from the south” (the Mediterranean), but in spite of its advantages (esp. Catholic ecumenical support), Habsburg Spain had after a century and a massive infusion of S. American treasure (specie) to abandon the larger part of the Habsburg Netherlands and retreat into the status of a French ally, then dependent. Even its best (condottiere) and most generously supplied general, Alexander Farnese, deemed perhaps the best general to lead Habsburg mercenaries every and anywhere, though successfully containing the Orange revolt over a 15 year (1578-1592) apn, had to settle for half a cake, abandoning Holland and Zeeland and the “Dutch” coastal states, and confining himself to (re) securing Antwerp and its Walloon neighbors. A withdrawal or softening that impacted the New World as much as the old, for it allowed the colonizing impulse to transfer “northward” to England and France’s proxy colonies on the mainland and in the Caribbean. Later on, Wellington landed in the Iberian peninsula in 1807 to hack away at Napoleon from below the Pyrenees, but even after six years of unceasing war and guerrilla reinforcement did not manage to get much past the French border Bayonne: by contrast, a single years’ fighting across the Russian steppe (first W>E, then the reverse) cost France almost all its army and brought down the Bonapartist regime.
The U.S. is perhaps the most unidirectional of all: Westward ho! was our (Elizabethan) founding cry, and was already imprinted on the colonial concessionary maps, with South Carolina the indubitable winner, granted an axis of internal settlement running straight across the continent, and into the “South Sea” (Pacific). (A fact that obviously accounts for that state’s hypersensitivity to N-S challenge). The momentum was almost too strong, and, because it was so early absorbed into electoral sloganeering, did on occasional almost derail itself, since the original “map” had forgotten to stipulate how and where slaveholders might participate. Again following Diamond’s ever-useful apercu, the eco-civilization of plantation slavery had no transferability above what would (later) become the Mason-Dixon’s 39 d 40 m (N); whereas the residual “room” for Westward extension of the sub-MD agglomerate narrowed thwn completely disappeared after the incorporation of Texas in 1847-8. Which is why post-1860 continent straddling railway extensions were (all 3 of the purpose built ones with no meander) all north of that fatal line: Union-Pacific, Northern Pacific and Great Northern). If the slave economy and culture had a future, it had to head south west, beyond the expansion corridor. Dixie could not reach or even reach TOWARD the trans-Rockies/Pacific. So it had to wither away.
Which is not to say that East-West extension could not become also dysfunctional, for “end-of-the-frontier” nervousness spurred an ill-considered “mental” E-W advance straight across that ocean to Japan, China, and the Philippine Archipelago, well beyond either trade or strategic interest or capability. (It is no accident that the Korean then the Vietnam conflict put paid to our WWII aggrandizement.
Prelude to the Mexican War: S. Carolina’s Charter Hews its way Straight over the Sierra Nevada…. (1663)
But if (pace FDR) China is to be considered the “Fourth Great Power”, surely she has been and remains troubled by the LACK of an axis or starburst of expansion clearly imprinted in the dynastic history books. Or worse: she has been the only imperial armature to be contested and overpowered along the North-South corridor – or at least so since the Tang-Uighur eruption from the West, anchored to a capital (“Pacifying the West” today, Chang’an then), since which border movement has consistently been from the Gobi or Siberian frontier southward into the rice-growing (surplus) basins of the South, where only the geo-eccentricity of the karst mountains has limited the pushdown.