The Dust of Empire Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Karl E. Meyer’s The Dust of Empire, which is extremely readable with well-chosen anecdotes and a cast of hundreds, is something of a sequel to his Tournament of Shadows (1999), coauthored with Shareen Blair Brysac. Both works focus upon the Asian heartland, which includes the Middle Eastern countries of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as well as the Caucasus states and the Central Asian nations that became independent after the demise of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. The relevant events of the previous two centuries are related in separate chapters for each state or region. Meyer does not explicitly discuss Iraq in The Dust of Empire, but its shadow hovers in the background.

The history of the Asian heartland has been often portrayed as the history of the imperial ambitions of Russia and Great Britain in that vast region, a subject Meyer covered brilliantly inTournament of Shadows, subtitled The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. The difference between that work and The Dust of Empire is that the former was mainly a narrative of the “great game” between the two imperial powers, while the latter is more prescriptive, particularly in regard to the future of United States foreign policy in the early twenty-first century. The author draws parallels between Britain a century ago and the United States, arguing “that the moral and diplomatic dilemmas confronting Washington today differ in degree but not in kind from those that confronted Britain before World War I,” an era when the sun never set on the British Empire. During the twentieth century the sun did set, and Britain lost its empire. In writing this cautionary tale, Meyer suggests that although history never precisely replicates itself, the past can be a prologue to the future.

Halford Mackinder, an early twentieth century geopolitician, claimed that the one who controlled the Eurasian heartland possessed the title to world domination. The chief contenders in recent centuries before the twentieth had been imperial Russia and Great Britain.

Before World War I (1914-1918), American involvement in the Middle East and the Asian heartland was minimal, with the United States largely isolated from Eurasia by the two great oceans. The Western Hemisphere was its proper sphere of influence, exemplified by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and Secretary of State Richard Olney’s claim in the 1890’s that the United States “was practically sovereign on this continent” (both North and South America). In addition, American policymakers believed that control of the sea, not the occupation of land masses, was the key to international security, a concept propagated by Alfred Thayer Mahan’s influential work The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), which was later supplemented by the belief that air power would also make land empires and large armies obsolete.

As Meyer convincingly notes, two developments brought into question traditional United States isolationism with its focus upon the Western Hemisphere, resulting in greater United States involvement in the heartland of Asia. Those two factors were oil and Islamic fundamentalism. By the late nineteenth century, oil had become an increasingly necessary resource. Between 1885 and 1915, half the world’s oil was shipped from the port city of Baku on the Caspian Sea, governed by imperial Russia. In seeking their own oil resources, the British increased their involvement in Persia, a state threatened throughout the nineteenth century by the conflicting ambitions of Russia and Great Britain. In 1901 Britain’s William Knox D’Arcy obtained a concession from the weak Persian government to search for oil, a goal achieved in 1908. In 1914, the British government, with the urging of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, purchased 51 percent of D’Arcy’s Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which eventually became British Petroleum. Throughout the twentieth century, the Middle East was the primary focus for oil production, but by the early twenty-first century the United States government and international oil corporations had also allied their ambitions and needs to the governments of several of the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia which had become independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


(The entire section is 1785 words.)