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Empires on the Rise: What Does It Mean?

by Darris McNeely Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bible is the most important and most reliable source to study if you want to understand today’s world scene. In fact, it’s the most accurate road map to understanding the geopolitics of history and current events. Today nations are realigning and events are racing faster than geopolitical experts can discern. The reason so many fail to properly analyze today’s world is that they reject the Bible as a lens to understanding it.

This is shaping up to be a defining year for world affairs. Some major powers are making moves to ascend to greater strength while others are stumbling. We are in a moment like that described in the biblical book of Habakkuk, where God told the prophet: “Look among the nations and watch—be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (Habakkuk 1:5 ).

The news today does not consider what God says through the Bible. He is moving among the nations, and He controls developments to fit His purpose and plans.

The world is moving through what historians call an “axial period” when old orders fade and new ones take their place. The way we can understand what is occurring in our world is through a firm understanding of God’s view of history and His ability to guide the history of nations.

One way to look at the present world order is through the lens of empire—both old and new. We are 100 years from the end of World War I. The end of “the Great War” saw the collapse of the Russian, German, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The cost of the war and the toll of death crippled the British Empire and put it on a path toward slow decline over the next several decades.

Ironically, the war saw the United States assume a role in the world that only grew throughout the remainder of the 20th century until by 1991 it was the sole world superpower.  Today we see powers rising in the areas of these old empires and in Asia. If we are to properly discern our times with a right worldview, we have to adopt a biblical worldview. Only then will we begin to make sense of what we are seeing around us.

Let’s get an overview of what is happening now.

China’s competition with the West

Only the older generation remembers the time when “made in China” was a less-than-ringing endorsement of quality in manufactured goods. It’s different now. China makes quality goods and produces much of what is consumed in America and other parts of the world. China’s manufacturing base has fueled its growth into one of the leading nations in terms of gross national product and ranking in the world economy. China is the world’s manufacturing hub and one of the fastest-growing economies at near 7 percent a year.

It used to be said that when America sneezes, the world gets a cold. Now that could be said of China. The capitalist-style growth in China, though standing in contrast to its socialist-communist form of government, is recognized as vital. Keeping unemployment at manageable levels is critical to China’s social stability. Its large population requires continued levels of growth to maintain employment and incomes at satisfactory levels. The communist government’s continued grip on China depends on that.

China’s economic expansion has allowed it to build a formidable military, the most significant part being a navy that allows it to project power beyond its shores and rival America’s long-standing dominance in Asia. The Chinese want to see American power recede from Asia and to replace it with their naval forces. This will allow China to control the major sea lanes of commerce and wield considerable influence—if not outright control—over other powers like Japan or Australia.

China’s ambitions have been understood for a long time. It’s a rising power seeking to dominate not only Asia but other parts of the world. Because China holds a great deal of America’s debt, it poses a rising risk of being able to hinder American power. America’s position as a massive debtor nation is its Achilles heel that one day could overturn its longstanding dominance in world affairs.

China wishes to be the leading power not only in Asia, but on the world stage—and the one power standing in its way is America.

In a recent conference of China’s Communist Party, President Xi Jinping consolidated his power and by all appearances came out in total control of the country. Xi desires to lead China into a new era seeking to shape the global world. No one appears with him in any role to hint at a successor. For the foreseeable future Xi will be at the helm of China’s march toward empire.

China’s influence over North Korea could possibly play a factor in its relations with the West and especially the United States. North Korea is a nuclear power and poses a threat to not only America but the Asian region, including China. It must not be forgotten that while South Korea and Japan may be proposed targets of any strike by North Korea, China is also right next door, sharing a border with it.

North Korea’s leadership is unknown and erratic—the small country having perhaps several dozen nuclear weapons. Everyone in the region, including China, is a potential target. The exact relationship between China and North Korea is not clear. Some factor in this could inhibit China’s expansionist plans.

For the short term, China is a growing power with obvious presence on the world scene. Rising in the east and north of the pivotal prophetic area of Jerusalem, China should be understood as part of the power bloc described in Daniel 11:44 that stirs up preemptive action by another power occupying key Middle East nations.

Revelation 9:13-17 and 16:12 describe large armies from the east, beyond the Euphrates River, that move toward Jerusalem in the time of world crisis at the close of this age. China’s growing military and naval power could be positioning it to play a role in this end-time movement of nations. Whatever China’s present leadership plots will ultimately be overridden by other events described in Bible prophecy.

Russia’s return to power

Now let’s consider Russia. A recent issue of The Economist featured a cover story on President Vladimir Putin, labeling him a “Russian Tsar.” The article goes on to describe how President Putin has adopted much of the imagery, mystique and style of Russia’s tsars or czars—imperial monarchs of the pre-communist past—to return Russia to a measure of order and respectability. Since coming to power in 1999, Putin has held to a goal of restoring Russia’s influence as a major power.

He invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimea. He ruthlessly put down internal Chechen terrorists. More recently he has propped up the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad with Russian troops and aircraft. This Russian incursion into the Middle East conflict has added to the instability of the region by enabling growth of Iranian influence in the failed Syrian state.

Russia’s presence on the edge of Europe is a geopolitical factor of historic consequence. Russia has looked at the West through a dual lens of fear and envy—envy as Western Europe developed at a technological level causing it to rocket past Russia in wealth and standard of living. From the days of the westernizing czar Peter the Great, Russia has recognized the need to adopt the technological and scientific advances of Europe to play a proper role among the nations. Despite its sizable land and population, Russia historically lagged behind its European neighbors.

Fear of invasion from outsiders has plagued Russia as well. Napoleon tried to conquer Russia and failed. During World War II, Germany broke a treaty and invaded, seeking the rich lands of the south for food production and oil. Again the sheer size of the land and populace coupled with its harsh winter repelled the invader. But the fear of invasion propels Russia in seeking to keep NATO off balance and the presence of buffer zones like Ukraine under its influence.

Vladimir Putin seeks to build and maintain a Russia capable of playing a role in both Asia and Europe commensurate with its size and resources. Realistically Russia is not about to return to the size and scope of the old Soviet Union. That empire collapsed in 1991 due to multiple system failures.

But Putin is playing a great game among the nations by a combination of internal policies that keep him at the top of the political heap. Russia’s vast supplies of natural gas and oil are leveraged to keep relations with nations like Germany balanced in its favor. Germany and other Western European nations rely heavily on open pipelines supplying plenty of natural gas to their homes and industries.

Too much attention has been directed to the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election. Russian cyberattack on key U.S. institutions is a real threat, but to date no evidence has been produced to demonstrate Russian involvement in any form that influenced the outcome of that election. While the stories make for intriguing headlines, in the long view of geopolitics they are not what will influence the course of a changing world order.

President Putin is playing a long game, intending to rebuild a Russian empire like the czars. He has outlasted two American presidents and likely will outlast a third. His ambitions will clash with other regional powers, especially to the south in the Middle East.

Turkey’s desire for a new Ottoman Empire

Let’s next consider the region of the old Ottoman Empire. Centered in Turkey, this power at its height ruled over a large portion of the modern Middle East and southeastern Europe. With its breakup after World War I came the formation of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

The Ottoman Empire, an Islamic caliphate that ruled over a multiethnic grouping of people for more than 400 years, is long vanished. But its remains in the Middle East are the scene for much of the conflict dominating today’s headlines.

Turkey, the most economically and technologically advanced Muslim nation of the region, has been a secular state for most of the last 100 years. However, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics since 2003, Turkey is becoming more Islamic and more anti-Western by the day. He appears determined to recapture the power and prestige of the Ottoman Empire. With Turkey being a member of NATO, these developments have grave implications for the future of the alliance.

Meanwhile, American troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are a legacy of the divisions of and decisions made for the former Ottoman realms. History teaches terrible lessons that can last for generations.

In the last century Great Britain and the United States tried to impose their standards of government, individual liberty and nationhood on a region whose people are formed by religion and ethnic customs that inherently resist such modern notions. At enormous financial and human cost, both learned the hard way the difficulty of such a challenge.

Iran seeks to resurrect Persia’s glory

In addition to Turkey, another power, Iran, seeks to extend its influence over much of the region. The Islamic Republic has been able to project its disruptive influence in an arc stretching from Afghanistan westward to the Mediterranean Sea and southward into Lebanon and the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The Shia Muslim government in Iraq needs Iran’s support to hold power against the Sunni Muslims.

President Assad’s failed Syrian state is propped up with Iranian backing. In Lebanon the terrorist group Hezbollah acts as Iran’s proxy to wage a war of attrition against the state of Israel. In Yemen, Houthi rebels supported by Iran exert pressure on Saudi Arabia, the powerful Sunni state that counters Iranian ambitions.

Analysts with a sense of the sweep of history recognize this move to be a page out of ancient history. Not since the days of the Persian Empire of the sixth century B.C. has such a power move been made. Iran has dreams of reborn Persian glory. When Iran crosses the nuclear threshold a new dimension of tension and terror will come to the region, if not the entire world.

A nuclear-armed Islamic state is unknown territory for American and European leaders. This is why the Iranian nuclear deal reached during the Obama administration is so controversial. With a more realistic view and distrust of Iranian intentions, the Trump administration has threatened to withdraw from the treaty. 

Iran’s aggressive actions have already overturned the Middle East equation. Its threat to Saudi Arabia has even pushed that country into a temporary alignment of national security concerns with Israel. Both have common interest in countering Iran’s ambitions. The new Saudi leadership has also begun to overhaul its internal government structures to aid the country in dealing with current regional realities.

Once again the map of the Middle East is being redrawn. One hundred years after diplomats in Europe redrew the boundaries of the collapsed Ottoman Empire—frankly done without fully understanding the historical and cultural realities of the area and peoples here—we see that events are again forcing new alignments.

The question is whether today’s statesmen have any better grasp of the dynamics to be able to manage or influence any better outcome than that of their predecessors. Events in the Middle East have been changing since before the days of the Babylonian Empire of the prophet Daniel’s time. Babylon fell to the Persians. Persia was overcome by Alexander the Great. The partitioned Greek empire that lasted for 300 years after his death was put under the iron fist of the Roman Empire, a European-based power prophesied to play a role in the region into the present day and beyond.

The last 2,000 years have seen a push-and-shove match between powers that arose—such as Islam and the reaction of European-based political and religious powers. In the seventh century A.D. the armies of Islam pushed out of the region, across North Africa and into Europe, disrupting an order of history laid down from ancient times.

To understand what this order is, we must first look at one more region, that of Europe, and take a brief examination of another rising empire. We can then return to the overview that God gives us in the Bible. Therein are the keys to understanding today’s shifting world powers.

Europe’s dream of unity

We have mentioned Europe several times. Today Europe is going through several challenges that are impacting its confidence and its integrity. In 2015 the massive influx of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa dramatically changed the way the different nations look at one another.

Germany let in more than a million refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and North Africa. The action split the nation, weakening the governing authority of Angela Merkel. Hungary and Slovakia shut their borders to immigration. Austria stopped taking in new immigrants and last year elected a nationalist prime minister who has pledged to put Austria’s interests first.

It is the justice of history that a hundred years after colonial Europe forced a new map on the Middle East, drawing lines to create new nations without understanding the underlying cultural and ethnic tensions, the splintering of that map has spilled into today’s Europe—causing fragmentation, resistance and self-doubt. The sad legacy of this chapter is that it seems no one has a better understanding or strategy for the Middle East today than back in 1918.

Brexit’s impact on European unification

Great Britain’s decision to pull out of the EU triggered another crisis to test the ability of Europe to go forward. Before the Brexit vote, no nation in the union had elected to withdraw. This has thrust the continent into new territory.

One leader, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, has called for a closer union—a more integrated European Union, with France and Germany taking the lead to create a power to address global issues such as climate change, China’s surge to power and a potentially nuclear Iran. And this is despite his bombshell admission in January that if the French people were allowed a referendum on EU membership, they would choose to leave just as Britain did!

Macron sees Europe as gradually taking over more defense responsibilities because of diminishing U.S. influence. Speaking last year he said, “Only Europe can give us some capacity for action in today’s world.”

Yet it should be remembered that what Europe is today it will not be tomorrow. The EU lurches from one crisis to the next without effective solutions. A long-simmering economic crisis still pits the southern nations against the wealthier northern nations. Yet the EU continues to seek to eliminate borders and promote a grand image of an ever-closer superstate with all members bound together by economic policies.

A fundamental purpose for the EU since its early beginning as an industrial union between a few states, and later with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, was to bind together France and Germany so they would never go to war against each other again. But Europe never has nor ever will be just a group of nations bound together by a shared economic and political philosophy. Today’s EU governance lacks the critical element that has always bound the disparate peoples of Europe together into any lasting empire—be it the German, the Habsburg or the older Holy Roman Empire. 

It’s about religion

Not until Europe rediscovers and embraces its religious roots will there be the next step toward the kind of “empire” that realizes all the goals set by its leaders. While Christianity is intricately bound to the history of Europe, the modern, and in many cases secular, creators of the EU deliberately avoided reference to God, religion or Christianity. Pope John Paul II famously objected to the omission of Christianity from early drafts of what would after his death become the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, the “European Constitution” unifying member states.

Historians set the founding of Europe during the reign of the Frankish king Charlemagne. With his coronation by the pope in Rome on Christmas day 800 A.D., the authority and prestige of the Roman Empire was restored. Charlemagne was the defender of Christendom and king of a larger portion of Europe than any ruler since the Roman emperors. He combined in his office the power of church and state. When later kings created the Holy Roman Empire, it was understood they built on what had begun with Charlemagne.

In Europe the combined roles of church and state worked for more than a millennium to extend a rule of culture, politics and religion to every part of the world. Beginning with the age of maritime expansion from Portugal in the late 15th century, Europe burst upon the world and put in place a mercantile system that funneled wealth back to the continent in one great stream of commerce. Raw materials from the far reaches of Africa, the Americas and Asia were carried to Europe. Manufactured goods were exported to colonies created by France, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

A vast economic web was created that for more than 500 years served to establish, enable and sustain the powerful families and dynasties of Europe. When you visit the capitals of Europe today and see the castles, palaces and cathedrals of the great cities, you are looking at the tangible evidence of that great period when the wealth of the world flowed into Europe.

A new empire to rise

Of all the powers we have surveyed in this article, the one to watch and seek to discern the most is the European Union. The EU is going through an existential crisis that will shake it to its core. It has deep internal problems and contradictions while at the same time having a size, power and voice in world affairs that cannot be dismissed.

The Europe we see today, sometimes derided as the “old world” and a failed idea, will not disappear. It will transform itself, likely through a significant crisis unlike any seen to date, and become a major power that will astound the world.

It will take the jolt of such a moment to galvanize Europe’s leaders into creating a larger power with a mandate to maintain order within its boundaries and beyond. This power will have not only a political dimension but also a religious one. It is coming, and you need to understand why.

Understanding rooted in Bible prophecy

How do we know this? Why can we write about the present world scene—with the powers of China, Russia, the Middle East and Europe—with understanding that is not drawn from a history text or a contemporary news source? The reason is our worldview is based on the Bible—specifically the prophetic portions that outline history from the time of the biblical prophets until our present age.

There are three key factors in this worldview.

First, when you accept the basic principle that God has set the boundaries of the nations and their appointed times of power and influence in the world (Acts 17:26 ), you then have the starting point.

Second, when you couple that to God’s ability to foretell through His prophets key events, times and seasons (Isaiah 44:6-7 ), you then have the prophetic element of the Bible.

Third, you have a broad prophetic outline found in the book of Daniel that foretells key historical truths into our day and the time of Christ’s return.

Daniel talks of empires past and present. Specifically he speaks of the clash between empires based in Europe and the Middle East. The broad outline of these powers can be found in Daniel’s writings and the book of Revelation. At the time of the end a power from the Middle East will rise against a European-centered grouping of nations and provoke a rush of armies into the Middle East. Jerusalem will be the terminus for these clashes, and in between these points will occur a movement of arms and powers unlike any in history.

The fear of God is the beginning of understanding

This is why in the pages of Beyond Today we pay close attention to what happens in Europe and the Middle East.

This article has been a brief overview of the powers on the rise in today’s world, yet from a biblical point of view. The only way you can understand what will develop out of the current order is to understand what Scripture says about history and prophecy.

The news today, even the best and most thorough outlets you may read, do not take into consideration what God says through the Bible. Even outlets that have the Bible in one hand and a news source in another in most cases lack sufficient understanding and discernment of Scripture.

Beyond Today ’s analysis gets closer to truth because we not only believe the Bible’s authority, but we let that authority shape and guide our lives. So should you. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (Psalms 111:10 ).

The world is rapidly changing. God is moving among the nations. He controls developments to fit His purpose and plans. Stay tuned to Beyond Today and stay close to God. He will give you understanding of the real meaning of the events that matter!

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