10 Rivalries That Shaped World History

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On Aug. 27, 1914, the Japanese navy set up a blockade of Tsingtao, a German-run port on the coast of China, after declaring war on the German state just four days earlier. The Japanese navy then waited for the British navy to arrive at Tsingtao, and the two combined forces attacked and then captured the German-held port. The Japanese went on to seize most of Germany’s overseas colonies in the Pacific and began setting up its own empire, which of course put the country on a collision course with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The German-Japanese rivalry is an odd one to think about, given that the two states were allies in World War II, but it was so short-lived that the term “rivalry” is probably the wrong term to use to describe their fight in World War I. Even today, Germany and Japan are sometimes thought of as rivals in the global economy because both countries specialize in high quality goods, and they oscillate between having the third or fourth largest economy in the world (nominal GDP) behind the United States and China, but rumors of a commercial beef between Germany and Japan today are non-existent.

You could even argue that the Japanese-German rivalry is a bit overhyped, especially given the rich treasure trove of rivalries throughout history. This week’s Top 10 list will highlight the most interesting ones. Now, everybody knows about the rivalry between Russia and Germany over the past few centuries, and everybody knows that China and Japan have been rivals since the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan began industrializing rapidly, and everyone knows about the United States versus the Soviet Union during the first several decades of the postwar world.

We also all know about the British-French rivalry during the 18th and 19th centuries, and today’s rivalry between India and Pakistan is no slouch either, with nuclear weapons and world religions both being wielded as bludgeons by the two countries. Most people are even aware of the rivalry between the Romans and their barbarian neighbors (or their Carthaginian foes across the Mediterranean). Yet these famous rivalries, for all their importance, are only part of the story of how (and why) we, as humans, got to where we are today. Here are 10 rivalries that shaped the history of the world:

10. Russia versus the Ottoman Empire (1500s-1918). No list of major, world-shaping rivalries would be complete without mentioning the rivalry between Russia and Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. Turkey today is a mere shell of its former self, as the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents and lorded over the all-important Bosphorus Strait. Hawkish politicians in Turkey today, eager to restore Turkey to its former glory, are often referred to as “neo-Ottomanists” due to their appeal to imperial nostalgia when arguing for a more aggressive foreign policy. The rivalry between these two empires was so important that RealClearHistory dedicated an entire article to the subject: “10 Most Important Russo-Turkish Wars in History.”

9. The Dutch versus the British (1650s-1790s). The Anglo-Dutch rivalry of the 17th and 18th centuries was just as important as the later Anglo-French rivalry of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Netherlands was actually the first Protestant country to establish a worldwide empire, and it was able to do so merely by tracing the footsteps of the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese empires. (It was relatively easy for the Dutch to do this, because the Netherlands was at one time a province of the Spanish empire in Europe and many Dutch people served in the overseas empire of Spain.) The British basically did what the Dutch did to the Catholic monarchies, except that the British did it to the Dutch themselves. RealClearHistory has also covered this rivalry in much more depth: “10 things you didn’t know about the Dutch Empire .”

8. The Ottomans versus the Persians (1500s-1820s). The Ottoman Empire can’t help being on this list more than once, as it was located in the middle of Eurasia and straddled some of the most important straits in the world. Persia was the Ottoman Empire’s next door neighbor to the east, and had a long history of its own. Today, these old empires have cultural cores in Turkey and Iran, two of the most important actors in the volatile Middle East. While the Ottoman Empire remained relatively stable, hierarchically, the Persians went through four dynasties during their centuries-long struggle with the Ottomans: the Safavids (1501-1736), the Afsharids (1736-1796), the Zands (1751-1794), and the Qajars (1789-1925). If you are having trouble grasping the immensity of this rivalry, just imagine Turkey and Iran fighting a war against each other today. RealClearHistory has some more Ottoman-Persian rancor: “10 Battles that Shaped the Ottoman Empire.”

7. The Arabs versus India (710-810). Beginning in the early 8th century, the Umayyad caliphate launched a series of invasions into South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The subsequent defeat of the caliphate’s armies and navies by numerous independent Indian kingdoms had ramifications for world history that can still be felt today. The Umayyad caliphate was the second (of four) major caliphate to appear after the death of Muhammad in 632, and is responsible for the largest of the Arab expansions that happened after Islam took root in Arabia. The Umayyads conquered present-day North Africa, Spain, Afghanistan, the Caucuses, and Pakistan in the name of Islam. At the height of its power, the Umayyad caliphate ruled an estimated 25-30 percent of the world’s population. After conquering an area called Sindh, which roughly correlates to present-day Pakistan, the Umayyads attempted to sweep across what is now present-day India and put all true-believing polytheists to the sword (there was always the option to convert, of course). Several Indian monarchies, acting independent of each other, repelled the Arab invaders by land and by sea, and the effort to conquer India led directly to the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate in Arabia. India, for its part, would remain predominantly Hindu, and Pakistan, which kept the Islam of its Arab conquerors, became another non-Arab Muslim powerhouse (along with Iran and Turkey).

6. India versus China (current). Forget about the “rise of China and the decline of America” narrative. It’s too neat and assumes that China will continue to rise and America will continue to fall. The real 21st century rivalry is going to be between China and India. All the trappings for a great rivalry are already here. For starters, the two countries cannot even agree on what to call the increasingly interconnected region of Asia stretching from Pakistan to the Philippines. China prefers to call the area the “Asia-Pacific” region, whereas India prefers to use “Indo-Pacific.” Even Donald Trump has figured out that this is a contentious competition. There is also a stark contrast between how the two countries govern: China is a one-party authoritarian state, while India is a multi-party democracy. Both countries have vastly different methods of pursuing foreign policy, too, with India preferring a multilateral approach and China aiming for hegemony. Then there is the fact that the two sides have several border disputes that have yet to be resolved, and India still warmly hosts an exiled community of Tibetan nationalists. This is the rivalry of the 21st century.

5. Russia versus Poland-Lithuania (1560s-1790s). Today, Poland and Lithuania are separate, independent countries that were recently under Moscow’s thumb, but in the 16th and 17th centuries the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a major power in European politics, and it would push Russia around quite a bit. Russia eventually wrestled primacy of the Baltic commercial world and the Slavic cultural world away from the commonwealth, but not before the two rivals spent a few centuries at each other’s throats. RealClearHistory has more here: “10 Battles that Shaped Russia.”

4. The Mughals versus the Persians (1600s -1739). The Mughal Empire, an Indian polity that ruled over much of the subcontinent, fought three wars against two Persian dynasties (Safavids and Afsharids) and lost all of them. Much of the fighting was done around the city of Kandahar, in what is now Afghanistan. Kandahar was for a long time an important fortress for empires and dynasties that lorded over both Persia and India. While the Mughals had their pride stung by the losses, they could at least find solace in the fact their realm was the most economically successful on the planet at the time. India and Iran have long been weary regional rivals and sometime allies, but geographic distance and terrain have made outright wars between the two civilizations rare and limited. The rivalry between Iran and India has been a cultural one rather than a military one.

3. China versus Java (1200s-1600s). Java is the most densely-populated island in the world, and has been for a long, long time. It has been the commercial, cultural, and political capital of the Pacific-Indian Ocean trade for millenia, too. Today it is part of Indonesia, the fourth most-populous country in the world and a dark horse on the contemporary international scene. China’s foreign policy, regardless of which dynasty is in power, has long been about receiving tribute from foreign states in exchange for peace, and late in the 13th century Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty sent a large fleet to Java to punish the island for refusing to pay tribute. The Chinese navy was destroyed. China and Indonesia, like Iran and India, are distant rivals that prefer to trade with each other and compete culturally rather than militarily, and the plethora of distinct cultures in southeast Asia makes this rivalry all the more important.

2. Portugal versus Kongo (1400s-1850s). Portugal’s worldwide empire, which is well-known for its rivalry with the Dutch, had an even tougher rival in Africa known as the Kongo Kingdom, which dominated present-day Angola, both Congos, and Gabon. The Kongolese elites were quick to adapt Catholicism as their religion, and competition between Portugal and Kongo was limited to religious competition. The Portuguese struggled to maintain Catholic traditions in the face of Kongolese adaptations to the Catholic faith. Later in their rivalry, the slave trade brought hostilities to a boil, and the two civilizations fought a series of wars. Kongo had signed a treaty with Portugal stipulating that slaves could only be bought from Kongo, but Portuguese traders had been bypassing Kongolese trading forts in favor of less expensive markets just outside of Kongo’s realm.The rivalry was made more complicated by the arrival of the Dutch in the 1640s. The Netherlands and the Kongolese allied with each other and crushed the colonial Portuguese presence, but the Dutch made a quick peace with the Portuguese while the Kongolese wanted to wholly eliminate them from their region of the world. Kongolese worries were proved correct, and the Portuguese ousted the Dutch from central Africa for good in 1648. Kongo and Portugal continued to vie for supremacy in the 18th century, but Kongolese succession crises hampered the African empire’s efforts at ousting Portugal from central Africa, and by the 1850s Kongo was nothing more than a vassal of the Portuguese empire.

1. Comanche versus everybody (1700-1900). The Comanche fought everybody that dared to cross them. They were hated by the Utes and the Apache and feared by the Cheyenne and Kiowa. The Comanche fought Mexico, the United States, Texas, and France. In New Mexico, and among the Sioux and the Pawnee, the Comanche were loathed. The Comanche were so powerful that they forced Texas, Mexico, and the United States to the negotiating table on numerous occasions, and Sam Houston repeatedly tried to hammer out a stable peace with them. The California Gold Rush devastated Comancheria in the 1850s, but by the 1860s and 70s the Comanche were thriving again, this time making life difficult for the likes of Kit Carson and William Tecumseh Sherman, architect of the total war strategy that devastated and demoralized the confederacy during the civil war. Both men barely escaped with their lives while trying to pacify Comancheria. In the end, a combination of heavy warfare, disease, ecological degradation (in the form of declining buffalo populations), and the growing ease of sedentary life led to the end of Comanche rivalries.



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