The following is an interview with Rein Taagepera, professor emeritus of the University of Tartu, in Estonia, and the University of California, Irvine.
MOTYL: Professor Taagepera, you were the first social scientist to have studied the rise and fall of empires in a rigorous social-scientific manner. So let’s start with a big-picture question. Why do empires decay?
TAAGEPERA: Empires rarely stand still. They initially outrun their internal flaws through external expansion. Once they stop growing, these flaws accumulate. Expansion is self-reinforcing, and so is decay. To change course, one must give up on past glory and start anew.
MOTYL: How do empires react to decay?
TAAGEPERA: It is psychologically easier to give up on overseas holdings than on territorially contiguous ones, however disparate these may be ethnically. While losing vigor, Poland-Lithuania and Austria-Hungary largely maintained their territory, until their final collapse. In contrast, the Ottoman Empire began to lose ground slowly already in the 1700s.