Recently there’s been a lot of noise about the decline of the US as a world superpower. We aren’t really #1 in anything anymore, except for the average cost of healthcare. And while I may not be a political science major, and I tend to look on the bright side of life instead of obsessing about such large-scale issues, I would like to say: yeah, our membership in the Big Important Countries Club might be coming to an end.
For those people who think that such a dramatic decline would be impossible: may I direct your attention to a tiny country in Europe called Austria.
In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame or flare of countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK. When I told people about my study abroad plans, many people only had a vague idea where Austria. Some even thought I was going to Australia.
Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. Back in the US, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people! The map above shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.
And yet, Austria had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago. I like numbers a lot, so let me lay some important ones out here: Austria’s Habsburg Monarchy ruled largely uninterrupted from 1521-1918. In the 1800s, the Austrian Empire had the third largest population out of any empire in the world, after Russia and France, and the second largest geographic empire after Russia.
So what happened? How did one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world shrink to a background country the size of Pennsylvania?
What happened was World War I. Even though we mostly study Germany’s involvement and how it led to World War II, it was the assassination of the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that instigated the war. (For my favorite comedic 2-minute refresher on the causes of WWI, watch this video: Frightful First World War Causes of WW1) As a result, the Treaty of Saint-Germain in 1919 dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And in the century since then, Austria has largely faded from the geographic and political scene. It’s often only mentioned in passing—usually in the context of the aforementioned assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Maria Theresa’s reformations in the 1700s, or The Sound of Music. That’s a far cry from being one of the most powerful and important countries in all of Europe.
Yes, WWI caused an unprecedented amount of political upheaval in a very short amount of time. No, I’m not saying that the US will be dissolved into 50 independent states in a similarly short amount of time. But Austria really did lose that Big Important Countries Club membership card; in less than a decade, what’s to say that the US won’t as well?