Who the great powers of an alternate history world are is something which tends to exercise my mind, and my ire, when reading more unimaginative timelines or works of fiction. Generally, the great powers of history from 1800 onwards could be listed as Spain (declining and gone by the 1820s), France (constant), Britain (constant), the USA (growing from a regional power with some power projection to a world power steadily over time), Russia (constant), Austria (until 1918 when the Habsburg monarchy ceased to exist), Ottoman Turkey (until 1918 when the empire collapsed in defeat), Prussia (which turned into Germany and remained a constant), China (which declined, stuttered on the brink then came back) and Japan (from the Meiji period onwards in a steady increase). To these might be added Italy (after unification) but probably nobody else.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal all became or remained major colonial powers but none of them could claim to be a world power. Persia remained independent (if sometimes perilously close to being divided). Sweden and Denmark had had their day.
Now, I listed this for a traditional view of great powers, and am well aware that in the modern era one can begin to place former dominions of Great Britain such as Canada and Australia into the same league, as well as growing economic powerhouses such as India and Brazil.
But this is an alternate history discussion article, and stating the generally accepted position is the place to start.
Nineteenth Century Possibilities
One trouble with history is that we are all so knowledgable about who failed and why that we see these as inevitabilities, thus undermining the whole point of alternate history. Of course, alternate history should not be a playground for fantasists and the ignorant, but sometimes they can make a good point without realising that they do – that a writer should step outside of the box.
Mexico, Peru, Gran Colombia, the United States of Central America, the Empire of Brazil – all of these could become more than they ever did.
Mexico started its independence as an empire under Agustin Iturbide, attempted to become a liberal empire and ended up a corrupt republic where military and local leaders could overthrow the elected government. It can be argued that the repeated presidencies of Santa Anna either ruined the country, or are symptomatic of what was ruining the country. The French invasion came as a result of Mexico defaulting on its loans, the installation of Maximilian as emperor an attempt not only to project French power but to tie Mexico into the world economy. After civil war, the execution of Maximilian and the return to power of Juarez, Mexico entered arguably its most stable few decades but it was a country with a heavy legacy by this time, and by the first decades of the twentieth century was sunk once more into revolution and civil war.
What an alternate history Mexico needs is early strength and stability. Arguably it had the chance for this up until the defeat against the Texicans and the de facto acknowledgment of Texas. Even with Santa Anna’s presidency, at this stage the devolution of the constitution into chaos was not inevitable; victory, or avoidance of conflict, would have given a chance. The better chances come earlier – imagine if the United States of America had embarked upon its independence with another revolution, and a military leader as president involving the country in a war of secession within ten years?
Points of divergence can be found to keep Iturbide upon his throne, or to make the country secure and stable into the long term under Guadeloupe Victoria. Using any of these, it is not fantasy to have Mexico as a great power, even if with only regional power projection, by the mid nineteenth century.
Peru is more complicated as the requirement for its great power status comes in one of several ways – either that Bolivar and San Martin agree a unity of all ex-Spanish possessions, or that the Argentine/Chilean/Peruvian rebel alliance remains strong enough to create a federal state under San Martin, or that Peru-Bolivia in union is able to stabilise, defend its borders and prosper.
The first two options would give you a power the same size as Brazil, though in one Peru would be a Southern aspect, and in the other a Nothern one. The Peru-Bolivian state (and it would have no such confusing name since Bolivia was viewed as Alta, or High, Peru) would require time and good management.
And there are of course Points of divergence where you could get both a strong Mexico and a strong Peru-Bolivia.
Equally, from this view you may also get a surviving Gran Colombia for in an age where centrifugal forces prevent the breakup of large unities, or the dissipation of early power, Gran Colombia is not going to be beset to anything like the same extent with secessionist forces.
On this subject, it is worth taking a moment to note that secession is not always successful. People tend to think the CSA or Biafra or Chechnya as special cases, but they are in fact simply the more prominent of a large number of incidences where secessionist movements failed completely. Mexico, somewhat ironically considering what it in fact did lose, is riddled with instances – the Yucatan even existed as an independent de facto state for a while, whilst on other occasions it again tried to secede, as did Sonora, Chihuahua etc. These failed. So did the attempted secession of Eastern Venezuela as the independent republic of Oriente, an obscure fact but one which has some significant impact upon Gran Colombia.
The United States of Central America is again another nation where secessionist tendencies pulled it apart, but there were frequent attempts to pull it back together and from time to time a reunification of some or all of it that only ended in disolution again later. One can argue that the unifiying tendencies indicate a stong residual in favour of union, or that the resultant breakups indicate a strong impulse towards secession and independence. Both would be right, and it was often more of a balance than it seems in retrospect since in retrospect everything is always viewed from the prevailing position at the time when the viewer looks back.
An American observer regarding secessionist tendencies in the United States of America in 1861 may well think that they are inevitable, whereas an American observer in 2000 would think that their defeat is inevitable. The truth is that neither was, that it was a constant balance of forces and that from time to time one side of the balance had the upper hand, and at other times the other did. One might even argue that the current status quo is not the end of history, that one does not know whether in fifty years events might not have pulled the USA apart again. Historical inevitabilities are but the bias of the viewer, coloured by his own time. The UPCA could have survived, and it could have prospered. That it did not is simply only how things turned out.
As an aside on Central American history we have the whole William Walker saga, entering via Misquitia, becoming president of Nicaragua, pressing to unify the republics under his personal rule. History now regards him as doomed to failure, but at the same time does not properly explain how he achieved the successes he did. What really needs to be understood is that there are points of divergence whereby William Walker could have remained successful and achieved his aims.
On an overview so far, it could ironically be considered that a great power Mexico, a great power Gran Colombia, a unified Peru-Bolivia and a stable UPCA could all exist within the same alternate timeline.
We could then throw Brazil into the same mix, the only South American monarchy, and a country that was forged in exile from Napoleon’s conquest of Portugal by the Portuguese royal family. Before that it had been a rough union of separate colonies with separate governors, and the ultimate result for Brazil could well have been what happened to the rest of Spanish America – that it broke up into its constituent parts eventually. But the exile of the royal family in Rio de Janeiro, and the separation of Brazil from Portugal under a line of its own rulers of the Braganza dynasty ensured that the united colony remained whole.
I would add the Brazilian empire to the cases of a unified Peru-Bolivia and a surviving UPCA as being a power whose greatness would come later. But come it might very well do, and not necessarily at the cost of any of the other putative great powers of South America. By 1900 it would not be impossible for the Mexican Empire, the United Provinces of Central America, Gran Colombia, greater Peru, and the Empire of Brazil to be first class powers with an impact in the world at large at least as great as that of Italy.
What fails does not always fail
…in alternate history that is! Neither the defeat of the Confederate States of America nor of Maximilian in Mexico are inevitable. The whole point of Points of Divergence is that they offer up roads to a position where a wholly different state of affairs has come to pass. In fact the independence of the CSA could well lead to the ability of Maximilian to hold onto his power, not least if that independence is won after a short sharp war against the Union leaving veterans who wish to continue to serve. Richmond won’t be able to afford much of a standing army, if it even is allowed to remain on the statutes, so service for Maximilian would seem like a great opportunity, one not least with the potential rewards of land and pretty Hispanic brides.
Regarding great powers, this rule that we should never look at OTL failure as being inevitable is equally valid. Not only might the CSA and Habsburg/Iturbide Mexico develop into great powers down the line, but other almost forgetten chances might come to pass.
1848 is a very pregnant year, yet it is one where many people view the revolutions as inevitable and their eventual defeat also as inevitable. People are guilty of inertial doublethink, because neither was inevitable. There are many Points of Divergence to prevent either the outbreak of revolution, or its spread, and equally there are many PODs where the revolution is not roled back.
Whilst France remained constantly among the number of the great powers, it went from republic to empire to monarchy to reformist monarchy to republic to empire to republic again. There are many occasions where this catalogue of changes could have been arrested, though of course there are other potential places where changes could have happened at times that they did not do in OTL. The Orleans monarchy might have survived in 1848, perhaps if the Prince Royal, Ferdinand of Orleans had lived, or perhaps if the abdication of Louis Philippe for his heir had been handled in a better way. If it had, we might well be speaking of a powerful Orleanist France even now, and especially we would have been in the 1870s or 1900s when the balance of the constitution would have remained with the monarch.
1848 also gives us other potential results which affect the list and nature of the great powers. Intriguingly absent from OTL is a unification of Italy, despite the revolutions across the Italian states – this is an occasion where alternate history would suggest even greater change and disruption than OTL revolutions, something that should not be ignored as Britain is also a great example of where there was upheaval but where it stopped short due to a variety of reasons. If Victoria had died, either young and Ernest Augustus had become king, or perhaps in childbirth and there was an unpopular Regency, then 1848 in Britain could have seen true revolution and potentially a French-style ousting of the monarchy.
The creation of a unified Italy out of the 1848 revolutions might still look a step too far, but the creation of a unified Germany happened – for a while. The Frankfurt Parliament made a federal union reality for a while – a federal navy was formed, ships bought, officers appointed to man the fleet. That it was all turned back and scuppered does not mean that what happened in the period when it was a reality was simply an illusion – no, it was a possibility!
Thus a potential great power is an earlier unified Germany under a liberal parliamentary system, but one which it would be noted has a nascent navy of some growing power, and this Germany would be no less militant, no less forceful on the world stage than the French Third Republic or Great Britain.
But the period of revolutions also offers up other nations – Hungary which had it won its independence under Kossuth would have found a monarch from a European royal family, maybe even part of Italy, whether the North in a union of Milan and Venezia independent of Austria, or Rome under Mazzini. Another nation has possibilities in these decadesm – Poland. There was a revolt at the beginning of the 1830s, another 3 decades later at the beginning of the 1860s. Poland could have wrestled its independence back, but also of course it might never have risen in rebellion – perhaps if Konstantine became king upon the death of Aleksandr I, and not Nikolai. Thus, things can and could always have swung both ways.
A Poland independent in this time could have emerged powerful later, or could have sunk into poverty-stricken obscurity. It might have been the spark to other successful secessions, the break up of Western Russia on a scale such as that seen in 1918, or it might have stood alone in a confused battle of wills between Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Many people forget Egypt – instead of Mehmed Ali and his dynasty, the Suez Canal, Egyptian cotton, ex-Confederate soldiers in Egyptian service, ex-Confederate ironclads bought by Egypt, people remember 1880 and Egypt thereafter as a British vassal. More than a half century of Egyptian history is usually consigned to the dustbin of history with the idea that failure was inevitable, that overstretch brought ruin, that the khedives had ambition but not the wherewithal to make it stick.
Alternate history challenges this, no less than common sense should. By the 1840s Mehmed Ali was being seen as so dangerous a threat that an alliance of Britain and Austria with the Ottomans had to contain him. The Egyptian fleet was first class, but nobody could stand against the Royal Navy so he in the end he was forced to back down and disarm. This did not end Egyptian power, merely retarded and contained it.
Alternate history is made of Points of Divergence, just as real history is made of opportunities seized and chances missed. Had Britain being involved in a major war elsewhere, for example had the Aristook crisis with the USA been allowed to degenerate into war, or the issue of Oregon led to war then Egypt might have held out, defeated the Ottomans, continued on an upwards trajectory. By the time that Britain was in a position to act, Egypt might have been too powerful – or, such are the tides of fate, been too important as a bulwark against the Russians.
Oman once had territories down the East African shore and not least ruled Zanzibar. The latter split apart from Oman and became a power of its own, deep into the African interior from the East, penetrating into what today is the Congo. Their power was built on slavery, a slave trade that included trans-African routes up into the Fezzan across the Sahara. But though that was the basis of the power, it was not all that there was to it – Zanzibari agents, slavers etc constructed civilisations deep in the African interior where none had previously prospered. Tippu Tip may have been a despicable slaver, but he held sway over a civilised enclave that European visitors marveled at. Nothing is ever black or white, nothing is ever simple.
Had not the American colonies revolted, then where would British slavery had been? Could reformers such as Wilberforce and Shaftesbury ever have hoped to get abolition within the empire if the American colonies had remained dependant upon slave labour?
Other worlds, other outcomes for the leading powers, other wars where they need allies in unusual places – all of these lead towards native powers being able to survive, prosper and develop.
Given the right circumstances Zanzibar, or indeed Oman if the state remained unified, however loosely, could become a great power
Something of a Summary
This has just been a short and simple journey around the possibilities for great powers. Other points of departure could result in other powers having their chance or in these same powers having earlier, or later, or different opportunities to rise to greatness.