Foreign Policy Blogs

Reckless Pursuit of Hegemony Inevitably Leads to Downfall

Sengoku Jidai

Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece “Ran” is a cautionary tale which has implications for international relations today. Inspired both by Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Japan’s Sengoku Jidai period, it tells the tragic story of unchecked ambition, greed, treachery, and deception, all with their subsequent consequences. Pertinently, it also contrasts a foreign policy of restraint with a policy of hegemonic pursuit.

War and Treachery

For those who are unfamiliar with “Ran”, it is set during Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s Warring States period. The movie starts with Hidetora Ichimonji, the elderly ruler of the Ichimonji Clan, deciding to abdicate his authority and pass on the reigns to his eldest son. However, Hidetora has two other sons who now wonder what the fates have in store for them as well.

During Hidetora’s abdication speech, he outlines how it eventually took him fifty years of war to unify the plains under his rule. Crucially, he also acknowledges that even though he has dominion over the plains themselves, he still has minor occasional differences with his two neighbors who rule adjacent territories overlooking the plains. However, Ichimonji does not allow these differences to conflagrate into full-fledged war with the two.

Two of the sons soon turn on Hidetora and, eventually, on one another. Jiro, one of the sons, ultimately confronts a situation pitting him against not only his brother, but potentially one of the clan’s neighbors as well. He is advised against going to battle due to social and economic unrest in the land. The prudent counsel is ignored and the clan is ultimately destroyed, both internally through sibling rivalry, as well as from without through conflict with both of the clan’s neighbors.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

What are the lessons here? Primarily that years of long-term strategic planning can be undone in a moment of rashness and recklessness. This story has historical relevance as well as it mirrors the downfall of the Takeda Clan during Japan’s Sengoku Jidai period. Takeda Shingen was a brilliant strategist who led his clan to numerous victories. Eventually, however, the clan was gradually eliminated after its disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, again facing multiple adversaries using the relatively new invention of gunpowder. Coincidentally, this was also portrayed at the end of Kurosawa’s previous film, “Kagemusha”.

For the contemporary era, the lesson is also that seemingly simple situations can acquire extraordinary complexity apparently overnight. The 50-year period it took for Hidetora to finally unify his territory roughly corresponds to the 1945-1991 time period. This era saw the emergence of U.S. power from WWII victor to Cold War “victor”. However, it must be remembered that the U.S.’ actual military engagements during this time period were with minor powers. Even as horrific as 9/11 was, terrorist groups are non-state actors, and more closely fall under the rubric of minor, not major powers.

The U.S. has never faced a situation similar to the one it now confronts. One of its neighbors, Russia, thought by some to have been vanquished for all time at the end of the Cold War, has not been hesitant to remind the U.S. of its continued great power status. The U.S.’ other “neighbor”, China, also has its own range of issues with the U.S., magnified by its economic preeminence.

A healthy respect for these other great powers’ spheres of influence is essential. Yes, ambition, treachery, and warfare are all what allowed Hidetora to achieve hegemony over his plains in the first place. However, these victories too were against the minor powers of his own day and he certainly understood (even if his sons didn’t) that a policy of restraint vis-a-vis the major powers was indeed critical to ensure the longevity of his clan.

Prudence is Necessary for Survival

It is the height of recklessness to continue to believe that the U.S. can simultaneously engage in conflict in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan and continue to demand fealty from both Russia and China.  The situation is even more untenable as the nation experiences its own continued socio-economic unrest related to the Great Recession, despite claims by some that the worst is over.

In the film, advice for restraint under these conditions went unheeded, resulting in disaster. The film did not imply that Hidetora’s neighbors were working together to undermine him. However, the situation facing the U.S. is actually worse as Russia and China are actively conspiring together to circumscribe U.S. global power. The situation is further worsened by the quickening pace of modern geopolitics.

This pace has only accelerated in the past 500 years since Sengoku Jidai and is only compounded by the current incessant news cycle. Correspondingly, the stakes are even higher and deadlier for one’s “clan” today. It no longer suffices to be a captive of this news cycle and the latest polls when formulating foreign policy. On the contrary, this confluence of factors demands more wisdom, forethought, and sagacity if the U.S. is to avoid a fate similar to both the fictional Ichimonji Clan and the factual Takeda Clan.



Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is President of Bright Group Consulting L.L.C., where he provides strategic advisory services regarding US-China relations. He has conducted numerous cross-border business policy and feasibility research projects and has been engaged in international geopolitical risk assessment and analysis for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in international business policies in the U.S. and emerging markets and has provided policy advice for numerous firms and institutions. He is a regular contributor to several foreign policy outlets, including the Foreign Policy Association. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.