Including claims to area in Antarctica, Australia is actually the 2nd largest nation in the world by land size. Of course, only a handful of other countries acknowledge such claims and there's not much that can be done with the land anyway. Australia is also part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, the successor to the greatest empire the world has seen, the British Empire.
At the height of its global reach, the empire controlled or had mandates over 24% of the world's land area and the British pound was "the admiration of the world"1 . Of course, as the strains of two world wars came to bare, the British Empire lost its mantle as world leader, replaced in the mid-20th century by the United States of America. But there have always been concerns with calling the U.S. an "empire" and even more arguments recently about its supposed decline.
In the historical sense, an empire might be seen as a group of nations ruled over by a common government or sovereign, who has by influence or strength expanded its rule over such nations. Even though the American government spent much of the 19th century expanding its territories, most conquered peoples became citizens of the growing nation, not remaining separate nations.
Though the U.S. does still have mandates over a number of smaller territories. Puerto Rico is the largest of this group which also includes Guam, US Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. Even though the U.S. is not quite an empire in the traditional sense, its influence on the rest of the world is arguably as great as any of the preceding empires of the world.
Before the British Empire, other European powers were also spreading throughout the globe in search for dependent states. The Spanish Empire covered most of South America, whereas the Portuguese Empire was the first to go truly global. The French Empire at its height held sway over most of North America and a large portion of Africa. And for over 500 years, the Roman Empire covered all of Western Europe, much of the Middle East and Northern Africa and ruled up to 21% of the living population.
Away from Western Europe, there have been many empires rise and fall since the rise of civilisations. From the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Eastern Mediterranean for over 600 years to the Russian Empire, which controlled the great expanse of Eurasia for 200 years. There was the great Mongol Empire, which, under the leadership of Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan, conquered lands from China to Eastern Europe.
Two of the biggest empires by estimated economic output were the Song Dynasty (which was eventually incorporated into the Mongol Empire) and the Mughul Empire of India. Many other large and important empires came from Sino-Indian region, such as the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century and the Tibetan empire of the 8th. Caliphates have also held sway over expansive territories, with the Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates of the 8th century dominating the Middle East, North Africa and southern Spain.
Even though the U.S. has led invasions into other countries over the past few decades, it has done so in an effort to extend its government past its borders. In a world that is getting smaller, and despite the current rhetoric, physical borders are becoming less significant. Traditional empire expansion by invasion or treaty seems to be a thing of the past (with Russia being an exception), and influence is now spread much more subtly. For decades, the U.S. was strong and pious in spreading their values around the globe. With Trump in charge, the U.S. has lost much of the moral high ground and its goal of cultural empire expansion may well be coming to a close.
1. (Mr Banks, Mary Poppins)
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