Saturday, 20 March 2010 20:36

The Edge of Empire

by Manuel Rodriguez
A profound essay suggests that empires operate somewhere between order and chaos, and there comes a moment when great empires can be collapsed by seemingly minor disruptions.

Niall Ferguson, the Laurence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, has written a profound analysis of the destruction of empires for the journal Foreign Affairs, reprinted here. Ferguson posits that an empire's slide into chaos is abrupt and disruptive, rather than gradual and cyclical, as traditionally thought.  

Historically, scholars seemed unified around the notion of gradual decline and phased transitions:

  1. A series of five paintings by Thomas Cole, which hang in the New York Historical Society, depict the fall of empires as a process moving through five stages: lush wilderness, a nascent agrarian idyll, an opulent merchant society, destruction from invading armies, to collapse and desolation in abandoned land.
  2. Historians Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee share a common vision of destruction as seasonal and rhythmic. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers discusses the phenomenon of “imperial overstretch”, the notion that great powers overextend themselves, economically and militarily, and create the very seeds of their destruction.
  3. Similarly, anthropologist Jared Diamond proposes a “green” theory of collapse: that empires destroy themselves by abusing their natural environments. Ferguson notes that Diamond falls prey to the same blunder that traditional historians have made, that whether the cause of collapse is economical, cultural or ecological, it occurs over a protracted period of time, often centuries.
  4. The decline of the Roman empire has been attributed to long-term, collective failures that converged to cause its collapse.
  5. Protracted decline prevents leaders from making changes, as the pain of making immediate and often costly changes is too high when contrasted to the alternative, leaving these issues to future generations to resolve.
  6. The threats facing the United States are often characterized as long-term in nature, the “slow march of demographics”, the economics of an aging population that will eventually overwhelm economic sustainability.

Ferguson suggests that the cyclical nature of destruction as a theory of empire collapse is fundamentally flawed. Empires are complex societies, delicate social, cultural and economic systems that operate fluidly, organically, and in a state of delicate stasis. Sudden, often small events or circumstances, such as those described by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan, can disrupt this equilibrium and create a crisis of such magnitude that the entire organism collapses.

It is these “proximate triggers” that we must be concerned about, that can cause wide-spread conflagration and destruction of complex systems. Small inputs to these systems can “produce huge, often unanticipated changes – what scientists call the amplifier effect.” “When things go wrong in complex systems, the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate.”

“Empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other adaptive systems – including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly.” Ferguson argues that the speed of collapse of the world’s greatest empires strikes against the very notion of cyclical collapse: Rome collapsed in just five decades, the Chinese dynasty fell in little more than a decade, and the French Bourbon monarchy passed from “triumph to terror” in only four years. Within a decade from the end of World War II, the British empire had conceded independence to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Ferguson argues that most “imperial falls” are associated with fiscal crises. These crises are marked by “sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt.” What is the implication for the United States? According to Ferguson, “alarm bells should therefore be ringing very loudly, indeed, as the United States contemplates a deficit for 2009 of more than $1.4 trillion – about 11.2 percent of GDP, the biggest deficit in 60 years – and another for 2010 that will not be much smaller.”

He further argues that “over the last three years, the complex system of the global economy flipped from boom to bust – all because a bunch of Americans started to default on subprime mortgages, thereby blowing huge holes in the business models of thousands of highly leveraged financial institutions.” Is this the trigger event for a collapse of American Empire?

Even if his hypothesis is wrong, his argument merits considerable attention. Are we at the end of our American Empire? Is the American Dream dead? Are we at the precipice of a sharp decline in our standard of living and the demise of the American Century, or is this the Great Recession merely a bump in the ascendancy of our Empire? Either way, we are staring at an unprecedented economic event, itself generating a loss of confidence so remarkable and breathtaking that it will likely cripple American bravado for a generation.

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