Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Precipitous Imperial Collapse

The collapse of empires in history is rapid, precipitous, and unpredictably predictable.  So says Niall Ferguson in an essay in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs.  Ferguson, the eminent Oxford/Harvard historian, takes on the conventional perspective of imperial-collapse-as-long-term-decay and argues for a historical view that attempts to pinpoint specific crises that function as tipping points for the sudden dissolution of empires.  His is no abstract, insular, ivory-tower theory.  Rather, it is a substantive attempt to alert the United States of its peril as an imperial power, ripe for such a capricious tipping point of its own.

Feguson's foil is the famous pentaptych The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole; five paintings that capture the long-term-decay historical view of empires, which now hangs in the New-York Historical Society. Cole's working assumption was that just as the rise of an empire is typically slow, so is its fall.  Ferguson cites Gibbon's history of Rome as the quintessential perspective of this cyclic view of empire, but also mentions the Ming dynasty, the Bourbon monarchy of France, the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires, as well as the British empire, and even the Soviet empire as all subject to the traditional view of long-term decay.

Ferguson's Porgy challenges historians' Bess with a resounding "it ain't necessarily so."  In each of Ferguson's examples, specific and unpredictable crises precipitates a rapid decline, even collapse, and they seem to have at least one point in common: "All of the above cases were marked by sharp imbalances between revenues and expenditures, as well as difficulties with financing public debt." (Foreign Affairs, p. 30)  The specific trigger of collapse in each case was unforeseen, unpredictable, and when fired, unstoppable.  But the fiscal conditions in place in each assured that once the crisis hit, rapid collapse was inevitable.

Ferguson is a watchman on the wall for the United States empire (only the rose-colored blinders on the collective eyes of populist patriotic nationalism prevent acknowledgment of the existence of the US imperium).  The numbers are ominous: a deficit of 1.4 trillion dollars in 2009 (11.2 percent of GDP), a public debt of $5.8 trillion in 2008 which will double--and then some- to $14.3 trillion in 2019, and interest payments on that debt will also more than double from 8 percent to 17 percent of federal revenues.  It is not the numbers themselves that may be the trigger, but the expectations those numbers raise for future power.  To date, the global community believes the US can weather these numbers and maintain its unitary global hegemony (of course, not all in the community think that hegemony is a good thing).  But at some point, according to Ferguson, a random bit of bad news in the headlines could spell a sudden shift in confidence and precipitate a collapse.  The rapid sub-prime mortgage downward spiral in 2008 is harbinger of the potential for this.

Andrew Bacevich concurs in The Limits of Power.  These hard numbers, future expectations, and the highly-leveraged nature of US internal public obligations, combined with its over-reached, militarized foreign-policy commitments, have the country's adversaries patiently awaiting their main goal: the forced contraction of the US empire through fiscal necessity, or its collapse due to our country's refusal to set its own house in order.  They astutely believe that time is on their side.  And that time--if Ferguson is right--may come sooner than later.

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