Monday, March 22, 2010

The British Empire prepares to add another notch to its belt, as its final act

By Niall Ferguson

The implicit suggestion was that the young American republic of Cole's age would be better served by sticking to its bucolic first principles and resisting the imperial temptations of commerce, conquest, and colonization. [You Yanks would have been better off as British subjects. You just built up everyone's hopes of shaking off the imperial yoke, and made us work harder to bring 'em back to the reality.]
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Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder -- on "the edge of chaos," in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems "go critical." A very small trigger can set off a "phase transition" from a benign equilibrium to a crisis....
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Human intelligence itself is a complex system, a product of the interaction of billions of neurons in the central nervous system, or what Charles Sherrington, the pioneering neuroscientist, called "an enchanted loom." [I thought that Darwinism had been debunked several times.]
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What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters.... What Ward-Perkins calls "the end of civilization" came within the span of a single generation.
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In much the same way, the Bourbon monarchy in France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing rapidity. French intervention on the side of the colonial rebels against British rule in North America in the 1770s seemed like a good idea at the time -- a chance for revenge after Great Britain's victory in the Seven Years' War a decade earlier -- but it served to tip French finances into a critical state. In May 1789, the summoning of the Estates-General, France's long-dormant representative assembly, unleashed a political chain reaction that led to a swift collapse of royal legitimacy in France. Only four years later, in January 1793, Louis XVI was decapitated by guillotine. [This "forgets" the role of British Intelligence - the termites of global civilization - in the French "Revolution."]
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The sun set on the British Empire almost as suddenly.... Within a decade, the United Kingdom had conceded independence to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. [Actually, all that changed was its form, and it added Washington, D.C. as a colony.]
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If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, rather than cycling sedately from Arcadia to Apogee to Armageddon, what are the implications for the United States today? First, debating the stages of decline may be a waste of time -- it is a precipitous and unexpected fall that should most concern policymakers and citizens. Second, most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises. [He then implies that our only hope of avoiding collapse is to balance the budget - i.e. that the solution to British economic warfare is more of the same.]
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Finally, a shift in expectations about monetary and fiscal policy could force a reassessment of future U.S. foreign policy. There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary.... Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall.
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To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.