Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Complexity of American Power

As long-time readers know, I'm highly critical of the neo-declinist school in international political economy. We've seen a big revival of theories on America's imminent decline as the dominant world power, and my sense is that few of these arguments are theoretically innovative or empirically convincing (see, for example, Christopher Layne, "The Unipolar Illusion Revisited: The Coming End of the United States' Unipolar Moment").

That said, I think Harvard's Niall Ferguson is doing some of the most compelling writing on this. I was critical earlier of Ferguson's piece at Newsweek, "
An Empire at Risk." The budget projections he cites there are simply frightening, but his arguments imply way too much inevitability and evade historical contingency.

That said, I'm loving his new essay at Foreign Affairs, "
Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos." Ferguson introduces his piece with a fascinating discussion of artist Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School (epic 19th century landscape painting). Ferguson cites Cole's five-piece visionary ensemble, "The Course of Empire." Here's the introduction:

There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in The Course of Empire, he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day.

Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings is The Consummation of Empire. Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepĂ´t, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls, and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky. Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, Desolation. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.
Pictured here is the fourth masterpiece, "Destruction," available from Wikimedia Commons.

Readers can assess Ferguson's argument in full. I like this passage of the fall on the Roman Empire:

Perhaps the most famous story of imperial decline is that of ancient Rome. In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, Edward Gibbon covered more than 1,400 years of history, from 180 to 1590. This was history over the very long run, in which the causes of decline ranged from the personality disorders of individual emperors to the power of the Praetorian Guard and the rise of monotheism. After the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180, civil war became a recurring problem, as aspiring emperors competed for the spoils of supreme power. By the fourth century, barbarian invasions or migrations were well under way and only intensified as the Huns moved west. Meanwhile, the challenge posed by Sassanid Persia to the Eastern Roman Empire was steadily growing.

But what if fourth-century Rome was simply functioning normally as a complex adaptive system, with political strife, barbarian migration, and imperial rivalry all just integral features of late antiquity? Through this lens, Rome's fall was sudden and dramatic -- just as one would expect when such a system goes critical. As the Oxford historians Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins have argued, the final breakdown in the Western Roman Empire began in 406, when Germanic invaders poured across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410. Co-opted by an enfeebled emperor, the Goths then fought the Vandals for control of Spain, but this merely shifted the problem south. Between 429 and 439, Genseric led the Vandals to victory after victory in North Africa, culminating in the fall of Carthage. Rome lost its southern Mediterranean breadbasket and, along with it, a huge source of tax revenue. Roman soldiers were just barely able to defeat Attila's Huns as they swept west from the Balkans. By 452, the Western Roman Empire had lost all of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, and southwestern and southeastern Gaul. Not much was left besides Italy. Basiliscus, brother-in-law of Emperor Leo I, tried and failed to recapture Carthage in 468. Byzantium lived on, but the Western Roman Empire was dead. By 476, Rome was the fiefdom of Odoacer, king of the Goths.

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. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century -- inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle -- shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls "the end of civilization" came within the span of a single generation.
More at the link, if you'd like to continue reading. (The essay includes images of all five of Cole's paintings from "The Course of Empire" series.)

Ferguson's theoretical contribution here is to draw on "systems theories" that explain processes of change across a range of human activities, including world politics. While fascinating, Ferguson focuses on complex change across the international system as as whole. His main point, as you can tell from the discussion of Rome, is that America's hegemonic collapse could come suddenly. And of course, that's a perfectly reasonable argument, and quite interesting in the context of the interdisciplinary research. The problem for me is that all theories of American decline are at base economic. And if we apply a complex systems analysis to the U.S. economy we'd find that complexity is the nature of the game, and that innovation and chaos may well create another massive boom cycle at any time. I touched on these issues previously in my essay, "
The Next Industrial Revolution."

This is not to say I'm not worried about America's problems and the potential collapse of American power. I simply think history is more complicated -- and the American economy more dynamic -- than declinists allow.

In any cases, readers might like Peter Liberman's reading list at Foreign Affairs, "
What to Read on American Primacy." Also, I'd suggest Fareed Zakaria's work is a bit more pragmatic than Niall Ferguson's. See, "The Future of American Power: How America Can Survive the Rise of the Rest."