History has demonstrated that power in the international system is rarely static. But, while empires are now falling at an increasingly rapid pace, today’s power transitions are more peaceful than they have been for much of the past few thousand years. These changes have seen two opposing trends strengthen simultaneously—one that gives the world’s preeminent power more security, the other making it more uncertain of its position at the top.
Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson examined the way in which empires have fallen in the past and how historians have come to understand these collapses after the fact. He contends that most historians have it all wrong—that while the decline of empires is usually described as a slow accumulation of weaknesses that eventually break the camel’s back, in reality, empires collapse precipitously.
At any given time, the society of the world’s preeminent power, he says, is a large, complex social system usually operating in an equilibrium that can be altered fundamentally by even a small shift in the system. ‘A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis—a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse …’
Such a view has clear implications for the United States. Indeed, Ferguson argues that given the fragility of US systemic power, a seemingly minor piece of market news can become America’s grain of sand, setting off a sequence of events that leaves the United States looking up at the next global power. Ultimately, he says that until the United States gets its fiscal house in order, it will be tempting its own precipitous decline.
But most of what Ferguson presents as evidence for this view is simply unconvincing. For example, he examines the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Yet while many historians point to the first seeds of decline being evident in the third century, Ferguson argues the Empire remained relatively stable until the ‘rapid’ decline began in 406 with Germanic invaders. And even here he goes on to describe a 60-year death throe—hardly precipitous.
Ferguson also examines other imperial collapses including China’s Ming Dynasty and the empires of the French, Hapsburg, Ottoman, British and the Soviet Union. Yet, in all of these cases, he describes a decline spanning anywhere from 5 to 20 years, with the USSR falling most rapidly.
Ironically, these examples all serve to make the counter-argument to his proposed reinterpretation of history: in the past, empires have, in fact, built up structural imbalances or weaknesses that become their ultimate downfall. What Ferguson is highlighting throughout most of his essay is simply the final straw that broke the imperial camel’s back, a thesis actually in line with previous interpretations of history.
All this said, there’s an interesting theme Ferguson highlights that will bear heavily on the future of the international system and US-China relations: the decisive role of perception in imperial decline. Amidst a world in which globalized markets and free flowing capital constitute the underlying economic strength of every large economy, the perception of a global power’s economic health has a tremendous ability to dictate the future prospects of that country’s power.
And herein lies the story that Ferguson is really missing. History has generally been a process of empires slowly accumulating weaknesses and then collapsing when those weaknesses are exploited. But the future will consist of relatively rapid shifts in global power in a more economically uncertain environment. Indeed, history’s top powers are rising and falling more quickly. The Roman Empire saw its end evolve over about 250 years; China’s Qing Dynasty suffered a half-century death, culminating in the 1911 Wuchang Uprising; the British Empire lost arms and legs throughout the three decades from World War One through Two; and the Soviet Union ran out of steam in just a half decade.