Features | Politics | East Asia

When Superpowers Fall

China will one day surpass the US in global power. But its reign will be both more and less secure than its predecessor.

By Kevin Slaten for

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.

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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.

Two interrelated patterns underlie the accelerating decline of global powers. The first is technology. Communication, trade and warfare have all increased their operating speed due to the drive of new technologies. For example, the opium trade and the related wars were integral factors in the Qing Dynasty’s decline, but if it weren’t for their fast merchant vessels and powerful warships, the British and other Western powers might not have been able to dominate China so quickly, thus prolonging the decline of the Qing Dynasty.

And technology is advancing at an exponential rate—painstakingly detailed in books like P.W. Singer’s Wired for War. While it may have taken weeks for a ship to reach China from the shores of Britain in the 19th century, an early plane could have gotten there in days, a jetfighter in hours, a supersonic drone in less time and computer viruses instantly.

The second underlying pattern, following from the first, is the pace at which perception can affect economies. With trillions of dollars being pushed around in a globalized economy every day through the instant channels of the internet, investors who—intentionally or otherwise—decide that that a major US bank is no longer a safe bet can yank their money out with the click of a mouse, thereby sending the US economy into a nosedive. At least, this was the story in 2008 with the collapse of AIG.

The implications of this for the world’s top power are enormous. Economic power has always been a foundation of empires’ military might and cultural influence. But today, when an economy can collapse overnight (Iceland?), the dominant position of a preeminent power is less secure than ever before. No amount of military strategizing can prevent the next property bubble.

So what do these trends mean for the future of the international system and its leading powers? Some, like Bert Keidel, see China’s economy eclipsing that of the United States by 2030, while others have suggested a later moment of transition. Either way, given current trends, no one can doubt the inevitability of China’s growing clout via its economic power. Yet whenever China reaches the point at which it could viably challenge America’s dominant position, China will find the top spot both more and less secure than ever.

More insecure because the speed of markets can rapidly tip any economy upside down, thereby quickly threatening a country’s economic position. Yet more secure because that same speed of markets causes future expectations of power to be less certain for a nation’s policymakers, which in turn makes more risky behaviour—such as fighting a total war against the nearest global challenger—look far less attractive. If neither the United States nor China can be sure that they’ll have a roaring economy next year, or that a major military conflict wouldn’t destroy their highly globalized economies, then neither is likely to make the risky decision to fire the first missile at the other.

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Such is the nature of tomorrow’s global pre-eminence—insecure and unclear, yet existing in a more peaceful system. A global power will decline rapidly and, perhaps, rebound just as fast.

One day, China will attain equal or greater power than the United States. But its economic power will continue to be at the whim of even more superior forces: technology, globalization and perception.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, he lives in Taiwan on a Fulbright Grant. His opinions in no way reflect the views of the State Department or Foundation for Scholarly Exchange. He blogs at kevinslaten.blogspot.com.