Recently, a left-wing colleague described his vision of where America is headed over the next forty years–breakdown of government, mass starvation, roving bands of marauders, etc. It’s interesting that this is exactly the same vision shared by those on the far right who star in the new TV show Doomsday Preppers, about people who are stockpiling cases of beans in their suburban basements, while asking themselves, “What load would Jesus shoot?” Maybe the visions of both left and right are so similar because that future has been portrayed so many times in movies.
Of course, we could end up like that. But we probably won’t.
The more likely case is that as the American empire fades, our country will slide into sort of a comfortable, dozy afterglow of irrelevance, like the U.K. today. Our oxidation will be more rust than fire, gradual and subtle rather than sudden and cataclysmic. More James Stewart than James Dean. More whimper than bang.
America, post-empire, will probably be just like Europe is today—beautiful, rich from centuries of looting the rest of the world, a little worn but shabbily comfortable. Our nation will spend its declining years in a genteel buzz that feels more like a Vicodin and a glass of wine than the line-of-meth-and-shot-of-Jaeger-like existence Hollywood predicts.
That’s how empires decline. Countries that tumble into chaos do so for internal reasons, usually long festering hatred between tribal factions, like Libya, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and the former Yugoslavia. The tensions build and build, then when central order breaks down they are released in horrible and sudden ways. In other words, autocracies decline because of pent-up anger.
Empires are different. They decline because of overreach fueled by hubris. Empires start reading their own press clips, and believing that they got to where they are because they somehow have some innate superiority. For the Brits, it was the idea of “The White Man’s Burden,” that running the empire was a chore they were forced to take on because of their natural superiority over the darker skinned races. For us, it’s the thin intellectual gruel of American Exceptionalism.
As a result of this self-admiration, empires take on too many wars in too many places at the same time. They spend too much of their resources on armies and navies trying to hold the whole far flung mess together. Empiring, done properly, is hard work. The rich sons and grandsons (and daughters and granddaughters) of freebooters are far more interested in fashion and socializing that tramping around gritty deserts or foot-rotting jungles chasing insurgents. Empiring is also very lucrative. So over time, imperialists start outsourcing the dirty work. Armies and navies become even more expensive as they are composed of Hessians or Gurkas or Blackwater. Public debt builds, accelerating the process of decline.
Over time, the colonies drift away from imperial command, and since they often are nasty autocracies with long-festering tribal tensions, they end up as those chaotic messes envisaged by my apocalyptic friends. Not always—there’s Canada. But when it does happen, it is the colonies, not the emperors, that fall into violent chaos. The Congo, not Belgium. Cuba, not Spain. Sierra Leone, not Britain. When America walks away from its de facto colonies, as surely we one day will, you won’t want to be in Saudi Arabia or Israel or the UAE. But Kansas will be just fine.
Even if we do come to that gruesome, albeit unlikely end, it will not be in our lifetimes. There is huge latency in the system. New empires build infrastructure, just as China is now busy building its highways and high speed rail. Declining empires don’t. We haven’t significantly contributed to them for years, but that doesn’t mean they will disappear tomorrow. Those infrastructural investments will support us comfortably, albeit modestly, in our imperial dotage.
Just look at history. The first “modern” (defined as state-based rather than personality-based) empire, the Assyrians, lasted around 300 years. The Roman Empire lasted for 500. The Spanish and the British for about 400. As an empire, we are only about 110 years old. The idea that we won’t last the full 300 years is probably valid for a variety of reasons–things happen a little quicker these days than they did in 605 B.C. But still you have to believe we have some time left.
My friend argues “this time is different.” And maybe it is. Maybe scarcity of energy or water or loose nukes will mean that history is an unreliable predictor of our future. Maybe, but my guess is it just seems that way to us. To quote Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet.” That’s probably always been the case.
A few years ago my family vacationed in Provence with two slightly upper crust English families. It was a strange and lovely vacation. What I remember most, other than the food, was that every day my American family got up at 6 a.m. so we could trudge up small mountains and drag ourselves around falling down castles, while the English families rolled out of bed around 11 or so, packed the car with smocks, easels and paints, and drove down the hill for an hour or two of painting. Over dinner we told them about all the sites we’d ticked off our list and admired their watercolors. At the time it seemed an interesting contrast. Now it seems prescient.
I suspect that post-collapse we will not need AK-47s as much as we will need a good, reliable red sable brush.
Thanks to SS and DN for their insightful contributions to this post.