While many envision the slow decline of the U.S. Empire, that might not be how it happens.
Many envision the end of the United States with the proverbial story of the frog in the boiling pot—a slow cooking, where the heat increases bit by bit. Historian Niall Ferguson cautions us that the storylines of the past read quite differently—empires come to an end like a gas leak in the piping behind the wall that is fueling the heat to that boiling pot—everything appears reasonably functional, till an unexpected spark ignites a catastrophic explosion.
From Foreign Affairs:
For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large have tended to think about empires in such cyclical and gradual terms. “The best instituted governments,” the British political philosopher Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, wrote in 1738, “carry in them the seeds of their destruction: and, though they grow and improve for a time, they will soon tend visibly to their dissolution. Every hour they live is an hour the less that they have to live.”
Idealists and materialists alike have shared that assumption. In his book Scienza nuova, the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico describes all civilizations as passing through three phases: the divine, the heroic, and the human, finally dissolving into what Vico called “the barbarism of reflection.” For Hegel and Marx, it was the dialectic that gave history its unmistakable beat. History was seasonal for Oswald Spengler, the German historian, who wrote in his 1918-22 book, The Decline of the West, that the nineteenth century had been “the winter of the West, the victory of materialism and skepticism, of socialism, parliamentarianism, and money.” The British historian Arnold Toynbee’s universal theory of civilization proposed a cycle of challenge, response, and suicide. Each of these models is different, but all share the idea that history has rhythm.
[E]mpires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse.
This was penned in 2010, and the set-up for our final cataclysm is in place—we have doubled down on the economic foolishness that almost collapsed the entire world system in 2008. No one can definitively tell you where the spark will originate, but it will arrive at some point.
Keep your seatbelt fastened.