A Russian chess grandmaster once argued for a simple, but deadly, strategy. The best move is the move just one step ahead: No grand strategy, no complicated moves and pretty much random.
It’s an infectious idea for those who have little faith in intellect and complex arguments. There are millions who believe life and events can be so explained, but few, if any, historians who will say so. Now a historian of Empire, Niall Ferguson, has joined those millions.
There is more here than Ferguson’s analysis: The fate of the US, often dubbed an empire, is up for debate. It matters. The US is the world’s largest economy and the engine that powers the economies of countries such as India and China, held up as breakwaters in the recent global economic storm. So if the US catches a chill, the world gets one too.
There are those who believe that like other empires before, the US is heading for a collapse due to a fiscal and military overstretch. Ferguson differs. In his essay “Complexity and Collapse” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, he tries to deflate these theories (all in 15 pages) by giving a different spin to imperial demise. The logic is new for history, borrowed from a fashionable branch of mathematics called Chaos Theory. This theory reasons that big, catastrophic events are not due to causes that can be explained as a series of causes and effects, but due to a small event. In more colourful language, a butterfly fluttering its wings over Beijing unleashes a perfect storm in Washington. All this happens because countries have many moving parts that interact with each other in unknown ways.
He then asks, “If empires are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions, rather than cycling sedately from Arcadia to Apogee to Armageddon, what are the implications for the United States today?” Should the competing pathways to decline matter? They do, because if Ferguson is right, then much of the current noise about the US’ decline due to military adventures and financial turmoil is misplaced.
The problem with this otherwise neat argument is that it ignores how countries get into trouble in the modern world. Wars do lead to defeats and dismemberment (Pakistan) and bad economics does lead to demise (Soviet Union). The US is facing serious economic and political problems, ones that have no easy solutions. One cannot wish them away even if a brilliant professor makes neat arguments.
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