One of my favorite treatises on political history is Paul M. Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” People like books for all sorts of reasons; in the case of historical prescriptive texts, I tend to judge them by their predictive power. Using that metric, Kennedy gets an A+ for his analysis of how empires of the past have expanded to the point of their own collapse. Like a shark gorging itself until it bursts, great empires of the past had a predictable pattern of over-reaching in their attempts to grow, and eventually collapsing under the strain.
When this collapse happens, it is not as though the empire takes a step backwards and shrinks slightly; the entire structure fails in a cataclysmic chain reaction. I am struck in some ways by the parallels to the historic criticism of the capitalist economic engine; namely the idea that capitalist economies are forced to attempt to continue to expand into new niches, new markets, by force if necessary. Without that growth the engine is starved of fuel, and does not simply slow, it shuts down completely.
While it was written almost 30 years ago, being first published in 1987 at a time when the Cold War was reaching its anticlimax, Kennedy seems to have had no problem in looking beyond the present context in international relations and speaking to the realities of the coming millenia.
I cannot say for certain, but I suspect that he would have chuckled with irony as the US first invaded Afghanistan, famously described as where empires go to die, and then focused its attention on the wrong country, ostensibly to avenge the still misunderstood events of 9/11 (but in reality as a result of the need for fuel of our intelligence community as an appendage of the MIC). These events are an enormous topic unto themselves, but in brief – while it is tempting to view these wars as an effort to ‘fight back’ against terrorism, to avenge our fallen and our pride, the reality is far more complicated, and sinister.
I do not consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but it is very hard to look at these events and not see conspiracies. Some would just have us believe that George W Bush was a monumentally ignorant person. While that is true, it is not nearly sufficient to explain the events that began in late 2001, and continue to unfold today. The idea that war profiteers, now generally viewed as an extension of the Military Industrial Complex, cause wars to boost profits is hardly new. It has always fallen short as an explanatory mechanism, though certainly it can be seen as a contributing cause to conflicts.
The reality, I suspect, is far more complex. There are of course so many different types of war and lesser conflicts that generalizations become largely meaningless. Moreover, our context here is not war per se, but the behavior of declining empires. Our nation is about to embark on 5 months of debate, primarily focused on the economy. And not to simplify the parameters of that debate, but two items which will certainly be discussed are the future of social security/entitlements, and the budget of the US military/intelligence communities.
In short, we are going to be discussing whether we should be focused on ‘guns or butter.’ Both candidates will of course try to be seen as staunchly protecting the military budget, while at the same time defending the entitlements already promised to senior citizens. But the simple reality is that it eventually comes down to a choice, and we are unfortunately already well past that point. We are stretched too thin, and sagging in the middle. The only question is, will we realize that in time, or will we continue to overreach like so many empires past?
We have set the stage for that debate with this post; in our next article we will examine why the future of the American empire hinges entirely on that debate.