Niall Ferguson delivers a typically well-written and provocative essay in Foreign Affairs: “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” But I remain unconvinced. His thesis is essentially threefold. First, that empires can collapse suddenly and unexpectedly without a long period of decline. “A very small trigger,” he writes, “can set off a ‘phase transition’ from a benign equilibrium to a crisis–a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.” Second, that “most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises.” And third, that the United States may be ripe for a sudden collapse because of a crisis of confidence engendered by our ballooning public debt.
Start with the second claim — about the crucial role of fiscal crises in triggering imperial collapse. The list of fallen empires provided by Ferguson actually shows that military defeat (or even an overly costly victory) has far more often been the cause of disaster. Rome was overrun by Barbarian hordes in the 5th century. China was invaded by the Manchus in the 17th century. The Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires were all defeated in World War I. Britain used up all of its resources — including, most important, its stock of national will to maintain great power status — in winning two world wars. And the Soviet Union collapsed after its defeat in Afghanistan (and also the fall of the Berlin Wall). He might have mentioned, but didn’t, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 following China’s defeats in a long string of conflicts stretching from the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century to the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
One can actually quarrel with his premise that all these events can even be characterized as imperial downfalls, since China, Russia, and France (he also cites the French Revolution, which he argues was triggered in part by the financial strain of subsidizing the American Revolution) all expanded after their revolutions under new regimes (Manchus, Soviets, and Napoleon). What about the role of financial insolvency? One can argue that it contributed to the fall of empires in all these cases; but with the possible exception of Britain (which experienced a severe balance-of-payments crisis after 1945), the financial problems were an example of the kind of long-term “decline” identified by Paul Kennedy and dismissed by Ferguson — they were not sudden crisises that destroyed otherwise healthy polities. Moreover, most of the empires he mentions (Britain is the sole exception) experienced debilitating political problems long before their end — most were ruled by increasingly unpopular and illegitimate regimes. The later Roman Empire was a particularly notorious case, with multiple self-proclaimed emperors competing for authority and military coups occurring with monotonous regularity. Does this really characterize America today?
Thus I am skeptical that a sudden loss of confidence in the American economy will lead us to crash and burn, á la Rome and the Romanovs. To be sure, a financial crisis can be costly, even catastrophic — conceivably worse than the events of 2008-09. Such a downturn would undoubtedly be painful, but would it lead to America’s eclipse as a great power? I doubt it, because our fundamentals are so sound: a stable political and legal system; a relatively low level of corruption; an innovative, productive economy; a growing population that is not aging as fast as our major rivals (the EU, Japan, China, Russia); an optimistic and self-confident ethos; the world’s most powerful military; and a bipartisan commitment to preserving American leadership. We are not going the way of Rome anytime soon.