Niall Ferguson has an op-ed in The Australian musing on the possibility that the U.S., due to its difficult fiscal position, might be on the verge of a rapid, cascading decline in global influence similar to that of late Bourbon France or the 1950s British Empire. First, and this may be a minor point, Ferguson positions the piece against “cyclical” views of history, arguing instead that history is “arhythmic, at times almost stationary, but also capable of accelerating suddenly, like a sports car.” He then goes on to explain (or at least hint at) cyclical processes that lead to these sudden shifts. A better way of putting it might be that history is cyclical, but that the outward, superstructural manifestations of long cyclical processes often change very quickly. Thus the British Empire, which had been hemorrhaging relative industrial, financial and military power since the 1870s, collapsed in the space of a decade. That collapse wasn’t really an example of “punctuated equilibrium” in the evolutionary-biological sense, but rather of the de jure distribution of power adjusting to de facto shifts that had already taken place along a more classically cyclical trajectory.
I’m skeptical that Ferguson is right about the United States (at least any time soon). Though the American fiscal position is bad, its readjustment ought not require measures so punishing that they snap the sinews of American imperialism. Whether or not the American political system can make the necessary adjustments absent the impetus of a major external military or economic shock is another matter, and perhaps lends some validity to Ferguson’s warnings. Still, the United States continues to possess enormous productive, financial and military vitality, and I think comparisons to Britain’s position after World War II, when the facade of British power had been masking a crumbling foundation for more than half a century, are overwrought.
Beyond the specific issue of American fiscal health, though, Ferguson’s thoughts raise some interesting and under-explored issues; namely, the role that generational shifts might play in international relations. I’m reminded of a great line in John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy where Connie, a former Research Chief at British Intelligence, sardonically reflects on the sorry fate of her service: “Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” British leaders, in other words, were prepared for and accustomed to a world of Pax Britannica, having internalized all the customs, heuristics, habits of thought and patterns of behavior that stemmed from growing up in a London-centric world. Such customs hadn’t been consistent with material reality for several decades, but everyone in Britain (and many around the world) continued to behave as though they were until finally the center could not hold. Thus, one saw events like the 1956 Suez Crisis in which British (and French) officials behaved as though they led first-rank great powers, when in fact both nations had long since relinquished that status.
In the American context, it will be very interesting to watch the interplay between generational understandings of American power and the material reality of its limitations. Steven Walt, for example, notes that “the Cold War got the United States in the habit of going everywhere and doing everything,” and that this habit has remained ingrained in post-Cold War thought. Young-ish President aside, American foreign policy is still run by elites whose views on America’s role in the world were shaped by the launch of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, and the 1973 Oil Embargo, all in the context of a manichaean global struggle against Soviet power. I wonder if this hasn’t habituated key people to thinking about the world in such black and white terms, rendering them, for example, more susceptible to narratives of civilizational clash, or less likely to question far-flung foreign interventions. Likewise, I wonder how (or if) American foreign policy will change once it’s run by people whose historical touchstones are the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
It would be interesting to try to track generational attitudes toward foreign policy, and in what way those attitudes create cognitive “hangover effects” that make it difficult for countries to adjust policy to changing circumstances. There must be a decent book to be written somewhere in there.
*Just a note, if you haven’t read Strauss and Howe’s Generations: A History of America’s Future, you really should. It’s a bit theoretically baroque, and I certainly don’t agree with everything in the book, but it’s a very conceptually-interesting journey through the ups and downs of generational memory and experience.