Monday, April 19, 2010

The rise and fall of Niall Ferguson

            In the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson has written, "Complexity and Collapse, Empires on the Edge of Chaos."  This article may or may not be available on line at .  Foreign Affairs seems to be saying that all one needs in order to read it is to register, but since I already had the hard copy I didn't put that to the test.
            In this article, Ferguson assumes that the U.S. is an empire (I suspect a search of the blog will find me disagreeing with him about that) and then predicts that it will one day collapse much as past empires have collapsed, "suddenly." 
            That the U.S. might one day possess much less military or economic power than it does now seems entirely possible, but that there will be the sort of collapse that Rome had seems preposterous.  An important element that Ferguson refuses to take seriously is the interrelationship of the Liberal-Democratic nations in this modern world.  Ferguson leans toward neither Fukuyama nor Huntington (the two theorists that the present, in my opinion, the most viable, albeit incompatible, theories of the near-term future).  Instead he bases his predictions on pre-Liberal-Democratic empires -- empires that operated much more independently than any Liberal Democracy does today. 
            It might do Ferguson good to consider historical Britain as something other than an empire.  If he were to manage that then its "fall" would seem much less precipitous.  What exactly did it consist of, I ask?  It consisted of loss of its colonies and the inability of Britain to successfully oppose the U.S. (as evidenced by the Suez crisis in 1956).  As to the colonies, one might as well say that the loss of the slave trade comprised a collapse of empire.  And in regard to its relative power compared to the U.S., surely it was no secret to any Britain that participated in World War II that the U.S. had become a much more powerful nation.  But so what?  Is this a zero-sum situation?  I don't think so.  Europe has even today not utterly overcome the effects of the two devastating World Wars that took place largely in its midst during the twentieth century.  That surely is more important that the hypothetical loss of Britain's, or even France's, empire -- as emotionally as that might have been for them.  But "empire," however nostalgically pleasurable that term might be for Niall Ferguson must be so heavily couched in disclaimers that it loses its usefulness for explaining anything in this modern world.
            Another recent "empire" Ferguson likes to describe as having "fallen" is the USSR.  Indeed the Soviet "Communist" experiment dif "fall," but its failure is hardly in the same category as that of Rome or other ancient empires.  The USSR comprised a modern day Socialistic experiment.  It was the largest and most ambitious such experiment, but an experiment nonetheless.  Its fall can best be described in terms of human nature: the unwillingness of humans to live under the Socialistic restraints imposed the dreamers that conceived the experiment.
            Might not China or India become more militarily or economically powerful than the U.S. by, say, 2080?  Sure, but that doesn't mean the U.S. will be overrun by barbaric hoards as Rome eventually was.  The most likely scenario is that it would take a step back as Britain and France did after World War II. 
            Another element Ferguson doesn't discuss is the potential interference of the present-day number two power (China) with the number one power (the U.S.).   The reason for this is that there is nothing to discuss -- at least not along the lines that Ferguson likes to argue.  China has absolutely no interest in dominating the U.S. physically or economically.  It is not spending its money on a military force that could cross the pacific in a vast armada to conquer the U.S.  Neither does it seek the economic collapse of the U.S.  In fact if the latter event were to happen, China's economy is so inextricably combined with that of the U.S. that it would probably involve the collapse of the Chinese economy as well.  Which, by the way, is the nature of Liberal-Democratic economic relationships -- not that China qualifies as a Liberal-Democracy in every respect, but it is functioning as one economically.  It has successfully entered the vast Liberal-Democratic economy as a player.  Players are not interested in zero-sum enterprises.  They don't function as "empires." They don't wish their trading partners to fail.  Any failure, any setback or loss of economic wherewithal, means some sort of loss for the rest of them as well.   What I am describing is the world as Francis Fukuyama knows it.  It is not the world that Niall Ferguson seems to be living in. 
            I can imagine Ferguson waxing nostalgically about the "good old days" of "British Empire," but that surely must be a British enterprise and not an American -- and yet Niall Ferguson has rather firmly ensconced himself at Harvard.  But perhaps "firmly" isn't a term I should use when discussing Ferguson.  He seems to have moved around quite a bit:

1 comment:

islamicnet said...

Nice work by a nice person. way to go