Rise and Fall

Autor: ehemaliges Mitglied

Empires come and empires go--and their collapse, says historian Niall Ferguson, is often precipitous.

Empires may fall by overextending themselves in military adventures. The U.S. is fighting two wars and engaging in a proxy war in Pakistan, and it's doing it largely with borrowed money. Each soldier in Afghanistan costs the federal budget a million dollars each year, or so Ferguson say.

Certainly, the U.S. empire need not collapse. But--hope so--soon it will.

Complexity and Collapse Empires on the Ede of Chaos (by Niall Ferguson), Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010

There is no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than The Course of Empire, a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole that hang in the New-York Historical Society. Cole was a founder of the Hudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century American landscape painting; in 'The Course of Empire', he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to this day.


Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989. What happened 20 years ago, like the events of the distant fifth century, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline,and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.

A more appropriate visual representation of the way complex systems collapse may be the old poster,once so popular in thousands of college dorm rooms, of a runaway steam train that has crashed through the wall of a Victorian railway terminus and hit the street below nose first. A defective brake or a sleeping driver can be all it takes to go over the edge of chaos.


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