My last post posited on how debt was not going to be the thing that took down the American superpower. But it did get me thinking – what could? History’s seen several superpowers come and go, starting with the Roman Empire in the ancient days to, most recently, the Soviet Union.
How do superpowers fall? They’re rarely taken down by one crisis. Their very nature is that they’re so big, and so tough, that they can absorb those kinds of hits and still reorganize themselves for a counterattack. In modern times, the greatest empires in world history have been undone not by single events but by a combination of them. From Spain’s Catholic monarchy to Britain’s decolonization to the Soviet Union’s implosion, global hegemons need more than a few blows to be reduced in stature.
So what are they? While not exhaustive, here’s a few.
#1 – Be a multicultural and multiethnic country
Look down the list of modern failures; Austria-Hungary, the USSR, the British, French, and Spanish empires were all great powers or superpowers in their own right. But when the fractures started, all of them split along racial, ethnic, or religious lines, even if such a process was messy and imperfect. Why did Russia itself not collapse in 1991? Largely because Russian ethnicity and language held it together. It was no accident the Soviet Union split into constituent ethnic republics.
China, meanwhile, is dominated by ethnic Hans, and so has been able to stew in chaos for large lengths of time and still return as a nation-state. The madness of China’s 1920s should have seen the end of China itself. But ethnic Han reorganized themselves into a new nation-state in quite similar borders to the old Qing dynasty.
Many states today are experimenting with limited forms of multiculturalism; the efficacy of this modern development is still up in the air. This might result in deep splits among communities that could disintegrate state power, or it might result in new mixed cultures with even greater loyalty to the central state. Time will certainly tell.
#2 – Be corrupt to the point of stealing from your own factories – and then tell everyone about it
One reason China’s Communist Party survived and Russia’s didn’t is because the Russians had the bad sense to go public with all their terrible behavior, hoping that this honesty would translate to greater efficiency and greater state power. It did precisely the opposite; rather than making everyone feel good that bad things were finally in the open, it crushed whatever faith was left in the communist system.
Britain’s colonial empire was most powerful when its newspapers reported its atrocities the least. One of Britain’s greatest debacles was the botched Palestinian partition. Despite the relatively low casualties and the overwhelming use of force, Britain couldn’t pull off the same kind of tricks that had kept its empire together for decades. Much of that was because newspapers kept reporting fuck up after fuck up.
Today, one of the most powerful governments in the world (from the perspective of being able to do anything they want inside their borders) is North Korea. They’ve taken the lie-to-your-subjects thing to new heights – and correspondingly enjoy greater internal state power.
#3 – Make peaceful transfers of power difficult, if not impossible
Syria’s been sucked into a civil war because it couldn’t transfer power peacefully from one group to another. When we talk about a superpower, remember we are not talking about a form of government or a political ideology, but rather a nation-state of supreme power capable of acting as it wishes all over the world. It doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s democratic or not. What matters is if the state has mechanisms that allow power to move from one personality to another over time without disrupting the machinery of the government.
For all its faults, the Soviet Union got a lot of life out of its communist experiment partially because it could stage manage these transfers quite well. There was backstabbing and butchery, of course, but it was quiet and did not damage the running of the state. When leaders could no longer perform, they could be pushed aside without starting a civil war. China, too, despite its undemocratic nature, has managed this pretty well so far.
Systems that base themselves on families are usually the ones most impossible to change and degrade in quality over time. France’s time as a great power in the 18th century was interrupted by a revolution against a system based on family. The back and forths of revolution and counterrevolution that continued until France permanently became a republic in 1871 certainly helped keep the country in second place to Britain, which managed to avoid such disruptions by moving towards a constitutional monarchy.
#4 – Lose your friends by alienating them or being a bad person
By the time the Soviet Union was ready to die in 1991, they’d lost virtually all their allies. If there had been no Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, no Nixon visit to China, the USSR of the 1980s might have had a powerful and useful ally that could had helped prop up its ailing regime. Instead, it had a series of puppet states that it had to police. When it stopped doing even that, the alliance system so carefully constructed since World War II crumbled and left the Soviets open to internal instability.
Britain suffered this to a lesser extent as well in the 1950s and 60s. The United States was unwilling to support Britain’s colonial empire any further except in some places where communists had a foothold. The U.S. saw Britain’s empire as an immoral institution, having been a colony itself, and found it difficult to sympathize with the struggles of classic imperialists. It’s telling that in the Dhofar rebellion in Oman, the United States showed nary an interest – despite it being linked to South Yemen’s Marxist government.
#5 – Take several massive body blows in short order – and fail to rally anyone to fixing them
The Great Depression and World War II were as nasty as they come, but did not destroy the United States or the Soviet Union (the latter which suffered immeasurably more than the former). Why? Because while they were damaging, the states of both nations managed to rally their populations to the challenges of their time.
The 1980s were quite different for the Soviets. The Afghan war went badly; then they had Chernobyl; then the Eastern Bloc started to come apart; then there was the August 1991 coup. All of these were pretty devastating in and of themselves and would shake a medium power to its core. But since they came one after another, and the Soviets failed to create an esprit de corps to overcome them, faith in the Soviet system was shaken so deeply that it couldn’t survive.
#6 – Give power to someone borderline insane with no checks on them
One of the greatest defects of the Roman Empire was its belief in the philosopher-king system of governance – that is, if only a good person would come and rule, everything would be ok. Under relatively balanced and enlightened rulers like Augustus Caesar or the Five Good Emperors, this system worked. But over time, it was inevitable that someone would take power who was actually crazy. The result was bad policy that required new leaders to save the system. The wasted effort – and the accompanying loss of faith in the empire – steadily reduced the powers of the state.
In modern times, Hitler is the best example of an unchecked leader who destroyed the geopolitical potential of the nation-state beneath him. Germany had such successes in 1939-40 because it had a vast reserve of potential power. But Hitler was such a megalomaniac that he could not see its limits. Many other Germans in the High Command knew better and tried to off the man in 1944 because by then the system had already gone too far in concentrating all power and decisions in his personality. If Germany had somehow maintained a multipolar political environment, Hitler, crazy though he was, would never have been able to lead the country to its defeat.
#7 – Nuke it
Nobody’s done this one yet, but if you’re really keen on ending a superpower’s reign, the literal nuclear option is available. Annihilating a country’s demographics takes it out of the running. Of course, it’d be just as likely that your country’s people would be just as ashes.
Of course, one should assume that doing so is deeply painful and quite lethal to all parties involved
Even the relatively clean end of the Soviet Union still resulted in the Balkan Wars, the war in Chechnya, and plenty of chaos in Central Asia. Russia itself suffered a deep demographic decline in the 1990s as large portions of its population drank itself to death or otherwise found mundane ways to die young. No one has ever transferred power from one superpower to another without violence and death. This is the trap humanity faces. As the century rolls on, those who hope to see an end of America’s superpower status should perhaps keep that in mind.