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A soft landing for America 40 years from now? Don’t bet on it. The demise of the United States as the global superpower could come far more quickly than anyone imagines. If Washington is dreaming of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025, just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.
Today, three main threats exist to America’s dominant position in the global economy: loss of economic clout thanks to a shrinking share of world trade, the decline of American technological innovation, and the end of the dollar's privileged status as the global reserve currency.
Counterintuitively, as their power wanes, empires often plunge into ill-advised military misadventures. This phenomenon is known among historians of empire as “micro-militarism” and seems to involve psychologically compensatory efforts to salve the sting of retreat or defeat by occupying new territories, however briefly and catastrophically. These operations, irrational even from an imperial point of view, often yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that only accelerate the loss of power.
Embattled empires through the ages suffer an arrogance that drives them to plunge ever deeper into military misadventures until defeat becomes debacle. In 413 BCE, a weakened Athens sent 200 ships to be slaughtered in Sicily. In 1921, a dying imperial Spain dispatched 20,000 soldiers to be massacred by Berber guerrillas in Morocco. In 1956, a fading British Empire destroyed its prestige by attacking Suez. And in 2001 and 2003, the U.S. occupied Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. With the hubris that marks empires over the millennia, Washington has increased its troops in Afghanistan to 100,000, expanded the war into Pakistan, and extended its commitment to 2014 and beyond, courting disasters large and small in this guerilla-infested, nuclear-armed graveyard of empires.
By 2025, Iran and Russia will control almost half of the world's natural gas supply, which will potentially give them enormous leverage over energy-starved Europe. Add petroleum reserves to the mix and, as the National Intelligence Council has warned, in just 15 years two countries, Russia and Iran, could “emerge as energy kingpins.”
Throughout history imperial leaders inevitably emerge and drive their nations into wars for greater glory and "economic progress," while inevitably leading their nation into collapse. And that happens suddenly and swiftly, within "a decade or two."
'The Consummation of Empire' focuses us on Ferguson's core message: At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation. They have it all.
But more-is-not enough, as greed, arrogance and a thirst for power consume them. "Most great nations, at the peak of their economic power, become arrogant and wage great world wars at great cost, wasting vast resources, taking on huge debt, and ultimately burning themselves out."
"In the first, 'The Savage State,' a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn." Imagine our history from Columbus' discovery of America in 1492 on through four more centuries as we savagely expanded across the continent.
"The second picture, 'The Arcadian or Pastoral State,' is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple." The temple may seem out of place. However, Cole's paintings were done in 1833-1836, not long after Thomas Jefferson built the University of Virginia using classical Greek and Roman revival architecture.
As Ferguson continues the tour you sense you're actually inside the New York Historical Society, visually reminded of how history's great cycles do indeed repeat over and over. You are also reminded of one of history's great tragic ironies -- that all nations fail to learn the lessons of history, that all nations and their leaders fall prey to their own narcissistic hubris and that all eventually collapse from within.
"The third and largest of the paintings is 'The Consummation of Empire.' Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle."
Then comes 'The Destruction of Empire,' the fourth stage in Ferguson's grand drama about the life-cycle of all empires. In "Destruction" "the city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky." Elsewhere in "The War of the World," Ferguson described the 20th century as "the bloodiest in history, one hundred years of butchery." Today's high-tech relentless news cycle, suggests that our 21st century world is a far bloodier return to savagery.
At this point, investors are asking themselves: How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire? There is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history's inevitable cycles.
"Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, 'Desolation,'" says Ferguson. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy." No attacking "brigands?" No loveable waste-collecting robots from Wall-E?
The good news is the Earth will naturally regenerate itself without savage humans, as we saw in Alan Weisman's brilliant "The World Without Us:" Steel buildings decay. Microbes eat indestructible plastics. Eons pass. And Earth reemerges in all its glory, a Garden of Eden.
'All Empires ... are condemned to decline and fall'
Great powers, like great men, are born, rise, reign and then gradually wane. No matter whether civilizations decline culturally, economically or ecologically, their downfalls are protracted."
We are deceiving ourselves, convinced "the challenges that face the United States are often represented as slow-burning ... threats seem very remote."
Throughout history, empires function "in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly ... collapse," a blunt reminder of the sudden, swift, silent, certain timetable in Diamond's "Collapse" where a "society's demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power."
You are forewarned: If the peak of America's glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush, then we have already triggered the countdown to collapse, the decade from 2010 until 2020 ... tick ... tick ... tick ...