Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Collapse: Geopolitical Perspective


What will the collapse look like? That has been something that has nestled itself within the crevices of my mind for some time now. Listening to some of the opinions out there it will be a massive civilization catastrophe, others predict chaos and even potential famineStill other's have simply said that it will be a long, slow, and painful decline. I have always thought that crisis would affect us in three ways.  First there are the global geopolitical implications, and then there are the economic implications, and finally the sociological implications.  The economic implications are the most written about and perhaps the best conceptualized; we know there will be massive drop in wealth. Sociological issues have been written about as well.  The one aspect that the ‘event’, as I a call it, that hasn’t been really written about in detail is the geopolitical.  Most we hear short phrases about an end of the empire or hegemony.  But I think there is a little more to it than that.

I haven’t made my opinions on the end of the American empire unclear. I simply don’t think it will happen. The US has tremendous advantages in geographical, military hardware, and resources that even an event like this won’t fundamentally change that.  When the Roman Empire withered and collapsed the anarchy that ensued over the next couple of centuries, the dark ages, resulted because the empire had totally collapsed and there was a power vacuum within Western Europe.  There are some individuals that predict the US will utterly dissolve, however, this opinion is in the minority. Given that the US will most likely remain politically intact, albeit in a weaker state, we cannot assume that it will collapse the same way as the Romans did. The other argument for the collapse of American hegemony is that America will go the way of the European powers before it during the last major economic and geopolitical event.

The last time the world underwent a combined economic and geopolitical event was over 80 years ago during the 1930s and 1940s.  We all know the specifics about the depression and World War two, but many do not know that these series of events were a long time coming.  Event’s over the past couple of decades, in fact since the 1860’s and 1870s, lead up to this moment.

Ever since Europe become the axis of world trade and focus in the late 16th century; European powers jostled for both world and continental dominance.  Powers were able to obtain one, but never the other, France may have dominated Europe at the turn of the 19th century, however, they could not overcome the British and their control of the seas.  At this point in time Europe effectively controlled the world, and had done so for a few hundred years either directly via colonies or indirectly through diplomatic, economic, and political means.  Of the powers during this lengthy stretch of European global dominion Great Britain was most powerful.

  It’s status as an island, and location, helped ensure that it maintained global control of the seas. Coupled with their technological advantage over non-European nations and it ensured their status as the global sea super power, however, on continental Europe it was merely a very strong power among other equally strong and technologically advanced nations. The United Kingdom simply lacked the ability to directly or indirectly control European political in the way a true hegemon could, though it could play the political game deftly and use alliances to isolate strong European powers within the continent itself.

This is what happened to France during the 19th century.  Much of Europe was embroiled in a series of protracted wars and battles between France, and her client nations, and the United Kingdom, and her allies.  France steam rolled over much of continental Europe, however, was unable to fully secure the continent which allowed the UK to us her naval ability, along with ample ground support from the German kingdoms, duchies, and Italian kingdoms to eventually crush France.  Like the two wars that would come over a 100 years later they were bloody and terrible affairs, leaving many a European nation heavily indebted and nearly crippled.  However, there was no power else were in the world that could challenge the Europeans and so European dominion continued.  However events transpired to change this, the first was the conclusion of the civil war in America in 1860s, and the second was the unification of the German pretty kingdoms into the 2nd reich in 1870s.

1860's

The reason why the end of the American civil war was important because the United States had entered the war as a fractious nation hovering near dissolution, as it had been since its founding, to a strongly unified and industrial power.  The US rapidly developed and expanded west ward acquiring new resources and developing strength that would allow it to challenge, and eventually enforce, the Monroe doctrine.  What individuals have to remember is that had the war gone very differently then America probably would never have become the super power she is today.

And the war could have gone very differently, much like the French nearly a hundred years before; the British were weighing the political costs of entering the war on the side of the rebels.  If the UK had done so then the blockade of the southern states, along with the occupation of New Orleans, might not have happened.  At this time the United Kingdom was far more powerful than the US when it came to naval capability.  However, the British feared that risking war with the United States would risk losing Canada to the superior ground forces of America, but even more importantly, tie up the British navy so much that they would risk ceding control of other parts of the world to rival European powers.

Since Great Britain decided not to intervene in the War Between the States, and since it ended in decisive victory for the federal forces. The greatest source of contention and weakness that the US had was eliminated, which allowed the US to focus on developing itself economically and military over the coming decades.  By 1871, scarcely 7 years after the end of the civil war the US had become the world’s largest economy. And by the end of the 19th century the US was formally acknowledge as a great power with large naval stakes in the pacific; though not quite an equal to the United Kingdom.

1870's

The other important event was the UK’s inability to contain the rise of Germany the same way they had been able to contain France.  The rise of Germany, and its historically geographically precarious position, ensured that a major and bloody war would result in the continent once again.

Germany had historically been a fragmented series of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, and free states since the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, known in Germany as the first reich.  This meant that while the Holy Roman Empire was large and a dangerous power when internal factions cooperated, the political entity was never able to wield the strength that its size and wealth would suggest that it could. Moreover, geography contributed to the weakness of the German peoples when it came to trying to maintain political unity.  However, even after unification, which greatly enhanced German power, their nation was left in a position that was not desirable.

Whenever you get a rising power, or established power, that is in a position of uncertainly, conflict will ensue. This is precisely why Imperial Japan, a rising power in the pacific, attacked the United States, an established pacific power. Imperial Japan was a newly crowned great power in the world, however, its island nature and the need to import much needed resources, made them vulnerable to other sea faring powers, such as Great Britain and the United States.  When the US placed an embargo on Japan for their actions in China it set in motion a chain of events.  Japan needed the additional land and manpower of China to continue their economic and imperial growth.  However, it could not continue the war without oil, the US supplied 90% of it to the Island Empire at the time, and with the embargo the only other source was the East Indies, controlled by the Dutch and Great Britain. Since Japan viewed expansion into China as a necessity it should come as no surprise that the war broke out between the two nations.

For Germany that impetus was the vulnerable geographic position that their nation existed in. The northern portion of Germany sits on the Northern European Plain. Which stretches from the Bay of Biscany in France all the way to the steppes of Russia.  This means there are little in they way of natural barriers, specifically mountains or large bodies of water, on which the Germans could anchor their nation and secure their power.  That means that rather than hard defenses situated around terrain buffer zones, either by directly controlling adjacent lands, or through the use of buffer states under their dominion, is Germany's best defense. Moreover with the militarily powerful France adjacently to its west, and Russia separated only by a few weak Eastern European nations, to the East, it is easy to see the uncomfortable position the newly risen Germany was in. Moreover, Germany was also in the unfortunate position of being easily blockaded by the great naval power at the time. No matter how economically prosperous their nation may be, they were always at risk because of their geographic position in the European continent.  However, while the Great Northern European Plain made Germany vulnerable to invasion, it also made other nations vulnerable to Germany.
World War I, in my opinion, was inevitable, and while World War II was not, the policies enforced by the allies, over the objections of President Wilson, ensured that another war would eventually erupt, knowledge of how the first war ended shows clear signs that the fundemental issues that started World War I were not solved.  These two massive wars sucked the life blood out of the Great British empire, who without the buffer of Western European nations that were now under German dominion during Wolrd War II, were unable to exercise an adequate defense of her dominions from the Imperial Japanese.  Everyone knows that Great Britain bleed and paid dearly to ward of Nazi domination over Europe, and perhapes the western world; but what few realize is that the price paid was also the loss of global empire.  If World War II had not happened then Great Britain might have beeen able to reorganize and revitalize it's empire. Unfortunately for the British, the war did happen.
The after affects of the rise of an industrial America and a politically unified German came to fruition interestingly enough at Germany's final defeat.  Though Germany was torn asunder by the Allied powers following up to the Cold War.  The other European powers were too weak to take full advantage of the situation.  Yes the Soviet Union made a made grab for Eastern Europe, but outside of the Warshaw Pact, and the sort lived alliance with the Chinese, the USSR was badly hemmed in and in a very undesirable position, having limited access to the pacific due to the rough terrain of Siberia and being easily blockaded in the west.  Contrast this to the United States, which enjoyed unfettered access after the war, controling both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, but also a massive industrial base untouched by the war, and it is easy to see why the US not only took over Great Britain's role as the leader of major powers, but surpassed it to become the most powerful super power in modern times; and at the end of the cold war, the only superpower.
This leads me to my original point.  Knowing how the last event turned, and what brought about the end of the old global order, we need to ask what would replace the United States as the primary power in the world? The most often powers I hear of are the European Union, China and India.

First we need to examine what will happen to the United States.  The last time a super power completely collapsed it was catastrophic.  When the USSR collapsed it lost almost 72% of its GDP from 1989 to 1992, falling from 2.5 Trillion to 700 Billion.  This was partially caused by the loss of its many internal republics when they declared independence.  This was also because their economy, with the loss of revenue from those republics, could no longer pay for the machinery that had kept the regime alive.  As bad as the event will be, I have never heard anyone postulate a drop of GDP from 14 Trillion to a 3.9 Trillion dollars; which would essentially be a reversal to 1984.  The collapse was particularly bad for the Russians because they were already relatively poor, have a harder time with economic development, and nearly a century of being run by an absolutely morally corrupted system.  Fortunately for the United State's we have not had this, though our situation has degraded.

Knowing this it can also be assumed that our military will not completely self destruct like the Soviet Unions did.  Even assuming we halve our defense spending it doesn't mean that we still cannot maintain a significant military presence in the world.  US military spending was 300 billion dollars in 2000, which was enough to maintain 12 fleets and a massive military.  If our two wars had never happened, then the same military force would cost us 420 billion counting for inflation. So even doing some paper napkin math, and assuming defense spending was halve to around 350 billion, then we see that we could maintain a force 82% the size of what we have now.

Now this is very simplistic.  But the fact is that there are few global powers today, and in fact having a single carrier force counts you as a major military power in the world.  The US has twelve carrier forces, and it is the only one nation with a truly global positioning network system.  Even with a force half the size it is now the US would still be the most powerful nation militarily in the world.  Now on to our potential successors.
Little needs to be said about the European Union other than that the economic crisis has exposed how weak the union actually is.  There is absolutely no chance that the European Union will be able, or even willing, to take the mantle of super power from the United States after the event has occurred.
I have detailed China quite a bit on this blot. But to summarize their nation is still incredibly impoverished, there is massive social instability, and they are beginning to go through their own economic crisis.  That is not the recipe of a nation that will take over the reigns as leader of the world. And while China does hold a lot of US treasury bills, it simply can't make America pay. The Chinese know they have the raw end of the deal but their own situation forces them to continue to play a game stacked against them. And that fact that I can personally attest to the increasing levels of Chinese millionaires seeking EB-5 investment visas doesn't bode well. Millionaires don't leave a country whose future is bright.
India also has massive poverty and instability; though they do benefit from being a democracy.  However, India has been a perennially rising power whose moment is sure to come, and it hasn't come yet.  This could change, and probably will, but given that their nation will also be hit hard by a global economic crisis I don't see them taking over the United States mantle.
Moreover, when the United States replaced great Britain it had a very large, modern, well trained, and experienced military, particularly the Navy; which is required for a global super power. China and India do not.  Though they are in the process of modernizing their military they are much farther behind the United States now than the United States was behind Great Britain over a century  ago.
This gets to my final point. Even though the United States will be hit hard every other nation in the world will also face extreme hardship.  Perhaps one of the advantages of being at the top of the global geopolitical and economic spectrum is that, when it collapses, you have a mound of other nations to fall on top of.  The US has already exploited its position by exporting inflation to other nations and causing social instability elsewhere in the world in order to minimize unrest at home.  Nations do not play fair in the game of geopolitics and it would be unrealistic to think that the United States, as a geopolitical entity, will not do everything in its power to maintain its status as king of the hill.
If anything the USSR has shown us that even a nation that is terribly corrupt, poor, and falling apart internally can be a super power; at least for a period of time.  And at the moment, outside of well run smaller European nations like Switzerland or city states like Singapore, there isn't a nation that is much better, and many are arguably worse, than the US when it comes to corruption and a rotten societal culture.
In the long term this may, and has a decent likelihood, of changing. Forty years from now the geopolitical landscape will have greatly changed. Perhaps Mexico will overcome its systemic corruption to become a rival of the United States.  Maybe Turkey will become strong enough to effectively control the Middle East and North Africa much in the same way the Caliphates had hundreds of years ago.  This could come to pass. But that is far in the future.  
In the near term what I expect to see is a much weakened United States that remains the global power super power; however without the ability to use its status as world's currency reserve holder, to enforce its desires on the world. I also expect to see increasing resistance to American power due to the coming sovereign debt crisis.  This will curb her hegemonic control, but I still don't see any one nation, or any group of nations for that matter due to increasing nationalism, coming in to fill the vacuum.  
Now for the average American this won't mean much outside of the occasional forum flame war or talking head rant. The fact is that much of what happens outside of the United States has little bearing, at least to most Americans, on their daily lives. Whether or not Syria is controlled by Assad, or if China could someday counteract the US, doesn't matter to average Americans.  So even if America remains a super power, or the lone super power, after the 'event' it will have little bearing on what will happen to the standard of living that average Americans will have.  Segue to the economic impacts of the event.

2 comments:

  1. An intersting viewpoint, though a little difficult to read in dark gray text on black background. Not sure on the inevitability of WWI; as Nial Ferguson points out in his book The War of the World, the economic indicators leading up to that war do not suggest that the war was forseable, or preventable, but was actually a surprise to most which argues against its inevitability. WWII, on the other hand, was a direct result of the incomplete end of WWI and hence was an inevitable war given the occurrenc of WWI.
    That book is worth reading if you haven't already.

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    1. Apologies. The text is supposed to be white but for some reason bloggers templates has not been cooperative recently. I've changed the template to a new style. As for Nial Ferguson I will look it up, I am always open to differing opinions.

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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.