Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On The Border

The topic of last week’s post, the likely fate of Israel in the twilight years of American empire, makes a good example of more than one common theme.  As I commented in that earlier discussion, Israel is one of several American client states for whom the end of our empire will also be the end of the line.  At the same time, it also highlights a major source of international tension that bids fair to bring in a bumper crop of conflict in the decades before us.

The word “irredentism” doesn’t get a lot of play in the media just now, but my readers may wish to keep it in mind; there’s every reason to think they will hear it fairly often in the future. It’s the conviction, on the part of a group of people, that they ought to regain possession of some piece of real estate that their ancestors owned at some point in the past.  It’s an understandably popular notion, and its only drawback is the awkward detail that every corner of the planet, with the exception of Antarctica and a few barren island chains here and there, is subject to more than one such claim. The corner of the Middle East currently occupied by the state of Israel has a remarkable number of irredentist claims on it, but there are parts of Europe and Asia that could match it readily—and of course it only takes one such claim on someone else’s territory to set serious trouble in motion.

It’s common enough for Americans, if they think of irredentism at all, to think of it as somebody else’s problem. Airily superior articles in the New York Times and the like talk about Argentina’s claim to the Falklands or Bolivia’s demand for its long-lost corridor to the sea, for example, as though nothing of the sort could possibly spill out of other countries to touch the lives of Americans. I can’t think of a better example of this country’s selective blindness to its own history, because the great-grandmother of irredentist crises is taking shape right here in North America, and there’s every reason to think it will blow sky-high in the not too distant future.

That’s the third and last of the hot button topics I want to discuss as we close in on the end of the current sequence of posts on the end of American empire, and yes, I’m talking about the southern border of the United States.

Many Americans barely remember that the southwestern quarter of the United States used to be the northern half of Mexico. Most of them never learned that the Mexican War, the conflict that made that happen, was a straightforward act of piracy. (As far as I know, nobody pretended otherwise at the time—the United States in those days had not yet fallen into the habit of dressing up its acts of realpolitik in moralizing cant.)  North of the Rio Grande, if the Mexican War comes to mind at all, it’s usually brushed aside with bland insouciance: we won, you lost, get over it. South of the Rio Grande? Every man, woman and child knows all the details of that war, and they have not gotten over it.

That might not matter much on this side of the border, except for two things.  The first, which I’ve discussed here several times, is the dominant fact of 21st century North American geopolitics, the failure of US settlement in the dryland West.  In the heyday of American expansion, flush with ample wealth from undepleted resources and unexhausted topsoil, the United States flung a pattern of human ecology nurtured on the well-watered soils of the Ohio and upper Mississippi valleys straight across the continent, dotting the Great Plains and the dry lands between the mountains with farms and farm towns.  The dream was that these would follow the same trajectory as their predecessors further east, and turn into a permanently settled agricultural hinterland feeding wealth into newborn cities.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was the first sign that this grand fantasy was not going to be fulfilled. Behind the catastrophic impact of farming techniques poorly suited to the fragile western soils was a deeper, natural cycle of drought, one that the native peoples of the West knew well but white settlers  were by and large too arrogant to learn. Since then, as the vulnerability of agriculture on the southern Plains to cyclical drought and other ecological challenges has become more and more clear, the usual response—throw more money and technology at it—has solved problems in the near term by turning them into insoluble predicaments in the longer term.  Thus, for example, farmers faced with drought turned to irrigation using water from underground aquifers that date from the Ice Age and haven’t been replenished since then, gaining temporary prosperity at the cost of permanent ruin later on.

The details vary from region to region but the effect is the same. Across the dryland West, from the Great Plains to the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, a new kind of ghost town is emerging alongside the old breed from the days of the gold and silver rushes. Homes, churches, schools, city halls sit empty as tumbleweeds roll down the streets; with the decline of the old agricultural economy, all the townsfolk, or all but a few stubborn retirees, have gone elsewhere.  There are county-sized areas in several of the Plains states these days that once again fit the old definition of frontier: fewer than two non-Native American people per square mile.  In response, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest nation that has enough spare people and cultural vitality for the job.

I encourage those of my readers who doubt this claim to book a long bus trip through any of the major agricultural regions of the United States west of the Mississippi valley. You’ll want the run that stops at every other two-bit farm town along the way, because that’s where you’re going to see a significant part of America’s future: the towns that are Mexican by every standard except for a few lines on a map. It’s not just that the signs are all in Spanish; the movie posters in the video shop windows are for Mexican movies, the snacks in the gas stations are Mexican brands, the radio announcers are talking excitedly about Mexican sports teams and the people on the street are wearing Mexican fashions.  Such towns aren’t limited these days to the quarter of the United States that used to be half of Mexico; they can be found in most of the country’s agricultural regions, and increasingly beyond them as well.

In the United States, this isn’t something you talk about. There’s plenty of rhetoric about immigration from Mexico, to be sure, but nearly all of it focuses on the modest fraction of those immigrants who cross into the US illegally. Behind that focus is another thing people in the United States don’t talk about, which is the bitter class warfare between America’s middle class and its working class. Illegal immigration is good for the middle class, because illegal immigrants—who have effectively no rights and thus can be paid starvation wages for unskilled and semiskilled labor—drive down the cost of labor, and thus decrease the prices of goods and services that middle class people want. By the same token, illegal immigration is bad for the working class, because the same process leaves working class Americans with shrinking paychecks and fewer job opportunities. 

Nobody in the middle class wants to admit that it’s in their economic interest to consign the American working class to misery and impoverishment; nobody in the working class wants to use the language of class warfare, for fear of handing rhetorical weapons to the next class down; so both sides bicker about a convenient side issue, which in this case happens to be illegal immigration, and they bicker about it in the shrill moral language that afflicts discussions of most issues in today’s America, so that the straightforward political and economic issues don’t come up.  Meanwhile, the demographic shift continues, and redefines the future history and cultural landscape of the North American continent.

Students of history will recognize in the failure of US settlement in the dryland West a familiar pattern, one that is also under way on the other side of the Pacific—the Russian settlement of Siberia is turning into a dead end of the same kind, and immigrants from China and other Asian countries are flooding northwards there, quite probably laying the foundations for a Greater China that may someday extend west to the Urals and north to the Arctic Ocean.  Still, there’s another pattern at work in North America.  To make sense of it, a glance at one of the core sources of inspiration for this blog—the writings of Arnold Toynbee—will be helpful.

Central to Toynbee’s project, and to the sprawling 12-volume work A Study of History that came out of it, was the idea of putting corresponding stages in the rise and fall of civilizations side by side, and seeing what common factors could be drawn from the comparison. Simple in theory, that proved to be a gargantuan undertaking in practice, which is why nearly all of Toynbee’s career as a writer of history was devoted to that one project. The result is a core resource for the kind of work I’m trying to do in this blog: the attempt to gauge the shape of our future by paying attention to the ways similar patterns have worked out in the historic past.

One pattern that has plenty of examples on offer is the evolution of borderland regions caught between an imperial power and a much poorer and less technologically complex society.  Imperial China and central Asia, the Roman world and the Germanic barbarians, the Toltecs of ancient Mexico and their Chichimec neighbors to the north—well, the list goes on. It’s a very common feature of history, and it unfolds in a remarkably precise and stereotyped way.

The first phase of that unfoldment begins with the rise and successful expansion of the imperial power. That expansion quite often involves the conquest of lands previously owned by less wealthy and powerful nations next door.  For some time thereafter, neighboring societies that are not absorbed in this way are drawn into the imperial power’s orbit and copy its political and cultural habits—German tribal chieftains mint their own pseudo-Roman coins and drape themselves in togas, people very far from America copy the institutions of representative democracy and don blue jeans, and so on. A successful empire has a charisma that inspires imitation, and while it retains its ascendancy, that charisma makes the continued domination of its borderlands easy to maintain.

It’s when the ascendancy fails and the charisma crumbles that things start to get difficult. Toynbee uses a neat if untranslatable Latin pun to denote the difference: the charisma of a successful imperial power makes its borderlands a limen or doorway, while the weakening of its power and the collapse of its charisma compels it to replace the limen with a limes, a defensive wall. Very often, in fact, it’s when a physical wall goes up along the border that the imperial power, in effect, serves notice to its historians that its days are numbered.

Once the wall goes up, literally or figuratively, the focus shifts to the lands immediately outside it, and those lands go through a series of utterly predictable stages. As economic and political stresses mount along the boundary, social order collapses and institutions disintegrate, leaving power in the hands of a distinctive social form, the warband—a body of mostly young men whose sole trade is violence, and who are bound by personal loyalties to a charismatic warlord.  At first, nascent warbands strive mostly with one another and with the crumbling institutions of their own countries, but before long their attention turns to the much richer pickings to be found on the other side of the wall.  Raids and counter-raids plunge the region into a rising spiral of violence that the warbands can afford much more easily than the imperial government.

The final stages of the process depend on the broader pattern of decline. In Toynbee’s analysis, a civilization in decline always divides into a dominant minority, which maintains its power by increasingly coercive means, and an internal proletariat—that is, the bulk of the population, who are formally part of the civilization but receive an ever smaller share of its benefits and become ever more alienated from its values and institutions. This condition applies to the imperial state and its inner circle of allies; outside that core lies the world of the external proletariat—in the terms used in earlier posts here, these are the peoples subjected to the business end of the imperial wealth pump, whose wealth flows inward to support the imperial core but who receive few benefits in exchange.

The rise of warband culture drives the collapse of that arrangement. As warbands rise, coalesce, and begin probing across the border, the machinery that concentrates wealth in the hands of the dominant minority begins to break apart; tax revenues plunge as wealth turns into warband plunder, and the imperial state’s capacity to enforce its will dwindles.  The end comes when the internal proletariat, pushed to the breaking point by increasingly frantic demands from the dominant minority, throws its support to the external proletariat—or, more to the point, to the successful leadership of one or more of the external proletariat’s biggest warbands—and the empire begins its final collapse into a congeries of protofeudal statelets.   Much more often than not, that’s how the final crisis of a civilization unfolds; it’s also one standard way that common or garden variety empires fall, even when they don’t take a civilization down with them.

As the United States faces the end of its overseas empire and the drastic contraction of an economy long inflated by imperial tribute, in other words, it faces a massive difficulty much closer to home:  a proud and populous nation on its southern border, with a vibrant culture but disintegrating political institutions, emergent warbands of the classic type, a large and growing demographic presence inside US borders, and a burning sense of resentment directed squarely at the United States.  This is not a recipe for a peaceful imperial decline.

Nor is there much hope that the classic pattern can be evaded:  the wall has already gone up, in the most literal sense, and the usual consequences are following.  The warbands? The US media calls them “drug gangs,” since their involvement in drug smuggling across the border makes good copy. They haven’t yet completed the trajectory that will make them the heirs of the Huns and Visigoths, and in particular, the rock-star charisma that surrounds great warlords in an age of imperial collapse has only just begun to flicker around the most successful leaders of the nascent Mexican warbands.  Give it time; the glorification of the gangster life that pervades popular culture toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid these days shows that the seeds of that change have long since been planted.

Can anything be done to prevent this from proceeding all the way to its normal completion?  At this stage in the game, probably not.  An empire in the days of its power can sometimes stop the spiral by conquering the entire region—not merely the border area, but all the way out to the nearest major geographical barrier—and absorbing it fully into the imperial system; that’s why Gaul, which had been a source of constant raids against Roman interests early on, didn’t produce many warbands of its own in the years of decline until it was conquered and settled by Germanic tribes from points further east. Had the United States conquered all of Mexico in the 1870s, admitted its states into the Union, and integrated Mexican society fully into the American project,  that might have worked, but it’s far too late in the day for that; the polarization of the borderlands is already a fact, so is the bitterness of a dispossessed people, and so is the ongoing unraveling of American power.

The other endpoint of the process—the only other endpoint of the process that can be found anywhere in recorded history—is the collapse of the imperial power.  The United States has prepared plenty of other disasters for itself, by way of its unusually clueless choices in recent decades, and some of them are likely to hit well before the defense of the southern border becomes its most pressing and insoluble security problem.  Still, I would encourage those of my readers who live in the dryland West, especially those within a state or so of the southern border, to keep an eye open for the first tentative raids, and perhaps to read up on what happened to those parts of the Roman Empire most directly exposed to warband incursions in the twilight years of Roman rule.

I would also like to ask any of my readers who are incensed by the above to stop, take a deep breath, and pay attention to what is and is not being said here.  Again, the shrill rhetoric of moral judgment that treats every political question as an opportunity for self-righteous indignation, popular as it is, has no particular value in this context.  More than a century and a half ago, American politicians decided to go to war with Mexico; over the next century or so, as a result of that decision and its cascading consequences, the social order basic to any viable society will most likely be shredded over a sizable part of what is now the United States, and stay that way for a good long time.  That’s simply one of the things that can happen when an empire falls, and it’s something many of us can expect to see here in America in the years ahead.

End of the World of the Week #50

As previous entries in this series have shown, predicting the end of the world is a chancy business, and your likelihood of being proved wrong and made to eat crow is very high. There’s at least one way to avoid that awkward detail, though—make sure you don’t survive to see the failure of the prophecy—and a certain number of apocalyptic true believers have used that escape hatch.

The Orderof the Solar Temple—l’Ordre du Temple Solaire, for purists—was one of those. It emerged out of the New Age scene in the late 1980s, attracting a wealthy clientele in Quebec and a variety of European countries with a free mix of New Age philosophy and rituals borrowed from a range of occult traditions. Its founders, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, started with a set of utopian fantasies of the usual sort, but as time passed and a New Age of peace and brotherhood unaccountably failed to dawn, they strayed further and further into the apocalyptic flip side of those fantasies. By the early 1990s the Solar Temple was preaching that the middle of that decade would see vast environmental catastrophes that would exterminate most if not all of the human race.

Most prophets of doom prefer to wait around, like Harold Camping, to see the end arrive, but Jouret, Di Mambro, and many of their followers were made of sterner stuff. That’s why they killed themselves en masse over a period of a few days late in November, 1994. The vast environmental catastrophes failed to arrive, of course, but that was no longer anything Jouret or Di Mambro had to worry about.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In the Twilight of Empires

Last week’s post on the logic of nuclear deterrence in an age of decline got what was, all things considered, a much less irrational response than discussions of nuclear war generally field.  I’m not sure whether or not that counts as evidence for my theory that we’ve all somehow slipped into an alternate reality, the kind of eerie parallel universe where right-wing shock jocks quote archdruids approvingly and delusional claims about limitless shale oil get critiqued in the media.  Still, it’s emboldened me to go on to the second of the hot button topics I have in mind—perhaps the hottest of hot button topics these days, in fact, one that routinely attracts top-of-the-lungs bellowing from both ends of a hopelessly polarized debate.

Yes, it’s time to talk about Israel.

By this I don’t mean that we need to go through yet another round of who-did-what-to-whom rhetoric in the shrill tones of moral absolutism that pervade the subject these days. There’s a point to discussing ethical issues surrounding the origins, conduct, and future of the nation-state of Israel, to be sure, but that discussion is already happening elsewhere, or more precisely would be happening if most of the potential participants weren’t too busy shouting past each other.  What gets misplaced in all the noise, though, is that this is not the only discussion worth having.

In particular, the central theme of this series of posts—the decline and fall of America’s global empire—has aspects that are easiest to see from the perspective of one of America’s more vulnerable client states.  Those aspects are not particularly moral in nature, and the stridently self-righteous arguments that fill most current discussions of Israel’s fate have nothing to contribute here.  For the moment, then, I’d like to set aside squabbles about whether the nation-state of Israel as currently constituted should survive, and ask instead whether, in the post-American world of the not too distant future, it can survive. That’s a much simpler question, and the answer is equally simple:  no.

To explain that answer, I’d like to tell a story.  Once upon a time—isn’t that how stories are supposed to begin?—there was a group of people who believed that their god had promised them a particular corner of the Middle East, and decided to take him up on the offer. It so happened that conditions just then were propitious for their project.  The cultural politics of the major Western powers of the time favored it, and not merely in an abstract sense:  money and weapons could be had for the attempt, and a great deal more could be made available if the project succeeded in establishing a foothold.

Even more crucial was the state of the Middle East at that time.  The history of that region has a regular rhythm of systole and diastole that can be traced back very nearly to the earliest clay-tablet records: periods of centralization, in which a single major Middle Eastern power dominates as large a fraction of the world as the current transport technology will allow, alternate with periods of disintegration, in which the region fragments and turns into a chessboard on which powers from outside the region play their own power games.  At the time we’re discussing, the Middle East was in one of its diastole phases, fractured into small quarrelling states, and the sudden seizure of a strategically important part of the region drew only a local and ineffective response.

So a new state came into being, surrounded by hostile neighbors, and a great deal of the shrill self-justifying rhetoric already described came from both sides of the new frontiers. Several of the major Western powers supported the new state with significant financial and military aid; of at least equal importance, members of the religious community responsible for creating the new state, who remained back in those same Western nations, engaged in vigorous fundraising efforts to support the new state, and equally vigorous political efforts to get existing governmental support maintained or increased. The resources thus made available to the new state gave it a substantial military edge against its hostile neighbors, and its existence became enough of a fait accompli that some of its neighbors backed away from a wholly confrontational stance.

Still, the state’s survival depended on three things.  The first, and by far the most crucial, was the ongoing flow of support from the Western powers to pay for a military establishment far larger than the economic and natural resources of the territory in question would permit.  The second was the continued fragmentation and relative weakness of the surrounding states.  The third was the maintenance of internal peace within the state and of collective assent to a clear sense of priorities, so that it could respond with its full force to threats from outside instead of squandering its limited resources on civil strife or popular projects that contributed nothing to its survival.

In the long run, none of these three conditions could be met indefinitely.  Shifts in cultural politics and, more importantly, in the economic stability of the Western powers of the time turned the large subsidies supporting the state into a political liability that eventually lost out in the struggle for available wealth. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the power struggles between competing statelets began to give way to a new era of centralization. Finally, the internal cohesion of the state broke down in power struggles between different factions, and too many resources had been committed to politically necessary but practically useless projects such as the support of large religious communities that did nothing but pray and study the scriptures.  The arrogant certainty that the state could always overcome its enemies and that the Western powers owed it the subsidies that paid for its survival put bitter icing on an already overbaked cake, and all but guaranteed the final disaster.

And that, dear reader, was why the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem fell to the armies of Saladin in 1187, and why the last scraps of the kingdoms of Outremer, as the Crusaders called the land now known as Israel, were mopped up by Muslim armies over the century that followed.

Now I’m quite aware that comparing the current state of Israel to the Crusader states of Outremer is waving a red flag at some already overexcited bulls.  Any of my readers who are ready to leap up and insist that Israel either can or can’t be compared to the Crusaders on moral grounds are encouraged to stop, and remember that that’s not what we’re talking about. The relative moral standing of Crusaders and Israelis is irrelevant to the issues this post is trying to discuss; what’s relevant is that, in the purely pragmatic realms of politics and war, there are a great many parallels between the two examples.

To begin with, Israel, as Outremer did in its time, depends for its survival on very large subsidies from the major Western powers.  In the case of Israel, those mostly come from the United States.  The US government spends many billions of dollars a year on direct and indirect aid to Israel, while America’s large and relatively wealthy Jewish community—which comprises the largest number of Jews in any single nation on Earth—engages in a great deal of fundraising for Israel on its own behalf.  Many synagogues and other Jewish community instititions in America serve just as effectively to channel resources to Israel as, say, the European properties and chapter houses of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller did to keep wealth and weapons flowing to the kingdoms of Outremer.  Without that aid, governmental and private, the large and well-equipped Israeli military would be far too great a burden on the economy of what is, after all, a very small and resource-poor country, and the balance of power in the region would shift dramatically to Israel’s disadvantage.

Equally, the continued fragmentation of the Middle East is a crucial factor in Israel’s survival. The last two centuries or so have seen the long rhythm of Middle Eastern history enter a diastole period, splintering the once-powerful Ottoman Empire into more than two dozen small, quarrelsome, and vulnerable nations that were generally unable to counter incursions from Europe and America. To a real extent, the current condition of the Middle East is one of waiting for the next Saladin, with Iran, Turkey, or a future Islamic Republic of Arabia likely contenders for the center around which the next Middle Eastern superstate will coalesce. Of course it’s a core principle of Israeli diplomacy and military strategy to prevent the emergence of a single center of power capable of  mobilizing any large fraction of the resources of the Arab world; still, it bears remembering that this was an equally central principle of the strategy of Outremer, and the Crusaders’ efforts in this direction eventually failed.

I don’t propose to pass judgment on the current state of Israeli politics and culture, even to the extent of deciding whether current trends toward political factionalism and the support of Orthodox communities at state expense do or don’t mirror the vicious political infighting of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s final decades and the economic burden of Christian monasteries and nunneries that played so large a role in weakening Outremer. The crucial point just now, it seems to me, is Israel’s dependence on a constant inflow of funds from the United States.  If that goes away, the military balance of power shifts irrevocably, and so does the Israeli government’s capacity to afford the unproductive but politically necessary payoffs that maintain such social cohesion as there is; these shifts, in turn, promise an outcome as unwelcome to Israel, at least as currently constituted, as the equivalent was to Outremer.

One of the central consequences of the trajectory of imperial decline we’ve been discussing over the course of the past year, in turn, is that the capacity of the United States government to afford lavish subsidies to client states overseas, as well as the capacity of any significant group of American citizens to carry out large-scale fundraising projects on their own, will not last indefinitely. The United States has the ample wealth that allows it to support Israel because of the imperial wealth pump, that is to say, the systematic patterns of unbalanced exchange that funnel an oversized share of the world’s wealth into American hands.  As those patterns break down—and they are breaking down already—the subsidies that keep the Israeli economy afloat and make its current rate of military expenditure possible  will inevitably slow to a trickle and then stop.

 When that happens, Israel will find itself backed into a corner with no readily available means of escape. Finding another nation willing to take over the American role as sugar daddy is easier said than done; much of the support Israel gets from the US comes out of the fact that the American Jewish community is one of the better organized veto groups in American politics just now, with the votes and funding to swing a close election, while none of the rising powers likely to take over America’s role in the world has either a large enough Jewish minority or a political system sufficiently gridlocked to allow the same sort of pressure to be applied.  Given a choice between funding Israel and placating the petroleum-rich nations and ample export markets of the Arab world, it’s not hard to see where, for example, China’s obvious interest lies.

Lacking outside support, in turn, Israel faces a future in which it can no longer dominate its region and may not be able to ward off military threats.  Its military depends, like most modern militaries, on large and reliable inputs of petroleum products, and petroleum is one of the many resources that Israel lacks; its ability to import as much gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, and so on as it needs depends, like so much else, on the subsidies it gets from the United States.  The ability to field a large and technically advanced military machine also depends on those direct and indirect subsidies.  Lacking them, Israel’s military potential is not much greater than, say, Lebanon’s or Jordan’s—not enough, in other words, to sustain anything like its current dominance.  Its nuclear arsenal gives it a temporary edge, but one that will last only until a rival power in the region equips itself with its own stockpile of warheads and delivery systems.

It’s probably necessary at this point to put paid to one of the widely repeated fantasies of our time, the notion that Israel might set out to guarantee its survival by threatening the rest of the world with nuclear war, or might simply start flinging warheads around in the event of its imminent demise. That’s one of those theories that seems to make sense as long as no one asks what happens next. The downside to any such action on Israel’s part, of course, is that the nations threatened or attacked would be able to respond with far more compelling threats and far more devastating reprisals.

To begin with, Israel is a very small country.  Any nation with a significant nuclear arsenal could turn the whole of it into incandescent ash, along with its entire population, and still have bombs left over. The threat to wreck a city or two has very little clout when the cost of following through on that threat could quite easily amount to immediate national annihilation.

Furthermore, many of the nations that might plausibly be threatened with a bomb or two can respond at least as effectively by means of conventional warfare. Let’s imagine, for example, that Israel were to threaten Russia, among other countries, with nuclear bombs—we’ll assume, borrowing one of the common tropes, that the bombs in question have been smuggled into Saint Petersburg and Moscow—unless something is done to stop an otherwise unstoppable Arab advance.  Anyone who thinks Russia would respond in a manner favorable to Israel knows nothing of Russian culture or history, but then that’s a common mistake on this side of the Atlantic.

We’ll assume, for the moment, that for some reason the Russian government decides not to inform the Israelis calmly that thirty minutes after either bomb goes off, a MIRV-tipped missile or two will return the favor to Tel Aviv with several hundred kilotons of interest.  The obvious alternative is to inform the Israelis with equal sang-froid that if either bomb goes off, Russia will declare war on Israel, and twenty or thirty Russian divisions with air support and all the other desiderata of modern warfare will join the Arab forces assaulting Israel. We don’t even need to talk about what additional threats the Russian government might quietly make concerning, for example, Russia’s remaining Jewish population. The same logic applies to other countries facing some comparable threat, since the only nation that would face assured destruction in a nuclear exchange with Israel, after all, is Israel.

The existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, mind you, makes it unlikely that the sort of final Arab assault beloved of American fundamentalist apocalypse-mongers will happen at any point in the near to middle future. A far more likely scenario, as America’s empire enters its twilight, would see economic and political crisis in Israel spiraling out of control as moderate and extremist factions scramble for control of a dwindling stock of wealth and resources, and everyone who has the resources and common sense to flee the country gets out.  How the endgame would play out is anyone’s guess at this point, and it’s not impossible that a few mushroom clouds may have a part in it one way or another. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the next few decades may well see a few nuclear weapons being used, and it’s exactly in situations like Israel’s that this seems most likely.

The western shores of the Pacific Ocean include another flashpoint of the same kind.  Taiwan is another American client state that has everything to lose as America’s global empire goes down, and it’s also a likely focus of the old and bitter geopolitical rivalry between China and Japan. It’s a core requirement of Chinese policy to regain control of Taiwan in order to secure the Chinese coast against any hostile power; Ir’s an equally core requirement of Japanese policy to keep China from regaining control of Taiwan, in order to secure the sea lanes that carry Japan’s fuel and food supplies against Chinese interdiction. It’s hard to think of a more perfect zero-sum game in the post-American world.  Japan’s position is by far the weaker, and it will face the difficult choice between submitting to Chinese suzerainty, and going to war as it did in 1941 against a rising superpower with vastly greater resources. Either way, it’s not going to be pretty.

That’s the sort of thing that happens routinely in the twilight of empires, when client states that have staked everything on support from an imperial patron find themselves twisting in the wind. In empires that expand by annexing territory, it’s the frontier provinces that get clobbered first and hardest when decline sets in; in empires that prefer to expand by building a network of client states, it’s the client states closest to major hostile powers that generally pay the heaviest price when the empire falters. Israel is wedged tightly into such a position; and its fate will be the result of the hard realities of history, not of any set of ethical considerations—nor, it probably has to be said, of which side in the current debates claims the moral high ground most loudly.

End of the World of the Week #49

What could be more colorful than a rogue planet crashing into the Earth, or at least sweeping by close enough to send the poles topsy-turvy and wipe out most of humanity? Whether or not that’s what motivated New Age writer and self-proclaimed extraterrestrial abductee Nancy Lieder to announce, in 1995,  the imminent and Earth-wrecking arrival of the planet Nibiru, her proclamation quickly became a cause célèbre in New Age circles. The name of the planet came from the ancient-astronaut theories of Zechariah Sitchin, who got it from ancient Babylonian astrology texts via his own dubious translations, but Sitchin’s notions were quickly swallowed up by the apocalypse meme once Lieder got hold of it—or, as she described the situation, was warned of it by the little gray aliens from Zeta Reticuli who talk to her via a mysterious implant in her brain.

Lieder’s original prediction was that Nibiru would come zooming past Earth on May 27, 2003, causing the Earth to stop rotating for 5.9 days and then undergo a pole shift. When that didn’t happen, she stopped giving specific dates, but still insists that Nibiru’s arrival will happen very, very soon. Fortunately for connoisseurs of absurdity, others are not so squeamish, and this June, the Weekly World News loudly announced that Nibiru’s long-awaited collision with the Earth would take place on November 21, 2012.

Yes, that’s today. So, dear reader, if you’re sitting at your computer reading this, and haven’t been scattered into interplanetary dust by a vagrant planet, the long list of failed apocalyptic predictions has just gained another entry...

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Deterrence in an Age of Decline

There are times, and this is one of them, when I wonder if somewhere in the last few weeks we all somehow got teleported into an alternate universe where nothing works quite the same way as were used to.  That feeling may be a bit easier to understand when I mention that I’ve just been praised on the air by Glenn Beck. Yes, that Glenn Beck. He was commenting on an interview I did not long ago with Chris Martenson on his Peak Prosperity podcast, which is not a thing I’d normally expect someone like Beck to find congenial.  Oh, and Beck noted in the same broadcast that of course there are hard limits on energy and resources.

If that hasn’t set your brain spinning, dear reader, consider this.  In the midst of all the handwaving about a new age of US energy independence, the Atlantic Monthly has published an article pointing out that the United States won’t be energy independent even if we do end up producing more oil than Saudi Arabia.  Now of course anyone who’s run the numbers knows this already; for several years now, Saudi Arabia has been the second largest petroleum producer in the world, right behind Russia, and #3 has long been—drumroll, please—the United States. It’s a measure of the sheer wasteful extravagance with which we use petroleum in this country that the world’s third largest petroleum producer still has to import around 2/3 of the oil it consumes each year.

Again, this isn’t news, or it wouldn’t be if Americans were by and large interested in dealing with the real world. It’s not even out of character for the Atlantic Monthly to run an article so unsympathetic to our national delusion du jour. What makes this startling, at least to me, is that the article in question has  been splashed all over the internet.  It’s almost as though people are actually starting to grapple with the hard reality of the predicament facing industrial society—and that does rather suggest that we’ve arrived in a universe very different from the one we’ve inhabited for the last three decades.

That being the case, I’m going to take the risk of discussing a few topics that I would normally leave alone, even though they have a great deal of relevance to the overall project of this blog and to the specific project of the last year or so of posts here on The Archdruid Report, the end of America’s age of empire.  This isn’t because I have nothing to say about them; quite the contrary.  It’s because they are the sort of hot-button topics that reliably make otherwise sane people go barking mad.

You’ll understand this a little beter when I mention that the first of these topics, the one I mean to discuss this week, is the role of nuclear weapons in the decline and fall of America’s empire, and more generally in the twilight years of industrial civilization.

Those who doubt that this is a subject that inspires raving lunacy need only recall those thrilling days of yesteryear, when crude oil was spewing from a wrecked wellhead deep under the Gulf of Mexico and the words “Deepwater Horizon” were on everyone’s lips.  On an astonishing number of internet forums, people were loudly insisting that the only way to solve the problem was to use a nuclear weapon on the well. I don’t recall anyone explaining exactly what good would be done by vaporizing the last impediments to the flow of oil and sending a fifty foot high tsunami of oily, radioactive water crashing into the shores of the Gulf.  For that matter, I don’t recall many cases in which anyone even brought up those far from minor points.

It’s remarkable how many people seem to forget that a nuclear weapon is simply an explosive.  It’s a very powerful explosive, and one that produces some dangerous residues when it blows up, but it’s still just an explosive.  It doesn’t, say, open a rift in the fabric of reality, through which inconvenient or unwanted things can be thrust out into the primal void; all it can do is blow things to smithereens, and unless your problem can be solved by blowing something to smithereens—or, please note, threatening to do so—a nuclear weapon will do you no good at all.  You’d have a hard time figuring that out from the way nuclear weapons get discussed in this country, though.  By and large, once the prospect of using a nuclear weapon enters the discussion, even the most basic sort of rational thought waves goodbye and sends back a forwarding address from another state.

Now it’s only fair to say that not all the dubious reasoning that goes on around nuclear weapons is quite so florid as the example I’ve just given. For examples of the less colorful sort of nuclear folly, I’m going to pick on two recent commenters on this blog. One of them, partway through last month’s narrative fiction about the fall of America, argued that a US president facing a Chinese military response like the one I outlined in the second episode would simply order a first strike on China’s nuclear arsenal, destroy it on the ground, and proceed to deal with the crisis in a stronger position. The other, commenting on the finished narrative, insisted that I should have left out all the military stuff since we are, she claimed, evolving beyond war; in the discussion that followed, she noted plaintively that nobody wants a nuclear war and yet we’ve got nuclear weapons, and isn’t that crazy?

Well, no, it’s not, since clearly some people—my first commenter is an example—do think that nuclear war can be a good idea. (A successful first strike with nuclear warheads on someone else’s arsenal is still a nuclear war.)  Still, let’s start with the first commenter’s suggestion, because it provides a useful example of one kind of nuclear irrationality that’s fairly common these days.

Let’s suppose that a US president, faced with a military crisis overseas, does in fact order a nuclear first strike on China’s strategic nuclear arsenal.  Let’s also suppose that, ignoring all the rules of strategy from Sun Tsu on down, the Chinese haven’t anticipated the possibility, don’t have their arsenal ready to launch, and haven’t informed the US that the bombs will go up and the boom will come down the moment an American missile crosses into Chinese airspace.  We’ll say that the US strike is enormously, unrealistically effective; of the 175 or so Chinese nuclear weapons, 174 of them are vaporized on the ground along with their launch systems, and only one missile, with a single 100-kiloton warhead on the business end,  arcs through the ionosphere and explodes in a low air burst over San Francisco.

The result? The United States has just suffered the greatest disaster in its history. The death toll from that one warhead would likely exceed the 600,000 military deaths in the Civil War, our nation’s bloodiest conflict to date.  Hundreds of billions of dollars of immediate damage would deliver a body blow to the nation’s economy, and a galaxy of long-term costs could well raise the final cost by an order of magnitude or more.  The impact of Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, or Katrina on New Orleans?  A puny fraction of what we’re discussing here.

Now ask yourself this:  what has the United States gained in exchange for those huge losses?  In the narrative under discussion, a better military position vis-a-vis the Chinese and, if all goes well, a drop in the price of oil.  That is to say, not much compared to the cost.

That’s the rarely discussed logic behind nuclear deterrence.  None of the concrete gains a nation can achieve by launching a nuclear strike on another nation comes anywhere near the scale of the costs that would be inflicted by even the feeblest nuclear response.  If the US first strike just described does not quite turn out to be quite so improbably flawless, in turn, the costs go up accordingly; ten mushroom clouds over large American cities would leave the US economy as crippled as the economies of Europe were after the Second World War, with no Marshall Plan in sight; the impact of the full Chinese arsenal, small as it is by American or Russian standards, would likely mean the end of the United States as a functioning First World nation.  Sure, much of China would be pounded into radioactive rubble; what imaginable advantage would this give to whatever was left of the United States?

This is why, in turn, the Peoples Republic of China contents itself with so small a nuclear arsenal. It doesn’t need anything bigger; all that’s necessary is that any other nuclear power that might think of launching a strike on China be faced with utterly unacceptable losses.  It’s why Israel clings so tightly to its nuclear weapons, why India and Pakistan have been so much more polite to each other since both became nuclear powers, and why Iran will inevitably join the nuclear club in the next few years—and the harder the US backs Iran into a corner, by the way, the more overwhelming the pressure on Iran’s leadership will be to assemble and test a warhead, and so provide itself with the one truly effective way of telling hostile countries to back off.

The mistake made by both my commenters can be summed up very simply;  they think that nuclear weapons exist to fight nuclear wars.  That was true of the first two fission bombs ever made, Little Boy and Fat Man, but it hasn’t been true of any nuclear weapon since that time.  They exist not to fight but to threaten. Those people who speculate about when and if nuclear weapons will be used are missing the point; they’re used all the time, with great effectiveness, by everyone who has them, to guarantee national survival and draw hard lines that other nations, and even other nuclear powers, will not cross. 

A common objection probably needs to be dealt with at this point.  This is the insistence that such logic may be all very well for ordinary leaders and ordinary countries, but what if nuclear weapons get into the hands of a mad dictator?  One commenter several posts back, in fact, insisted that the ultimate argument against my logic was contained in the words “George W. Bush.”

It was probably impolite of me to point out to him that Bush had control of the world’s most advanced nuclear arsenal for eight years, and somehow we’re still here.  I’ve already discussed, in a post four years ago, the destructive role that the pornography of political fear and hatred spread by both sides of the partisan spectrum plays in our current society, and it didn’t sink in then, either.  Still, there’s an even more precise point that can be made here, and that’s the simple fact that nuclear weapons have already fallen into the hands of mad dictators. Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong can hardly be described in any other terms; both were homicidal megalomaniacs who were directly responsible for annihilating tens of millions of the people they ruled, and both of them had nuclear weapons. Once again, we’re still here.

For that matter, let’s look at the mad dictator who comes first in almost everyone’s list, Adolf Hitler.  Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons, but he did have the next best thing, massive stockpiles of three different, highly lethal nerve gases, and delivery systems that could readily have landed decent quantities of them on London and a variety of other military and civilian targets. He never used them, even when the Wehrmacht’s last battalions were fighting Russian troops in the suburbs of Berlin and his own death was staring him in the face.  Why?  Because the Allies also had them, and could be counted on to retaliate in kind; the military benefits of gassing London, or even the D-Day beaches, paled in contrast to the military impact of Allied nerve gas attacks, say,  against German armies on the Eastern Front.  That is to say, like most mad dictators, Hitler may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid.

The same logic, by the way, applies to all weapons of mass destruction.  Unless you’re the only nation in a given conflict that has the power to annihilate huge numbers of people with a single weapon, it’s never worth your while to use your weapons of mass destruction, because the retaliation will cost you at least as much as, and usually more than, the use of the weapon will gain you. That’s why the plans to equip infantry divisions with truck-launched nuke-tipped rockets that filled the dreams of US military planners in the 1950s went the way of the Ford Nucleon, a 1957 concept car that was expected to be powered by a pint-sized nuclear reactor, and why the huge multimegaton bombs of the same era were quietly disassembled and replaced by much smaller warheads in the following decades. 

It’s very likely, in fact, that in the decade or two before us, an American president will earn a Nobel peace prize—as opposed to being handed one more or less at random, like the current incumbent—by completing the process, and signing a treaty with Russia scrapping most of both sides’ arsenals.  250 warheads each, say, would be more than enough to provide a deterrent against all comers, and the savings in money and resources will be considerable.  That latter may turn into a major issue in the decades to come, as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end.

One thing about nuclear weapons that’s too rarely remembered is that they are surprisingly delicate devices, and don’t store well.  Certain components of hydrogen warheads, for example, have to be replaced every six months or so because the radioactive material in them undergoes normal decay, and enough of it changes into another element that it stops working. Other components have to be remachined at regular intervals, because plutonium is a relatively soft metal and won’t stay within the necessary ultrafine tolerances indefinitely.  The missiles and other delivery systems have maintenance issues of their own.  The science fiction cliché of abandoned nuclear missiles in forgotten silos, ready to launch far into the future, thus deserves decent burial.

As the industrial age stumbles to its end, in turn, the costs in energy, raw materials, and labor to keep existing nuclear arsenals functioning will be an increasingly large burden. To return yet again to the central theme of this blog, the Long Descent ahead of us will be driven primarily by the inability of political, social, and economic systems created during an age of cheap abundant energy to remain viable during an age of energy and resource scarcity.  As resource depletion proceeds, systems dependent on scarce supplies will be forced to compete with one another for what’s left, some will inevitably lose, and each loss marks the disintegration of some part of business as usual in the industrial world.  The elaborate arrangement that keeps nuclear weapons and their delivery systems ready for use at any moment is simply one energy- and resource-dependent system among many.

That’s one of the reasons why I confidently expect the treaty mentioned above to be signed at some point in the next couple of decades.  Applied more generally, though, the same logic makes nuclear war one of the least likely ways the industrial age could end.  As costs mount and industrial infrastructure comes apart, the challenge of maintaining a nuclear arsenal in usable condition will be balanced by the need to maintain the appearance of a credible nuclear threat.  The most likely outcome?  A strengthening of the logic of deterrence.

Think of it this way.  It’s a safe bet that as technological capabilities and access to resources decline, nations that have nuclear weapons will continue to claim that they are ready, willing, and able to blow their adversaries to kingdom come.  It’s an equally safe bet in an age of continuing decline that, given the increasingly harsh limits on resources and technology, the ability of any given nation to make good on those threats will fail to keep up with the appearances it projects to the rest of the world. The problem is that, barring a really spectacular intelligence failure, nobody will know just how wide the gap has become in any given case.

Sixty years from now, as a result, the United States (or whatever successor nations inherit a share of its nuclear weapons) will doubtless still appear to have a substantial nuclear arsenal.  Just how many of its missiles and bombs can still be counted on to follow gravity’s rainbow and ignite a second sun over an overseas target, though, will be one of the most closely guarded of the nation’s secrets.  The same will be true of every other nuclear power.  As the industrial age winds down, it’s very likely that we will reach a point when no nation on Earth still has the effective means to wage nuclear war, but every significant power still claims that capacity, and nobody can be quite sure that everyone else is bluffing—after all, what if the other side has managed to maintain a small arsenal in working order?

Now of course it’s entirely possible that a few nuclear weapons will end up being used over the decades ahead.  There’s always the risk that terrorists will seize or manufacture one and blow it up somewhere—though it’s only fair to note that most terrorist organizations depend on covert support from nation-states, who are generally not interested in supporting any operation for which the blowback arrives on the business end of an ICBM. (If the people responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US had used a stolen nuclear weapon rather than hijacked aircraft, for example, there’s a significant chance that the blowback might have included the instant thermonuclear annihilation of the city of Kabul; this was presumably not a risk the Taliban would have wanted to run.)

It’s also possible that some conventional war or political crisis might trigger a series of miscalculations that could go nuclear, as (for example) a hypothetical Sino-Japanese war did in one of my earlier bits of post-peak oil fiction. Accidents happen and mistakes are made. Still, that doesn’t justify the repeated insistence in various corners of the internet that a nuclear war has to happen sometime soon—an insistence driven, once you get past the surface layer of rationalization, by the same logic that leads so many true believers to insist that history must shortly end via the catastrophe of their choice.

End of the World of the Week #48

What could be more convincing than a book giving 88 different reasons why the world is going to come to an end on your preferred date?  That’s apparently what Edgar Whisenant thought when he published 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be In 1988, which was briefly one of the hottest sellers in the evangelical Christian book field. Whisenant was a retired NASA engineer and a longtime bible student, and insisted that only if the Bible was wrong would the world continue to exist after September 13, 1988. It’s ironic, to use no stronger word, that he failed to take his own logic seriously; when 1988 came and went without benefit of Rapture, Whisenant went on to issue further books, making Rapture predictions for 1989 and 1993, and then predicting global catastrophe via nuclear war in 1994.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Post-American Future

One of the things I’ve learned repeatedly over six and a half years of writing Archdruid Report posts is that it’s a waste of time to try to predict which posts will appeal to my readers and which ones won’t. Last month’s narrative is a case in point. My original plan was to devote one post to a very brief scenario of American imperial collapse.  By the time I got the thing written, even after a great deal of trimming, it was the size of five regular posts; I decided to run it anyway over five weeks, since it did a good job of illustrating the themes I’ve been developing since February of this year, but I figured that it would be just another ordinary month for the blog.

Somehow that didn’t happen. Last month, The Archdruid Report had the second highest page view count of any month in its history; the first episode in the narrative is this blog’s most-viewed page ever, and the others are climbing rapidly to comparable positions. It’s interesting to reflect on the reasons why that happened, but I suspect that the most significant of those reasons is also the simplest: the narrative that I sketched out presented the decline and fall of the United States not as the end of the world, nor as an excuse for yet another wearily unthrilling Tom Clancyesque thriller, but as an ordinary historical event.

I’d like to expand on that a little, because—as regular readers of this blog already know—history is the primary resource I use to guide what’s posted on this blog.  The core hypothesis shaping my view of the future is the proposal that our time differs from the past only in the way that one past era differs from another.  The notion that the present epoch is utterly unique in history, popular as that is, fails to convince me, and the habit of using that notion as an excuse to project an assortment of utopian and apocalyptic fantasies on the inkblot patterns of the future strikes me as frankly delusional. It makes more sense, I think, to recognize that imperial overstretch is imperial overstretch no matter what technologies the empire in question happens to use, and that trying to make sense of the future on the basis of historical parallels is a more useful strategy than insisting that the future must conform to our desires, our fears, or both at once.

Thus I’d like to walk through some of the historical events I used as models for the trajectory of decline and fall in “How It Could Happen,” and talk a little about why those models are relevant.

The overall scenario of failed military adventurism leading to a crisis of legitimacy and the collapse of a government?  That was modeled on the Falklands War of 1982, though I could have used any number of other examples.  In the case of the Falklands crisis, the government of Argentina, facing a rising spiral of economic and political problems, gambled that it could improve its situation by seizing a set of bleak little islands in the south Atlantic, then as now owned by Britain and claimed by Argentina, on the assumption that Britain would be neither willing nor able to mount an effective military response. It was a disastrous miscalculation; by the time the smoke cleared, Britain had retaken the islands by main force, the Argentine military had suffered a humiliating defeat, and the crisis of legitimacy that followed promptly toppled the Argentine government.

It’s worth noting that if the war had gone the other way—say, if Argentina had been armed with a hundred Exocet antiship missiles, rather than the five they had, and sent most of the British fleet to the bottom—Margaret Thatcher’s government would likely have fallen in short order.  The difference, of course, is that the transfer of power in Britain would have followed the normal rules of British politics; there would have been a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, somebody else would have moved into No. 10 Downing Street, and that would have been that. In Argentina, things were not so simple, because there was no straightforward way to get rid of an incompetent leadership and its policies without taking down an entire system of government and replacing it with something else.

One of the points of the narrative, in turn, is that the United States just now is a great deal closer to the Argentine situation than to the British one. Here in America, we’ve just spent a year seeing which of two interrchangeable candidates will take the presidential oath of office this coming January. Those of my readers who are Republicans, and downcast by Obama’s victory last night, should take heart; the policies we’ll see for the next four years will be exactly the same as the ones that we would have had if your candidate had won, and now you have the freedom to criticize them, while the Democrats have to put up with another four years of pretending that the man they helped put into office isn’t betraying every principle they claim their party stands for. The blustering and violent pursuit of the same failed foreign policy, the eager pursuit of national bankruptcy in the name of global security, the tacit refusal to prosecute even the most egregious financial crimes, the whittling away of civil liberties, the gargantuan giveaways to corrupt but influential industries, and the rest of it: the whole package that’s been welded in place since the days of George W. Bush was guaranteed to continue whoever won.

Previous posts here have discussed the reasons why the policymaking machinery of the US government has jammed up, leaving this particular set of failed policies to play over and over again like a broken record. Sooner or later that process will end, if only because a government that fails often enough goes out of existence sooner or later.  The scenario I traced out in the narrative suggests one way in which the jam could be broken; there are plenty of others, but most of them involve the end, in one way or another, of the particular form of constitutional government we have in America today.

Let’s move on. The constitutional convention that spun out of control, and suddenly made the unthinkable a political fact?  That was based on the opening act of the French Revolution. The conflict between the states and the federal government in the narrative was a deliberate echo of the conflict between the French aristocracy and the king in the years before 1789. The aristocracy, struggling to reclaim its lost privileges, managed to pressure Louis XVI into calling the Estates-General, the rarely summoned national parliament of France, which had very nearly the same powers as an American constitutional convention. Once the delegates met, the crisis of legitimacy that had been been building in France for decades exploded; attempts to keep the meeting focused on its official purpose—solving the nation’s budget crisis—were overwhelmed by events, and over the weeks  that followed, a system of government that had endured for centuries came apart forever.

The rush toward extremism on the part of the American people in the months before the constitutional convention?  That was the United States of America before, during, and immediately after the 1860 presidential election.  It took not much more than a year for secession in most Southern states, and violent opposition to slavery and disunion in most Northern ones, to make their respective transitions from minority ideologies to popular causes for which hundreds of thousands of people would fight and die. “The story of 1860,” wrote historian Bruce Catton in The Coming Fury, “is the story of a great nation, marching to the wild music of bands, with flaring torches and with banners and with enthusiastic shouts, moving down a steep place into the sea.” (Catton’s book, by the way, should be required reading for all those convinced that the American political process is incapable of drastic change; for that matter, it’s one heck of a good read, and the two subsequent volumes, Terrible Swift Sword  and Never Call Retreat, are just as good.)

The dissolution of the United States via a never-used provision of the Constitution? That was inspired by the fall of the Soviet Union.  On paper, each of the republics that made up the Soviet Union had the right to secede from the union at any time. In practice—well, would you have wanted to try doing that when Stalin was in office?  Under Gorbachev, though, Boris Yeltsin could and did invoke that clause of the Soviet constitution without risking sudden removal from office via a pistol shot and an unmarked grave, and a Soviet system that was already in crisis came apart in days.

The failure of the military and of intelligence agencies to stop the collapse of the government by force? That was based on events across most of the Eastern Bloc right after the Berlin Wall came down. The Warsaw Pact nations each had, in theory, more than enough soldiers and secret police to prop up a troubled government by rounding up protesters and shooting them, say, or doing the other things that embattled governments routinely do to their people.  In practice, the final crisis of each regime saw military personnel standing aside or actively siding with the insurgents, and left commanders looking nervously at their own troops, uncomfortably aware that ordering them to attack civilians could quickly lead to civil war or, on a more personal level, to a bullet in the back of the head or a hand grenade tossed into a conference room, courtesy of their own soldiers. 

More generally, that’s the great weakness of every government.  The notion that the leaders of a nation exercise power is a convenient but misleading shorthand for a much more complex process, in which power is actually wielded by thousands of ordinary soldiers, police officers, minor officials, and the like, in obedience to dictates that come cascading down the chain of command through any number of intermediaries.  If anything happens to the willingness of those thousands to follow orders, or to the ability or willingness of the chain of command to function, the apparent power of the leadership can evaporate like frost on a sunny morning.  Whenever a government collapses, if it’s not simply thrown out by some other nation’s invading troops, that’s far more often than not the way that it goes.

Some of my readers will doubtless be objecting by this point that it would have been just as possible for me to put together a different set of historical analogies and tell a different story of the way that America’s global empire, and America itself, went to pieces. That’s exactly the point I hoped to make. The narrative presented in October’s posts, as I explained at the time, is not my idea of the way that the American empire will fall; it’s simply an account of one way that the American empire could fall, and its details were chosen to outline some of the most serious fault lines running through that empire and the society that the empire supports.

Of course the end of America’s global empire could happen in some other way. The utter failure of the political process might bring about a collapse of constitutional government at the hands of some charismatic demagogue or other; we could see a sustained insurgency break out in any of half a dozen parts of the country, shredding the economy and forcing the government to bring the troops home from overseas; a military failure of the sort I’ve outlined, instead of triggering the rush to dissolution, could usher in a long era of national retrenchment and reassessment, in which America’s once-traditional isolationism reasserts itself and George Washington’s advice about avoiding foreign entanglements once again becomes the centerpiece of the nation’s policy. I chose a relatively untraumatic option, in large part because so many people seem to find it impossible to remember that plenty of large, heavily armed nation-states down through the years have collapsed in one way or another without dissolving into civil war or assaulting the rest of the planet; still, there’s no guarantee that this will be the way that things work out. There are many options as we approach the post-American future.

The one thing that isn’t an option at this point, I would argue, is a continuation of American global dominance for more than a short time to come.  Like the British empire a century ago, the American empire is visibly cracking at the seams as the costs of maintaining a global imperial presence soar and the profits of the imperial wealth pump slump.  Funds the nation can no longer afford to spend are being poured into military technologies that presuppose a way of war that’s rapidly approaching its pull date, while rising powers less burdened by the legacies of the past circle around, waiting for the first signs of weakness.  Which of those rising powers will turn out to be the next generation of global hegemons is a good question; China certainly seems like the most likely candidate just now, but then Germany looked like the most likely candidate for Britain’s replacement in 1912, and we know what happened thereafter. 

What does a post-American future look like?  To begin with, here in America, it’s a future in which the vast majority of us will be much less wealthy than we are today.  The American standard of living has been propped up since 1945 by the systemic imbalances that gave a quarter of the world’s energy resources and a third of its raw materials and industrial product to the five per cent of humanity that lives in the United States.  Everything we consider normal in American life today is a function of that flow of imperial tribute, and as that goes away, most of what we consider normal in American life is going to change. The economic troubles that have been ongoing since 2008 are the foreshocks of that seismic shift, which will see most American incomes drop to Third World levels. 

Those of my readers who are incensed by the extreme disparity in wealth between the rich and the rest in this country should remember that most of that disparity consists of paper wealth, much of it of very questionable value.  Trillions of dollars worth of dubious derivatives, asset-backed securities backed by wholly insecure assets, loans that will never be paid back, and equally hallucinatory stores of wealth currently pad the notional net worth of America’s rich; in any imaginable post-American future, all that will be reassessed at its real value, which in most cases amounts to zero. Just as the Great Depression saw huge income and net worth disparities in American society drop like a rock as vast amounts of paper wealth turned into mere paper, the Greater Depression that will follow the end of American empire will almost certainly see the same phenomenon on an even larger scale. One moral to this story is that any of my readers who have their wealth tied up in paper assets of any kind might be wise to think, hard, about how long they want to leave it there.

Outside the United States, circumstances will no doubt vary.  Those nations that have linked their welfare or their survival too closely to American empire will be dragged down in their turn; those who align themselves with one or another contender for America’s replacement will rise or fall with their choice, while those that have the good sense to step back into neutrality until the smoke clears, and then make arrangements with the new hegemon, will doubtless do well.  I suspect, though, that Japan and western Europe in particular will be in for a rough awakening. For decades now, they’ve reaped the benefits of having their national defense backstopped by gargantuan US defense budgets, and the end of that cozy arrangement will force them to choose between spending a great deal more money on their own militaries, accepting a new overlord who may be a good deal less congenial than the one they have now, or accepting a position of extreme vulnerability in an epoch where that may turn out to be an exceptionally risky thing to do.

Still, all these concerns are secondary to the most crucial factor, which is that the post-American future will still have to deal with the head-on collision between a global economic system that requires perpetual growth, on the one hand, and hard planetary limits on the other.  The end of America’s empire does not mean the end of industrial civilization; nor, for that matter, will it solve the twin problems sketched out decades ago in the prescient and thus profoundly unfashionable pages of The Limits to Growth: the exhaustion of necessary but nonrenewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the buildup in the biosphere of ecologically and economically damaging pollutants, particularly carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.  Those forces are still the dominant fact of our time, and the end of America’s empire—traumatic as it may well be, and not only for Americans—is simply one more roadbump along the route of the Long Descent.

Regular readers of The Archdruid Report will be interested to know that the anthology of post-peak oil science fiction stories that came out of last year’s contest here is now available in print and e-book formats. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World features twelve stories set in futures of the kind we are most likely to encounter, in the largely unexplored territory off beyond today's tired fantasies of limitless progress and sudden apocalypse. Many thanks to all the contributors, and to Shaun Kilgore of Founders House Publishing, who made this project possible!

End of the World of the Week #47

If your last name is Prophet, you have certain advantages in setting up shop as a New Age teacher, and the redoubtable Elizabeth Clare Prophet took advantage of those advantages in a big way.  All through the 1970s and 1980s, her books could be found in every New Age bookstore worth the name, and her organizations—the Summit Lighthouse and the Church Universal and Triumphant—were significant presences across the New Age scene of the time, and remain active today.

A detailed account of Prophet’s writings, teachings, and activities would fill plenty of pages. Her place here in the End of the World of the Week rests, though, on one detail of her teaching—her repeated insistence that the end would come via nuclear war on April 23, 1990. She apparently received this information from the Ascended Masters, advanced spiritual beings who also dictated her many books. Still, the Masters apparently weren’t ascended enough to get their dates right, and April 23, 1990 passed without incident, like so many other purported doomsdays before and since.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not