Friday, February 22, 2013

The 'Collapse of America', 'Rise of China' stupidity

I find the fascination with the ‘collapse of power’ thesis as annoying, as the fantasy about new rising powers. Fluctuations in power on the world stage come and go, and rarely have anything to do with genuine collapses.

What they do have to do with, is people’s unrealistic beliefs being shattered.

This childish habit has been with us since the post war anti-colonialists tried to prove that the British Empire collapsed through lack of power (as all empires must they think). Crap.

First, the artificial economic high that Britian enjoyed in the post Napoleonic war was never going to last long term. Less than 5% of the world’s population cannot have half the world’s economic power for anything but a brief period. Eventually things start to balance out. 

(I heard one idiot economics 'commentator' recently talking about the collapse of Apple’s market share in i-phones. Hello.. if you invent the first one and no one else sells anything similar becasue it is not very good, you can have 100% market share. If they start welling millions and are good enough that everyone tries to copy them, you will not have 100% market share - just billions in profits. This is not a collapse by Apple. It is everyone else adapting to Apple’s techniques and moving forward. It is how human progress happens. Live with it.)

The same goes for the ‘collapse’ of American power. Post World War Two the United States had a similar domination of the world economy that Britain had 130 years earlier. But times have moved on, and communication of ideas is faster. It took only half as long for the US to fall back to a more realistic percentage of wealth for population. This is not a collapse, it is a correction. Deal with it.
Still the academic loons who make money from predicting doom and despair don’t seem to understand natural correction.

The fantasy of China as the next great superpower for instance. China usually (over 2 or 3 thousand years) controls 20-25% of the world’s population. It’s economy could potentially be 20-25% of the world’s economy. China could be powerful almost to the extent of the British Empire after the Napoleonic war, or the United States after World War Two. 

It could be, but it won’t be.

China is, as it has always been, an unstable conglomeration of people’s who simply do not coalesce very well. It is an empire, not a state. More importantly it is not an empire like the Roman’s who adopted talented outsiders, or the British, who trained indigenous groups to run their own affairs. It is an Empire that has always been about controlling those dangerous people who won’t toe the line inside its borders, and living in fear of those outside its borders.

The dominant cultures and tribes in China spend as much time stamping on the fringe groups as they do developing anything useful. As a result the hierarchy of the Chinese nobility is as corrupt and self serving as any feudal aristocracy in decline at its most venal. (In fact I think I might be insulting post-feudal oligarchs with such an invidious comparison. Even the French aristocracy of the 1780’s made some efforts to look after those ontheir estates… they just hadn’t got the hang of all these new cities yet…) 

China has always been ruled by the aristocracy of those who count, and has always treated the vast majority of its population as peasants and lackeys. Economically and socially, China would have to change quite enormously to evolve into a stable and productive power. It won’t.

It suprises me that people make such a big thing about the economic growth of China since the artificial brakes of Communist idealogy were removed. If something has been repressed as hard and long as the Chinese economy was repressed, then it will automatically make great leaps forward once the brakes are loosened. But the fantasy that this will inevitably lead to economic dominance is as ridiculous as it was for the Asian Tigers, or the Japanes miracle, or whatever other guide you want to use.

We have a parallel in the last century of a choatic but rumbunctious free market democracy versus a centrally controlled state system. So many theorists over decades spent vast effort trying to convince themselves that the Soviet Union was inevitably going to triumph over the US. (See Kennedy’s “Rise and Fall of the Great Power’s’ for a sample.) The same idiots seem intent on ignoring Indian growth in economics and power altogether. They shouldn’t.

Yet a vast number of bad theoreticians continue to act as if their home grown fantasies are revelations from God. China must be inevitably going to dominate, because we have learned nothing from the Asian Tigers or Japan, and we haven’t bothered to look at India at all. We just continue believing the propaganda of the command economies, and try to ignore the evidence of the Soviet Union and all other command economies. Really.

The reasons US power will not ‘collapse’, are:

First and foremost, their demographics are better than anyone else’s. Europe, China, large parts of Asia, and almost the entire Muslim world, is going through demographic retraction that will soon be astonishing. The US is not.

Second, the knowledge industry. The old Soviet empire was lagely driven under by misplaced arrogance and secrecy. The arrogance was in such simple things as avoiding English as a scientific common ground (Soviet science was done in German! The problem there being that a language that makes up new words to explain things will never match a language that uses commonly understood Latin roots for descriptive words.) The secrecy was state restriciton of information that led to a ‘right to know’ culture of permission before using a photocopier. Again, science was put back to the pre-printing press days. 

Chinese firewalls, and repression of freedon of information, may have ony a few % slowing effect on their development, but it will be enough to prevent them being a serious knowledge society (no matter how good their hackers are... more shades of Cold War scares). The US economy is still open.

Third, oppenness. Immigrants want to go to the US to study and research and work and invest. China has pretty significant barriers to all those things. (See what’s happening to Japanese trade as a result of the argument over a few rocks in the South China Sea.)


US influence may collapse.

Because of US internal politics…

To be precise, the US population has traditionally been isolationist, and their willingness to play ‘world policeman’ for a few decades after World War Two is a significant aberation from their normal practices. US public opinioin these days is all about ‘bringing troops home’, not ‘making the world safe for democracy'. (Which is apparently – in Mali - being left to the French!!!)

I would suggest that the withdrawal of Britain from the role of international policeman after the Great War had far more to do with voters at home being sick of paying for it and wanting peace treaties, than with any major problems with the British economy. (I will post on that another time.) 

Frankly the British taxpayer wanted out, and after being forced to carry 6 further years of conflict in World War Two, abandoned their international obligations with indecent haste. Three centuries of colonial development and defence and trade obligations were thrown over within a couple of decades. (The taxpayer having previously undercut the defence budgets so badly in the interwar period that this was considered both logical and ‘inevitable’.)

The danger is not US collapse, the danger is US voter disinterest, apathy, and revulsion, with having to carry the can for the international policing role.

Frankly if you read the abuse over ‘imperial aggression’ the Americans have been receiving from the EU (particularly France until the last few months), it sounds remarkably like the abuse Americna politicians were giving the Britsh for doing exactly the same job a century ago. Eventually, people who only get abused for trying to help tend to want to say 'f... it, you have a go...".

The British took 100 years after Napoleon to lose their economic dominance, but were still ready to play policeman up until WW1 (achieving minor things like safe international trade, virtual elimination of piracy, and the end of slavery worldwide, etc., in the process). Between the wars the British taxpayer was rebellious, and by the 1950’s, delighted to let the Yanks have a go at a task that never gets you anything but abuse.

The American’s are still economically (per head), reasonably dominant, but it only took about 30 years for the glow to go off for their policing efforts (Vietnam anyone?), and the US taxpayer has been pretty down on it for much of that time.

I heard a visiting US admiral speak at ANU when I was at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the early 1990’s. He commented that in the 1970’s the US could intimidate India by parking a carrier battle group off the coast, but that by the 1990’s the Indians were pretty contemptuous. When pressed on whether the USN could still achieve intimidationo, he said “possibly, but the US taxpayer would never go for it”.

This was interesting because the first Gulf War, while fought largely with US troops, was not financed by the US. They passed the hat, and got money from client states like Saudi Arabia and Germany. The post 9.11 response of the US voter was a bit more into willingness to spend.. for a while.. but not to the level that would make the US an effective world’s policeman. (See Libya, Mali, Syria, etc.)

It is also notable that the Pax Americana has seen a rebirth of piracy, unsafe trade routes, and possibly even interntional slavery. (US is certainly not the only state to blame here, but the trend is worrying.)
So while I do not fear a ‘collapse’ of US power, I do fear a vacuum caused by internal politics…

But that too is another post.


  1. Hi, I am from Melbourne.
    Please find a completely different understanding of the state of the world, how we got to here and what, if anything we can do about it.
    General introduction
    Contains a reference to Socrates & Platos Symposium

    The Peace Law - written in response to the Kosovo crisis at the request of a high ranking UNHCR diplomat and reworked in response to Sept 11.
    Not Two Is Peace & the signs of the times

  2. The fact that Soviet science was in German (apparently) isn't as whacky as you'd think. Most of the 19th century's academic output was in German. Quoting one of my physics lecturers (at a good university): "These lectures would have been in German if it were not for two ill-timed World Wars." The problem with German-language science, however, is not lexical construction -- don't be silly. It might not even have been communicational -- there were plenty of great German physicists around post-WWII to collaborate with, and certainly there were lots of smart Soviet physicists around for many decades after WWII. I guess that the problem was maybe the authoritarian and oppressive conditions that Soviet scientists had to work under. I suppose free thinkers like free societies to work in.

    Otherwise, interesting article (although some hard data would be nice, not that I'm disinclined to your arguments or conclusions).

  3. Dear Anonymous March 20. Yes an amusing side point that I didn't explain well.
    I don't think anyone argues the Germans can't do good science, even in German (though the German universities were very good at languages, including Latin). But the Finnish academic who made the point to me was less convinced that Russians doing science in German was a winner.
    He argued that if you are going to work with a different language whose naunces you may not entirely understand, best to pick the most international and logical.
    Of course a Finn is practically a German in disguise anyway...

  4. Brilliant post Nigel, I also liked your posts on Auchinleck and on WW2 divisional stats. I have similar views on China myself. I wrote a paper that makes similar points on my website. Admittedly its arguments are more about geography and military power, but the conclusions are mostly the same. Take a look if you want.

  5. before i begin, i hope and pray you are not one of those narcissistic morons who cannot stand a counter-argument (trust me, there are too many around these days!).
    will all due respect, do you know anything about china? or is all your knowledge book-based? how such pieces of text can be written after only 30 years is quite remarkable. kind of like predicting U.S collapse in 1885, or british collapse in 1780 or roman collapse in 260 BC. it is all but impossible to reasonably predict the future of a nation with so much potential (as well as challenges), at this early stage.

    your entire argument for why china will never be a power to rival the U.S seems to hinge on china being socially fragmented. the difference between the 'tigers' (who have not collapsed and all of which are highly developed and prosperous) and china, is that china's enormous growth has lasted longer (this could be due to them possessing more 'start-up fuel'). it was alleged to be in trouble in both 1994 and 2001, yet policy changes by the ccp have averted any crises, showing a measure of flexibility.

    by the way, 3) will never last, as soon as other nations (nations which were rubble 60 years ago) begin to catch up economically, and develop higher standards of education, this will all change. this relies too much on america retaining dominance in the 'soft power' category and as long as people continue to realize that america is just as righteous and great as any other country in the world (not very, it is inhabited by people after all) then this will end. 1) is also incorrect. U.S demographics may be growing at a reasonable pace but much of that growth is non-Caucasian, this begs the question: for how much longer will society remain relatively peaceful while the few control the many. as for 2), the chinese 'web of knowledge' is far more open than the rest of its society.

    an 'unstable conglomeration', really? how? how does that line of thought hold any credence in today's world? china is not india, 94% of the people identify themselves as one. with the exception of tibetans and a few Uighurs living in xinziang, other minorities are quite happy to be left alone as long as the ccp does not infringe on their rights. politics is the main issue here, not society.

    as for economics, neither capitalism nor communism ever work. both extremes hold faults that can be clearly seen in the collapse of eastern europe and (prior to that) the USSR. the answer lies somewhere in the middle. the USSR is far too different to china to be able make judgements on the latter based on the demise of the former. on top of that, typical 'western' (i use the term loosely and with apprehension) capitalist theories do not apply with china. the reason why we tried to 'convince' ourselves of the 'ability' (more like inability) of a closed off, centrally commanded economy to challenge a much more dynamic one, relates to the fact that when in war (which the cold war essentially was) propaganda is an excellent tool. i mean, in the Brezhnev regime, the ussr stagnated for over twenty years! if that wasnt evidence enough, then i dont know what is! the stupid ones are the people who bought that garbage. like i said, china is very different economically from the ussr, it cannot be compared.

    as for 'democracy', it is a big a myth as 'communism', neither have ever existed in this world and never will. china's history has also contained more 'golden ages' than any other nations'/civilizations', all with the presence of a large commanding central power. the chinese know more than anyone that they have been far better off when united.

    as for your central argument, i agree, no one will collapse. power has always flowed from west to east and then back from east to west, a cycle which seems to be changing in today's world. neither america nor china can allow the other to 'collapse', since they would promptly follow themselves.

    1. Dear tki,

      I am probably as narcassistic as the next blogger, but I do enjoy being argued with by people who can make reasonable points.

      Some of yours I find interesting, but I can't agree that Chinese central planning, or imperial control, is fundamentally different to Russian. (In fact the failure of China to make any progress despite inventing a vast number of useful tools - from printing to gunpowder - was always based on its approach to government.) Despite little flutters of commercialism at various times/centuries, I remain convinced that nothing has really changed there.

      I am first and foremost a historian, and one who looks at the causes of social or political or economic breakthroughs.

      As such I am happy to confirm that I am quite willing to predict failures of hegemony. I agreed with the American Admiral who told me in 1990 that US hegemony was limited by the willingness of the US taxpayer to play along, because that was my reading since Vietnam, and also of the failure of British hegemony (as predicted by British diplomats and Generals and Admirals in the 1880's and earlier).

      I believe that it should have been as clear to Americans in the 1950's, as it should have been to the English in the 1830's, or to the Romans in the 2nd century AD , that their unnatural ascendency was to be short lived. Any good analysis would have made that clear - and if you look, you will find many in all three periods who said exactly that... (But you have to look hard, their writings were very unpopular, and while not suppressed exactly, hardly hit the mainstream.)

      I was predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union at a time when loonies like Kennedy were claiming it would do better than the US in future. But then the Soviet's were never genuine economic contenders for hegemony, just aggressive flashes in the pan thrown up by the same unnatural short term effects of war. They never had the staying power to be real hegemons, and pretences that they did should never have passed more realistic examination. (And that could be predicted as easily in 1980 as in 1950 as in 1920... Only in the 1800's did it appear possible that things might work out otherwise.)

      Neither will China.

      There is always the chance that something new and novel will turn up to change things, but there is also the chance that we can use historical precedent anyway. It is not the Chinese racial mix that I have problems with, but their centralised government structure - imperial, communist, pseudo-capitalist, whatever - the way they run things is the problem, as it always has been.

      China will, and should, reassert a more realistic place in the world economy and in regional affairs. It might even play the role of someone trying to play way beyond their weight class - like Germany or Russia last century - but on current evidence it can't, and won't ever be a real hegemon.

      Is that narcissistic enough?

  6. I don't agree because you don't go by what was the biggest or how many aircraft it carried. You go by the toughest ship with the most fire power. Ships that brought the war to Japan. I think the best carrier of WW2 was the USS Enterprise. Why you may ask? Well I'll tell you. Enterprise was the most respected ship of all. It was so respected because it refused to die and they had the best crew with alot of firepower. One time Enterprise was the only aircraft carrier left because all the others had either been destroyed or almost destroyed. During that time it was Enterprise vs. Japan. She may have got hit by torpedos dozens of times and hit by dive bombers and kamikazies. But ever time she refused to die. She was successfully repaired. It's like she had a real soul/life. It is truly incredible. She was the best of them all. She was what won us the naval war of WW2

  7. Hello Nigel. I just stumbled across your blog as I was searching for some good debate about IJN carrier Taiho's capabilities.. And this post was even more intriguing... Because Im writing this comment from 2016 and the "Trump" phenomenon ties in so nicely with the points raised here. Voters... always so full of complaints, eh?

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