On the Edge of Chaos

Human beings are curious by nature; it is an integral part of the human experience to observe effect, and try to find its causation.   To build a framework for understanding how our universe is ordered, so that we might more frequently encounter beneficent events while avoiding the calamitous.  Ever since Herodotus began the craft in the 5th century BC, historians have struggled to construct overarching narratives to describe the rise and fall of nation-states and empires.  As a result, historians, anthropologists and the general public have become accustomed to viewing imperial decline as a lengthy stage in a stately cycle rather than a short, significant cataclysm.   But we have perhaps over-engineered our analyses by misunderstanding the nature of the beast.  In the March/April 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson—Harvard’s pre-eminent “rockstar academic”—argues that history is not as deterministic and pre-ordained as historians and laymen are often tempted to think.

Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder — on “the edge of chaos,” in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.”

…Whether the canopy of a rain forest or the trading floor of Wall Street, complex systems share certain characteristics. A small input to such a system can produce huge, often unanticipated changes — what scientists call “the amplifier effect.” A vaccine, for example, stimulates the immune system to become resistant to, say, measles or mumps. But administer too large a dose, and the patient dies. Meanwhile, causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use. Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.

— Ferguson, Niall.  “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” Foreign Affairs 89.2 (March/April 2010): 18-32.  Print.

Mr. Ferguson goes on to tilt with the ghosts of Spengler and Toynbee (and their contemporary successors), arguing that “the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess.”  Looking beyond more immediate and obvious causal factors, to mine distant decades for a longer-term cause is “what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as “the narrative fallacy”: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”  I can’t imagine Ferguson will make many colleagues happy with assertions like those, but—assuming one accepts his primary argument for a more chaotic, less deterministic reading of history—his paragraph-length illustrations of rapid imperial decline are fascinating.

But what if fourth-century Rome was simply functioning normally as a complex adaptive system, with political strife, barbarian migration, and imperial rivalry all just integral features of late antiquity? Through this lens, Rome’s fall was sudden and dramatic — just as one would expect when such a system goes critical. As the Oxford historians Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins have argued, the final breakdown in the Western Roman Empire began in 406, when Germanic invaders poured across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410. Co-opted by an enfeebled emperor, the Goths then fought the Vandals for control of Spain, but this merely shifted the problem south. Between 429 and 439, Genseric led the Vandals to victory after victory in North Africa, culminating in the fall of Carthage. Rome lost its southern Mediterranean breadbasket and, along with it, a huge source of tax revenue. Roman soldiers were just barely able to defeat Attila’s Huns as they swept west from the Balkans. By 452, the Western Roman Empire had lost all of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, and southwestern and southeastern Gaul. Not much was left besides Italy. Basiliscus, brother-in-law of Emperor Leo I, tried and failed to recapture Carthage in 468. Byzantium lived on, but the Western Roman Empire was dead. By 476, Rome was the fiefdom of Odoacer, king of the Goths.

What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire’s collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century — inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle — shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls “the end of civilization” came within the span of a single generation.

So it was, says Ferguson, with the Ming dynasty in China, Bourbon France, the 20th century Ottoman Empire, post-WW2 British Empire, and Soviet Union.  All went from initial calamity to complete collapse within the span of a single lifetime; usually just a decade or two following the initial catalytic event.  More often than not the catalytic event was (either itself or tied to) a financial crisis.  But these are all hors d’œuvre to the central message, which is that this arrangement of circumstances should sound very familiar and more than a little alarming to our southern brethren living here and now in the 21st century.

America’s debt is blossoming in a less-than-careful fashion; a few decades down the road, it would not take much—maybe just (as Ferguson posits) a negative rating by a creditor agency—to fatally undermine domestic and foreign investor confidence.  This is the road to oblivion; great nations die when citizens lose faith in their vitality.

Finally, a shift in expectations about monetary and fiscal policy could force a reassessment of future U.S. foreign policy. There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary. A U.S. president who says he will deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and then, in 18 months’ time, start withdrawing them again already has something of a credibility problem. And what about the United States’ other strategic challenges? For the United States’ enemies in Iran and Iraq, it must be consoling to know that U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead.

Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989. What happened 20 years ago, like the events of the distant fifth century, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.

This prospect should concern Canadians because without America, Canada would not exist.  Upwards of eighty percent of our trade goes to America, and an impoverished America is one that cannot afford to buy Canadian goods, unless they will be sold at fire sale prices.  Because of our tight economic integration, a debt-ridden, cash-poor America must also mean an impoverished Canada—unless of course we suddenly and miraculously shift the bulk of our exports to other foreign markets.  But that is not all.

Canada is a wealthy nation in terms of actual and potential resources, but despite those riches, we defend ourselves very lightly.  Our military forces today do not possess adequate equipment, doctrine or personnel to successfully defend the remotest resource-rich areas of the country; the small, highly constrained CF today is clustered around the major population centres.  In a world without the protective umbrella of overwhelming American military force, Canada’s possession of her northern reaches could not long survive.  The decline of American forces to a strictly constabulary or garrison level, able to defend only CONUS, would have disastrous consequences for us, too.

As the Arctic region is further developed for commercial transit routes and petroleum extraction, some ambitious people will regard it and wonder why, given its light defenses, they should not secure those resources and revenue for themselves.  It doesn’t matter much who decides to take it, much as it didn’t really matter whether it was British or French pirates (not to mention their merchantmen and navies) that sapped the lifeblood of Spain’s far-flung colonial empire.  The point is that the putative owner will be displaced in favour of a more ambitious and persistent rival.  I would expect that within this century, at least one island in Canada’s Arctic archipelago will fall from our orbit, and we will have little capacity to do anything but grimace and bear it.  Or, like 19th century China, we may be compelled to sign a deleterious treaty, granting foreign powers the right to traverse our waters, extract our resources, and set up logistics facilities and communities abiding by the dominant power’s civil and criminal laws.  It may end up like the Caribbean, with the islands becoming a cornucopia of foreign-owned outposts, once the big fish in the pond determine that we do not have the capability or national will to hang onto it.

One hopes these potential outcomes remain far-fetched, and that America never becomes too enervated to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.  But it’s worth remembering that Canadians too have a vital interest in ensuring America’s health and prosperity.

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2 Responses
  1. Nathan B. says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, too. This is an excellent post, Chris, and I also really appreciate your bringing together the Cole paintings, which were new to me, on the subject of empire.

    • Chris Taylor says:

      Funnily enough, they were brand-new to me, too! At least until last night when I acquired a copy of this month’s Foreign Affairs. Mr. Ferguson used them to illustrate his piece, and I was struck by Cole’s skill and imagination.