Sunday, September 12, 2010

How To Decline As An Empire

"This too shall pass."
-Abraham Lincoln, Edward Fitzgerald, Solomon, Sanai, Attar of Nishapur, Helen Steiner Rice, OK Go, etc.

Many nations over the years have, at one time or another, known empire or superpower status. They've been the big dogs. Smaller, lesser nations trembled in fear of their ire, had little choice but to do as they said, lest they be made to suffer for their insolence. Athens. Rome. Egypt. Persia. France. Macedonia. Spain. India. Teotihuacan. Portugal. The Netherlands. China. Mongolia. The Ottoman Empire. Britain. Germany. Russia-slash-Soviet Union. The Vatican. The Umayyad Caliphate, borne out of Mecca. Austria and Hungary. Even Bulgaria held sway as a regional power at one point.

But ultimately, it all falls away. Eventually, power ebbs. Eventually, the king of the hill will have to face the fact that it has taken a tumble, and will not regain its former glory for a long time, if ever again.

The United States is slowly, but surely, inexorably, finding that it's no different. Goods are increasingly made elsewhere. Top talent is leaving in the face of perceived lack of support and in some cases outright hostility. (Offering to abolish the Department of Education does not play well to your nation's best and brightest. They'll still be the best, they'll still be the brightest, but they'll simply go be best and brightest somewhere else, and let some other country reap the benefits while letting their former country twist in the wind.) Competitiveness is on a downswing. If China has not already displaced America as top dog, it will soon, and there's little America can do to prevent it.

Which leads to the next, critical question:

What now?

One may not be the big man on campus anymore, but there's still plenty at stake. The aim now is to make the fall as soft as possible, and end up in as strong a position in the global community as you can. Succeed, and you can end up in still a very influential position, albeit in ways other than the brute force you've been used to using, and leave yourself in a position to maybe make your way back to the top one day, as China has done. Fail, and you can get carved up completely as old enemies that happen to be in the neighborhood take advantage of your weakened state and destroy you utterly. (Remember, as we've established previously, the Macedonia you see on the map is not the Macedonia of Alexander the Great. That Macedonia is part of Greece. The Macedonia currently on the map is a smaller, lesser nation trying to pass itself off as same.)

So how do you handle the fall?

1: Don't fight it.

This is the most critical step, and at the same time the toughest pill to swallow. Go out with grace. You are going to lose power. By the time you've figured it out, it's probably already too late to prevent, like a tsunami you only notice when you see it with your own two eyes. The more you fight the fall, the more you you make wild, flailing, desperate, and ultimately futile attempts to claw power back, the more it's going to hurt when the fall inevitably comes.

EXAMPLE: The Soviet Union. You older readers will well remember the Cold War, you readers about my age will only remember the tail end of it, but we're all familiar with the gist of it: Two superpowers- the United States and Soviet Union- staring each other down, stockpiling nuclear weapons, sabre-rattling, bluster, telling school children that their desks are nuclear-bomb-proof and all they have to do to survive a nuclear war is hide under them, and proxy wars in a variety of countries that were not the United States or Soviet Union, up until the Soviet Union collapsed.

As it turned out, the Cold War ended not due to any military action or espionage, but simply because the Soviets couldn't keep up the arms race anymore, and went broke trying. By the 1980's, approximately 70% of their industrial capacity was going towards the military. Meanwhile, that capacity wasn't producing what it might have produced, because the actual workers felt little incentive to do so. With all the resources being poured into the military in order to keep up with the Americans, there was very little being allocated for anything else, and thus very little the average Russian could really go home to, point at and say 'This is what we're fighting for'.

Ronald Reagan's role in it all was simply to propose the last bit of expensive weaponry, in this case Star Wars, which never actually needed to be put into place, because the Soviets admitted they couldn't afford one of those. They didn't even care if Star Wars was ultimately going to work or not; they simply operated on the assumption that it would (as it turned out, an incorrect assumption). Cold War over. Okay, Americans, we admit you're better at dumping money into expensive weapons programs than we are.

Now what?

A bunch of the country declares respective independence, for one. For two, what is now Russia has to face the fact that they have dumped the vast majority of their economy into a military they no longer have nearly that much of a need for anymore, and the rest of the country's completely gone to hell. In addition, while the United States, being capitalist, had a large number of businesses available to offset the cost of all they were doing, the Russians didn't have that. There wasn't much in the way of military contracts to award. The people did the legwork. While a middle class now had room to form where none could previously be, in 1991 a practice of economic 'shock therapy' instituted by Boris Yeltsin, was implemented to attempt to put Russia on an immediate strong footing. Again, Russia was going too hard in trying to stave off the fall. The result was hyperinflation and disaster. It's estimated that the resulting economic collapse was significantly worse than the Great Depression. There might have been food in the markets where there was none before, but nobody could afford to buy it.

Then came 1998, when the ruble couldn't be propped up anymore. Only an increase in the price of oil- which Russia had in abundance- saved them.

2: Hope you've made friends.

When you start declining, your military might starts weakening. Your enemies will notice when your military might begins to weaken. They'll notice when they stop losing. When your opponents start taking ties or even wins off of you, when they start being able to turn you away empty-handed, it energizes them. It encourages other potential foes to take a crack at you. You might claim victory every single time, but people who didn't have a stake in the war's outcome will start begging to differ.

Soon, the empire will find that people aren't afraid of it anymore. It will find itself fighting several wars on several fronts, stretch itself too thin, and rapidly begin to pile up the losses.

If the empire is fortunate, they'll eventually regard the empire as ceasing to be a threat, and lay off.

If the empire has been particularly contemptible, their enemies will press through straight to the capital.

EXAMPLE: Rome. That first sign of hope for the opposition came in the Gothic War. This was brought on after some Visigoths were allowed into Rome via crossing the Danube River by emperor Valens as refugees against the Huns, but then terribly mistreated once inside the borders, desperate to the point that women and children were sold into slavery for dog meat. The remainder were invited to a "banquet" in Marcianople, part of an old trick the Romans liked to use, the gist being that the banquet would double as their last meal. The deed, however, was botched, and the Visigoths declared war in 376.

This is the part where the Romans might have regretted allowing many of the Visigoths to hang on to their weapons after crossing the Danube. The Visigoths fought to a situation where, six years later in 382, the Romans signed a peace treaty. Not with Valens, though; he was killed in 378.

That was the sign of hope everyone saw. It wasn't the part where Valens was dead, though that did serve to shock the Romans, who had always been used to killing Roman emperors themselves. It was the peace treaty's mere existence that got the rest of the world's attention. Rome did not sign peace treaties. Rome crushed, showing no mercy and giving no quarter. If they could be fought to a peace treaty, they could be beaten outright, right?

Everyone wanted to find out. Everyone except the Romans, of course.

As the old saying goes, be nice to everyone you meet on the way up, because you never know who you'll run into on the way down. When Rome was sacked in 410, who did the deed? The Visigoths.

3: Independence happens.

Hey. I never said anything about easy.

Odds are your empire contains a number of disparate cultures. You should know. You probably subjugated half of them. The day will eventually come when the ones that haven't been killed off completely decide they want to be their own nation again, and press for independence.

For a while, you may be able to hold them at bay. But a determined enough- and strong enough- community will eventually manage to pull it off.

If animosity is big enough, and the community isn't aimed at taking over the entire country beyond THEIR borders, it may be worth looking into what Czechoslovakia made known as the 'Velvet Divorce', where they split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It will hurt- losing land always does- but if you're going to lose land, you might as well lose it with as little in the way of hard feelings as possible.

EXAMPLE: Every single nation that's ever celebrated an Independence Day, and there are a whole lot of them. Particularly the ones that celebrate by way of mocking their former lord and master.

4: Take your pride and shove it.

What do you have to be proud about? You're not the one that brought about your country's glory days. That was not you. That was your forefathers. Your forefathers fought the big wars, made the big speeches, got things done on the grand scale. YOU are the little snot-nosed punk that let it all go pear-shaped and/or failed in the task, however impossible, to pull the country out of the tailspin.

You may be the 'party of Lincoln'. (Though only in name; Lincoln's Republicans were not the conservatives of their day but rather the liberals.) You may be invoking FDR's New Deal. You may be invoking Ronald Reagan at every opportunity. All of these people are dead, and not only that, Lincoln has no living descendants.

"Well, Aaron," I hear some of you saying, "unlike you, I BELIEVE in America!" Yeah. So do I. I also believe in trees, flowers, pencils, tampons, cream-filled centers, burgundy, the number 6, and my own asshole. What's your point?

Bombastic pablum gets you nowhere. Maybe it gets you re-elected. Maybe. But considering the situation you're in, first off, what exactly is left for you to lead anyway? You get to be the captain of a sinking ship! Yay you! Secondly, as we've already established, so much of living life as a lapsed superpower or empire depends on what the other members of the global community think of you. You may not like it. You may hate it like poison. Nobody asked you to like it. That's just how it is whether you like it or not. The rest of the world gets to tell you what they really think of you now. Remember, they're not afraid of you anymore.

And bombastic pablum does not carry outside a country's own borders. When some despot halfway around the world makes it sound like his tinpot dictatorship is really the best place in the world and you're just jealous, he may have people in his own country that eat up every word of it, but YOU think he's a loony. The same principle applies to you. The rest of the world is not affected (relatively) by what goes on within your own borders, and is thus an independent observer. A cold, no-nonsense observer that has no problem telling you off. If the global community thinks you're an idiot, they're going to call you an idiot. You're not the boss of them, and they didn't put you in power.

The second you shelve the talk, the second you learn some national self-deprecation, the second you suck it up and eat some humble pie, is the second you begin to earn respect. In the yes of the world, that's a sign that you've come to terms with the fact that you're no longer what you once were. It's a sign you've matured. It's a sign that they can tell you things and not be laughed off because they're not you.

EXAMPLE: All the former European powers- and while we're at it, quite a bit of the rest of Europe as well- that used to spend years upon years killing each other a gazillion times over, and surrendered a degree of sovereignty to form the European Union. Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom were all on the list at the top of this article; all are EU members. The Vatican, also mentioned, while not a member, does use the euro.

5: Beef up your diplomatic channels.

Once again, we must note that you are not going to be able to get your way by brute force from here on in. You had better learn to talk to people, seriously talk to people, and you had better do it fast.

Talking to people does not mean 'as long as you do everything we say, we're cool'. It doesn't work that way, particularly if the country at the other end of the table owns a bunch of your debt. You're going to have to, again, swallow some pride.

The good news is that, when done well enough, you will find that you don't really NEED all that military might you had for all those years. If you make enough legitimate friends, learn to get along, when the day comes that you need help with something, really need the help and find you can't save yourself anymore, you'll find the rest of the world, perhaps even your former colonies, lining up to help as best they can, not because they feel they have to, but because they want to.

What are friends for?

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