Markers of Imperial Collapse
Jun. 19, 2018
In thinking through the (for now) gradually unfolding collapse of the American empire, the collapse of the USSR, which occurred close through three decades ago, continues to perform as a goldmine of useful examples and analogies. Certain events that occurred during the Soviet collapse can serve as useful signposts in the American one, allowing us to formulate better guesses about the timing of events that can suddenly turn a gradual collapse into a precipitous one.
When the Soviet collapse occurred, the universal reaction was “Who could have known?” Well, I knew. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with a surgeon in the summer of 1990, right as I was going under the knife to get my appendix excised, waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. He asked me about what will happen to the Soviet republics, Armenia in particular. I told him that they will be independent in less than a year. He looked positively shocked. I was off by a couple of months. I hope to be able to call the American collapse with the same degree of precision.
I suppose I was well positioned to know, and I am tempted to venture a guess at how I achieved that. My area of expertise at the time was measurement and data acquisition electronics for high energy physics experiments, not Sovietology. But I spent the previous summer in Leningrad, where I grew up, and had a fair idea of what was up in the USSR. Meanwhile, the entire gaggle of actual paid, professional Russia experts that was ensconced in various government agencies in Washington or consuming oxygen at various foundations and universities in the US had absolutely no idea what to expect.
I suspect that there is a principle involved: if your career depends on the continued existence of X, and if X is about to cease to exist, then you are not going to be highly motivated to accurately predict that event. Conversely, if you could manage to accurately predict the spontaneous existence failure of X, then you would also be clever enough to switch careers ahead of time, hence would no longer be an expert on X and your opinion on the matter would be disregarded. People would think that you screwed yourself out of a perfectly good job and are now embittered. Right now I am observing the same phenomenon at work among Russian experts on the United States: they can’t imagine that the various things they have spent their lives studying are fast fading into irrelevance. Or perhaps they can, but keep this realization to themselves, for fear of no longer being invited on talk shows.
I suppose that since expertise is a matter of knowing a whole lot about very little, knowing everything about nothing—a thing that doesn’t exist—is its logical endpoint. Be that as it may. But I feel that we non-experts, armed with the 20/20 hindsight afforded to us by the example of the Soviet collapse, can avoid being similarly blindsided and dumbfounded by the American one. This is not an academic question: those who gauge it accurately may be able to get the hell out ahead of time, while the lights are mostly still on, while not everybody is walking around in a drug-induced mental haze, and mass shootings and other types of mayhem are still considered newsworthy.
This hindsight makes it possible for us to spot certain markers that showed up then and are showing up now. The four that I want to discuss now are the following:
1. Allies are being alienated
2. Enmities dissipate
3. Ideology becomes irrelevant
4. Military posture turns flaccid
All of these are plain to see already in the American collapse. As with the Soviet collapse, there is a certain incubation period for each of these trends, lasting perhaps a year or two, during which not much seems to be happening, but when it is over everything comes unstuck all at once.
As the Soviet collapse unfolded, former friendships deteriorated, first into irrelevance, then into outright enmity. Prior to the collapse, the Iron Curtain ran between Eastern and Western Europe; three decades later it runs between Russia and the Baltic countries, Poland and the Ukraine. Whereas in the post-war period the Warsaw Pact countries derived many benefits from its association with Russia and its industrial might, as the end neared their membership in the Soviet camp became more and more of a hinderance to progress, hampering their integration with the more prosperous, less troubled countries further west and with the rest of the world.
Similarly with the US and the EU now, this partnership is also showing major signs of strain as Washington tries to prevent the Europe from integrating with the rest of Eurasia. The particular threat of unilateral economic sanctions as part of a vain effort to block additional Russian natural gas pipelines into Europe and to force the Europeans to buy into an uncertain and overpriced American liquefied natural gas scheme has laid bare the fact that the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial. And as Britain splits from Europe and clings closer to the US, a new Iron Curtain is gradually emerging, but this time it will run through the English Channel, separating the Anglophone world from Eurasia.
Similar developments are afoot in the east, affecting South Korea and Japan. Trump’s flip-flopping between tempestuous tweeting and conciliatory rhetoric vis-à-vis North Korea have laid bare the emptiness of American security guarantees. Both of these countries now see the need to make their own security arrangements and to start reasserting their sovereignty in military matters. Meanwhile, for the US, being incoherent is but a pit stop on the way to becoming irrelevant.
During the entire period of the Cold War the United States was the Soviet Union’s arch-enemy, and any effort by Washington to give advice or to dictate terms was met with loud, synchronized, ideologically fortified barking from Moscow: the imperialist aggressor is at it again; pay no heed. This self-righteous noise worked quite well for a surprisingly long time, and continued to work while the Soviet Union was making impressive new conquests—in space, in technology, science and medicine, in international humanitarian projects and so on, but as stagnation set in it started to ring hollow.
After the Soviet collapse, this immunity against American contagion disappeared. Western “experts” and “advisors” flooded in, and proposed “reforms” such as dismemberment of the USSR into 15 separate countries (trapping millions of people on the wrong side of some newly thought-up border) shock therapy (which impoverished almost the entirety of the Russian population), privatization (which put major public assets in the hands of a few politically connected, mostly Jewish oligarchs) and various other schemes designed to destroy Russia and drive its population into extinction. They would probably have succeeded had they not been stopped in time.
Symmetrically, the Washingtonians considered the USSR as their arch-enemy. After it went away, there was a bit of confusion. The Pentagon tried talking up “Russian mafia” as a major threat to world peace, but that seemed laughable. Then, by dint of demolishing a couple of New York skyscrapers, perhaps by placing small nuclear charges in the bedrock beneath their foundations (those were the demolition plans that were on file) they happily embraced the concept of “war on terror” and went about bombing various countries that didn’t have a terrorism problem before then but certainly do now. Then, once that stupid plan ran its course, the Washingtonians went back to reviling and harrassing Russia.
But now a strange smell is in the wind in Washington: the smell of failure. Air is leaking out of the campaign to vilify Russia, and it is putrid. Meanwhile, Trump is continuing to make noises to the effect that a rapprochement with Russia is desirable and that a summit between the leaders should be held. Trump is also borrowing some pages from the Russian rulebook: just as Russia responded to Western sanctions with countersanctions, Trump is starting to respond to Western tariffs with countertariffs. We should expect American enmity against Russia to dissipate some time before American attitudes toward Russia (and much else) become irrelevant. We should also expect that, once the fracking bubble pops, the US will become dependent on Russian oil and liquefied natural gas, which it will be forced to pay for with gold. (Fracking involves a two-phase combustion process: the first phase burns borrowed money to produce oil and gas; the second burns the oil and the gas.)
Other enmities are on the wane as well. Trump has just signed an interesting piece of paper with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The deal (if we call it that) is a tacit act of surrender. It was orchestrated by Russia and China. It affirms what North and South Korea had already agreed to: eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Just as Gorbachev acquiesced to the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany, Trump is getting ready to acquiesce to the reunification of Korea and the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall spelled the end of the Soviet imperium, the dismantlement of the Korean Demilitarized Zone will spell the end of the American one.
While the US never had anything as rigorous as the Soviet Union’s communist dogma, its hodgepodge of pro-democracy propaganda, laissez-faire capitalism, free trade and military domination was potent for a time. Once the US stopped being the world’s largest industrial powerhouse, ceding ground first to Germany and Japan, then to China, it went along accumulating prodigious levels of debt, essentially confiscating and spending the world’s savings, while defending the US dollar with the threat of violence. It was, for a time, understood that the exorbitant privilege of endless money printing needs to be defended with the blood of American soldiers. The US saw itself, and positioned itself, as the indispensable country, able to control and to dictate terms to the entire planet, terrorizing or blockading various other countries as needed. Now all of these ideological shibboleths are in shambles.
• The pro-democracy rhetoric is still dutifully spouted by politicians mass media mouthpieces, but in practice the US is no longer a democracy. It has been turned into a lobbyist’s paradise in which the lobbyists are no longer confined to the lobby but have installed themselves in congressional offices and are drafting prodigious quantities of legislation to suit the private interests of corporations and oligarchs. Nor is the American penchant for democracy traceable in the support the US lavishes on dictatorships around the world or in its increasing tendency to enact and enforce extraterritorial laws without international consent.
Laissez-fair capitalism is also very much dead, supplanted by crony capitalism nurtured by a thorough melding of Washington and Wall Street elites. Private enterprise is no longer free but concentrated in a handful of giant corporations while about a third of the employed population in the US works in the public sector. The US Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the country as well as in the whole world. About 100 million of working-age able-bodied Americans do not work. Most of the rest work in service jobs, producing nothing durable. An increasing number of people is holding onto a precarious livelihood by working sporadic gigs. The whole system is fueled—including parts of it that actually produce the fuel, such as the fracking industry—by debt. No sane person, if asked to provide a workable description of capitalism, would come up with such a derelict scheme.
Free trade was talked up until very recently, if not actually implemented. Unimpeded trade over great distances is the sine qua non of all empires, the US empire included. In the past, warships and the threat of occupation were used to force countries, such as Japan, to open themselves up to international trade. Quite recently, the Obama administration was quite active in its attempts to push through various transoceanic partnerships, but none of them succeeded. And now Trump has set about wrecking what free trade there was by a combination of sanctions and tariffs, in a misguided attempt to rekindle America’s lost greatness by turning inward. Along the way, sanctions on the use of the US dollar in international trade, especially with key energy exporting nations such as Iran and Venezuela, are accelerating the process by which the US dollar is being dethroned as the world’s reserve currency, demolishing America’s exorbitant privilege of endless money-printing.
The Soviet collapse was to some extent presaged by the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Prior to that point, it was still possible to talk up the “international duty” of the Red Army to make the world (or at least the liberated parts of it) safe for socialism. After that point the very concept of military domination was lost, and interventions that were possible before, such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, were no longer even thinkable. When Eastern Europe rose in rebellion in 1989, the Soviet military empire simply folded, abandoning its bases and military hardware and pulling out.
In the case of the US, for now it remains capable of quite a lot of mischief, but it has become clear that military domination of the whole planet is no longer possible for it. The US military is still huge, but it is quite flaccid. It is no longer able to field a ground force of any size and confines itself to aerial bombardment, training and arming of “moderate terrorists” and mercenaries, and pointless steaming about the oceans. None of the recent military adventures have resulted in anything resembling peace on terms that the American planners originally envisioned or have ever considered desirable: Afghanistan has been turned into a terrorist incubator and a heroin factory; Iraq has been absorbed into a continuous Shia crescent that now runs from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
US military bases are still found throughout the world. They were meant to project American power over both hemispheres of the globe, but they have been largely neutralized by the advent of new long-range precision weapons, potent air defense technology and electronic warfare wizardry. These numerous “lily pads,” as they are sometimes called, are the opposite of military assets: they are useless but expensive targets located in places that are hard to defend but easy for potential adversaries to attack. They can only be used for pretend-combat, and the endless series of military training exercises, such as the ones in the Baltic statelets, right on the Russian border, or the ones in South Korea, are meant to be provocative, but they are paragons of pointlessness, since attacking either Russia or North Korea would be a suicidal move. They are basically confidence-building exercises, and their increasing intensity testifies to a pronounced and growing deficit of confidence.
People never tire of pointing out the huge size of the US military budget, but they almost always neglect to mention that what the US gets per unit money is ten times less than, for example Russia. It is a bloated and ineffectual extortion scheme that produces large quantities of boondoggles—an endlessly thirsty public money sponge. No matter how much money it soaks up, it will never solve the fundamental problem of being incapable to go to war against any adequately armed opponent without suffering unacceptable levels of damage. Around the world, the US is still loathed, but it is feared less and less: a fatal trend for an empire. But America has done quite well in militarizing its local police departments, so that when the time comes it will be ready to go to war… against itself.
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This analysis may read like a historical survey detached from practical, everyday considerations. But I believe that it has practical merit. If the citizens of the USSR were informed, prior to the events of 1990, of what was about to befall them, they would have behaved quite differently, and quite a lot of personal tragedy might have been avoided. A very useful distinction can be made between collapse avoidance (which is futile; all empires collapse) and worst-case scenario avoidance, which will become, as collapse picks up speed, your most important concern. Your approach may involve fleeing to safer ground, or preparing to survive it where you are. You may choose your own collapse markers and make your own predictions about their timing instead of relying on mine. But, having witnessed one collapse, and now witnessing another, the one approach I would definitely not recommend is doing nothing and hoping for the best.