There appears to be an arrogance and excess about all great powers before they implode. Whilst some have lasted for hundreds of years almost impregnable, sooner or later they all collapse often under their own hubris. There are however mostly more fundamental reasons why they arise in the first place and why they eventually wither and die.
Often however the reasons are geo-political, down to being in the right place at the right time. In order to fully appreciate this concept however we need to be able to appreciate the paradigms of the time and, in particular, be able to change our world view by looking through the appropriate lens of the time. We, in Britain, have become so used to looking at a map of the world dominated by the Greenwich Mean Time line in the middle looking West towards the America’s and East towards Asia. Putting America in the centre however shows a completely different orientation, particularly on the West Coast in showing Asia as the West.
To demonstrate the concept of orientation, let us look at the Greek Empire around 400 BCE. The prime method of transportation was by ship. The Mediterranean Sea is therefore the main highway. In consequence, Athens is seen as the centre of the world with all countries around the Sea falling prey to its ambitions. A voyage to Syria; Egypt or Sicily would not be seen as a visit to places on three continents but just across the sea. Supply lines were therefore realistic to the varying conquests that were made. Indeed, communications, and hence the known world, were seen as relatively safe journeys by boat, as opposed to the extreme danger of the hinterland.
THE AGE OF THE HORSE
Moving on to the early middle ages and the rise of the Central Asian hordes of Genghis Khan and latterly Tamburlaine, the horse was the main form of transport and the development of overland trade routes such as the Silk Road from Shaanxi to Istanbul evolved. Unlike ancient Greece and its dependence on water borne transport, control of the hinterland was crucial. Dependence in the West on the necessity of spices and herbs to prolong meat life etc was increasingly precarious given the hazards of the journey from the East to say nothing of their expense and danger.
RETURN TO THE SEA
This resulted in the search for a sea route to India from the shores of Western Europe starting with the Portuguese in the 15th century and followed by the Spanish, in order to create a less expensive and more reliable supply of spices etc. It is at this time that we return to the dominance of sea power but also the shift of the paradigm to a world view centred on the West rather than Eurasia and ultimately the Greenwich Meantime Line creating the illusion of Britain being at the centre of the world.
And so, it has been for the past four hundred years or so, first with the British dominating the high seas and then after she had broken the bank by 1945, the Americans taking over from Pax Britannica.
Why the brief history lesson? First an opportunity to see how empires rise and fall according to political; economic; social and technological changes but more importantly to consider something which many in the West, and in America in particular, are stuck in this world view, thus failing to see a way forward towards the changing paradigm which has entered the world during the past thirty years. This has coincided with the rise of state capitalism and the increasing strength of the Republic of China. Just like the dominance of varying types of communication between water and land, the introduction of the telephone; radio and air travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made the world a smaller place.
THE NEW WORLD ORDER
The recent pandemic however has pushed the new electronic age of computerisation to the forefront. Communication not only is no longer dependent on the physical e.g., water; land or air but also has no fixed and dominant point. People can do business anywhere in the world at any time. Manufacturing has already moved to Asia and Russia, amongst many other countries in Asia and Africa, have vast amounts of natural resources. Perhaps the question to ask therefore is, what does the United States of America have to give the world anymore? Why should China or Russia bother to be dependent on them.
Russia has always been divided intellectually between looking West or East. Until now the Westophiles have tended to dominate. With its vast resources in the East however and closeness to its main market in China, maybe it is time for Russia to turn its back on the West. From a physical point of view the opening up of the Northern Sea route, open eight months a year due to climate change, is also making Russia less dependent on more traditional routes of transportation. To say nothing of the opening up of Siberia.
Secondly, we know that it is only a matter of time before the Chinese economy outstrips that of the USofA. Apart from whether capitalism will survive over the coming decades, State capitalism has already shown that it can be highly successful without liberal democracy. No one is talking of China becoming democratic. This does not appear to stop American attempts around the world to believe that it has not only the right but also the duty to impose liberal democracy on countries whose political cultures have absolutely no affiliation to that style of government.
Before being sufficiently arrogant to impose democracy on others, the Americans need to look internally and see what an anti-democratic country they themselves now live in. The four staples of a democracy are a rule of law; ability for a peaceful transfer of power; the right to protest through freedom of speech and a right for all to vote. First of all, the American Constitution is no longer fit for purpose in not allowing the majority to have their vote counted in electing a President. It is hampered by the electoral college system which was constituted when there were 13 rather than 50 States aiming to protect Vermont from Massachusetts. As far as a peaceful transfer of power is concerned, we have seen already the havoc created by the unwillingness of Trump to accept the result of the 2020 election and leading to the insurgency of 6 January, it is not over yet with 78% of Republicans still refusing to accept Biden as the legitimate victor. And the longer a lie takes in being called out the greater the perception of legitimacy it attracts, as can be seen through continuing demonstrations. The impeachment process has twice proven unable to be satisfactorily enacted and action proposed by the legitimatly elected President is unable to be enacted due to a filibuster which a minority Senate or House can vote down. Added to this since the election, new legislation in many States has been enacted to reduce the opportunities of the poor the right or ability to vote, along with attempts for political, rather than independent, control over the counting of votes. All of which can be directly related as a return to the Jim Crow days. To say nothing of the treatment of the Black Lives Matter protests illuminated in unfairness before the law by the physical appearance of the huge police presence for those demonstrators, in contrast to the very few officers left to police the Capitol on 6 January. Added to this is the pernicious presence of big business and the favours system which by its very nature leads to corruption. And yet all we hear is, that the United States of America is the best and most democratic country in the world. Like all great empires before they fall, the country and many of those within it are deluding themselves if they believe that they live in a democracy let alone the best.
This is why the lens of world view is shifting East from Greenwich Mean Time to show Russia and China more at the centre of power. The West have dominated for so long that their hegemony has become automatic. The reality is gradually starting to come to mind more gradually in America but at a faster pace in the United Kingdom whose own map within its current borders could be changing in a few short years. All such gigantic shifts require long gestation periods. But once the arguments start to open consciousness to the realities, Pax America will be yet one more lost empire just like the rest. The only difference is that with the increasing speed of change their time at the helm has been even shorter than their British cousins.
ROGER LOVELL OCTOBER 2021
Author of Managing Change in the New Public Sector and Managing for the Millennium