(Relocated from “Pages” to a “Post”)
Of Two Minds – Charles Hugh Smith July 16, 2009
The Next Superpower/Empire
Who will replace the U.S.A. as the next superpower/empire? Will it be China, India, Russia, Brazil or somebody else, or will there be no superpower/empire in the future?
Let’s start our analysis with a simple screening for FEW resources:
(the FEW resources (pun intended): food, energy and water)
With the fundamental idea being a nation without fertile, deep soil, plentiful water and either native energy sources or easily conquerable sources will not be able to generate the surpluses in food and energy necessary to support a global empire.
Next, let’s add basic geography. If the nation in question shares land borders with multiple nations, it has an advantage and disadvantage–it has easy access to other lands it can control/dominate, but then it is also vulnerable to invasion. Nations with long sea borders have a natural protection–invasion by sea is a cumbersome, costly affair–and if they have a suitable deep-water Navy then their access to the seas enables wealth-creating sea trade and tremendous power projection.
Since we’re discussing power projection and trade, we should add that the empire candidate must be able to generate sufficient surpluses to field a substantial army and/or Navy if for no other reason than to defend trade routes and the wealth they generate. This means small nations with small populations will be hard-pressed to become empires unless they are able to dominate and extract the wealth of larger nations at a relatively low cost.
The classic example, I think, is the manner in which Great Britain controlled India with very modest detachments of armed forces and was thus able to extract stupendous wealth from the much larger nation-state.
Any candidate for empire must also possess what I term national coherence, meaning that the national identity and political loyalty of its citizenry are two sides of one coin. Nations formed by assembling naturally warring states or completely different cultures (different languages, religious histories, value systems, etc.) tend to have short half-lives, meaning they do not stay assembled in one nation-state long enough to extend and maintain an empire as they expend most of their surplus capital in domestic disputes and/or suppression.
Societies based on slavery, forced labor, permanent suppression of large minorities and/or a dominant elite ruling a restive impoverished underclass will also suffer dissolution and/or insurrection; the national wealth cannot be directed to empire, as it totally consumed in suppression, oppression, the attempt to extract labor from the unwilling/unwell, etc.
An army of free citizens has a natural advantage over an army of unwilling conscripts or paid mercenaries.
What might be called the “secret ingredient” of empire is a seeming paradox: institutions that are both extremely resilient but also extremely flexible. A good analogy of this yin/yang unity is a growing young tree, which is both resilient and flexible enough to survive storms. An empire which is like a mostly deadwood old giant tree will topple over in a storm as it lacks flexibility, while the nascent empire which is insufficiently resilient will be uprooted by crisis/conflict.
The institutions of empire require certain essential elements:
1. a stable political structure with a smooth chain of command and a trustworthy procedure for transferring power to the next generation of leaders
2. an educated class of citizenry who can serve as bureaucrats
3. some measure of meritocracy so that corruption and incompetence won’t bring down the empire
4. a stable, trustworthy currency/money/medium of exchange
Returning to the duality/unity of resilience and flexibility, we can also invoke the analogy of adaptation and natural selection. Any empire based on a chaotic transfer of power cannot last more than a generation or two. Any empire without a natural-selection process of meritocracy will be undermined from within.
Put another way: the State (government) of the empire must attract some of the best talent within the empire and it must engage the most active segment of its populace. Sleepy fiefdom bureaucracies staffed by deadweight parasites who were awarded their position via caste or bribe cannot build or maintain an empire.
All true empires build wealth via trade. Nations whose wealth is based solely on resource extraction are not truly empires because the national wealth is impermanent and set for precipitous decline as the resource is depleted.
Trade does not require fossil fuels. Great empires traded by land and sea and pulled wealth from large areas, providing real value in exchange: the goods of the central empire, protection, and a system of trade which enabled the trading partners to also grow wealthy.
Empire is often seen through the distorted lens of conquest, as if empire can be imposed by force. Empires born of conquest last only as long as the conqueror (Alexander the Great, Napoleon, et al.), while empires built on mutual benefit and wealth creation/peace/prosperity can last hundreds of years. Member states or territories must “opt in” to the empire for one basic reason: the empire offers a much better system for peace, widespread prosperity and the potential for wealth creation.
This range of benefits offered by trade and mutual “opting in” to the empire is called “soft power,” and its spectrum includes a dynamic culture and ideas, wealth creation via trade, and a transparent intellectual/administrative framework. Thus the empire with great “soft power” offers so many benefits to allies and vassal states that there is rarely any need to project power and military force.
Empire must gather more wealth than the empire costs to maintain. Thus the costs of administration and power projection–military domination when force becomes necessary or beneficial–must be less than the wealth being extracted from the empire.
Illustrations of power projection abound. In the ancient world, Rome mustered forces which extended all the way to England–all with only human and animal power for energy. The same could be said of the Tang Dynasty in China, the Incas of South America, and many other sprawling empires.
In the current era, compare the equivalent power any potential rival superpower would have to project to match the U.S.: China would have to be able to conquer Venezuela (for example), a resource-rich nation thousands of miles from the empire’s base, dominate the airspace and have enough force to make the conquest (however it is presented) stick.
Although it is not politically correct to note this, power projection requires a certain martial spirit of the home populace; once an empire relies on mercenaries then its days are numbered.
Again, as un-PC as it may be, we should note that the U.S. military has been at war in one fashion or another (wars to counter attempts at conquest by rival empires and discretionary wars alike) since 1941. That experience is incomparably important in actual war-fighting. If two combatants appear roughly equal on paper, it is the side with a professional officer corps and combat-trained forces, which will likely dominate.
There is a saying in boxing which communicates much of this truth: everyone has a plan until they get hit.
This is not to glorify war or conquest, it is simply to further a realistic discussion of what is required to be a superpower/empire. If a nation cannot project power thousands of miles from its home base and impose its will in an enduring fashion via soft and hard power, then it is not a superpower; it is at best a regional power.
We should also mention that empires must encourage technical innovation and foster the institutional innovation to make use of it. History is replete with examples of empires taken down by a new technology, which the old empire failed to recognize and adapt.
I would hazard that the single most important asset any aspiring superpower must possess in quantity is inexpensive, abundant energy. If the costs of acquiring energy exceed the gains generated by the empire, then the cost-benefit is against the empire and it will crumble/devolve.
But the “soft power” and internal strengths of meritocracy, stable money, an educated class of administrators, a potent and vibrant military, a robust system of mutual wealth creation with trading partners–all of these are also essential. No superpower can last without each of these elements working in a seamless duality/unity of resilience, adaptability and flexibility.
The last great aspiring superpower to fail was the Soviet Union. Its failure can be ascribed to many causes, but chief in my analysis was its failure to establish a mutual wealth-creation system via trade. The USSR was an entirely extractive empire burdened with huge fixed costs to suppress internal dissent and impose control on its impoverished vassal states. Its trade with other states was negligible and its soft power (vibrant culture, etc.) had faded from its 1930s glories. Its transition of leadership was opaque and therefore weak, and its attempts to encourage “opting in” by allies such as India foundered. Its demise was inevitable, based on this analysis.
Does China, India, Russia, Brazil or any other emerging regional power possess all the characteristics and resources described above? Clearly, each has some but not all. All have opted into the Western system of trade, currency, international structures, etc. for their own benefit. None has constructed some alternative system which exists independent of the Western “empire/system” which is ultimately enforced by the U.S. Even an alternative currency would work securely within the existing structure.
Creating a superpower is somewhat akin to creating Silicon Valley–and by that I mean an explosive source of wealth and dominating/compelling technological innovation–you can assemble the “hard power” pieces and the resources, but if you don’t have the administrative expertise, the meritocracy, the ability to innovate and absorb innovations structurally and not just superficially, and all the rest of the soft power spectrum, then the shell of hard power will soon collapse.
How long will the U.S. retain its superpower status? As long as the last great fields of fossil fuels are solidly within the trading/military nexus of the U.S. and not its rivals, then the U.S. will remain the sole superpower.
The superpower–if any–in the years beyond 2022 will have to have constructed a non-fossil fuel-dependent energy system which provides a surplus of energy sufficient to maintain a global empire of soft and hard power. If no nation can accomplish that, then there will be no superpowers; there will only be regional powers and alliances.