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Complexity and Collapse (NFerg)

Complexity and Collapse (NFerg)

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m a r c h
/  
a p r i l
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Volume 89 • Number 2
 The contents of 
Foreign Affairs 
are copyrighted.©2o1o Council on Foreign Relations,Inc. All rights reserved.Reproduction and distribution of this material is permitted only with the express written consent of 
Foreign Affairs 
.Visit www.foreignaffairs.org/permissions for more information.
Complexity and Collapse
Empires on the Edge of Chaos
Niall Ferguson
 
 There is
no better illustration of the life cycle of a great power than
The Course ofEmpir
,a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole thathang in the New-York Historical Society.Cole was a founder of theHudson River School and one of the pioneers of nineteenth-century  American landscape painting;in
The Course ofEmpir
,he beautifully captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remainin thrall to this day.Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great riverbeneath a rocky outcrop.In the first,
The Savage State 
,a lush wildernessis populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitiveexistence at the break of a stormy dawn.The second picture,
The  Arcadian or Pastoral State 
,is of an agrarian idyll:the inhabitants havecleared the trees,planted fields,and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings is
The Consummation ofEmpir
.Now,the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt,andthe contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have beenreplaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants,proconsuls,and citizen-consumers.It is midday in the life cycle.Then comes
Destruction
.The[
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Complexity and Collapse
Empires on the Edge of Chaos
Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson
is Laurence A.Tisch Professor of History atHarvard University,a Fellow at Jesus College,Oxford,and a SeniorFellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.His most recentbook is
The Ascent ofMoney:A Financial History ofthe World 
.For anannotated guide to this topic,see “What to Read on American Primacy”at www.foreignaªairs.com/readinglists/american-primacy.
 
city is ablaze,its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillagesbeneath a brooding evening sky.Finally,the moon rises over the fifthpainting,
Desolation
.There is not a living soul to be seen,only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.Conceived in the mid-1830s,Cole’s great pentaptych has a clearmessage:all empires,no matter how magnificent,are condemned todecline and fall.The implicit suggestion was that the young Americanrepublic of Cole’s age would be better served by sticking to its bucolicfirst principles and resisting the imperial temptations of commerce,conquest,and colonization.For centuries,historians,political theorists,anthropologists,andthe public at large have tended to think about empires in such cyclicaland gradual terms.“The best instituted governments,”the Britishpolitical philosopher Henry St.John,First Viscount Bolingbroke, wrote in 1738,“carry in them the seeds of their destruction:and,though they grow and improve for a time,they will soon tend visibly to their dissolution.Every hour they live is an hour the less that they have to live.”Idealists and materialists alike have shared that assumption.In hisbook 
Scienza nuova,
the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico describesall civilizations as passing through three phases:the divine,the heroic,and the human,finally dissolving into what Vico called “the barbarismof reflection.”For Hegel and Marx,it was the dialectic that gavehistory its unmistakable beat.History was seasonal for Oswald Spengler,the German historian,who wrote in his 1918–22 book,
The Decline of  the West,
that the nineteenth century had been “the winter of the West,the victory of materialism and skepticism,of socialism,parlia-mentarianism,and money.”The British historian Arnold Toynbee’suniversal theory of civilization proposed a cycle of challenge,response,and suicide.Each of these models is diªerent,but all share the ideathat history has rhythm. Although hardly anyone reads Spengler or Toynbee today,similarstrains of thought are visible in contemporary bestsellers.Paul Kennedy’s
The Rise and Fall ofthe Great Powers 
is another work of cyclical history—despite its profusion of statistical tables,which at first sight make itseem the very antithesis of Spenglerian grand theory.In Kennedy’smodel,great powers rise and fall according to the growth rates of their
Complexity and Collapse 
foreign affairs
.
 March /April 2010
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