Complex Adaptive Systems: A New Blueprint to Analyze Imperial Collapse

By Ferguson, Niall | Harvard International Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Complex Adaptive Systems: A New Blueprint to Analyze Imperial Collapse


Ferguson, Niall, Harvard International Review


Ferguson's essay "Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos" in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2010)asserts that empires can suddenly and unexpectedly collapse if a small trigger throws off the balance of the system; imperial collapse does not necessarily require a long period of decline. Considering that fiscal failures often cause such collapses, the growing public debt of the United States may be a signal that the US empire is in danger.

Reading through your article, the qusestion arises: is the United States losing its ability to create value as a complex adaptive system in any other way than by the increasing debt burden--are we losing the creative edge, or is this purely fiscal?

Well, I think one way of looking at it is to say that the amount of debt you had to take on to create an additional percentage point of GDP rose steadily from the 1980s right the way until 2010, and that suggests some kind of problem. The US economy still has great strengths when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, but for a variety of reasons, those strengths have not been particularly important since 2001. The main drivers of growth from 2001 to 2007 were leverage on bank and household balance sheets, and with that leverage people engaged in the consumption of imports from Asia, the consumption of oil from the Middle East, and speculation in real estate. That's a very different story from the 1990s, when you had surging investment in information technology and big gains in productivity driving up the asset prices of companies that were doing that. It's a much less healthy story. So from that point of view, you have to be worried, and I still don't see much sign of the next wave of American growth coming from those healthy sources, unless you count the iPad as a major contribution to Western civilization, which it may be. I don't know.

To talk more about the complex systems that you discussed: you have talked a lot about the fragility of even the greatest of powers; how do you suggest that we strengthen the great powers in such a fashion that their collapse occurs over a longer period, that their time in the sun is measurably longer?

I think the first step is to understand the nature of a complex system, and part of the point of the piece was to say that we have outmoded ways of thinking about power. We are trapped in nineteenth century--or even earlier--paradigms, and that leads us to assume decline will be smooth and gradual. So we first have to recognize that that isn't the case and that decline can be very sudden if complex adaptive systems can fall apart really fast.

Are there things that we can do? Yes, I think there are. I was trying to argue in the piece that financial/fiscal problems are often, in great part, the drivers of disintegration. It's not too late for the United States to reform its tax system and its welfare entitlements, and it's not too difficult to see how that might be done. You could very swiftly simplify the tax code--and I speak with feeling having just paid my tax bill--you could simplify and reduce corporate tax; you could create a federal sales tax; you could reform Social Security; you could reform Medicare, there are lots of things that could be done, and I think in that sense the debt-driven crisis isn't inevitable. It's politically hard to do, but it's not economically hard to figure out the solution. So, number one: reform of the tax and spending system.

And number two: I think, beware of that strategic model that presumes the ultimate objective of policy is always the exit. In foreign policy, the United States has an exit fixation. Its interventions are always short-term and designed to be over as soon as possible, and I've been arguing for years that that isn't the right way to approach a problem like Afghanistan or Iraq where local collaboration will only come if they feel you are there for a long time. So, my second suggestion would be take a longer view of overseas interventions rather than expecting that you can have it all done and dusted in Afghanistan by 2011, which is next year. …

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Complex Adaptive Systems: A New Blueprint to Analyze Imperial Collapse
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