Tuesday, March 02, 2010

delanceyplace.com 3/2/10 - collapse of empire

In todays excerpt - the collapse of a long-standing
empire has very
often occurred in a very short span of time:

"What is most striking about [Rome's] history is the
of the Roman Empire's collapse. In just five decades,
the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters.
Archaeological evidence from the late fifth
century - inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer
coins, smaller cattle - hows that the benign influence
of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western
Europe. What [Oxford historian Brian] Ward-Perkins
calls 'the end of civilization' came within the span of a
single generation.

"Other great empires have suffered comparably swift
collapses. The Ming dynasty in China began in 1368,
when the warlord Zhu Yuanzhang renamed himself
Emperor Hongwu, the word hongwu
meaning 'vast military power.' For most of the next
three centuries, Ming China was the world's most
sophisticated civilization by almost any measure.
Then, in the mid-seventeenth century, political
factionalism, fiscal crisis, famine, and epidemic
disease opened the door to rebellion within and
incursions from without. In 1636, the Manchu leader
Huang Taiji proclaimed the advent of the Qing dynasty.
Just eight years later, Beijing, the magnificent Ming
capital, fell to the rebel leader Li Zicheng, and the last
Ming emperor hanged himself out of shame. The
transition from Confucian equipoise to anarchy took
little more than a decade.

"In much the same way, the Bourbon monarchy in
France passed from triumph to terror with astonishing
rapidity. French intervention on the side of the colonial
rebels against British rule in North America in the
1770s seemed like a good idea at the time - a chance
for revenge after Great Britain's victory in the Seven
Years' War a decade earlier - but it served to tip
French finances into a critical state. In May 1789, the
summoning of the Estates-General, France's
long-dormant representative assembly, unleashed a
political chain reaction that led to a swift collapse of
royal legitimacy in France. Only four years later, in
January 1793, Louis XVI was decapitated by
guillotine. ...

"The sun set on the British Empire almost as
suddenly. In February 1945, Prime Minister Winston
Churchill was at Yalta, dividing up the world with U.S.
President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier
Joseph Stalin. As World War II was ending, he was
swept from office in the July 1945 general election.
Within a decade, the United Kingdom had conceded
independence to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Egypt,
Eritrea, India, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Madagascar,
Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Suez crisis in 1956
proved that the United Kingdom could not act in
defiance of the United States in the Middle East,
setting the seal on the end of empire. Although it took
until the 1960s for independence to reach
sub-Saharan Africa and the remnants of colonial rule
east of the Suez, the United Kingdom's [centuries old]
age of hegemony was effectively over less than a
dozen years after its victories over Germany and

"The most recent and familiar example of precipitous
decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced all
kinds of rot within the Soviet system back to the
Brezhnev era and beyond. Perhaps, as the historian
and political scientist Stephen Kotkin has argued, it
was only the high oil prices of the 1970s that 'averted
Armageddon.' But this did not seem to be the case at
the time. In March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev
became general secretary of the Soviet Communist
Party, the CIA estimated the Soviet economy to be
approximately 60 percent the size of the U.S.
economy. This estimate is now known to have been
wrong, but the Soviet nuclear arsenal was genuinely
larger than the U.S. stockpile. And governments in
what was then called the Third World, from Vietnam to
Nicaragua, had been tilting in the Soviets' favor for
most of the previous 20 years. Yet less than five years
after Gorbachev took power, the Soviet imperium in
central and Eastern Europe had fallen apart, followed
by the Soviet Union itself in 1991. If ever an empire fell
off a cliff - rather than gently declining - it was the one
founded by Lenin."

Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse,
Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010, pp. 28-30.


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