The fall of an empire may be agonizingly long, Jerry Pournelle writes (in 1989), or mercifully short:
Winston Churchill could protest that he had not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over liquidation of the British Empire, but in fact that is what he did; for better or worse, in less than a generation the British experiment in world order was history. During the same period the French Empire ceased to exist. Italy and Germany had already lost whatever imperial pretensions they may have had.
Of course the age of empire is hardly over: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is imperial in all but name. Perhaps it, too, will fall.
Paul Kennedy argues in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that great powers fall because of the economic strain of their military burdens. The United States in particular faces the dilemma of hoarding resources for investment, or spending to keep present military power in order to meet immediate threats.
The dilemma is real, but there is another problem. The United States may not really have any choice, because any resources not spent on military power will not be saved and invested for the future, but immediately consumed. We all know this, and assume that it’s “just politics.” We also assume that politics is and will remain predominant.
Meanwhile, the United States is transforming itself into an odd form of oligarchy. The nation is, after all, ruled by a small elite elected in effect for life: 98% of all members of Congress were reelected in 1986, and there is no reason to suppose that figure will ever be different. As one observer put it, the two houses of Congress have become in effect the House of Lords twice over, with the only real national contest being for the Presidency.
Of course the President controls the military.
We are brought up on the view that economics and politics control human affairs. Perhaps so; but it is well to remember what is primary. John Keegan, one-time military historian at Sandhurst, says in his Mask of Command:
“Marx was able to argue for the primacy of ownership of the means of production as a determinant of social relationships largely because, at the time when he wrote, finance and investment overshadowed all other forces in society, and the military class — exhausted by the Napoleonic wars and dispirited by the defeat of its interests in Russia in 1825 and France in 1830 — was at an unnaturally low ebb of self-confidence. Yet military power, represented in its crudest form by the robber-baron principle, can, of course, at any time it chooses, make fools of the financier and investor, as the history of investment in unstable areas of the world makes unarguably evident. It can equally make fools of ‘historical’ laws. Marx, in his heart, recognized both truths, feared more than any other the temperament — and the military class is ultimately self-choosing by temperament rather than by material interest — that will seize arms simply for the pleasure that blood-letting gives, and constantly urged the politically conscious to learn the habits and discipline of the military class as the merest means of defending and furthering the revolution.”
It is self-evident that the nomenklatura, the real rulers of modern Russia, have forgotten Marx’s warnings. So have the politicians and economists in the United States.