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Superpowers Rise and Fall: Can You Guess Where America Is on the Arc?



Susan E. Wills - published on 02/04/15

Can we possibly avoid the fate of 11 superpowers before us?

George Santayana’s famous statement — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — would be a great subtitle for a little known essay called “The Fate of Empires” (1976) by the little known British general and historian Sir John Bagot Glubb. He explains that we generally fail to learn vital lessons from humanity’s past errors because history is taught in disconnected chunks, narrowly focused on this region or that era and almost never as a comprehensive study of the history of humanity. Plus historians, like the rest of humanity, are not above lying to burnish their nation’s history and tarnish the memory of ancient foes. 

Sir John Glubb confined his analysis of superpowers to the 3,000-year history of the Middle East and Europe — from Great Britain to Russia — where his knowledge was broad and deep, conceding that he was not an expert in the history of the Far East or of South America. In comparing the rise and fall of the eleven great empires that flourished between 859 B.C. and 1950 A.D., he uncovered a pattern of conquest, growth, maturity and decline that, remarkably, was common to all. What surprised him even more: for each superpower, the whole process took place over ten generations or roughly 250 years. He saw the same trajectory being repeated in the United States of America. The most pressing question we now face is this: Can the values and habits that made America a great nation be restored or is its collapse — within the next 25 years — inevitable?

Seven ages can be identified in US history and in the histories of eleven past superpowers (Assyria, Persia, Greece, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, Arab Empire, Mameluke Empire, Ottoman Empire, Spain, Romanov Russia and Great Britain). The Age of — 
(1) Pioneers (“The Age of Outburst”)
(2) Conquest
(3) Commerce
(4) Affluence
(5) Intellect
(6) Decadence
(7) Decline and Death

We sometimes think of pioneers and conquerors as "barbarians," like the Mongolians who conquered Persia or the Germanic tribes who sacked Rome, and assume that they conquered “effete civilizations.” But that’s not always the case. For example, the pioneers in what became the US subdued "less advanced" tribal groups, but still fit the arc. Sir John describes pioneers as “normally poor, hardy and enterprising and above all aggressive”; “they abound in courage, energy and initiative, overcome every obstacle and always seem to be in control of the situation.”

They set about conquering a civilization or a large territory, subduing existing populations and creating stability and peace over immense areas of land. Their pioneering spirit, their initiative and energy are then transferred to the exploitation of natural resources, to productive enterprise and to inventions, giving rise to the Age of Commerce:

The Age of Conquests, of course, overlaps the Age of Commerce. The proud military traditions still hold sway and the great armies guard the frontiers, but gradually the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public. During the military period, glory and honour were the principal objects of ambition. To the merchant, such ideas are but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance” (“The Fate of Empires,” p. 8).

Those who engage in commerce “grow immensely rich.” They have palaces built for their homes, they finance impressive municipal buildings and infrastructure, endow colleges and universities and patronize the arts, during what appears to be a Golden Age.

The first half of the Age of Commerce appears to be peculiarly splendid. The ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty are still in evidence. The nation is proud, united and full of self confidence. Boys are still required, first of all, to be manly—to ride, to shoot straight and to tell the truth.

But in time, the pursuit of wealth become an end to itself:

“Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash” (p. 9).

Consider this complaint: “Students … no longer attend college to acquire learning and virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable them to grow rich” (p. 9). 

Sir John is quoting “the Arab moralist, Ghazali (1058-1111).” 

Although great wealth is concentrated in an elite class, all people enjoy a higher standard of living and that creates leisure and the opportunity for higher learning. Especially in the natural sciences, learning produces much of great value, but it can also lead to the notion that intellectuals “can solve all the problems of the world.” In truth, however, “the survival of the nation depends basically on the loyalty and self-sacrifice of the citizens. The impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse” (p. 12). Incessant debates and argument lead to inaction, political polarization and infighting that destroys any sense of national solidarity, even when the superpower is in imminent danger:

In the fourteenth century, the weakening empire of Byzantium was threatened, and indeed dominated, by the Ottoman Turks. The situation was so serious that one would have expected every subject of Byzantium to abandon his personal interests and to stand with his compatriots in a last desperate attempt to save the country. The reverse occurred. The Byzantines spent the last fifty years of their history in fighting one another in repeated civil wars, until the Ottomans moved in and administered the
coup de grâce

Enter the Age of Decadence, when a widespread failure to believe in God or in any transcendent goal leads to pessimism, laziness and despair:

Decadence is a moral and spiritual disease, resulting from too long a period of wealth and power, producing cynicism, decline of religion, pessimism and frivolity. The citizens of such a nation will no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving (p. 20).

They seek entertainment above all, by musicians, athletes and celebrities, and by licentious sexual activity.

Contemporary historians 

deeply deplored the degeneracy of the times in which they lived, emphasising particularly the indifference to religion, the increasing materialism and the laxity of sexual morals. They lamented also the corruption of the officials of the government and the fact that politicians always seemed to amass large fortunes while they were in office.

The historians commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence acquired by popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality. The ‘pop’ singers … accompanied their erotic songs on … an instrument resembling the modern guitar. In the second half of the …century, as a result, much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use, such as would not have been tolerated in an earlier age.”

In this case, the “contemporary historians” were writing about tenth century Baghdad.   

In an affluent empire, people believe that wealth will continue pouring in, the standard of living will keep inching higher and “progress” will continue, forgetting that it is “courage, endurance and hard work” that produces wealth. This attitude has led to enormous state-sponsored charity and an openness to immigration. In the late Roman Empire, half the population of Rome (mostly immigrants from around the Mediterranean) demanded and received bread and circuses. With the inevitable financial collapse, the superpower faces decline and death.

The end can take many forms. It can mean being conquered by an emerging superpower (the Arab Empire, unified by Islam, conquered the then decadent Persian Empire), having territories slip away from a lack of will to fight to retain them (Great Britain, except for the Falklands) or even being infiltrated peacefully by immigrants who, instead of assimilating, aggressively transform the government and dominant culture into one of their liking.

America has undoubtedly reached the age of decadence, but there is still a glimmer of hope that we can avoid extinction. Sir John suggests this path to renewal:

But while despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realisation of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.

In this manner, at the height of vice and frivolity the seeds of religious revival are quietly sown. After, perhaps, several generations (or even centuries) of suffering, the impoverished nation has been purged of its selfishness and its love of money, religion regains its sway and a new era sets in.”

Given the current state of America’ s cult-of-celebrity culture, our faltering economy, a massively growing federal debt and waning faith, a religious revival in the US needs all hands on deck to restore faith in God, a willingness to sacrifice for others and for the common good, as well as saints who exhibit the virtues we need to emulate. Are we up to the task?

Susan Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

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