It should be noted that the DOD base structure reports on which Gary's analysis is based don't include Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the secret (black) installations all over the world, but it is unclear whether the inclusion of these data would change the picture materially.
As far as the speed of imperial collapse, it varies: Rome took five centuries to collapse but USSR took just a couple of years. Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently wrote: "empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003." My hunch is that McCoy's 22-year estimate is overly generous, and that the collapse of the USA will set a speed record, unfolding over just a handful of very strange days. When will this happen? According to Chris Hedges, it could happen any time now.]
In February, 2009 Dmitry Orlov said the following about predicting the collapse of the US empire: “I have learned from experience – luckily, from other people’s experience – that being a superpower collapse predictor is not a good career choice. I learned that by observing what happened to the people who successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. Do you know who Andrei Amalrik is? See, my point exactly. He successfully predicted the collapse of the USSR. He was off by just half a decade. That was another valuable lesson for me, which is why I will not give you an exact date when USA will turn into FUSA (“F” is for “Former”). But even if someone could choreograph the whole event, it still wouldn’t make for much of a career, because once it all starts falling apart, people have far more important things to attend to than marveling at the wonderful predictive abilities of some Cassandra-like person.”
As far as predicting the collapse of the US empire, Russian academic Igor Panarin has been predicting it for 2010, and Johan Galtung has predicted it will collapse before 2020. Hubbert predicted in 1974 that global peak oil was incompatible with constantly growing money, triggering a cultural crisis (See Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon).
Andrei Amalrik died in a car crash in 1980 at the age of 42. Nevertheless, at the risk of making a poor career choice, I will attempt to offer a methodology for determining peak US empire, if not a prediction for its demise. Now that global peak oil is history perhaps it’s time to work on predicting peak empire instead. If you followed the work of Joseph Tainter, he offered the theory of diminishing and eventually negative marginal return to territorial growth and complexity of societies. (See The Collapse of Complex Societies) He offered the following graph to illustrate:
|From: Tainter, posted at Dieoff.org|
He offered the following examples to demonstrate the principle with historical examples of defunct empires:
|From: Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies|
In the case of the US empire, it has not continued to expand by territorial acquisition. The last territory acquired was the Marshall Islands in 1947, which then became a UN Trust Territory, followed by Independence in 1986. What has continued to expand is the presence of US military installations all over the world. As the recently deceased analyst Chalmers Johnson explained, the US is an “empire of bases”, not an empire of colonies. The US has 800-1000 foreign military bases and 4-5000 bases in the US. Colonies are so passé these days. Why bother with colonies when you can impose your will with a few bases, and you don’t have to manage the whole country. Besides you can outsource most everything to contractors, so you don’t even need the consent of the governed. All you need is their tax money, which the sheeple continue to provide with barely a bleat.
Looking at the DOD Base Structure reports it is possible to graph the total acreage owned by the US military both in the US, in foreign countries, and in US foreign territories. Since both foreign countries and territories are occupied, I will lump them together. It is also valid to use total military acreage including the US, since the 50 states of the US are essentially occupied territory of the US military as well.
I was unable to find data before 1957, but total acreage under management by the US military had a recent peak in 2007, while foreign acreage peaked in 2004. This data is from official US DOD base structure reports, which according to Chalmers Johnson leaves out quite a bit, but from a relative point of view over time, it is probably adequate. I have included the excel sheet data, and others are welcome to add to the data and do a more thorough job graphing this data.
Looking at US military spending below, it has continued to rise, despite the recent decline in acreage under management. This is entirely consistent with Tainter’s theory of declining marginal utility to expanding empires, as imperial overstretch becomes more and more expensive, and returns to expenditures begins to decline, and even become negative. It would be entirely consistent for the expenditures to continue to rise as the empire attempts to hold onto its existing level of military acreage, until interest on the debt causes a default, and then expenditures also collapse.
Like oil, the empire has reserves to continue fueling the military machine. It has its AAA bond rating in order to continue deficit spending by selling Treasury bonds to foreign countries, although the rating agencies have taken somewhat of a hit on their credibility after the financial crisis. Foreign governments may also be thinking twice about the future viability of the dollar. It has the Federal Reserve to continue creating money out of thin air by key strokes on a computer, and engaging in open market operations like “quantitative easing” and purchasing existing treasuries, or even monetizing the debt by buying treasury bonds directly from the US government, giving it more money to play with. Finally they have the credulous and supplicant taxpayers who continue to fund their own demise by turning their tax dollars over to an empire, which throws it down three rat holes simultaneously: The $1 trillion dollar annual military budget, the Afghanistan War, and the bankster bailouts. Like the oil reserve/production ratio, the empire has a reserve/territorial expansion ratio which is declining rapidly. If interest rates increase adequately, the interest on the debt is going to swallow up all of tax revenues, such that a tax increase might be required. Will the sheeple rebel then? We’ll see. In any case, I welcome others to comment on the viability of military acreage as a measure of peak empire, and to expand on the analysis.
[Update: Gary did some more plotting, and here are the results: graphing acreage vs military spending shows diminishing total returns on military spending, and negative marginal returns since 1991 at least.
One more thing to keep in mind: as William Pfaff, writing in Foreign Affairs, puts it, "U.S. military bases have generated apprehension and hostility and fear of the United States, and they have facilitated futile, unnecessary, unprofitable, and self-defeating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and now seem to be inviting enlarged U.S. interventions in Pakistan, Yemen, and the Horn of Africa. The 9/11 attacks, according to Osama bin Laden himself, were provoked by the "blasphemy" of the existence of U.S. military bases in the sacred territories of Saudi Arabia. The global base system, it seems, tends to produce and intensify the very insecurity that is cited to justify it." Not only is American Empire post-peak, but, just like the Soviet Empire before it, it was operated at a loss throughout, even as it grew, in each case making national bankruptcy just a matter of time.]