Niall Ferguson: America's 'Oh Sh*T!' Moment






Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, will be published in November.

Don’t call me a “declinist.” I really don’t believe the United States—or Western civilization, more generally—is in some kind of gradual, inexorable decline.

But that’s not because I am one of those incorrigible optimists who agree with Winston Churchill that the United States will always do the right thing, albeit when all other possibilities have been exhausted....

The Roman Empire didn’t decline and fall sedately, as historians used to claim. It collapsed within a few decades in the early fifth century, tipped over the edge of chaos by barbarian invaders and internal divisions. In the space of a generation, the vast imperial metropolis of Rome fell into disrepair, the aqueducts broken, the splendid marketplaces deserted.

The Ming dynasty’s rule in China also fell apart with extraordinary speed in the mid–17th century, succumbing to internal strife and external invasion. Again, the transition from equipoise to anarchy took little more than a decade.

A more recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, if you still doubt that collapse comes suddenly, just think of how the postcolonial dictatorships of North Africa and the Middle East imploded this year. Twelve months ago, Messrs. Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Gaddafi seemed secure in their gaudy palaces. Here yesterday, gone today.

What all these collapsed powers have in common is that the complex social systems that underpinned them suddenly ceased to function. One minute rulers had legitimacy in the eyes of their people; the next they didn’t....



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