"Any large-scale political unit is a complex system. Most great empires have a nominal central authority -- either a hereditary emperor or an elected president -- but in practice the power of any individual ruler is a function of the network of economic, social and political relations over which he or she presides. As such, empires exhibit many of the characteristics of other complex adaptive systems -- including the tendency to move from stability to instability quite suddenly.
The most recent and familiar example of precipitous decline is 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. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was 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 Mikhail 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
The parallel is obvious and Feguson makes it specific later in the essay. We are over-extended in many fields and the possibility of a sudden and catastrophic reversal looms. People in the US do not realize that they are much poorer than they have been led to believe. We will probably not see again the artificially high standard of living that we enjoyed so much.
Does anyone remember a little book by a Russian named Andrei Amalrik? It was published in the 80s I believe. It foretold the collapse of the USSR's planned economy. In 1980 I was en route to Yemen for duty and went to a series of briefings at CIA as part of my preparation. One of the lecturers was a retired CIA analyst who told us that the Soviet Union was a wildly distorted state that had one foot in the heavy industry needed to sustain their rivalry with NATO and the other foot in the 19th Century peasant economy of Tsarist Russia. He, too, predicted collapse. I didn't believe it at the time, but after years of associating with Soviets in Yemen I knew he had been correct. The level of poverty at which Soviet personnel stationed in Yemen existed was pathetic. They thought poor little Yemen was a land of milk and honey. Soviet officers' wives would stand in tiny street stalls and bargain with Qat chewing shopkeepers over the price of a few eggs. Meat, they never bought. It was just too expensive. The Soviet military mission was full of fairly senior officers with mouths full of rotten teeth.
The USSR fell with a crash that was astonishing. pl