History has hosted many world powers: Ancient Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, the Qing Dynasty, to name but a few. These empires were monumental during their time. Today they are nonexistent — hardly remembered — if even known by most people. Regardless of size, stature, or grandness, empires are temporary. And once they fall, they don’t fit back together so well.
Around 1,000 years ago, the Mongol Empire, led by Genghis Khan, conquered more than 9 million square miles of territory with great speed and military prowess. Imagine an area larger than all North America and Central America combined. In 25 years, the Mongols conquered more territory than the Romans had in 400 years. What is that territory worth today?
Nothing. It doesn’t exist. It was all temporary.
Every empire is different but they share commonalities when it comes to their demise. We don’t call them empires anymore. For some reason we prefer to call them superpowers but the rules still apply. Let’s take a brief look at some of the most well-known temporary empires.
Compared to the Mongols, what the Romans lacked in size they made up for in lasting contributions to Western civilization. The empire significantly advanced the fields of engineering, government, the arts, warfare, medicine, and the law. Even the calendar we use today comes to us courtesy of Julius Caesar. Aqueducts, indoor plumbing, a postal system, and a 50,000-mile road system all set precedents that future empires would emulate.
The decline of the Roman Empire was a combination of many factors: political corruption, economic crisis, and class conflict. The triggering factor, however, was over extension. The empire had become so large it was ungovernable. The leadership in Rome couldn’t effectively collect taxes in such a large territory, nor could it build a sufficient army to safeguard its ever-enlarging borders, or fight off the ever-increasing military threats. The end was near but it was inconceivable to envision the fall of the Roman Empire.
Spain produced the first global empire. The navy opened trans-oceanic trade routes while the army conquered multiple smaller empires. The Spanish Dollar became the world’s first global currency.
As with earlier empires, commandeering territory is one thing, governing it successfully is another. With overseas colonies that stretched the world over, it wasn’t long before Spain was overstretched. In total, more than 30 countries fell under the control of the King of Spain. In North America, these included Mexico and what are now three states in the USA: Florida, Louisiana, and California.
The Conquistadors had done their jobs well, albeit devastating the Aztec, Inca, and Mayan Empires in the process. Less and less gold, however, was making it back to Spain. Simultaneous wars were being fought on multiple fronts, battles were being lost, and colonies forfeited.
The tipping point was felt in 1898 when Spain surrendered Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines after losing the Spanish-American War.
At its zenith, the largest empire the world has ever known covered 24% of the globe’s land mass — almost twice that of the Spanish Empire — reigning over more than 20% of the world’s population.
Britain’s worldwide territories grew to its largest after the Great War (as it was known before we had the sense to number them). By 1920, King George V ruled over the United Kingdom, the British Dominions, and was Emperor of India. The phrase, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” became a reality.
While WWII was technically a British victory, it depleted the empire to the edge of economic ruin. The US had loaned Britain $4.3 billion to fight the Germans. The financial burdens leftover from World War I, combined with the significant expense of WWII, along with the loss of India in 1947, dealt a triple blow. The British found themselves in the same position Spain had at the end of the Spanish Empire — overextended and depleted.
The sun finally set on the British Empire as they passed the torch to the United States of America — the fresh new superpower itching to leverage the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Empires come and go. None are permanent. The downfall of most is the result of overstretching their resources and an over-confidence in their power and authority.
Even when things go downhill, it seems temporary. When they continue to go downhill, at an ever-quickening rate, a sense of denial crops up. By the time reality sinks in, the momentum is so swift and the resistance so strong, there is no crawling back to the glory days.
History rewrites itself with every new and — eventually — doomed empire. The torch is passed, willingly or not, to the next up-and-coming world power.
At the end of World War II, the United States holds a tremendous advantage in world politics and economic power. She is the only major Allied power whose land, cities, and infrastructure go virtually untouched. Other than the attack on Pearl Harbor, all battles and bombings take place on foreign soil. America the Beautiful remains so, unharmed by the devastation so widespread in Europe.
Since the US doesn’t need to rebuild after the war, factories and businesses that had geared up to support the war effort are retooled for domestic production. Population migration to the suburbs triggers pent-up demand for consumer goods. Industrial renewal and widespread employment fuel rapid and robust economic growth.
The postwar years solidify the United States of America as the world’s richest country.
American society becomes more affluent, more abundant, and more influential than ever before in history. Babies born during this era experience the sonic boom of a generation — or as they became known, the Baby Boomers.
Over the next 75 years, access to the ‘new and improved’ morphs into demand for bigger and better. Over time, a ‘society of more’ becomes a nation of too much.
The American Dream of owning a modest home in the suburbs with a white picket fence transforms into supersized McMansions in gated communities with three-car garages (two for the cars, the third to store excess possessions). Even the people become supersized. An estimated 160 million Americans — nearly half the country — are either obese or overweight.
Prosperity abounds, or so it seems.
As of this writing, the United States government is overextended to the tune of $23 trillion. This means they’ve had to borrow that much money to keep the doors open. The dollar amount is so high it’s difficult to imagine how much money this is. Let’s try:
If you were to stack one dollar bills to the height of a 32-story building, you’d have one million dollars. A trillion one dollar bills (1 million times a million) would stretch out some 68 thousand miles. Now, multiply that by 23 and you’re 1.5 million miles from earth. Houston, we have a problem.
How does the Federal Government go from a budget surplus in fiscal 2001 to $23 trillion in debt in less than 20 years? Suffice it to say, the US is overstretched in an astronomical way and crawling back to solvency (in a space suit) seems impossible.
Couple this economic woe with the American military fighting multiple conflicts in multiple countries with multiple problems. Add in the once almighty nuclear missile advantage now diluted by despots and dictators. Tack on a growing loss of respect and a weakened stature in the global arena. America the Beautiful = overextended and depleted.
In the late teen years of the 2000s, the United States is circling the wagons and protecting its weakening power position by closing itself off from the rest of the world. Immigrants, the very seed of the American experience, are no longer welcome — even the skilled and educated. The plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty no longer applies:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
To keep the world out, walls are built, laws are passed, sanctions imposed, and trade wars started. The US government’s over-confidence in their power and authority rules the day.
Will isolationism and protectionism make America great again? It may not matter.
Some economists believe when a nation’s debt rises above 90% of GDP the nation will fail. Gross Domestic Product(GDP) measures the value of a country’s economic activity. The amount of debt compared to GDP is an indicator of long term economic growth and stability. The higher the debt-to-GDP, the slower and weaker the economy is likely to become.
At $23 trillion in national debt, the US is not only the highest indebted country in the world, but well over 100% of GDP with no way to bring it down for decades, if ever. The International Monetary Fund reports that the United States is the only advanced economy where the debt-to-GDP ratio will increase over the next five years.
The US government spends more money on Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the debt than it collects in tax revenue (est. interest for 2019: $393.5 billion). The money needed to actually run the country (military, education, transportation, etc.) is borrowed and that amount added to the national debt.
In the time it took you to read the previous two paragraphs, the national debt increased by more than a million dollars.
Doesn’t seem possible, does it? For a sobering look at the speed at which the national debt increases in real time, visit: USDebtClock.org.
Our children, and our children’s children, will inherit the largest mountain of government debt in the history of the world. The solution is too painful for most politicians to address, so they ‘kick the can down the road.’ To pay off this debt today would require each US citizen to ante-up close to $400,000. Personally, I’ll need to give you an IOU on that one.
The sky isn’t likely to fall tomorrow or maybe even for some time. What is known is that empires are temporary.
The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years. The Spanish Empire dominated the world for more than 400 years. The British Empire was the foremost global power for more than 100 years.
In less than a century of prosperity and freedom, the United States is poised to surrender its mantle of economic and political dominance. The outstretched arm no longer representing liberty, but a passing of the torch.
The Greatest Country in the World, Right?
Being the best is a marathon, not a sprint. Where are we in the race?