Processes That Weaken Empires

The impulse to expand and dominate is very strong, based upon inherent drives to survive in the face of limited resources and competition for their use and control. The results are empires, and they often last hundreds of years. However, there are internal processes that weaken them and eventually lead to their demise. This blog outlines a few such processes.

The U.S. as empire has always preferred to control governments that in turn are in control of their countries. The U.S. prefers to deal with a dictator who is in charge and can maintain order. This allows U.S. business concerns to expand their markets. This is an imperialism hypothesis. If a country is democratic, the U.S. has other means to increase its influence.

Business cannot expand and have contracts enforced and capital protected when popular or left-wing movements threaten nationalization of assets and resources. Business can’t expand when chaos or instability pervade the country’s systems. The U.S. prefers stability and order under a pliable strong man whose sympathies can be obtained or bought or controlled. If a country is democratic, that’s not enough. Its leaders must be sympathetic to U.S. influence and businesses. Failing such control or sympathy, the U.S. will sometimes attempt to replace a leader or change a system. Democracy in foreign lands is not a priority of the U.S. government as empire. Control, stability and a door open to U.S. businesses and political influence are the priority.

When the U.S. government produces chaos in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, this exacerbates its aim of control. Chaos is not a U.S. aim. Empires may on occasion divide and conquer as a means, but chaos is not the aim. I reject strongly the idea that the U.S. has been succeeding in the last 15 years by sowing chaos everywhere it goes. Certain interests may welcome chaos, but it doesn’t help the U.S. empire one bit; and it’s been exceedingly costly. As an alternative to this chaos idea, I understand the policy consequences we are seeing of late as arising from other deep-seated processes that occur in many empires and weaken it.

The dynamics of power lead to the centralization and growth of power. In the U.S. system, power has become centralized in the presidency as an organization and in the president as a single person who has the final word. The president’s powers have grown enormously since 1787. Empires decline and fall for a number of reasons. The original empire-builders who were successful are followed by leaders who are in many respects less capable. The founders of the American empire who drew up a constitution fit for the building of that empire and gave birth to it tower over the modern presidents. Few would place a Bush, a Clinton and an Obama above a Washington, a Jefferson or a Madison. Less capable contemporary rulers who are managing and ruling a much larger political system understand less. They foresee less. They have more power and hubris. They over-estimate what they can accomplish; they under-estimate what their decisions will cost. They do not know as much about the complex and far-flung overseas societies they control and are attempting to control as earlier presidents knew about the continental empire of states. Lacking understanding, they fail to grasp the full implications, ramifications and consequences of their decisions. Consequently, they are prone to make more mistakes of judgment based on lack of foresight. These mistakes weaken the empire.

An empire gaining control of disparate countries or being heavily involved with them is analogous to a conglomerate company that loses its homogeneity as it acquires new businesses. Management becomes much more difficult. Financial control weakens because individual costs and benefits become less recognizable under the collective umbrella. The leaders know and understand less about the individual components than when the enterprise was homogeneous. Centralization of power accompanied by the expansion of empire over disparate pieces is a process that results in more mistakes of judgment. They weaken the empire.

Individual units compete politically for control over the central power. The presidency as an organization becomes subject to capture by specific narrow interests, and they can be foreign interests. Departments of the government also can be captured by such interests, domestic and foreign. Think neoconservatives. Think Israel. Think Saudi Arabia.

Since the presidency and departments, among other things, supply the president with potential policies, the president’s menu of choices becomes narrowed and skewed. He or she is hemmed in. When the selection process for presidential candidates becomes controlled by such interests and money sources, the capture of policy-making by specific interests deepens even more. These dynamic processes result in decisions that weaken the empire, because the resulting decisions are made not in the interest of its long-term survival but in the interest of segments of the empire that wish to milk it for their own benefits.

Expansion of territory, expansion over heterogeneous components, centralization of power, expansion of power, weaker financial control, and new generations of weaker leaders are the inherent processes that accompany an empire’s growth and weaken it. (Military costs of holding the empire together may also rise faster than the benefits at some point, but this factor is not necessary.) These processes weaken the empire. These are all clearly visible in the case of the United States government.


8:30 am on October 18, 2016