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We Knew It Was Coming: The Last Stage of Empire is Now

It is far better to see the world with clear eyes than foolishly hope for a return to “High Noon.”
decline empire

Over the holiday weekend the United States turned 244 years old. Time flies. But is this old for a nation? Do nations have lifespans like organisms? Aren’t ideas and principles immortal? It’s natural to speak of our nation as something that will continue indefinitely, long beyond our mortal existence. But a crucial distinction must be made: America was a nation in 1776; today she is an empire. Therefore, one could ask: do empires have lifespans?

Fortunately, the British Army officer and scholar Sir John Glubb pondered this question in a short essay titled “Fate of Empires and Search for Survival.”

A contemporary of T.E. Lawrence, another British soldier-scholar popularly remembered as Lawrence of Arabia, Glubb commanded Transjordan’s Arab Legion from 1939 to 1956. An inquisitive, humble mind, his experiences and interest in history led him to recognize patterns in the rise and fall of empires. His studies revealed that, like organisms, empires flow through stages of creation, growth, maturity, decline, and death. Glubb tracked each of these phases and found remarkable similarities between empires as diverse as the Roman Empire and Republic, the Ottomans, and the Persian Empire, independent of race, creed, institutions, or geography. The estimated average lifespan of dozens of empires over the last three millennia? About 250 years.

It isn’t hard to recognize Glubb’s general pattern of imperial progression in the American story. The good news for conservatives is that the American empire as it currently stands is coming to an end. The bad news is yet to be written. What will become of that empire as it disintegrates, and how will it affect the seed nation? Perhaps, as Glubb intended, we can learn from history and avoid the worst possible fates. 

The first stage Glubb identifies is what he calls the “Age of Pioneers”, or the “outburst.” Smaller nations or tribes overrun or displace defensively minded ones. Examples presented in Fate of Empires include the Islamic breakout from the Arabian-peninsula in the 7th century, and conversely the Spanish Reconquista and subsequent empire, seeded from two small Christian territories. Glubb calls the people who drive these outbursts “poor, hardy, often half-starved and ill-clad.” Further, “they abound in courage, energy, and initiative” similar to the salt-of-the-earth militia and ill-trained Continental Regulars who defeated the British Army during the American Revolution.

Many times, the conquering nation adapts the organization and technology of the vanquished to suit their needs. In America, the Revolution wasn’t radical, and the new nation maintained its British institutions, setting the stage for the “Age of Conquests.” Military campaigns ensue and the territory of the nation expands. Hello, Manifest Destiny. The Indian tribes were either engaged in asymmetric alliances or shoved aside, Europeans were either compensated or fought for more acreage, and the Wild West was won. Acquisition of property under one banner of government results in prosperity, leading to the “Age of Commerce.”

Although the Age of Conquests and the Age of Commerce overlap, their goals are different. The aim of the former is “honor and glory,” while the latter seeks prosperity and profit. It could be argued that the Age of Conquest spanned two centuries for the United States, beginning with the westward expansion across North America and ending in Pax Americana at the conclusion of the Cold War. Flush with resources and capital, the empire in the Age of Commerce sees bustling cities, grand architecture, and a raised standard of living for most.

The love of profit, however, gradually displaces the sense of duty in the populace. Affluence “silences the voice of duty,” Glubb writes, pointing to records of students in the Arabian Empire of the 12th century who no longer studied “to acquire learning and virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable them to grow rich.” 

In the parabolic trajectory of an empire, what comes next is “High Noon,” the transition from conquest and commerce to affluence. “Service” is replaced by “selfishness.” A defensive mindset takes hold of the nation, manifested in such tangible signs as Hadrian’s Wall and the Maginot Line. Conquest and military readiness are seen as immoral by a stagnant, wealth-focused citizenry. 

During this time affluence builds to such a degree that what was once luxury becomes commonplace. Then the pursuit of knowledge and credentials take center stage and pave the way for the “Age of Intellect.” As stated in Fate of Empires, “the impression that the situation can be saved by mental cleverness, without unselfishness or human self-dedication, can only lead to collapse” leading to the final stage, the “Age of Decadence.” 

Immigration increases to levels too high for effective assimilation, and new ideas and cultural norms displace those of the founding stock. Like Robert Putnam, Glubb stresses that immigrants aren’t inferior, but erode cultural cohesion. Indeed, Glubb notes that “many of the foreign immigrants will probably belong to races originally conquered by and absorbed into the empire” and “when decline sets in, it is extraordinary how the memory of ancient wars, perhaps centuries before, is suddenly revived, and local or provincial movements appear demanding secession or independence.”

A decline in power and wealth combined with internal strife results in a feedback loop creating pessimism and “frivolity.” A populace that cannot be roused to action slips into escapism instead. Glubb compares Roman mobs’ demand for “bread and circuses” to British and American consumption of soccer and baseball. He even writes that “the heroes of declining nations are always the same—the athlete, the singer or the actor,” rather than a statesman, a general, or a literary genius as in previous eras. Remember, Fate of Empires was published in 1977. 

Other hallmarks of the failing empire include a rise of the welfare state and a decline in religion. Check and check. The former affluence of the nation leads the populace to the “impression that it will always be automatically rich” and “causes the declining empire to spend lavishly on its own benevolence, until such time as the economy collapses.” These trends are easily observable in the United States. What is the Fed’s balance sheet by the way? Worse, does anyone care?

Glubb notes that it is doubtful that collapse can be avoided by studying the meta-history of empires. Rather, he writes that “in our present state of mental chaos… we divide ourselves into nations, parties or communities and fight, hate and vilify one another over developments which may perhaps be divinely ordained and which seem to us, if we take a broader view, completely uncontrollable and inevitable.”

If this sounds pessimistic, don’t forget the last three words of Glubb’s title are “Search for Survival.” It is far better to see the world with clear eyes than foolishly hope for a return to “High Noon.” Progressives and populists tend to agree that the future can be better; they just disagree on the route to that better future. We will survive if we are honest in what we face. Yet, questions remain how to proceed. Should we partition the country into separate nations in the hopes of mitigating what may be a Spanish-style civil war or a soft police state of tech overlords?

Notable thinkers like Charles Murray suggest that only a religious revival can save the United States. If Glubb is correct that wholesale salvage is impossible, should we protect the embers of Christianity via Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” in the hope that future generations can one day enjoy the full light of Western Civilization? Glubb seems to insinuate this as well, noting that in the depths of decadence the “seeds of religious revival” are sown. As our nation approaches 250 years—a quarter millennium—we should be grateful to have lived in what may be the greatest nation God has known. Perhaps, after the coming unpleasantness, we will find something even greater.

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.