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Cricital Analysis: Niall Ferguson

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In his work entitled Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos, author Niall Ferguson discusses his thoughts on the systems and intricate workings of empires throughout history and in today's modern time. Ferguson himself summarizes his writing in the thesis, "Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine. A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice." The source was published on February 26, 2010, in the "Foreign Affairs" March/April Edition. Throughout the article, Ferguson mentions recognized people such as painter Thomas Cole in his opening paragraph, political philosopher Henry St. John, and anthropologist Jared Diamond.

Throughout the article, Niall Ferguson makes some very practical points regarding his thesis. Ferguson believes that imperial decline is usually a result of expansion, and uses quotes from Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers to support the idea. In the quote, "...Kennedy writes, 'If a state overextends itself runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all,'" Ferguson elaborates on the idea that the progression of empires came at a great price, and the numbers did not always balance out. This is referred to as the phenomenon of "imperial overstretch". Coincidentally, just as Kennedy's book was published, the United States feared that they too might be falling ill with the disease of imperial overstretch. With the fact that, "...great powers rise and fall according to the growth rates of their industrial bases and the costs of their imperial commitments relative to their GDPs," the point is even more valid. Ferguson chose to cover the topic by usage of microcosm; the subject is addressed on its own with disregard for particular dates. Another point Ferguson makes is that the downfall of civilizations is most often protracted. "Just as is takes centuries for imperial overstretch to undermine a great power, so, too, does it take centuries to wreck an ecosystem." With this, Ferguson explains further into detail the timelines of decline. Ferguson also addresses the fact that decisions are made to approach problems pertaining to the current situations, and now ones that are unlikely to manifest themselves for a hundred years or more. As an example Ferguson says, "Did the proconsuls in Cole's The Consummation of Empire really care if the fate of their great-great-grandchildren was destruction? No." Thirdly, Ferguson states that small inputs to complex systems can produce huge unanticipated changes. What this means is that a series of very small and seemingly harmless events can create a chain reaction and end in bad results and unexpected changes. "A small input to such a system can produce huge, often unanticipated changes -- what scientists call "the amplifier effect...when things go wrong in a complex system, the scale of disruption is nearly impossible to anticipate." Using the United States as an example, Ferguson elaborates on the idea that that sudden shifts from a sufficient balance to general disorder are in result of the proximate catalysts of disaster by explaining the actions leading up to events such as World War I and 9/11. Ferguson explains, "...phenomena that historians study are not the climaxes of prolonged and deterministic story lines; instead, they represent perturbations, and sometimes the complete breakdowns, of complex systems." Lastly, even the greatest of empires can fall. Whether it be quick, unexpected, or prolonged, it can still happen to any empire that makes a wrong move, like Rome, whose population fell by three quarters within just five decades.

Author Niall Ferguson is qualified in writing his work because he is Laurence A. Tish Professor of History at Harvard University, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Ferguson's



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