April 9, 2015

Joseph Nye

Dear Joseph Nye:
I have read your book, Is the American Century Over?, with interest and pleasure.  It’s touching how far apart we begin to look at the question and how close we are in the end.  My first reaction is, “American century?  What American century?”  My rule of thumb for a superpower is drawn from the Economist.  “A superpower can attack any country, not itself a superpower, with impunity.”  Washington said something like all the armies of Europe, Africa and Asia combined could not get a drink out of the Potomac if the American people were not agreeable.  So we were the worlds only superpower then and have remained so ever since despite the efforts of politicians to persuade us there was any threat to us other than them or their paymasters. 

Every child used to learn that Hessian shock troops under British employment simply were no match for American musketry.  They say now that a single sniper can paralyze a company of fifty conventional soldiers and for most of our history most American males were or could quickly become snipers and provide their own guns and shells. 

So when did it start?  Maybe it was the Boston Tea Party, 1771; we have been the superpower ever since.  That’s well over a century.  It has all been American even though many like me consider “America” to mean land of the free and home of the brave.  If we let others do things their way, well that is utterly American. 

And when will it end, as end all things must?  I once put together some numbers for the survival of regimes in lower Mesopotamia throughout history.  Here’s the graph. 
Information taken from R. H. Carling, The World History Chart, International Timeline Inc. Vienna, VA 1985.  The experience of southern Mesopotamia.  The vertical axis is the chance of an empire of any age continuing to rule locally for another 50 years.  The horizontal axis is the ages of the empires. 
The line not only accelerates downward with a three hundred year brick wall at the end, it is very clean.  So I concluded that there was one and only one rule that determined how long a civilization lasted; the law was very simple and was the guiding hidden pattern of history. 
Years later I learned that Isaac Newton had written a revised history of the ancient world, and so I analyzed his numbers the same way:

Newton’s data on survival of dynasties in the ancient world.  The horizontal axis is the age of the dynasties.  The vertical axis is the proportion that, having reached one age, the dynasty will continue another 50 years. “Make” means the dynasties survive to that age. 

There are other examples of the same pattern, but I think we can agree that the graphs have much in common, and if I was clever enough to find a pattern, Newton found it, too. 

Clearly if regimes fell because of things outside the population – overwhelming invasion for instance – it would be unrelated to the age of the regime; the line would be horizontal.  If regimes fell because of internal within the population – wrong politics maybe –there should be a selective effect and the line should go up.  But it goes down, so we must exclude both kinds of process and say a regime falls because of the very fact of a large cooperating population, and there is brick wall at 300 years, say 10 generations.  Newton says, or rather hints, that the wall is at 9 generations or 32 years, each of 288 years.   He did not live to see the year 1771, but he did take to running the mint, setting in order the chain of events, so maybe he knew.  So by Newton’s reasoning the dread years should be 2054, and I do mean dread.  Regime changes are far more terrible than people imagine.  Just hope you have no dear ones born after 1974.

So Newton, you and I all agree that the time is not yet.  But attend:  Neither Newton or I say that every regime reaches its maximum.  None or few do so. 

And when I look at contemporary events I find them troubling, as I think anybody would.  ISIS kills Americans in a way so as deliberately to taunt us.  And they seem to be able to recruit faster than we can kill them.  Maybe it was Gandhi who said the time comes when you cannot reduce the number of your enemies by killing them.  I might add that there must also come a time when you cannot reduce them by buying them off. 

And their behavior is just what you would expect from a regime change.  Cold blooded, nay taunting, slaughter, defiance of all rules of decency and political routine, even the destruction of sacred places (Don’t you remember, “There is a time for scattering stones and a time for gathering stones together”?  He’s talking about tearing down temples and a few years building temples again.) – it’s just what happens during regime changes.

In short, they smell it.  30,000 fanatics against over 300 million Americans plus more allies, all the air power, sea power, heavy equipment, drones, satellites, communication and what not – and they smell victory?  And it has to be victory within a couple of years; they simply do not have the resources to carry on longer.  So what could possibly happen in so short a time?

Well underlying it all has to be demographics.  Some day our birth rate will go effectively to zero.  If you need convincing, go to nobabies.net and look at the video I posted on March 2 or the summary I posted at the beginning of the year. 

All right, go to gapminder.com and look at world birth rates.  I generally look at Sweden.  They are very much middle class.  As goes Sweden, so goes the world’s middle class.  And the birth rate is lowish, below two per woman.  But that’s no catastrophe.  A gentle decline in population will require some social adjustments, but to impossible ones.  Try a bunch of countries and the pattern is just about universal: birth rate bounces around until fairly recently when it suddenly plunges below 2 per woman and then superficially seem to stabilize, but in fact at that moment the age for first marriage for women starts up and never falls again.  That’s obviously unstable.  Eventually the whole process has to reverse or go extinct, after all, you can’t have the older women having more children than they already are or to have babies at older ages, and when the birth rate falls, there goes the population.

When I look at the numbers available it looks like the average Swedish woman will marry at about age 40 by 2020.  It seems impossible, but there it is.

Now, taking a deep breath, look at Singapore.  The birth rate drops below replacement, appears to stabilize, and then over the past two years the bottom drops out.  It is quite plausible that over the next five years the birth rate will go below .5 per middle class woman worldwide.  At that point our enemies may take the attitude, “Kill them at all cost.  Everyone you take out will never be replaced.” 

How they could possibly know is beyond me.  Even for me it is quite speculative, but there are people putting lives on the line apparently quite sure it’s true. 

Who will replace us?  I have no better idea than you.  But we aren’t replacing ourselves; that seems clear.


Linton Herbert MD   

There have been 410 visitors over the past month.

Home page.