Lessons On Modern Corporate Malfeasance From The British East India Company

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Clive.

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.

When it suited, the EIC made much of its legal separation from the government. It argued forcefully, and successfully, that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown, even though the government had spent a massive sum on naval and military operations protecting the EIC’s Indian acquisitions. But the MPs who voted to uphold this legal distinction were not exactly neutral: nearly a quarter of them held company stock, which would have plummeted in value had the Crown taken over. For the same reason, the need to protect the company from foreign competition became a major aim of British foreign policy.

— , “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders“, The Guardian

A lot of relevant lessons to this day. While modern big companies are not as brazen or blatant in their exercise of power, they most certainly prey open societies where rule of law is weak or easy to co-opt. Even in the most developed democracies, such private entities hold tremendous sway, with their policies and personnel often interchangeable with those of the public sector.

…The corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.

The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

Corporate influence, with its fatal mix of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government. This would seem to have been the case under the Congress government that ruled India until last year. Yet as we have seen in London, media organisations can still bend under the influence of corporations such as HSBC – while Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s boast about opening British embassies for the benefit of Chinese firms shows that the nexus between business and politics is as tight as it has ever been.

The East India Company no longer exists, and it has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.


Eleven Relevant Lessons From Machiavelli

Contrary to popular belief, Nicolo Machiavelli — most famous for his seminal work, The Prince — wasn’t necessarily immoral so much as amoral. In other words, he was arguably a consequentialist and utilitarian who believed that the ends justified the means, and that people in power — if not in general — must choose between evils, based on which produces the most the net gain. Even then, he didn’t encourage ruthlessness for its own sake, but only if it was a last resort or if resulted in the most good.

All that aside, his lessons consisted of far more than brutal approaches towards maintaining and expanding political power. There’s quite a lot of practical advice to be gleaned for one’s everyday life, as shared by The Week: 

1. Be present
“… if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they are heard of only when they are great, and then one can no longer remedy them.”

2. Be careful who you trust
“… he who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that predominancy has been brought about by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.”

3. Learn from the best
“A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

4. Be picky about who works for you
“The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined the usual way.”

5. Read
“… to exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.”

6. Prepare for the worst
“A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never in peaceful times stand idle, but increase his resources with industry in such a way that they may be available to him in adversity, so that if fortune changes it may find him prepared to resist her blows.”

7. Don’t be cruel
“… every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.”

8. Don’t steal
“… above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. … he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse.”

9. Appearances matter
“… men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.”

10. Sometimes your enemies are your friends
“I must not fail to warn a prince, who by means of secret favours has acquired a new state, that he must well consider the reasons which induced those to favour him who did so; and if it be not a natural affection towards him, but only discontent with their government, then he will only keep them friendly with great trouble and difficulty, for it will be impossible to satisfy them. And weighing well the reasons for this in those examples which can be taken from ancient and modern affairs, we shall find that it is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.”

11. Avoid flatterers
“It is that of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt. Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.”

It seems like pretty reasonable stuff to me. Thoughts?

Equality and Power in Relationships

Every human relationship – platonic, romantic, and familial – encompasses two competing desires: for an equal partnership but also for power and control. This conflicting dynamic is unavoidable, as they are each reflective of a wider human tendency.

As social creatures, we innately want – and need – to work with one another amiably in order to be healthy, stay alive, and continue the species. Both our neurological and hormonal systems attest to this, as they facilitate and encourage intimacy, cooperation, and empathy.

At the same time, however, we have something other organisms don’t: an ego. Our higher cognitive ability grants us a sense of identity, purpose, and individuality that, while wonderful, can conflict with our collective and cooperative inclinations.

Thus every interaction we have with one another, particularly the most intimate, necessarily entails a struggle between these driving forces. We want to be in control of our relationships (and everything else for that matter), but we also desire the sort of equality and fairness that makes such partnerships thrive. And since the same goes for everyone else we deal with, we’re faced with a very complicated layer of internal and external clashes.

Again, we see this on both the macro and micro level: not just between individuals, but between societies, cultures, and the species as a whole. Human nature is variable and difficult to pin down, but it’s clear that we’ve always had a contradictory tendency to work wonderfully together (hence all the progress we’ve made in so many different human endeavors) but to also be utterly incapable of harmony and tolerance (hence why we still struggle with inequality, war, and other social ills).

Many other factors account for these failures of course, but the point is that we seem destined to fight with ourselves in trying to find a delicate balance between these two potent drivers. However, we have come a long way in this regard though: relationships, especially among younger generations, increasingly emphasize egalitarian values. War and civil strife are historically low, despite their continued horror. On the whole, we’ve gone father than ever in keeping our desire for power in check, significant lapses notwithstanding (remember, progress is never linear or absolute).

I think being cognizant of this dynamic is an obvious first step to promoting a cooperative and equal relationship with our fellow humans. But it will never be enough; it’ll take constant practice and a lot of trial and error to keep the equilibrium.

Besides, every relationship needs an element of both: we need those individual egos as much as we need parity. Compromise is the foundation of every relationship: when you love someone, you submit yourself to their needs, promising to do whatever you can to help them. But at the same time, no healthy relationship should consist of one-sided compliance. As much as we want to be there with one another, we also want someone with a mind of their own, and having entails dealing with differences in personality, desires, and the like.

This isn’t the case for everyone of course – a lot of people want full control, while a lot of others don’t seem to mind being obedient to their partners. But I think the trend is increasingly in favor of partnerships that offer the best of both worlds. Being able to live in harmony with one another without giving up your personal aspirations makes for a thriving relationship. There will always be a give and take to some degree, but that’s a necessary part of any close social interaction.

What are your thoughts?

Why Nations Fail

One of the most consistent facts of history is that all great empires come to an end. Every powerful nation that has ever existed, from the very first to the most recent, has eventually fallen – sometimes violently and spontaneously, most times gradually.

While the span, strength, and decline of each major civilization has varied wildly, there is almost always a similar convergence of factors at work: political decay or instability, outbreaks of disease or famine, economic stagnation, foreign aggression (many times by an upstart nation that eventually replaces the previous one), and even environmental degradation (states growing beyond their means isn’t as recent a concern as think)

But another argument has emerged from Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.  He claims that there is another contributor to decline that supersedes the rest, as an NPR report explains:

Why do nations rise, and why do they fall?  For centuries, explanations have rained down on us.  It’s geography.  It’s culture.  It’s climate.  Free markets.  Colonization.  Military might.

A whopping new study of the ultimate question says it comes down to this:  Whether it’s ancient Rome or Venice or China or the United States of America right now, the wealth of a nation is tied most closely to how much the average person shares in the overall growth of the economy.  That it really is about the ninety-nine percent.

This hour, On Point:  the hottest economist on the planet on why nations fail.

Needless to say, this point is pretty topical, given the stagnant and unequal socioeconomic conditions of the US today. Click the report hyperlink to listen to the interview, as it’s well worth your time. You can also read his blog at www.whynationsfail.com. Finally, check out a video of his lecture on the topic:

As always, leave your feedback and reflections. I’m still absorbing the argument myself, so I’ll probably be getting back to it later. So far, it’s been resonating with me, but I’ll wait to pass judgment.


The Harm Principle

I’ve recently begun re-reading J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, a philosophical tract in which he discusses an individual’s moral and economic freedoms under the state. It’s an engaging and rather easy read, and I highly recommend it for everyone, whether you’re a political science buff or not.  With his expansion on the notion of individual rights, Mill arguably laid the foundation for all democratic societies, and remains an inspiration to both liberals and conservatives. Just about any free and democratic society directly or concurrently draws it’s legal framework from tenets of his work.

Perhaps his most notable contribution was the simple but profound notion of the harm principle, on which he elaborates in the very first chapter:

The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In other words, so long as what someone is doing isn’t hurting anyone, there is no basis for restricting his right to do it. While some nuances remain – such as determining what is harmful to who – it’s as solid a basis for law as one could create. In this same body of work, Mill also helpfully goes a bit further to clarify the definition of harm and how it can apply.

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

Basically, the second maxim – known as the Social Authority Principle –  expands the notion of harm to a societal level: harm needn’t be limited to just a single individual, but a number of them. Mill recognizes that a societal context to individual freedoms exists and that, in response to harm on a large scale, may use coercive means for protection.

This fact is crucial for discerning the kind of harm that can manifest gradually over time, which may in fact be anticipated or recognized as being long-term in nature, even if it doesn’t yet have an immediately harmful impact (or similarly, even if that impact isn’t yet noticeable). This delves into many relevant issues: the right for a legal entity to emit pollution on private property, when the waste may or may not eventually harm others outside of the property over generations; the right for someone to exercise free speech such that it may eventually lead to violence or rebellion; if banks should be allowed to freely trade the money accorded to them if the overall impact may threaten the wider economy.

Though published a century-and-a-half ago, Mill’s insightful work remains as topical as ever, and establishes a timeless understanding of civil and human rights. His work should be well-heeded by any and all political persuasions.

A Case For a Gentle Decline

As per my habit during a sudden onset of writer’s block and a lack of time, I’ve decided to share an article that pretty much encapsulates my view of a given topic – in this case, the future of the United State’s prominent global status.

Charle’s Kenny, a writer in Foreign Policy who maintains a weekly column known as The Optimist, recently wrote a brief but well-argued article arguing in favor of America’s downgrade from its role as the world’s sole superpower, to something basically akin to the “great power” status that defines most wealthy developed nations, such as the UK and France. Indeed, he’s not the first to tackle this issue, as there has been relentless over the last several years, expressed by people all political persuasions, concerning the US’s inevitable, if not already occurring, decline on the world stage. Even casual conversations among colleagues, friends, and coworkers seems to confirm this rather ubiquitous perception.

Generally, this argument emerges in a rather despairing and even fearful way. America may become less stable, less wealthy, and less capable of defending itself. Our political system will continue to break down and even worsen this demise, and our society will remain polarized, cynical, and struggling, feeding a vicious cycle for decades to come. But barring these concerns and predictions – which are a whole other discussion – the argument is centered entirely on our status on the international stage, rather than the domestic one.

Indeed, as Kenny argues, it is precisely these concerns that should further motivate us to decouple from our entrenched presence in the world and focus more inwardly on addressing the many issues that ails us. The less time, money, and political energy is expended abroad – often with little return in value – the more we resources we can invest into our crumbling infrastructural, dysfunctional public education system, and weakening economy (among many other things). Among his prescriptions:

Perhaps Washington could take a baby step or two toward scaling back its global commitments by returning the defense budget to its Reagan-era average, a move that would save about $250 billion a year. Surely what was good enough for a world riven by the Cold War, when the Warsaw Pact had 249 combat divisions and we lived in constant threat of global thermonuclear Armageddon, is also good enough for the United States today — at a time when al Qaeda apparently has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. And it really would be a baby step: Even with a $250 billion cut, the United States would still outspend China about four times over.

Defense cuts would allow the United States to tend to a few other priorities, which just might take Americans’ minds off the fact that their country is no longer No. 1. Perhaps the United States could focus on constructing a high-speed rail line or two, or maybe even finish the job on extending health care. After all, of the large economies that enjoyed a AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s last week, the United States ranked at the bottom of the list in terms of life expectancy, and it was the only country without universal health care. Perhaps America could also spend a little more on basic education; the United States was at the tail end of the AAA club when it came to believing basic scientific truths like evolution, and it scored lowest out of all those countries on international tests of students’ math skills.

Granted, while many conservatives or libertarians among you – who probably also support a tone-down global presence – might still chaff at the idea of America putting all the saved money into other “big government” ventures, the argument is still sound: we’re better off squabbling about how to spend all this public money here and our nations’ future, than we are watching it go to waste on overseas ventures that not only amount to very little for all their worth, but in many cases backfire as far as making new enemies or fraying current alliances. Furthermore, the Pentagon is no less wasteful with it’s money than any other state institution, as a recent article (also from Foreign Policy) reports.

On the hand, many humanitarian-minded folks, myself included, might not feel too keen about reverting back to an isolationist stance either. The US is a rich and powerful country, with ample private and public resources, as well as a dynamic system of innovation and scientific achievement. All this could still do a lot of good in the world, and even an America called away from much of the glob will still maintain all these advantages. I think it stands to reason that the US need not find the choice between a ubiquitous global presence and a desire to address global problems to be mutually exclusively. Today’s globalized and internationally-oriented world provides plenty of capacity for even small but well-oriented nations to do their part.

Canada is a major contributor to UN Peacekeeping operations for example, while the Scandinavian nations are among the most generous donors of international aid. Norway in particular makes for a good case study on the virtues of maintaining this balance: a restrained global presence, as far as toning down diplomatic and military muscle, but ample involvement in aid projects, conflict resolution, scientific funding for cures, and other global public goods. Sure a country of far greater size, wealth, and resources as the US could manage the same, given a proper re-balancing and re-orientation of direction.

Historical precedence also paints a favorable picture. Many of the wealthiest and most successful nations today – many of which outperform the US in many respects – were formerly great powers. Countries such as the UK, France, Germany, and Japan actually became more rich, stable, and prosperous following their downgrades after World War II  (though the last two certainly present a slightly different scenario, given the benefit of US aid and a relatively benign post-war occupation). Most developed nations with high-standards of living were hardly ever global powers to begin with, but have still managed to reach and maintain prosperity. The US, given the comparative advantage of being able to plan ahead and redistribute greater resources, would stand to gain a lot more than it’s predecessors and peers.

Of course, there are several problems here. One concerns greed: many American business elites benefit from the US tossing it’s weight around the world, opening up markets and promoting US-friendly policies abroad (indeed, the nexus between money, lobbies, and foreign policy is underrated but long-standing). It’d be difficult to imagine influential economic interests conceding to losing the comparative advantage brought to them by their nation’s considerable diplomatic influence.

There is also the issue of psychology. While many Americans of all political stripes seem to want a drawn-down on overseas bases and operations, there seems to be an ambivalence about completely giving up our cherished and unique status as a hegemonic “hyperpower.” There is much glory and pride to be had as a nation that can call the shots and pursue it’s interests around the world when needed. For many Americans, it’s a projection of manifest destiny and a by-product of American exceptionalism. Indeed, I’ve found the case for insularity and isolationism to often be presented in ambiguous terms, suggesting to me that most people have a love-hate relationship with America’s preeminent status in the world.

Furthermore, a lot of people see a global presence as crucial to maintaining national security. Our navy keeps shipping lanes open and stops pirates; our regional bases keep rogue states that are in close proximity in check; and our omnipresent diplomatic and intelligence community keeps constant vigilance on threats across the world as they emerge. A similar argument has also been made about how many of the countries that have prospered since last century – including prior great powers – had in fact done so thanks to the US taking up the mantle of “defender of the free world.” To this day, it’s argued that many wealthy states benefit from America’s stronger military forces keeping the peace, and thus facilitating trade and economic growth. They also save plenty of money they’d otherwise be spending on their own military and national security apparatuses (Japan, where we have one of the strongest presences, is an oft-cited example).

All these credible arguments aside, I still believe the US could feasibility and beneficially, for itself and the world, phase itself out of being a major power. Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming increasingly multi-polar, as much of the rest of the planet begins to catch up on our level of development. Similarly, many other rich and developed states are contending with a sense of decline, mostly due to ageing populations and a  general weariness of our increasingly complex world.  The US could still be a great leader and admirable example. We could start to work more from within the very international system we largely shaped, rather than despite it. We could set the example for successful and responsible leadership by drawing down our global ambitions, improving our society and economy, and thus strengthening our capacity to help the world through international directives and public-private partnerships.

All this will be easier said than done of course. But in the course of inevitable the change, we gain nothing from stubbornly refusing to face reality. Better to start a dialogue and begin to plan for what’s bound to come, rather than cling to power with futility, ignoring the benefit of historical precedence. It’s for our own good as much as the world’s.

China’s Rise: Doubtful Due to Demographics.

It’s become almost universally accepted that China will inevitably – and within short order – become a superpower, even a replacement of the US in that capacity (it’s interesting to note that most of China’s leadership sincerely tries to avoid such rhetoric and instead insist on a peaceful and “harmonious” rise). Granted, China has a very long way to go, given high rates of corruption, poverty, environmental degradation, and political instability (all of which are converging in a syncretic fashion, so that corruption is increasingly leading to more political instability, for example). Then again, such challenges also befell the Soviet Union during it’s entire tenure as a superpower, so it cannot be ruled out that the People’s Republic will indeed become a potent force on the global stage even if it does contend with such intractable problems.

However, there is one major challenge above all the others that may render the narrative of China’s rise as questionable, and it is an underrated one: demographics. Despite it’s reputable population size of over a billion people, China’s population is ageing rapidly, after having recently hit it’s peak of young people and exhausting it’s so-called “demographic dividend” – a rise in economic growth due to a large proportion of the population being of working age. While the initial assumption to this may be that the One-Child-Policy is to blame – it worked too well and has resulted in the opposite extreme of what it was intended to combat – it appears to have played a comparatively small part, as a change in culture and lifestyle may have done more to contribute to a desire for smaller families (indeed, the rest of East Asia is also facing a demographic problem due to low fertility, and none of them have anything akin to this policy). Even so, there is enough concern about this to merit public criticism of the policy, which is no small thing in authoritarian China.

If the trend continues unchanged, China’s median age four decades from now will 50 – that amounts to hundreds of millions of pensioners, who will be dependent upon the state and/or their dwindling decedent. Indeed, individuals in this current generation will have to contend with the daunting task of supporting their parents and their parents’ parents, alone, due to the rise in longevity. The consequences of this development will be manifold and dire: single children will have to put more money into supporting half-a-dozen dependents, and less into the economy; the state will have to no doubt provide some means of support to hundreds of millions of retirees (even though pensions remain flimsy now); healthcare costs will soar; and most importantly, the economy – the bedrock of China’s rise – will have a hard time growing without a steady supply of young workers. While technological  and business innovation may help to mitigate the negative effects of the shrinking labor supply, as it’s done for rapidly ageing Japan and Germany, it can only go so far, especially as China still has a long way to go with updating it’s industrial technology.

Furthermore, imagine trying to build up a powerful military force with a declining pool of recruits. If China’s conscription-based military subsequently receives fewer and fewer potential troops, it’s unlikely to develop into a force to be reckoned with. Sure, size isn’t everything when it comes to military might. But for a country of it’s size, and with the problem as severe as it is, China won’t be able to sustain it’s rule for much longer, much less project it’s power overseas (as most superpowers past and present have been apt to do). An interesting side note is the psychological implications of having an army made up of only-children: the populace will be less likely to support any military action when most of them have their only child on the line.

So China’s destined rise is in jeopardy. It may be hard to believe that something like humble demography could be the ultimate, and albeit anticlimactic, cause of great power’s decline. But there are historical precedents, such as the Roman and Mayan civilizations, which were both brought down in part by a decline in able-bodied men (though there is admittedly dispute about these factors being major contributors to their downfall).  In any case, it’s hard to argue for a rising power that won’t have the labor force and troops that it will necessarily need to maintain it’s status. While China could still reach a level of superpower status, it’s doubtful that it will last in such a state for long unless there is a change in policy, culture, or perhaps the paradigm of how we define and actualize power.

The Problem of Power

Lately, Americans seem very torn about the role of the United States in the world. While isolationism has gained much public support, we still seem to pine for a time of unilateralism, diplomatic aggression, and taking charge in the world. Witness the contradictory response to our Libyan intervention: the public was skeptical and largely opposed to the endeavor from the start, viewing it cynically – and understandably – as yet another potential quagmire in the Middle-East. Yet when the Obama administration passed responsibility over to NATO (namely the UK and France) there was a sense that we neutered ourselves, and that our behavior was unbecoming of the world’s sole superpower.

Ultimately, I think our society has found itself in a familiar and quite common conundrum: we want to feel the pride and prestige of being on top of the world without dealing with the burdens and consequences that such a role inevitably entails. Power is a wonderful feeling, whether one wields it personally or experiences it collectively as part of a prominent society. Power gives us purpose, security, stability, and identity. Psychologically, it makes us feel good for reasons we cannot yet fully explains.

Yet power brings a lot of problems, not the least of which being an obsession with staying powerful. Being powerful is an exercise in being insecure, and the more power one has, the more worried one becomes about losing such power. Individuals and societies alike can respond to this by either obsessively (and often destructively) trying to maintain and expand power, or by accepting the inevitability of it’s expiration and trying to ease into a peaceful, managed decline.

Furthermore, having power means having more responsibility. You have so much potential to do things that you find yourself trying to tackle too many objectives at once. You become a hostage to the ambitions that power allows you to fulfill, and despite the resentment and envy of your less powerful peers, you’re expected – begrudgingly or otherwise – to continue to respond to any crises or obstacle that emerges, even if it isn’t necessarily your own.

I know I’ve digressed into a more individualized and philosophical take on the problem of power, but I think everything I’ve stated applies as much to a collective entity as it does to a single one. The United States is a powerful country, and arguably the most powerful in human history. It wields unparalleled influence not only diplomatically, economically, and militarily, but culturally, ideologically, and socially as well. Simply consider the ubiquity of American goods, media, values, and even cultural memes across even the most isolated parts of the world. But all this influence has taken it’s toll on our society, and led to consequences we’ve all come to know to well.

We’re entrenched in too many parts of the world, with a global military and intelligence apparatus that is becoming increasingly too expensive to maintain in the face of our vast fiscal crisis. We’re gripped by so many domestic concerns that the world has simply become too big and complex to continue to attract our attention and investment, much less that of our public officials (who we’d prefer, not unreasonably, to focus on problems at home). Isolationism and protectionism has always been a feature of American society and political culture, yet it becomes far more prominent in moment of social anxiety and low public-confidence. Consider our behavior in the world following the Great Depression, and compare it to our presence in the world following our high moment at the end of World War II; a comparison between American retraction and reflection following the Vietnam War, and it’s resurgence and confidence after the First Gulf War provides a similar, if not understated, example.

Despite all this, we’ve often maintained an internationalist and even outright jingoistic streak as well. America history is largely a timeline of expansion and some would argue quasi-imperialism (especially following the development of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted our interests and influence throughout the entire Western Hemisphere). The ideas of Manifest Destiny and Exceptionalism are as ingrained into American culture, history, and psyche as the values of liberty and freedom which we often purport to promote and export throughout the world. We certainly have good reason to hold our ideals and accomplishments as a polity in high regard, and to desire that others share in their fruits. But unfortunately, this has often given way to either well-intentioned but foolish moralizing missions, or cynical manipulations of higher ideals for the sake of strategic and economic gain (often times, it’s a bit of both).

Ultimately, this is the paradox and problem of power. We want to project it insofar as it suits our interests (be they idealistic or self-interested) but quickly become cynical and impatient at the expense and sacrifice required. We want to keep the world safe and friendly to our interests, yet grow tired of being “the world’s policeman.” We want the world to go our way, to respect our ideals, our sovereignty, and our wishes, yet we’re unwilling to be assertive about it any longer, nor to deal with the consequences – some would say the ingratitude – of our commitment to shaping the global economic and diplomatic paradigm.

The fact is, Americans are understandably tired and anxious about the repercussions of being a superpower, yet don’t want to let go of the prestige and pride of it. We’ve always been an important and influential country, and a lot of people have a hard time seeing us go into peaceful decline the likes of Europe. But unless we’re willing to sort through all the contradictions, difficulties, and sacrifices that befall powerful nations – and powerful people too for that matter – we’ll always find ourselves unsatisfactorily gripped by the problem and paradox of power.

The way I see it, power is a naturally finite thing, and it’s expiration is a matter of when not if. We need to come to grips with this inevitability, and given our unique position to look back at the long history of declining great powers and learn from, and given our advantageous position in still remaining quite influential, we should continue this dialogue and make the most of this rare period of reflection.