Complexity and Collapse
Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop. In the first, The Savage State, a lush wilderness is populated by a handful of hunter-gatherers eking out a primitive existence at the break of a stormy dawn. The second picture, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, is of an agrarian idyll: the inhabitants have cleared the trees, planted fields, and built an elegant Greek temple. The third and largest of the paintings is The Consummation of Empire. Now, the landscape is covered by a magnificent marble entrepôt, and the contented farmer-philosophers of the previous tableau have been replaced by a throng of opulently clad merchants, proconsuls, and citizen-consumers. It is midday in the life cycle. Then comes Destruction. The city is ablaze, its citizens fleeing an invading horde that rapes and pillages beneath a brooding evening sky. Finally, the moon rises over the fifth painting, Desolation. There is not a living soul to be seen, only a few decaying columns and colonnades overgrown by briars and ivy.
For centuries, historians, political theorists, anthropologists, and the public at large have tended to think about empires in such cyclical and gradual terms. "The best instituted governments," the British political philosopher Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke, wrote in 1738, "carry in them the seeds of their destruction: and, though they grow and improve for a time, they will soon tend visibly to their dissolution. Every hour they live is an hour the less that they have to live."
In reality, the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess. Thus, World War I was actually caused by a series of diplomatic miscalculations in the summer of 1914, the real origins of 9/11 lie in the politics of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and the financial crisis was principally due to errors in monetary policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve and to China's rapid accumulation of dollar reserves after 2001. Most of the fat-tail 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.
EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
Although several narrative fallacies suggest that the Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires were doomed for decades before World War I, the disintegration of the dynastic land empires of eastern Europe came with equal swiftness. What was impressive, in fact, was how well these ancient empires were able to withstand the test of total war. Their collapse only began with the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. A mere five years later, Mehmed VI, the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire, departed Constantinople aboard a British warship. With that, all three dynasties were defunct.
NIALL FERGUSON is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His most recent book is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.