Quick Review of An Empire on the Edge

Doing good futures work requires some incorporation of historical information and perspective, which can be as straight forward as trend data (no surprise there) or as elaborate as modelling or formal theories of change.  Thus, for anyone wanting to be a professional futurist, it helps to have a healthy interest in history, and many of the most excellent folks I know have an abiding fascination with the past.

In line with this, I was recently reading Nick Bunker’s engrossing book, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America.  In the book the author traces, in exquisite detail, the myriad, interwoven events, decisions, and reactions that lead the British into war with the American colonies.  Dense with fascinating details and deftly connecting the great many world-spanning relationships that formed the decision-making context for the British in the early to mid 1770s, the books is what the author calls a “sympathetic study in failure” wherein the British politicians stumbled into war with the American colonies.

In essence, this book presents to the reader the world at that time as it appeared to key British decision makers.  Internal cabinet politics and personalities, domestic politics, domestic economics and international trade… all of these and more form the milieu in which key characters, such as the Prime Minister Lord North, were operating.  For an American raised on American history book and television treatments of events like the Boston Tea Party and the Revolution, this is indeed a sympathetic – but also eye-opening – study of the many other dynamics that were occurring in the world that helped to shape and enable the emergence of American independence in the manner it ultimately did.

Reading through the book now in 2015, I couldn’t help but pick up on some tantalizing similarities to the outlooks expressed by of those today contemplating things like the international security environment, the role of the United States on the global stage, and challenges decision makers have in interpreting events and signals emerging from complex situations around the world.

One long passage, which begins on page 23 of the book, almost perfectly reflects so many of the social, economic, political, and security dynamics we increasingly talk about today.  Here the author is talking about Lord North, who was Prime Minister during this time, and an apparent favorite of King George III.  North took office in early 1770, just before the Boston Massacre, and in office came to face a massive financial crisis brought on in part by the booming tea trade and the collectively risk-generating behaviors that the trade and early stock markets engendered (recall the importance of the globe-spanning British East India Company).

In the early 1770s, North and his colleagues felt that beneath their feet the ground was shifting, and they could not say how things would end any more than they could chart the currents of the Mississippi. Beyond the English Channel, the king and his ministers had few friends whom they could trust but many enemies and rivals. Everywhere they heard dark voices prophesying war. In Bengal the British had acquired another empire, operated on their behalf by the East India Company, but at best the company’s tactics were dubious, and at worst they were corrupt and self-defeating. Without far-reaching reform of the company’s management, the British cabinet feared that one day India might be lost entirely to hostile maharajas in alliance with the French. And nearer home in Europe they saw only confusion.

Far from being stable and secure, the balance of power appeared to be breaking down. France could never be trusted, and neither could the Spanish, while Austria remained a potential foe. To the east the cabinet saw new military nations, the Russian and the Prussians, with expansionist ambitions of their own. In British eyes, the feudal powers beyond the Elbe displayed attitudes to international law that were cynical or even wicked. Another war in Europe might lie just around the corner, and if the British had to intervene again in Germany, the Baltic, or the Mediterranean, the outcome might not be another victory. While at sea the Royal Navy reigned supreme, on land Great Britain could not match the armies of its opponents.

At home the situation contained perils of its own. Ireland was rebellious again, this time in its northern province, with farmers in Ulster up in arms against their landlords. In London there were factions, feuds, and riots, fomented, it was thought, by atheists and libertines. Meanwhile, the price of corn was rising steeply, causing alarm in the cabinet as well as among the poor. An economic upheaval had just begun, the long, slow, and complicated process that today we call the Industrial Revolution. Nobody used that term to describe the economic changes that were underway, but they were occurring even so, and North and his colleagues felt their early consequences. In its wake, the birth of modern industry in Great Britain brought vast opportunities, exciting and life enhancing, but it also caused unsettling peaks and troughs in the economy, with periods of misery and trauma.

Against this background, the politicians in Whitehall had to come to terms with the unrest in the colonies. However dearly they wished to be as confident as Gibbon, they could not rise above the flux of events and take a calm, judicious view of the American crisis. And because the colonies were far away, it was all too easy to forget about them during the intervals when they appeared to be tranquil. Distracted by so many other issues, the British failed to see just how fragile their position was in North America. Inertia took the place of statesmanship until the machinery of empire had corroded beyond salvation. And when at last the Boston Tea Party obliged them to stare directly at the colonies, they did so not with Gibbon’s optimism but with its opposite: a pessimistic vision of anarchy and treason. In the end, their perception of the world as a troubled, lawless place would lead them to the use of force against New England.

Again, it’s an awesome passage, and one with many similarities to things happening today and with some of the ways in which we are perceiving them.

A number of things stand out for me, which I think merit highlighting, again, because of the potential applicability of our learning from history (and not, of course, in a direct, 1-to-1 sense, but rather about patterns and the perspectives with which we view problems):

  1. Complexity: as the passage makes clear (and as the book makes abundantly clear), the British cabinet was facing not just a world becoming more complicated, but one that was taking on the characteristics of truly complex systems.  This mirrors not only our present situation (by now systems nested within systems) but also, increasingly, the discourse with which we are attempting to come to grips with the present, as “complexity” and “uncertainty” become the common, underlying anxieties.
  2. Emerging Technological Revolution: these events were occurring at the outset of the first Industrial Revolution, and the social and economic dislocation and excitement to which Bunker alludes can be found also in our present conversations about the future of the economy.  Today there is a rising sense that we are approaching a new technological revolution and everyone is trying to anticipate the nature of it (“which tech do we bet on?”) and the net gain/loss for society that will result.
  3. Boundedly Rational Decision Makers: one of the things that is most interesting to observe in the book is how the limitations of both the information available to decision makers and constraints of their own ability to process that information and make effective decisions play critical roles.  Information about important dynamics could be extremely limited, those forwarding information had incentives for shaping the views of audiences, the “cycle time” of information was long as it could take weeks for word to reach someone, and the resources for sifting what information did arrive was extremely limited, and decision makers ultimately could not process and weight equally all information they did receive.
  4. Importance of Perception and Mental Models: individual decision makers in every Age are flawed, human beings capable of great leaps of insight but also constrained by the ways in which they filter and make sense of the signals they receive about the world around them.  Today as then, we continually run the risk of applying outdated or simply inaccurate mental models or decision making heuristics when trying to make sense of the growing complexity of the world.  In the end, we often seek to simply “make the pain go away,” substituting a short-term salve for a long-term and systemic solution.



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