Most empires fail due to a small set of basic but systemic flaws. Some of my previous posts, such as this one, mention the most universal of these basic reasons. However technological developments in the last 60 odd years have opened up another possibility, which could synergize with the older reasons.
The rising cost of waging wars along with their increasingly dismal returns.
To understand this concept it is necessary to see war as a business which intends to “profit” through the extraction of more resources than are put into it- and even a brief look at history shows that large-scale wars are always waged for looting and profiteering rather than settling any differences based on ideologies or culture.
War is Business.
Therefore the success or failure of any war, and by extension the country engaged in it, is linked to the investment-to-profit (direct and indirect) ratio. That is why UK lost WW2 though it was nominally on the victorious side. The USSR lost the cold war for an almost identical reason.
So what does this mean for the USA?
Well.. for a long time- a series of geographical, historical and technological reasons kept the USA from getting a prolonged negative return on its investment in war. Indeed the same was once true for European colonial powers during the 1700-1800s when they had a series of advantages over many native people. Colonialism was only possible because European countries were able to field guns and modern armies against poorly organized people with vastly inferior technology.
But then things changed.. As technology and weapons diffused throughout the colonized world, European powers often found themselves on the receiving end of their own innovations. This is especially important as colonialism requires a non-existent or subjugated native population to go about raping the resources of a newly conquered land. Even small amounts of medium quality armed resistance changes colonialism from a source of profit to an expensive mistake.
Let me explain this with a few contemporary examples-
1. What is the cost and availability of an RPG-7 or one of its improved variants? and what is the cost of the stuff a good hit can take out? Most sources put the cost of an RPG-7 type setup with a few rounds at barely 2,000 USD. In contrast a single APC or transport vehicle of any type costs hundreds of thousands, if not a couple of million dollars. Note that an upgraded RPG-7 is still infinitely cheaper than the armor that can resist an older RPG-7 warhead.
2. What about the cost of two stolen 50-pound high explosive shells converted into a makeshift IED? Such devices can cause economic damage that is thousands of times higher than their cost. Heck, the cost of rehabbing 4-5 survivors of closed head injuries easily exceeds a million dollars. Let me take this one step further- the cost of resources used to disarm a shitty IED far exceeds its construction costs.
3. Even the cost of hiring people who will operate such weapons against the USA in Iraq or Afghanistan is much less than recruiting, training and supporting an US soldier or private contractor- and they are far more willing to take casualties than the US armed forces. If anything ,that region has more than enough people who will consider dying to kill an “infidel” an honor.While they may never win against the US armed forces in any open confrontation, they can wear out their opponents- both psychologically and financially.
The real kicker is that the money spent on fighting such wars does not create returns which exceed the sum of investments.
The USA was able to fund such unprofitable wars for a long time because it had certain advantages such a productive economy that made stuff, citizens who believed in the system and no real counterweight since the cold war ended. Being able to control and issue the worlds reserve currency also helped. But things change and what today many of the advantages that allowed the USA to fight unprofitable wars are either gone or rapidly eroding. However the attitude of those who decide and those who support them has not yet caught up with the new reality. But it will- one way or the other.