By Alex Krainer [from Substack]
Expansion of empires doesn’t advance by military power alone; it does so largely thanks to technological superiority. In fact, technological superiority might be the primary driver/enabler of imperial expansion. The power of the British Empire grew with the innovation and technological advances that enabled it to “rule the waves,” and also develop new, efficient processes of industrial production. Her ships were by far the fastest and most powerful in the world, which made her “gunboat diplomacy” irresistibly effective. This superiority had an important psychological, as well as PR effect which was in fact exercised in a calculated and deliberate way. Here’s an example:
In 1860, HMS Warrior was launched from Thames Ironworks; it was the most revolutionary ship ever built at that time. While most of the world’s shipyards were still assembling wooden sailing ships, HMS Warrior was fully armor-plated and armed with 40 massive cannons. It also had a 4,000 HP steam engine that could propel her at 14 knots in any weather – an absolute game-changer at the time. But all this was also exorbitantly expensive: the ship’s construction cost nearly 400,000 pounds, equivalent to about 1.5 billion pounds in today’s money.
To dazzle and mesmerise
However, for all that expenditure, the HMS Warrior never fought in any naval battle: for 3 1/2 years it sailed around the British and European ports mainly for show. It welcomed up to 15,000 visitors a day, including foreign journalists and dignitaries. It was there to impress and dazzle. It was primarily a message, both to those who would oppose the empire and to those who considered alliance with it: if you oppose us, we can destroy you; but if you join us, you can benefit from the technologies we possess and enhance your standing and your power in your region of the world.
Whether it be in tangible artefacts and weapons, or in economic and social organization, systems of administration and monetary technology, empires rely on technology both to deter any potential rivals and to seduce collaborators and vassals. For the last few centuries, the West has consistently been at the cutting edge of technological advancements. These included not only superior ships and ever more advanced weaponry but also things like industrial production, social organization (parliamentary democracy), monetary technology (magical credit creation), electrification, green revolution and genetic modification in agriculture, computerization and advanced communications technologies.
Today, the West is rapidly falling behind in technological advances
But the West is now rapidly losing its edge in technological innovation. Today Russia has matched and in many ways surpassed the west in military technologies while China has become world’s leading high technology powerhouse, as the following chart shows:
This process is gradual and perhaps not so newsworthy, but it is creating important and hard-to-overcome headwinds for the stakeholders of the western empire. Given that the west today, like the Soviet Union 30 years ago, is wasting resources to keep zombie corporations on life support, ploughing trillions of dollars into “Net-Zero” projects and suffocating the dynamic processes that would free up entrepreneurship and innovation through a bottom-up process, we can expect the technological gap between the west and hte emerging multi-polar world to continue to diverge. As a result, the western powers are at the same time increasingly less intimidating to their opponents and less attractive to would-be allies and collaborators. The era of colonial free lunches might be irreversibly slipping away.