Unthinkable: Brazilian Journalist Mulls Soviet-Style Collapse of US

Citing a series of geopolitical, economic and social setbacks faced by the United States since the turn of the century, geopolitical analyst and Sao Paulo Business School Professor Antonio Gelis-Filho argues that global policy planners must prepare to deal with the "improbable, but by all means possible, Soviet-style collapse of the United States."

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In his article, published in Brazilian news and analysis portal Carta Maior, Dr. Gelis-Filho begins by noting that the US, which has suffered a "long sequence of…geopolitical and economic failures since the turn of the century," now faces "another brutal element: the threat of a nuclear attack on American soil by the Islamic State." Expressing his hope that ISIS's threats are nothing but hot air, the professor argues that "the point is not only if they will be able to do it (something that cannot even be imagined) but the fact that they feel confident enough to make such a threat in such a nonchalant way."

Gelis-Filho explains that "obviously, the Islamic State just doesn't fear America. And why should they? After decapitating Americans, after watching on the field how Iraqi troops, supposedly well-trained and certainly well-equipped by the US military, ran away from the fight, after capturing American military equipment in the field and God knows what other facts which only those on the field ever knew about, the terrorist horde can afford to threaten a nuclear attack against what is, at least on paper, the most powerful country in the world."

Geopolitical and Socio-Economic Chips in the Foundation

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In the professor's view, "the Islamic State is expressing, in its usual, incredibly violent way, what is now perceived by most of the world: the United States has reached a point of no return in its decline." He cites the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia has been able to stand up to Washington to defend its strategic interests, and China's building of artificial islands in the South China Sea, "in spite of US warnings not to do so. In fact," according to Gelis-Filho, "American warnings are ignored by Beijing as if they were the buzz of an annoying but harmless fly."

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Gelis-Fliho argues that US troubles abroad have been compounded by social and economic problems at home: "The US economic recovery, promised for the umpteenth time, turned into a downturn of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2015."

"After crying wolf so many times for a recovery that never comes, after the visible disintegration of the social fabric with ever-more frequent riots over police brutality and ever-increasing inequality, perhaps it's time to pose the forbidden question: Should we prepare for a Soviet-like collapse of the US?" According to Gelis-Fliho, the answer, "for a number of reasons, is yes." The analyst makes clear that this "doesn't mean that such disintegration is imminent or even probable." Nonetheless, in his view, the possibility of the unthinkable happening means that policy experts around the world must be prepared for such a scenario.

The Material Basis of US Statehood

Gelis-Fliho explains that "in order to understand why such fragmentation is possible, even if remotely so, it is necessary to understand the reasons keeping the country together. The United States was not built along ethnic lines, something which helps polities to survive their times of troubles. Its border with Canada is almost entirely artificial, so geographical constraints were not at play. In fact, the United States is an entirely artificial polity, and not one that has emerged more or less spontaneously out of historical movements. It is the result of a carefully crafted and successfully executed plan for expansion, based on the ideology of the Manifest Destiny."

"The American polity has always been sustained by a single and very powerful unifying factor: success. The Confederate insurgency in the nineteenth century showed that even in its past the country was already fissile. But the astounding economic, political and cultural success of the United States created a success-fed beast, and the beast is now hungry. Despite all the rhetoric about the ideals of freedom, what has driven and still drives most immigrants to the US is one single desire: material progress. What can possibly keep the country united now that such progress can no longer be taken for granted? As the blanket [of material wealth] begins to prove itself to be too short, local elites in the richer states will have incentives not to bankroll the poorer states. The cult of collective and individual success –the all-American secular religion responsible for America's long and rich history, will then, ironically, become the fuel for its possible disintegration."

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Gelis-Fliho notes that while "it is tempting to think about the military intervening to prevent any possible collapse," this would not save the country in the long term. "In the first stages of decline, this would probably be true; but after a certain point, the weakened economy would also threaten corporate interests, and getting rid of what would be understood as the dead weight of poorer and socially restless states would appear to guarantee more and not less power to those who would be able to secure control of the military. At this stage, collapse would easily escape the control of those trying to manage it, unleashing positive historical feedback loops. Something along those lines happened in the Soviet Union."

Global Consequences

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In Gelis-Fliho's view, as dangerous and unimaginably horrific as the collapse itself would be, its global consequences would be just as serious: "It has the potential far more dangerous to the world than the collapse of the Soviet Union ever was. The Soviet Union was built around a vast historical center –Russia. The existence of that center allowed the collapse to follow along historically predefined lines. The same was true for the other Soviet republics. Each of them already had their own institutional life within the Soviet Union, and so the lines of the disintegration were already drawn. Where these lines were not clear is where war followed: Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought for independence from Georgia; Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for control of Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhichevan; Moldova was split; Ukraine and Russia would dispute control of [Crimea's] Sevastopol. These conflicts have remained unresolved to this day, some even worsening."

"Now imagine what would happen in the United States, a country where the estimated number of firearms in civilian hands is over 200 million. It is unlikely that such a hypothetical fragmentation would occur along state lines. While some American states have a long history and enough wealth to take care of themselves, on the other, many others were carved out of territories along more or less arbitrary lines, the long straight lines defining the borders of many Western states serving as evidence of this fact. Many of these states are landlocked, and dependent on other states to export whatever they produce. Moreover, many counties in states bordering Mexico have massive Mexican and Mexican-American populations who would naturally seek protection from the US's southern neighbor in the event of collapse."

According to Gelis-Fliho, another reason to dread and be wary of a hypothetical collapse "is the US empire of military bases around the world, many of them better armed and equipped than local governments. Who would administer them and how? Here the lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union are not a source for optimism."

Finally, Gelis-Fliho comes to the greatest problem facing the world following possible collapse: the American nuclear arsenal. In his view, "in contrast to what occurred in the Soviet Union, where Moscow had enough control over Soviet strategic forces to keep them under its control during the collapse, nothing of the kind is self-evidently possible in the case of the US."

Ultimately, Professor Gelis-Fliho believes that there are enough reasons "for sensible policy planners in the rising world powers to prepare scenarios for dealing with such an improbable, but by no means impossible, Soviet-style collapse of the United States."

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