Future historians will look back on the current decade as a turning point comparable with that of the Seventies. No, not the 1970s. This is not going to be another piece pointing out the coincidence of an unpopular Republican president, soaring oil prices, a sagging dollar and an unwinnable faraway war. I am talking about the 1870s.
At first sight, the resemblances across 130 years may not seem obvious. The 1870s were a time when conservative leaders such as Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister, were powerful and popular. It was a time of falling commodity prices, after the financial crash of 1873 and the opening up of the American plains to agriculture. And it was an era of currency stability, as one country after another followed the British lead by pegging to gold.
Yet, on closer inspection, we are indeed living through a global shift in the balance of power very similar to that which occurred in the 1870s. This is the story of how an over-extended empire sought to cope with an external debt crisis by selling off revenue streams to foreign investors. The empire that suffered these setbacks in the 1870s was the Ottoman empire. Today it is the US. In the aftermath of the Crimean war, both the sultan in Constantinople and his Egyptian vassal, the khedive, had begun to accumulate huge domestic and foreign debts. Between 1855 and 1875, the Ottoman debt increased by a factor of 28. As a percentage of expenditure, interest payments and amortisation rose from 15 per cent in 1860 to 50 per cent in 1875. The Egyptian case was similar: between 1862 and 1876, the total public debt rose from Eo3.3m to Eo76m. The 1876 budget showed debt charges accounting for more than half of all expenditure.
The loans had been made for both military and economic reasons: to support the Ottoman military position during and after the Crimean war and to finance railway and canal construction, including the building of the Suez canal, which had opened in 1869. But a dangerously high proportion of the proceeds had been squandered on conspicuous consumption, symbolised by Sultan Abdul Mejid's luxurious Dolmabah