Around the time of the US election, Don and I had quite a few posts about the cultural divide in the Land of the Free and its implications for politics. For new readers wanting some background, go here, here, here and here for a sense of the debate… Continuing this conversation, I’ve been reading a few books lately about the decline of the American Empire. Yep – decline.
It’s only been in the past few years that US policy makers and journalists have started talking in terms of ‘Empire’. Before that, the US was proud (justifiably so in many respects) of its anti-colonial and anti-imperialist record, particularly in FDR’s presidency. Bizarrely, this appellation and the consequent debates were probably kicked off by the extremely turgid and contradictory but very influential lefty book Empire by American literary scholar Michael Hardt and veteran Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri. Fast forward from 2000 to 2003, and the British historian Niall Ferguson sparked a lively debate in US foreign policy circles with the publication of his book Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Ferguson celebrated the British Empire as a civilising influence, bemoaned its end, and suggested America should self-consciously follow its example. The Neo-Cons are probably now most closely associated with the American project of Empire.
In social science, an Empire is usually distinguished from a State by the fact that it is a metropolitan core exercising direct rule or indirect hegemony over a range of subject territories or peoples. An Empire is often also thought to have a universal mission – the Pax Romana, the Orthodox religious mission of the Byzantines. The tag of the Hapsburgs – Austria Est Imperator Orbi Universo sums up the typical mentality. A Westphalian world of states, by contrast, is a world of particularities – sovereign states aspiring only to supreme rule over their territories and regarding each other as equals. Hardt & Negri probably contributed most by revealing that an Empire did not have to be restricted to territorial rule and Chalmers Johnson, in The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic makes a powerful case for regarding the economic, military, cultural and ideological reach of the contemporary US as Imperial.
Much of world opinion, and not only on the Left, regards the US Empire as a source of world disorder and danger. But what if the US Empire were actually in decline?
ELSEWHERE: Evan Jones has an interesting take on the End of Bush.
UPDATE: Economists see the Bush administration’s implicit strategy of devaluing the greenback as opening a potentially dangerous can of worms.
Three authors make this case – the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, the British sociologist Michael Mann, and the French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd. The order is a rough ideological continuum – Wallerstein is an unconventional Marxist, Mann a social democrat, and Todd a French centrist – and by no means anti-American. Nor are the two sociologists – Wallerstein celebrates what’s good about the American dream, and Mann lives and works in California. All three have international scholarly reputations – Wallerstein for his incisive analyses of international relations and international political economy, Mann for his pathbreaking work on the nature of power, and Todd for his 1976 prediction of the end of the Soviet Union (based on a study of its demographic and economic trends). So all three are well worth listening to.
Incidentally, for an excellent overview of Wallerstein’s work and its implications for contemporary politics, I recommend Brian Bahnisch’s ‘Another World is Inevitable’ at Margo Kingston’s WebDiary.
Essential background to the thesis that America is in decline is the economic picture. For an overview of the US’ current travails from the blogosphere, you can’t go past recent posts by Ken Parish, John Quiggin and Gary Sauer-Thompson.
So, what of the argument? It seems counter-intuitive – surely American power has never been so ubiquitous and unconstrained? It’s necessary first to heed the advice of the great French Annales historian, Fernand Braudel. Braudel cautioned us to be cautious about making inferences from what he called l’histoire eventuelle – the surface movement in politics and affairs that is the stuff of reporting, public debate and our everyday experience of the world. Rather, Braudel suggested, we should look at the much deeper movements at the structural level – the history of the longue duree. All three of our authors are seeking to get to grips with the current historical position of American Empire, and what its future might portend for the world.
Mann’s polemic Incoherent Empire is probably the slightest of the three contributions, betraying a very quick write. However, Mann makes the salient point that on his four dimensions of power – military, economic, ideological and political – the US has serious weaknesses in each. A recurring theme in our authors is the failure of the US to confront meaningful adversaries in the series of Imperial Wars of the New World Disorder – Iraq being the latest instance. The ability of Tony Blair to convince George W. Bush to seek Security Council approval of the Iraqi adventure, documented in James Naughtie’s The Accidental American is a sign of weakness – without Britain as a partner, the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ would have looked thin indeed, even with Australia’s much vaunted participation. And the current morass in Iraq, the problems of the US military in overstretch and even in maintaining the current level of forces, are clear examples of American weakness.
Aside from power politics, a theme of all three authors is the extreme fragility of American economic power. With a massive trade deficit, as well as a huge government deficit, America is an increasingly consumption-driven economy, with little productive capacity. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a massive concern with Japanese economic success. What is often overlooked now – and what is neatly documented by Gary Sauer-Thompson is the threat posed to the US economy by the decreased willingness of Russian and pre-eminently Japanese investors to hold US$ reserves and to continue to hold and buy T-Bonds. Wallerstein points to another nightmare scenario – the installation of a radical Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia – a distinct possibility, and one made more likely by the Iraq War and the continued destabilisation of the Middle East by the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.
Emmanuel Todd has a convincing argument to account for American Imperial overstretch and weakness in After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order. In the post-war Golden years of 1946-1973, the US according to Todd was a good global citizen and US leadership played a stabilising role economically, militarily and politically. But the US’ encouragement of the Japanese and European economies returned to bite it in the 1970s (a point also made by Wallerstein). For Todd, the US has amazing parallels to the Roman Empire – sucking resources in from its periphery to pacify a class of plebs who no longer work productively with panem et circenses. The difference is that the US has never followed the Emporer Caracalla’s example of instituting a universal citizenship to all within its sphere of influence. Rather, the US increasingly acts as a destabilising influence, using military and political power unilaterally to mask its declining economic power. Todd is more sanguine than Wallerstein or Mann about the eventual outcome, feeling that the US will have no choice other than to accept (as Britain and France have) its diminished status in the world and will eventually realise a multilateral and rule-governed world is its best security. But he is not sanguine about the current state of affairs – the US, for him, is like a wounded beast thrashing around – and all the more dangerous for that.
In The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World, Wallerstein views the current US administration through the lens of his world-systems theory. Wallerstein contends that hegemonic power in the capitalist word-system has shifted since its inception in the 16th century. From Venice to Amsterdam to London to New York and Washington. What is key to the current world, Wallerstein argues, is that we are now witnessing the death throes of the world system itself. Capitalism, he argues, is unsustainable in its current form (and he has a much more sophisticated argument than the standard Marxist tale – buttressed by the insights of his fellow world-systems sociologist Giovanni Arrighi). The world is at a juncture – and history is open. Comparing the “spirit of Davos” with the “spirit of Porto Alegre”, Wallerstein suggests that there are conscious and powerful political actors seeking to re-shape the world, and that over the next 20 years or so the battle will be fought out. The morphing of American power in an increasingly illiberal direction is but a symptom of this world-historical struggle. In the meantime, the attempt by the Bush administration to impose its hegemony on a disordered world where international institutions and customary international law are rapidly losing their purchase is a symptom of its structural weakness.
Fifty years ago, U.S. hegemony in the world-system was based on a combination of productive efficiency (outstripping by far any rivals), a world political agenda that was warmly endorsed by its allies in Europe and Asia, and military superiority. Today, the productive efficiency of U.S. enterprises faces very extensive competition, competition first of all coming from the enterprises of its closest allies. As a result, the world political agenda of the United States is no longer so warmly endorsed and is often clearly contested even by its allies, especially given the disappearance of the Soviet Union. What remains for the moment is military superiority.
He goes on to say:
After the Civil War, the United States spent some 80 years pursuing its manifest destiny. It was not sure, all that time, whether it wished to be an isolationist or an imperial power. And when, in 1945, it had finally achieved hegemony in the world-system, when it had (in Shakespeare’s choice) not only achieved greatness but had greatness thrust upon it, the American people were not fully prepared for the role they now had to play. We spent thirty years learning how to “assume our responsibilities” in the world. And just when we had learned this reasonably well, our hegemony passed its peak.
We have spent the last thirty years insisting very loudly that we are still hegemonic and that everyone needs to continue to acknowledge it. If one is truly hegemonic, one does not need to make such a request. We have wasted the past thirty years. What the United States needs now to do is to learn how to live with the new reality – that it no longer has the power to decide unilaterally what is good for everyone. It may not even be in a position to decide unilaterally what is good for itself. It has to come to terms with the world. It is not Osama bin Laden with whom we must conduct a dialogue. We must start with our near friends and allies – with Canada and Mexico, with Europe, with Japan. And once we have trained ourselves to hear them and to believe that they too have ideals and interests, that they too have ideas and hopes and aspirations, then and only then perhaps shall we be ready to dialogue with the rest of the world, that is, with the majority of the world.
This dialogue, once we begin to enter into it, will not be easy, and may not even be pleasant. For they shall ask us to renounce some privileges. They will ask us to fulfill our ideals. They will ask us to learn. Fifty years ago, the great African poet/politician, L©opold-S©dar Senghor, called on the world to come to the “rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir.” Americans know what they have to give in such a rendez-vous. But are they aware of something they wish to receive?
We are being called upon these days to return to spiritual values, as though we had ever observed these values. But what are these values? Let me remind you. In the Christian tradition (Matthew 19:24), it is said: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And in the Jewish tradition, Hillel tells us: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And in the Muslim tradition, the Koran (52.36) tells us: “Or did they create the heavens and the earth? Nay! They have no certainty.” Are these our values?
Are they indeed? What next for the world as the dying beast thrashes around?