Decline of the American Empire In any era there are different protagonists, playing the same game on a similar board. Like a game of monopoly, there are nations competing to become the foremost leaders of their time. They amass great wealth, powerful armies, and political sway. When the influence and might of these countries transcends the confines of their boundaries, so that they become a presence throughout the world, they become empires. At times, it seems as though one of these empires wins the game, becoming the undisputed superpower in the world.
Today, there is one such nation that has outlived all of its rivals in the great game, it is the United States of America. This vast empire of political power, economic and military supremacy, exerts its influence over much of the world. It has risen from the obscurity of the New World, to a level of ubiquity unprecedented in history. America is more than the sum of its territories, it the sun around which the other powers revolve. Regardless of geographic location or technological development, American culture, economics and politics are concerns for the entire globe.
In this age of instant communication and information, what preoccupies America, to some extent preoccupies the world. America has become eponymous with the 20th century, we live in the American Century in a state of Pax Americana (American Peace). By the might of its armies and wealth of its economy America has created an imperial peace, ensuring that threats to world peace are put in check. The Pax Americana has also been a justification to impose American will on almost every part of the world, from Vietnam to Haiti. In order to exert such power, the United States has created a massive military apparatus, and has undertaken numerous foreign obligations.
But as the American Empire grew more powerful, it also became more complicated, and eventually over-extended in its obligations; and hence, more difficult to sustain. It suffers from the ailments that inflict empires when they age: a loss of direction, fiscal excess, cultural degradation and a bloated military. When a dominant empire declines, another empire emerges to replace it. It is a cycle that has held true throughout history. Rome replaced Carthage, Ottoman Turkey replaced Byzantium, Britain replaced France, America replaced Britain. Like past empires, America can neither sustain its power indefinitely, nor can it exist statically under the weight of its current difficulties. While America is racked by unprecedented domestic disunity and a sense of economic decline a resurgent Europe and an aggressively modernizing China stand to eclipse the American Empire.
The close of the American Century may well be the beginning of the final twilight of the American Empire. The United States of America rose to its position of prominence in the 20th century by filling the vacuum left by the waning powers of Europe. The old empires of Europe had grown too vast; the British Empire alone covered one fifth of the globe. Their economies lost the vigor of youthful growth, while the cost of maintaining their armies grew immense. The great powers of Europe finally self-destructed within the span of two world wars.
Following the Second World War, the colonial empires disintegrated with the rise of independence movements. Consequently, Europe lost its easy access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials, leaving it further weakened, creating the opportunity for the emergence of a new economic and military power. Due to geographic chance, and thanks to the opportunity created by the implosion of Europe, only the United States emerged stronger after the war. It had not endured fighting on its soil and its industries and infrastructure were undamaged. America, rejuvenated and inspired by its heroic feats, took up the duty of nursing Europe back to health. While Europe was convalescing, the United States was substituting for Europe throughout the post-war world. Thus, the Eurocentric world gave way to the American hegemony.
The United States inherited the bi-polar world that emerged after the Second World War. Countries aligned themselves either to United States or to the Soviet Union in a tense Cold War. America actually benefitted from the Cold War, as it was the undisputed leader of the alliance of Western countries. The Cold War era was an extension of the war period, with the new enemies being the Soviet Union and its communist satellites. With the looming threat of communism, the United States undertook the creation of a massive military, and assumed the role of protector of the Western alliance.
This siege mentality, unified the American public in a single cause, namely the defeat of communism and the triumph of American democracy. Still, this unity could not survive the end of the Cold War. America’s future is now fueled by ideological differences. Conservatives, firmly in control of the Congress, are emphasizing American achievements – winning the Cold War and the success of capitalism – while they attempt to reconstruct the country along the traditional principles of individual responsibility and minimal government. While liberal critics attempt to draw attention to the legacy of problems – debt, social and educational decay, decline of the middle class, erosion of America’s economic leadership, and a mammoth military presence abroad. Conservatives, though, are not blind to the perils facing American society.
Their undisputed leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich recognizes that American civilization cannot survive with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds shooting one another, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and 18-year-olds graduating with diplomas they cannot read..ii (1 Cole, Wendy et al., “Master of the House” Time (Toronto: Time, 1996), p.45.) To those troubling facts one can add, antagonism between the races, a growing rift between the haves and have-nots, resentment of immigrants, and a growing hatred of the federal government and its social programs. But unlike liberals, conservatives view these problems as the legacy of previous governments, and not the products of an unraveling society. Though Speaker Gingrich and his followers laud the failure of the Great Society, they offer little hope for the disadvantaged and the poor. America’s domestic angst penetrates beyond the failure of the welfare state to ameliorate poverty and inequality. It’s failure has led to a mass disillusionment of the middle class, creating a sense of despair and uncertainty.
At the same time, Americans are forced to re-evaluate their culture and values. As they become less idealistic and more realistic, they also become more frightened. Fundamental ideals such as the mythical Melting Pot, supposedly intended to integrate all Americans into one culture, prove to be faulty. Events such as the Million Man March, the Los Angeles Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial point to a society that is fragmenting along ethnic lines.
The Oklahoma City bombing and the Waco stand-off reveal a dangerous undercurrent of anarchism, posing under the guise of patriotism. With such frightening trends, it was only natural that mainstream America would turn to the reactionary politics of the Republican Party and its right-wing affiliates. Human nature reacts to social uncertainties by adopting conservative measures. The conservative demagogues who preach these measures hope to revert America back to its glorified past, supposedly devoid of its current ills (i.e. crime, poverty, racism). They play on the middle class’s natural disdain of social programs, such as welfare and Medicare.
They contend, that these programs breed “illegitimacy, crime, illiteracy, and more poverty.” Only by diminishing them, along with other “wasteful” programs (environmental protection and arts and culture), can American society be saved, so they claim. Unfortunately, the good intentions of Republicans will likely alienate and further impoverish those who need the greatest help, adding to the fragmentation of American society. It is doubtful that legislative reform can fundamentally alter the social and economic conditions that cause America’s domestic malaise. The Great Society may have failed, but not for want of trying. But because it, like the “Contract with America” was an attempt to legislate an end to poverty and dependence. Nonetheless, whereas the Great Society was a positive and liberal program, reflecting the optimism and prosperity of America in the 1960s. The Republican plan is a sad testament to the current divisions and pessimism of American society.
The social decay perceived in the 1960s has only grown acute with the decline of American prosperity. So long as Americans continue to be polarized, so long as they turn to reactionary politics, they prove that America is in decline. Nevertheless, America’s problems are neither unique, nor are they recent. They are simply more apparent now that America’s focus is domestic, rather than on some vague foreign threat. One would think that this reality would be a welcomed opportunity to reduce the burgeoning military.
Yet, American politicians are more than ever unwilling to reduce this perennial sacred cow. In the words of the Republicans, America is at risk of returning to the “hollow military of the 1970s,” if spending is reduced furtheriv. With such dismal predictions, one would think that America’s vital national interests were still threatened by a substantial force. And yet, Europe is secure from the Soviet threat, China is no longer an enemy, the Middle East is relatively calm, and America is more than ever secure from foreign aggression. So what is the justification for a massive military designed to win two wars simultaneously? It would seem that there is none. It is true that American interests are threatened by rogue nations like North Korea and Libya.
And anti-American terrorists pose both a foreign and domestic threat to American security. But, America can no longer afford to keep an exaggerated military intended to defend not only the United States, but many of its allies. The military diverts more than $300 billion annually in resource capital, materials, skilled labour, engineers and scientists from non-military functions. America spends 65% of federal R funds on defence, while only 0.5% on environmental protection and 0.2% on industrial developments. This despite the fact that pollution and loss of productivity are more immediate threats than nuclear proliferation or annihilation. Furthermore, the United States is in a fiscal crisis, created to a large extent – and still exacerbated – by military overspending. Though almost every industrialised country faces deficits and debts, none so severe as those of the United States.
Spending during the Cold War was inflated by military expenditures, especially during the Reagan Administration, which left a $4 trillion debt. It is estimated that as much as 15% of American GNP is spent on its own debt relief. A rising amount of those debt payments now go to foreign investors, thus further reducing America’s wealthv. Unlike the United States, countries like Germany and Japan – who avoided large military expenditures – can continue to make large capital investments in their economies. Whereas, the United States tries to save itself from defaulting on its debts.
America’s indebtedness would not have been so severe had previous governments followed suit with the other industrialised countries and increased tax! es. Instead the American government (again during the Reagan administration) lowered taxes while increasing military spending. The result was a tripling of the debt and a legacy which will haunt successive American governments. It will mean that government spending will continue to be siphoned away from the American economy, debilitating GDP growth and creating low consumer confidence. Also, the American economy has matured, similar to the economy of Britain at the turn of the century.
The American economy suffers from high manufacturing wages, decline in productivity, slower technological development, and competition from developing countries; the United States no longer has technological and industrial advantages that accounted for its growth. The policies that gave rise to America economic decline continue to be practiced. Whereas, other countries spend government capital on industrial development, infrastructure and other economically beneficial investments. The United States spends greater quantities of capital on its military and diplomatic obligations. That is why other countries, in East Asia and Europe, are more likely to experience higher GDP growth and to take better advantage of economic prosperity.
As well as economic decline, the United States is also in danger of losing its diplomatic ascendancy. Economic power is increasingly tied to diplomatic efforts, such as the opening of new markets and the maintenance of favourable trading practices. If the United States is to keep its current influential role in world affairs, it must ensure that it maintains its credibility as a superpower. However, a dangerous trend is returning to American politics. It is all too familiar American practice of isolationism. It threatens to injure not only American credibility, but also American economic power. An empire can neither prosper or be influential in isolation. Until the United States joined the Allied forces in World War I it was a virtual non-power in world affairs.
Its sphere of influence did not extend far beyond its borders. America pursued a policy of isolationism, avoiding alliances, commitments and involvement beyond its borders. This practice, which returned again after the end of the Great War, was finally reversed with America’s participation in the Second World War. Since the end of the last war, America has been the most influential country in the world because it took the proactive position of leader of the Western nations. Fifty years after the end of the war, the policy of isolationism is creeping back into American politics.
Now, however, it is be far more damaging than before. The world is embracing multilateralism – co-operation between countries in the framework of international organisations. The most important of these organisation is the United Nations, but the Republican Party of the U.S. Congress seems intent on ignoring the United Nations. They promise to “prevent funds being diverted to UN peacekeeping, [and] prevent U.S. forces from being placed under any foreign, especially UN command.vi” By pursing such a policy, America threatens to alienate its it allies and bring the wrath of all UN countries against it. If America continues in this trend of non-participation, other countries will have no choice but to fill in …