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Retiring the American Empire
By Jo hn Feffer , August 1, 2013 . Originally published in Hankyo reh .
As people near retirement age, they enter the twilight years. Sometimes, they rebel against retirement. T hey want to keep working. T hey’re not interested in shuf f ling out of their of f ice never to return. And if they’re in f act the owner of the workplace, conf licts of ten ensue. T hose who have power rarely want to give up that power. T he United States is relatively young as a country. It is even younger as the “leader of the f ree world.” But f or at least three decades, reports have circulated that the American empire has entered its twilight years, perhaps even its dotage. T he U.S. government itself cautioned us to scale back our expectations in the late 1970s when President Jimmy Carter called on Americans to cut back on consumerism and adjust to an age of diminishing expectations. T hen, af ter the Reagan rebound, we were warned by Yale prof essor Paul Kennedy of imperial overstretch in the late 1980s. T he Clinton years saved us f rom bankruptcy and the George W. Bush administration again reasserted American power in the world. But now, the United States has again sunk into economic malaise and the wars of the last decade have lef t the country badly bruised. Historian Alf red McCoy believes the U.S. empire won’t make it until 2025. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung pulls the horizon a little closer to 2020. It’s also possible that the empire already ended and somebody f orgot to make the announcement. In 2011, Standard and Poor’s removed the United States f rom its list of risk-f ree borrowers, putting us below Canada and Australia. T hat could very well have been the death knell. Predicting the end of American empire is complicated by the f act that the United States is not a traditional empire. It does not try to maintain territorial control over distant lands (though many residents of Hawai’i and Guam might disagree). It doesn’t practice a straightf orward policy of pillaging overseas possessions f or their material wealth. It practices a f orm of consensual give-and-take with its allies in Europe and Asia.
material wealth. It practices a f orm of consensual give-and-take with its allies in Europe and Asia. But the American Goliath does straddle the globe militarily, with hundreds and hundreds of military bases and Special Forces operating in 71 countries. T he United States remains number one in the dubious categories of overall military spending and overall military exports. Economically, the United States attempts to use the size of its economy to negotiate f avorable deals with smaller countries (think: NAFTA) and of ten def ines its national security priorities by their proximity to valuable natural resources (think: oil). It wields disproportionate inf luence in international economic organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Culturally, Hollywood and the music industry and the television studios all set the standard f or cool around the world. English is the world language, and the dollar (f or now) is the world currency. T his is, in other words, an empire of consent. Other governments ask f or our military bases (though of ten over the objections of their citizens). Other governments want to trade with the United States. No one makes people watch Avatar or Titanic, the top-grossing movies worldwide. No one f orces consumers at gunpoint to eat at McDonald’s or drink Coca-Cola. It’s true that Washington does what it can to tilt the playing f ield – through export subsidies, diplomatic arm-twisting, and the occasional show of f orce. And it can be a very lonely world f or those countries, like North Korea, that consistently def y the United States. But this still remains a much more complex set of relationships than Pax Romana or Pax Britannica. However one def ines U.S. power, though, a f undamental shif t is clearly taking place in the world. China is slated to surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy as early as 2016. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, many people already believe that China has done so. Indeed, if measured by purchasing power, China nosed past the United States a couple years ago. It’s not just China. T he other celebrated members of the BRICS – Brazil, India, Russia, South Af rica – are more quietly building up their economic and geopolitical power. T hen there’s MIST – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey – another group of rising powers. T he prolif eration of other groupings – the Next 11, CIVET S – all testif ies to the transf ormation of world power. Meanwhile, the United States is behaving like a country desperately trying to maintain its edge. It has proclaimed a “Pacif ic pivot” even though it doesn’t have the resources to execute any signif icant shif t f rom the Middle East to Asia. It has attempted to maintain unsustainable levels of military spending at a time of serious budget constraints. It has tried to maintain a surveillance state in the f ace of considerable challenges f rom both individuals and organizations. Detroit has gone bankrupt; bridges have collapsed in Washington state and Arizona; thousands in New York and New Jersey are still homeless af ter last year’s Hurricane Sandy; gun violence annually claims tens of thousands of lives. And on the issues where the world truly needs leadership – global warming, global poverty, global militarism – the United States is either out to lunch or very much part of the problem. An aging chief executive who resists calls f or retirement will of ten whip out his trump card: après moi, le deluge! In other words, if the top person goes, whatever their vices might be, the organization will collapse because no one else can provide ef f ective leadership. T he United States f requently resorts to this kind of argument. In Asia, f or instance, the U.S. military bills itself as the only f orce that prevents China, Japan, the two Koreas, and the various claimants to the South China Sea islands f rom tearing out each other’s throats. Af ghanistan, we are told, will f all to the Taliban without U.S. assistance. U.S. drone warf are, worldwide surveillance, and “overseas contingency operations,” according to Washington, are the only things between al-Qaeda and global domination. Whether the U.S. military and U.S. corporations are a f orce f or stability or instability is a question I’ll leave to
f uture debate. But to extend the retirement metaphor, responsible executives prepare f or their own eventual – and inevitable – retirement by preparing others to f ill the shoes. Empires, of course, never do this. T hey simply collapse and thereby cause tremendous chaos. But the United States is not a typical empire. Perhaps it can distinguish itself in this one additional category: legacy. Imagine if the United States helped to ref ashion current institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank to ref lect the current geopolitical balance of power instead of the realities of the immediate post-World War II era. Imagine if the United States helped to create a new global mechanism devoted to penalizing countries f or high rates of military spending and rewarding them f or increasing their budgets to address poverty and climate change. Imagine if the United States sat down with China to talk about how the two leading world economies can work together on global problems rather than at cross-purposes. If the United States were to change its global behavior, it might discover that the calls f or early retirement f ade. T hen, as a more cooperative international player, America could truly enjoy its imperial twilight in the sure knowledge that the deluge is not imminent. John Feffer is an Open Society fellow studying Eastern Europe. He is on leave from his position as co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.