Decline Of The American Empire Essay, Research Paper
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&D 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!
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 for the absentee superpower. This could be the opportunity for middle powers, such as Europe and China, to exercise their own military muscle, and in the process garner international credibility. The United States has further proven its failure to embrace multilateralism, most recently when it chose not to ascend to the World Trade Organisation (whose goal it is to liberalise trade). It has also receded from its previous intentions of brining Chile into the North American Free Trade Association, as well as other international agreementsvii. Not only do these moves deny American businesses new economic opportunities, they also threaten to sour relations between the United States and its allies.
With the disappearance of the bi-polar world, and the growth of multilateralism, the United States can ill afford to stay aloof from the world stage. By flirting with isolations the United States endanger its international credibility and influence. Although, it is still the only superpower, it cannot maintain its influence by the might of its military alone. In the post-Cold War era, economic power is replacing the value of military power. In the past America’s military might translated to diplomatic power. The new reality is that arms have proven to be counterproductive, they become a major drain on the economy and its growthviii. If America is to decline in power, it would caused chiefly by the emergence of a greater economy and not a mightier military.
Until quite recently, and especially in the 1980s, Japan was considered to be the only economy that could supplant the United States. However, it now seems unlikely that the Japanese economy will grow larger than the American economy. Its population of 125 million is not sufficient to overtake the American economy with its 256 million consumersix. The Newly Industrialised Countries (NIC), such as Korea and Malaysia, are as damaging to the Japanese manufacturing sector as they are to the American. Moreover, the Japanese economy like the American economy is mature. Japan made its fortune by export, but like Britain at the turn of the century it is beginning to rely on imports as its currency becomes less attractive for export. This is caused by a society of high-wages and high consumption and expectation. Although Japan still maintains a favourable balance of trade, it is importing products from the NICs which were once its speciality. The Japanese miracle is running ou!
t of steam, like post-war America, its economic boom cannot last forever. America’s great trade rival will likely never experience the same growth and prosperity that fuelled the American fears of “take-over” in the 1980s.
If Japan is not to be the country that threatens American economic supremacy, than what other country can? It would need to be a country that can sustain an economy s as large as that of the United States; that requires as large a population as the United States. This country would also need to have favourable economic prospects, and a sizeable military, in order for it to expand its credibility and influence. In short, it would take a new would-be superpower to usurp America’s current status.
There are only two powers that meet these criteria, the Peoples’ Republic of China and the European Union. Both have the potential to become economic and military superpowers, but it is only a guess as to which one – if either or both – will grow in stature to eclipse the United States. The more likely of the two – in the short term – is the European Union, chiefly because it is a free-market democracy and is far more prosperous than China. However, since the United States is in a process of decline, the next superpower would need to weather America’s decline while increasing its own status and affluence.
Though, not a country in the strictest sense, the Europe Union is well on its way to becoming the world most powerful alliance of Western nations. It is currently a union of 15 European countries (United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Finland and Denmark) who are committed to closer economic and political integration. The vision of European federalists, is a strong united Europe combining the resources of its member states in order to achieve a powerful federation based on the American model. The structure for a United States of Europe is already established. An executive, in the form of the European Council in Brussels, is equal in scope to the U.S. Presidency. A legislative body is to be found in the form of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, with a supreme court in The Hague. And of course, there exists a complicated bureaucracy to handle every aspect of a countryx. Europe, though, sti!
ll needs to harmonise its internal markets, standards, welfare and wage allowances.
Member states must also meet rigorous budgetary criteria in order to participate in monetary union set for 1999. This could pose the most immediate threat to America’s economic dominance. Most countries base their foreign reserves on American dollars, making American monetary policies globally important. If the European currency becomes a reality, it may replace the dollar as the currency of choice. However, the path to monetary union is laden with budgetary criteria that may be hazardous to future European integration. The budgetary criteria (chiefly reducing the deficit to approx. 3% of GDP) may prove to be too painful for some countries that have not yet address their inflated budgetsxi. Which ever countries do meet the requirements, will have the option of entering into the European Monetary Union, while other countries may bide their time.
Such flexibility, however, is flawed since the integration of currencies depends on the participation of the major powers – France, Germany, and to a lesser extent Britain. But with current austerity measures proposed by the French Prime Minister – intended to meet the criteria – being widely opposed, France’s prospects are shadowed by doubt. Germany may, too, face a problem if its citizens are reluctant to give up the powerful Deutschmark. With Britain historically hesitant of continental politics, the two banks of the Rhine have provided the leadership and balance that have held the union together. If either France or Germany do not ascend to the monetary union, then the ecu4 will likely never become a feasible reality. So long as this paradox continues the American dollar’s financial power is guaranteed as the currency of choice.
However, what if by the turn of the century, Europe begins to issue ecus for public consumption (they are already in use by governments). What if investment bankers and money brokers begin to buy up those ecus, at the cost of other currencies. With some European interest rates historically higher than North American rates, this is a strong possibility. European currencies – including the ecu – are already second only to the American dollar as a percentage of foreign-exchange reserves in industrialised countriesxii. When European currencies are consolidated into the ecu, investors may be tempted to dump their American dollars in favour of the more rewarding ecu, making it the most influential currency. This will almost certainly send the interest rates of the Federal Reserve upwards, slowing the American economy and sending the it into a financial tail spin. This scenario is purely hypothetical, but not unlikely considering the volatility of currency trading.
Despite concerns about its further integration, statistically Europe has several economic advantages over America. A united Europe would have as many as 380 million consumers, a GNP greater than any other, a budget which consumes less GNP and balances its investments, consumption and military expendituresxiii. The European Union is also blessed with a highly educated workforce, varying wage levels, potential new markets in Central Europe, and governments that are supportive of new industries. With the closer integration of Europe, foreign investment may start to grow as investors begin to realise that a larger single market is available in the European Union, and its future members (i.e. Central European associate countries). Such possibilities will not, however, be immediate, Europe still needs to undergo a period of adjustment as redundant companies are consolidated and national markets are harmonised.
In addition to a unified economy, Europe needs a unified military. A powerful and effective military is sometimes need to exert needed influence and gain credibility as a powerful participant in world affairs. The United States, for example, could only negotiate an accord to end the Bosnian conflict by enforcing diplomatic efforts with its powerful military capabilities. Europe is still developing a pan-European army, to be called Eurocorp. With the majority of the American body politic and citizenry opposed to involvement in peace-keeping, where there is no “vital national interest”, Europe may be pushed back into the role of military power broker. This would be akin to the role the United States has exercised in such conflicts as Haiti, Panama and most recently Bosnia-Herzegovina. Thus, Europe will eclipse the United States as superpower, exercising its influence throughout the world.
Nevertheless, until Europe solves its structural problems, and so long as there is no political will to animate the giant European Union, Europe will continue to be preoccupied with internal affairs. China, conversely, is shedding its traditional isolation and is embracing a new role on the world stage. Ironically, the People’s Republic of China is in some respects the world’s most progressive nation. Its present leadership seems to be developing a grand strategy more coherent and forward-looking than the other major powersxiv. While Congressional forces in the United States are trying to reduce American exposure in world affairs, China is trying to reassert itself as a powerful player. Although poorest of the world’s major powers, with a meagre GNP per capita of $371xv, it is committed to the development of its full economic and military potential.
Unlike the United States, China is enjoying an economic Renaissance. The Communist government has embraced capitalism with the fervency of Japan and America. It is lobbying investors to enter into joint ventures, thus providing a steady supply of foreign currency. The foreign currency in turn, helps China modernise its infrastructure, agriculture and industries, thus benefiting China’s gargantuan population of 1.2 billion people. If only a quarter of them could be considered middle class (urbanisation is 26%), then there exists a potential market of more than 300 million eager consumersxvi. If China, in the coming decades, increased its GNP per capita to $5,000 – the level of its new industrialised neighbour, South Korea – it would possess the world’s largest economy. With such economic power, will come influence, as China will become one of the world’s leading trading power. It is a goal that the Chinese authorities are firmly intent on reaching, with their sights set!
on membership in the World Trade Organisation; and perhaps, even a G-8, sometime in the next century.
But even before China will join these venerable clubs of First World countries, China will have become a regional superpower, possessing one of the world’s most powerful militaries. The Chinese authorities are shedding excess personnel, streamlining, conscripting and modernising a planned military of 3 million personnelxvii. Unlike the U.S., China can afford greater military spending, owing to its limited foreign obligations. America, conversely, has numerous obligations in East Asia. It maintains armies in Japan and South Korea, a Pacific fleet, and must honour treaties of defence with the Philippines, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. As the costs of maintaining its obligations continues to rise, and America’s ability to cover these costs declines, it will be faced with the prospect of a diminished presence. Such a move would leave a vacuum which China would be more than pleased to fill. A worse scenario, would be if the traditional antagonism between China and its!
neighbours were to reach an alarming level. The United States could be drawn into conflict, or more likely given China’s nuclear deterrent, a tense arms race which it can ill afford.
China has already postured itself as a regional power, threatening Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and Vietnam’s and the Philippines` claim on the Spratly islands. As America’s natural ideological enemy, relations between the two powers is vulnerable to any strain. In the Congress, issues of human rights violations and oppression of dissidents threaten relations with China; and access to China’s vast market. Other countries are not handicapped by America’s ideological extremism. In the post-modern world, ideological differences are being subordinated to the more lucrative endeavours of trade and commerce. It is a reality that has been recognised in Europe and Canada, but has yet to be accepted in the United States.
For this reason, and because of its domestic discord and decay, America is the source of its own decline. Even before Europe or China emerge as superpowers, the United States will have declined to a level of such irrelevance that either Europe or China – or both – will have had the opportunity to eclipse the great empire. One cannot say when the United States will fall from power, and when – or even if – China or Europe will emerge as the new superpowers. There are no longer barbarians at the gate, nor vanquishing conquerors, or natural disasters that could mark the end of one empire and the rise of another. The pathology of American decline will be evolutionary. As America recedes from world affairs other countries will grow in influence, as the American economy weakens other economies will strengthen.
Eventually, America will simply lose its international credibility, its prominent position and economic strength to such an extent that it will no longer be considered a superpower. However, the forces that can lead to such a cataclysmic future – economic decline, loss of competitiveness, debt, ideological and racial strife – can also be reversed. America’s future is not, after all, a runaway train heading towards a metaphoric brick wall. This vision of America’s future is based on a current evaluation of its position. If this vision is not to materialise, the American public and its politicians will need to formulate a plan that envisions the future of the United States; and the methods by which to create that future. Otherwise, without a new direction – needed to replace the Cold War mentality – the forces of