I wish I had a dollar – oops, better make that
a euro – for every recent obituary marking The Death or The Fall or The Collapse
or just the End of the American Empire or the American Era.
Hey, I would have been able to bail out almost all the world's troubled financial
institutions – not to mention my own diminishing 401(k) retirement plan.
I've always been a skeptic when it comes to grand theoretical designs or ambitious
ideological visions – Big Ideas – that try to provide us with a pseudoscientific
approach, jumbled with quasi-religious intonations, to understanding the way
the world works and where we are heading and what it all means.
Members of the secular and educated classes tend to gravitate toward Big Ideas
when the political, economic, and social foundations of their world seem to
be shaking, and there is a feeling that a New World is being born, in the same
way that the masses look toward religion for salvation.
If (to quote Karl Marx), religion is the opium of the people, the Big Idea
is the pinot noir of the elites.
Reflecting my own agnostic attitude toward intellectual pies in the sky, such
as Francis Fukuyama's end-of-history jabber in the aftermath of the Cold War
or Samuel Huntington's clash-of-civilizations mantra, I published an op-ed,
Let's Get Real," in the Los Angeles Times in July 2003. My
piece, which came out just four months after the victorious U.S. invasion of
Iraq – at a time when neoconservative ideologues were predicting a never-ending
American unipolar moment – challenged the then popular Big Idea that envisaged
the rise of a global American empire in which the United States, exploiting
its unequaled military power, would make the world safe for its interests and
"The talk about American empire in the first decade of the 21st century
is probably going to sound a lot like the chatter about globalization we were
hearing in the last decade of the 20th century – an intellectual fad produced
by pundits searching for catchy phrases and colorful metaphors to explain complex
reality," I argued.
Recalling the experience of other great powers, I suggested that just as globalization
hasn't smashed the nation-state, "U.S. military supremacy probably won't
transform America into an empire. Economic costs, public opposition, and potential
challenges from other global players will get in the way."
And indeed, the failure by the Bush administration to achieve its grandiose
agenda in the Middle East demonstrated the limits on the use of American strategic
The current devastating calamity facing the American economy reflects the
financial constraints on U.S. economic might.
These are the kind of realities, which, as I predicted, would "only invite
regional and global players to challenge the American attempts to monopolize
power in the Middle East and around the world."
Hence the reaction from America's adversaries in places like Venezuela, Iran
or Russia, or for that matter from some of its Western allies in Europe, projecting
a certain Schadenfreude, proclaims "The End of the American (fill
in the blank)." Some pundits assert that capitalism, at least in its Anglo-Saxon
variant, is dead. Others think we are witnessing the End of the World as We
I urge all my colleagues in the chattering class to take a deep breath. Intellectual
fads of the moment like the American Empire, or the triumph of globalization,
or the end of the American Empire should never become a basis for long-term
policy, for the simple reason that they were nothing more than figments of
the mind and are not always grounded in reality. In fact, there was never an
American Empire in either a political-military or an economic sense. Instead,
what happened was that U.S. leaders and American investors, acting in a very
opportunistic way, exploited the sources of power – military and financial
advantages – the U.S. seemed to be enjoying since the end of the Cold War.
The intellectuals in the American media and think tanks, led by the neocons,
ended up providing the members of the American political and economic elites
with the Big Ideas – spreading democracy and free markets – to justify and
legitimize their quest for power and fortune.
Now that reality is biting. Whether it's in the Middle East or in finance,
Washington and Wall Street recognize the constraints operating on their power.
More important, the American people are concluding that the costs trying to
fulfill the imperial or hegemonic fantasies are proving to be greater than
the benefits. The next U.S. president will have no choice but to trim American
policies to the new political and economic balance of power.
But if Americans need to dump the bankrupted Big Ideas and face reality, the
rest of world shouldn't embrace the false new Big Ideas. American interests
and values will not remain predominant forever. But neither are there any indications
that there is any other global power, whether it's China or the European Union,
that is ready to serve as new hegemon and replace democracy and capitalism
with new models for managing power and creating wealth.
At best, these other powers as well as other states are embracing their own
variants of democracy and capitalism based on their unique national conditions,
while demanding more influence in the international system.
None of them has the power or the will to impose a new Pax on the international
system. Instead, at a time when Americans recognize their limitations, we seem
to be in a stage when a global consensus can be established for reforming the
multilateral arrangements of the Bretton Woods system that was established
after World War II.
Indeed, the instability in the Middle East and the financial markets – and
the election of a new U.S. president – provide an opportunity to start a process
in which the U.S. will not monopolize power through a Pax Americana
but will play a crucial role as first among equals.
In the meantime, beware of new intellectual fads masquerading as Big Ideas.
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