two premier magazines of foreign affairs recently featured
articles with diametrically opposed themes on a much-discussed
topic: is the US Empire on the rise, or in decline? In Foreign
Affairs, flagship journal of the New World Order crowd,
Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth celebrate the
rise of the American hegemon, and disdainfully dismiss
all objections as hopelessly outdated, while, over in Foreign
Policy, the upstart magazine of the Foreign Policy Association,
Immanuel Wallerstein argues that "The Eagle
Has Crash Landed." In these two articles, we see not only
two different worldviews but also two opposing mindsets that
define the great American intellectual divide between a mad
triumphalism and a sober realism.
hear Brooks and Wohlforth tell it, the history of the US for
the past twenty years has been a seamless progression toward
absolute "unipolarity," with nary a bump in the road. They
speak in vast, sweeping generalities:
today's American primacy does not constitute unipolarity,
then nothing ever will. The only things left for dispute are
how long it will last and what the implications are for American
The United States has no rival in any critical dimension of
power. There has never been a system of sovereign states that
contained one state with this degree of dominance."
and Wohlforth aver that, by any measure military or economic
American dominance is beyond even the possibility of challenge
"in the foreseeable future." He cites a host of numbers, but
very little in the way of historical facts. There is a curiously
abstract, one-dimensional quality in his portrayal of American
supremacism that gives it an air of unreality, like a mirage
shimmering in the desert. We hear much talk of US military
spending as a percentage of GDP, and the authors have even
discovered "an unrivaled ability to coordinate and process
information about the battlefield and destroy targets from
afar with extraordinary precision." That this piece was published
just as the astonishing lack of coordination among
US intelligence and law enforcement agencies was revealed
by FBI veteran agent Coleen Rowley, and other whistleblowers,
underscores the hazards of grandiosity. As for the authors'
awe of America's global reach, it seems clear that Uncle Sam
is not alone in his ability to "destroy targets from afar"
as we learned on 9/11.
the economic side of the equation, Brooks and Wohlforth are
gigantists, who measure the degree of "dominance" in terms
of sheer size. Aside from the obvious psychological
implications of such a thesis and, no, I don't
want to go there! we might call this the "bigger is better"
school of economics:
economic dominance, meanwhile relative to either the
next several richest powers or the rest of the world combined
surpasses that of any great power in modern history,
with the sole exception of its own position after 1945 (when
World War II had temporarily laid waste every other major
economy). The U.S. economy is currently twice as large as
its closest rival, Japan. California's economy alone has risen
to become the fifth largest in the world (using market exchange-rate
estimates), ahead of France and just behind the United Kingdom."
what possible meaning can such a concept big, medium-sized,
jumbo, large, extra-large, humongous have in economic
terms that are meaningful to human beings? The only real measures
are those that take account of individuals and their interests:
standard of living, average income, and some factors that
cannot be described numerically, such as quality of life.
But in the imperial mindset, there are no individuals
except, of course, for a few Great Men, conquerors
like Caesar, Napoleon, Stalin, FDR, and the like rather,
only competing States who have the resources of an entire
people at their disposal.
the authors' understanding of even the most basic economics
seems woefully limited. As US markets teeter
on the brink of a prolonged recession that, before long,
may evoke memories
of the Great Depression of 1929, it is strange indeed
to read the following:
is true that the long expansion of the 1990s has ebbed, but
it would take an experience like Japan's in that decade
that is, an extraordinarily deep and prolonged domestic recession
juxtaposed with robust growth elsewhere for the United
States just to fall back to the economic position it occupied
have news for you, bud: the Japanese
are on the edge of the abyss,
and, if they fall in they're likely to drag us and
the rest of the developed world along with them. And
why must a prolonged recession in the US be "juxtaposed"
against economic success elsewhere in order to disprove the
supremacist thesis? If we all go down together, it's "unipolarity,"
of a sort, albeit not the kind either Charles
Krauthammer the original coiner of that pompous term
or Brooks and Wohlforth had in mind.
I suppose the latter two would attribute the recent economic
turmoil to a blip on the larger screen of longterm rising
odds against such relative decline are long, however, in part
because the United States is the country in the best position
to take advantage of globalization. Its status as the preferred
destination for scientifically trained foreign workers solidified
during the 1990s, and it is the most popular destination for
foreign firms. In 1999 it attracted more than one-third of
world inflows of foreign direct investment."
begin with, decline measured in these terms is utterly meaningless.
For surely what matters to individuals is the decline in living
standards from one year to the next, relative not to
other nations but to what it has been in their own lives in
the past. The idea that "you're lucky to have what's on your
plate, think of all the poor people in China!" will console
anyone even children who won't eat their brocoli shows
a remarkable ignorance of human nature.
consequence of 9/11 is that all those foreign workers who
want to make it big in America may to have to wait, perhaps
for a long time: the popular outcry against a de facto policy
of open borders is going to have longterm political consequences
in this country. The anti-immigration backlash is already
sweeping Europe, and 9/11 gave added impetus to the issue
in the US: so I wouldn't count on those foreign workers, or
at least not quite so many.
for all those "inflows" of foreign investment watch it dwindle
to a trickle, and then go dry, as the dollar continues to lose
its value. A nation's economy is only as good as its currency
and, by that measure, we're rapidly slipping. The dollar
is now at a
rough parity with the formerly scoffed-at Euro some
and Wohlforth imagine a number of possible scenarios, in which
various nations, or combinations of hostile states, vie with
the US for the position of Supreme Hegemon, and conclude that
the Americans are bound to come out on top. I won't dispute
any of that although all of it is very disputable but
will merely point out that they only recognize external
threats. This is especially debilitating to their case, because
the main threat indeed, the inevitable undoing of any
Empire is a progressive decadence, a rot that germinates
from deep within the cultural nexus and proceeds to eat away
at the vitals of society and the economy.
brings to the fore the falsity of their assertion that "There
has never been a system of sovereign states that contained
one state with this degree of dominance." But of course there
Roman Empire, at
its height, contained within its borders virtually the entire
civilized world. Yet the moment of its apogee the reign
Augustus signaled not only its transformation from a
republic into an empire, but also marked the beginning of
its decline. Decadence set in. Social and economic turmoil,
and the Caligulas,
and a terminal gigantism these set the stage for Rome's
long slide into degeneracy. The stern republican virtues gave
way to the cruelty and hedonism of Imperial culture, while
the spoils of Empire corrupted the people, patricians and
plebeians alike, until the Roman Senate was but a cheering
section for an Emperor answerable only to his Praetorians.
In the end, Rome itself was sacked by the barbarians but
not before the enemy within had destroyed the character of
the Roman people. That enemy was none other than
to the nebulous "high theory" indulged in by Brooks and Wohlforth,
Wallerstein's essay is crisp and clear. The decline of the
American empire, he argues, is not a consequence of what happened
on 9/11, an event that only underscored a process that had
already begun in the 1970s:
understand why the so-called Pax Americana is on the wane
requires examining the geopolitics of the 20th century, particularly
of the century's final three decades. This exercise uncovers
a simple and inescapable conclusion: The economic, political,
and military factors that contributed to U.S. hegemony are
the same factors that will inexorably produce the coming U.S.
sees the history of the early twentieth century as a prolonged
conflict between two aspiring world hegemons, the US and Germany,
and defines the postwar period in terms of the Yalta agreement.
Not the formal agreements reached there, but the unspoken
understanding implicitly reached at Yalta that the victors
of World War II would divide up the world between them, with
the Soviets getting roughly a third and the West the rest.
But, like Rome, the seeds of decline were sprouting even as
American power was rising:
United States' success as a hegemonic power in the postwar
period created the conditions of the nation's hegemonic demise.
This process is captured in four symbols: the war in Vietnam,
the revolutions of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,
and the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Each symbol built
upon the prior one, culminating in the situation in which
the United States currently finds itselfa lone superpower
that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few
respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global
chaos it cannot control."
provocative thesis that Wallerstein backs up with equally
provocative examples, but at least his are not just abstract
numbers relating to such nebulous concepts as "GDP" but real
historical examples. Brooks and Wohlforth don't even mention
Vietnam. The fall of Communism, as far as they are concerned,
just happened, and is mentioned almost as an afterthought.
Wallerstein sees Vietnam as not only a military defeat of
symbolic significance, but also the beginning of the end of
America's economic edge over the rest of the developed world:
Vietnam was not merely a military defeat or a blight on U.S.
prestige. The war dealt a major blow to the United States'
ability to remain the world's dominant economic power. The
conflict was extremely expensive and more or less used up
the U.S. gold reserves that had been so plentiful since 1945.
Moreover, the United States incurred these costs just as Western
Europe and Japan experienced major economic upswings. These
conditions ended U.S. preeminence in the global economy. Since
the late 1960s, members of this triad have been nearly economic
equals, each doing better than the others for certain periods
but none moving far ahead."
irony is that the costs of victory in Iraq of deposing Saddam
and occupying Iraq for years are bound to exceed the costs
of our humiliating defeat in Vietnam. And it won't stop there.
In addition to cash payouts, another draining effect will
be the political and even the cultural impact of interventionism
run amok. For America's economic preeminence has always been
dependent on the relative degree of economic freedom that
has existed since the nation's founding. The prospect of perpetual
war not only a "war against terrorism," but a war for
Empire bodes ill for that libertarian tendency in American
life. It was Richard Nixon, a Republican warhawk, who finally
decoupled our money from gold and introduced wage and price
controls during the Vietnam era, and Bush is an acolyte of
that same variety of "big government
conservatism." As the economy tanks, and we are dragged
into a pointless war of conquest on the Asian landmass, history
repeats itself the first time as tragedy, the second as
I don't agree with Wallerstein in all the particulars of his
argument I wouldn't characterize the advocates of US interventionism
as "true conservatives" (far from it!) what puts his thesis
head and shoulders above the supremacist position is his cold-eyed
clarity of vision:
the United States tried to intervene, it failed. In 1983,
U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent troops to Lebanon to restore
order. The troops were in effect forced out. He compensated
by invading Grenada, a country without troops. President George
H.W. Bush invaded Panama, another country without troops.
But after he intervened in Somalia to restore order, the United
States was in effect forced out, somewhat ignominiously. Since
there was little the U.S. government could actually do to
reverse the trend of declining hegemony, it chose simply to
ignore this trenda policy that prevailed from the withdrawal
from Vietnam until September 11, 2001."
that's not all that's being ignored. As the US substitutes
its own troops for Afghans in order to guard the life
of its chosen satrap, "President" Karzai, and the country
comes apart in our hands, how long will it be before Brooks
and Wohlforth are forced to revise their opinion that the
Afghan war "only reinforced" America's "unique position" as
the unassailable global hegemon?
Wallerstein's politics seem vaguely leftish, he has far more
of an understanding of the basic issue than Brooks and Wohlforth
in that he seems to understand the primacy of economics:
dominant power concentrates (to its detriment) on the military;
the candidate for successor concentrates on the economy. The
latter has always paid off, handsomely. It did for the United
States. Why should it not pay off for Japan as well, perhaps
in alliance with China?"
the economy, stupid that's a headline we ran last week
on Antiwar.com, right at the top, and that's Wallerstein's
message, too. Unfortunately, a Republican "free market" President
isn't listening, and is instead being directed by a coterie
of neoconservative advisors who, like Brooks and Wohlforth,
take US economic supremacy for granted, and whose strategic
model is essentially alien to America and its republican tradition.
is little doubt that the United States will continue to decline
as a decisive force in world affairs over the next decade.
The real question is not whether U.S. hegemony is waning but
whether the United States can devise a way to descend gracefully,
with minimum damage to the world, and to itself."
don't know if I'd call it a descent. The descent started when
we went off the course set by the Founders, and traveled down
the road to Empire. If we have the courage and the common
sense to retrace our steps, and get back on track, perhaps
we can ascend to a new level and uplift much of the world
by sheer force of example.
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