Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo

Justin is ill, and his column will return on Monday.

July 24, 2002

Is the American empire on the rise, or declining?

The 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William C. Wohlforth celebrate the rise of the American hegemon, and disdainfully dismiss all objections as hopelessly outdated, while, over in Foreign Policy, the upstart magazine of the Foreign Policy Association, Immanuel Wallerstein argues that "The Eagle Has Crash Landed."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.

To 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:

"If 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 foreign policy….

"… 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."

Brooks 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.

On 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:

"America's 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."

But 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.

Indeed, 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:

"It 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 in 1991."

I 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.

But I suppose the latter two would attribute the recent economic turmoil to a blip on the larger screen of longterm rising US prosperity:

"The 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."

To 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.

One 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.

As 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 "hegemon"!

Brooks 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.

This 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 has: Rome.

The Roman Empire, at its height, contained within its borders virtually the entire civilized world. Yet the moment of its apogee – the reign of Caesar 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, the Neros 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 … themselves.

Compared 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:

"To 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. decline."

Wallerstein 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:

"The 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 itself—a 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."

A 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:

"But 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."

The 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 – catastrophe….

While 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:

"When 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 trend—a policy that prevailed from the withdrawal from Vietnam until September 11, 2001."

And 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?

While 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:

"The 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?"

It's the economy, stupid – that's a headline we ran last week on, 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. Wallerstein concludes:

"There 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."

I 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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