The Fall of the American Empire

Why do empires fall? Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause. Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars. Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.

Other imperial falls are more complex. What caused Rome’s fall? (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.) Barbarians and their invasions, say some. The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon. Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others. Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall. Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.

America’s empire, it is clear, is now in decline, and a key reason is imperial overstretch as manifested by endless wars and overspending on the military (with literally trillions of dollars being thrown away on fruitless wars). An especially fine summary is Alfred McCoy’s article this week at As McCoy notes:

In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy. And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of US power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions) …

In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for US foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.

In this passage, McCoy stresses the damage being done by the Trump administration. But Trump is just the culmination of certain trends, e.g. favoring the Pentagon over the State Department is nothing new, as I wrote about here in 2010. And America has been in love with shimmering ships and shiny planes for generations, with several administrations supporting the F-35 jet fighter, a program that may end up costing as much as $1.4 trillion. Plenty of money for weapons that kill; not so much for medicines that cure: that’s imperial America in a nutshell.

I would stress that America’s strength overseas was (and is) always based on its strength at home in areas such as science, education, infrastructure, medicine, manufacturing, and exports. But what we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years is an immense and wasteful “investment” in wars and weapons even as our country itself has hollowed out. Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming). Education is all about students as consumers, with an overall decline in standards and performance. Infrastructure is crumbling. Medicine is too expensive and America’s overall health and life expectancy are both in decline. Manufacturing and exports have withered (except for the production and export of weapons, naturally).

As a result of all this, America is running a national debt of roughly 20 trillion dollars. The future is being sacrificed for the present, a tragic reality reflected in the latest Republican tax cut, which benefits the richest Americans the most, along with big corporations, and which will likely add another trillion to the national debt.

In short, America’s foreign decline is mirrored (and driven) by its domestic decline as reflected by its choices. Looking at the USA today, you get the sense it’s the best of times for the richest few, and the worst of times for so many Americans struggling with health care debt, student loan debt, and the uncertainty of low-wage jobs that could be outsourced at any moment. At the same time, the American political scene is driven by fear: of immigrants, of a nuclear war with North Korea, of Russian meddling (real or imagined), of growing Chinese power, and of the perpetually-hyped threat of terrorist attacks on “the Homeland.”

Empires can fall very quickly, as the “thousand-year” Third Reich did, or they can fall ever so slowly, as the Roman Empire did. But fall they do. What is in the cards for the United States? Readers, fire away in the comments section.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

18 thoughts on “The Fall of the American Empire”

  1. “Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming)”

    That is not describing the state of science in the USA right now at all. Some replacement of policy makers put in place by the new administration does not constitute the “scientific world”.

    Apart from the question if climate change can be called a scientific “fact” per se, as it seems more like a rather unique, complex challenge to address. Listen to reasonble and authorative voices like Mike Hulme, who does not deny a thing but stresses that climate change is not “the problem to be solved” but a relative risk, even a resource and contains a few important lessons to learn. Perhaps the republican push back on the issue is not entirely unwelcome to make sure we understand the full lessons and not just the most hysterical aspects and estimated scenarios (not “facts”).

      1. Clearly you did not manage to read my comment underwater or took the trouble to check out Mike Hulme, who got the Noble Price with the IPCC in 2007. Mostly his words.

    1. Global warming is an undeniable fact. However whether it was caused or triggered by human activity are still hypotheses. And whether humans can affect the warming trend is very speculative.

      There is no doubt that the average temperature of the earth has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 130 years. But geological time scales operate in millions or even hundreds of millions of years. Over the longer term, average global temperatures dropped about 10 degrees Farenheit over the past 5.5 million years. See:

      For most of its history, the earth has been much warmer than the present epoch. The fossil record shows us that cold blooded dinosaurs thrived for millions of years in tropical climates in lower Canada and ranged as far north as Alaska at a time when Alaska was forested and there were no polar ice caps. We are living in the thaw following the last ice age of the Pleistocene epoch. The Pleistocene ice age began 2.6 million years ago and ended less than 12,000 years ago. The recession of the glaciers that covered most of North America and Eurasia made human civilization possible. But the earth has continually been warming since our ancestors hunted saber tooth tigers and mastodons and crossed the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska.

      Even assuming that human industrialization accelerated the warming trend that is currently called global warming, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that current warming trend is part of the pre-Pleistocene thaw that is beyond human capacity to stop or control.
      In the long run, we may need to reorganize human society to survive and thrive in a warmer environment.

      1. Undeniable fact? That’s not how science works with all the complex models, theories, scenarios and probabilities involved. But don’t worry I get your drift. Surely the most vulnerable are in most danger of any rapidly changing climate. But to elevate their situation their might be no alternative than to allow far more CO2 production than we are currently willing to allow. Again, I was introducing Mike Hulme for a reason. There are way more reasons than Trump’s infantile thinking to be a bit conservative towards treaties like the Paris Accord.

    2. Rose coloured glasses much… Legitimate sciencists, ones not bought out by oil, coal & exploiters seem to believe we are well down the road to an unlivible planet, and unless trillions are spent to limit co2, there will be no happy endings & we will burn in our own created hell… Where IS the tipping point…????? How many parts per million…???

      1. Legitimate “sciencists” do A. not speak of “undeniable facts” when it comes to any climate study and B. certainly will not support the idea that science (in the US) is now “marked by the denial of fact”. That’s a broad illogical brush. If anything it illustrates the lowered level of reasoning, in the blogosphere that is, all lamenting the state of “science” which is doing fine! The White House is not a science department and scientists are not the ones determining policies, budgets or carry responsibilities for the future of millions.

    3. Forget global warming, how about evolution? Settled as science can be for over 100 years, heck even Kansas accepted it in the 20’s, now Texas biology books equivocate.

      Is US really going to lead biotech?

  2. Crude oil futures priced in Yuan and convertible into gold. The only question remains is when the Chinese will unpin the Yuan from the Dollar.

    There’s your Goetterdaemerung right there.
    It will be more of a whimper than a bang, tho.

    It takes beans, bullets, and band-aids to run an army of any kind. When you simply can’t foot the bill anymore…well that kind of puts a stop to it.

  3. I see a great opportunity for those daring enough to embrace a stateless society. What we’re looking at here is a world between empires, with America in free fall (finally) and China too weak to take it’s place. The old warden is dying and the next warden is miles away. The prison is ours. Lets get free.

    I’m talking communes and collectives and pirate utopias and mutual aid societies and autonomous zones. I’m talk’n bout Panarchy people. A world of a million flags where every society is voluntary. People have the power. Lets get busy. Lets get our utopia on.

  4. The Vikings called northern Canada for “Wineland”.. can’t grow Wine there now, can you?? And GreenLand is not green nowadays.. just pointing out these fact and you will be treated as a “Holocaust” denier. The fact is that we are “just right” now as far as the temperature goes.

    The military defeats USA have suffered the lasts 200 year have always been based on getting USA to overstretch and overspend. Not actually trading bullets and insults.

    1. Wine isn’t grown. Grapes are. Grapes are grown, and wines made, in both Newfoundland and New Brunswick, aka “Vinland.”

      Erik The Red named the world’s largest island Groenland not because it was especially green, but because he wanted to attract settlers. Sort of like how the Florida legislature came up with the name “the sunshine state” for a state where it rains more days per year than it does in Seattle.

      1. Erik The Red did that because farming was possible and the name needed to indicate that, yes, the Norse (Vikings) focused less on livestock. The settlements was abandoned about 300+ years later as the “little ice age” was making it inhabitable.

        Good weather drew the Vikings to Greenland, and cold weather either killed or drove their descendants out again.

        Sorry for using the “Wine” reference, but is still Vine cultivation or Vineyards right??

        Tropic areas (Florida??) mostly have more rain than Arctic areas, that does not make them less inhabitable or suitable for developing a beach culture.

  5. The writer of this article has it completely backwards. It is Trump who is trying to pull back the US from the edge of the abyss created by Globalists like the Clinton’s, the Bush’s and Obama. it would be easy to refute this article point by point, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to ruin the writers fantasy…

      1. Did you see the Globalists kissing Trump’s a** in Davos today…? Except for the Nazi collaborator George Soros of course…

  6. Why does any questioning of globalism bring accusations of isolation or fortress-building? Who the f*** calls a nation with 800+ military bases “isolationist”? And any foreigner can come to the US and buy anything they want- corporations, real estate, etc. Isn’t that neoliberal globalism at its worst?

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