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America: An Empire In Decline?

24-Jul-08 08:48 am EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Although The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is singularly devoted to comedy, its focus on current political events often betrays the show’s focus away from satire to seemingly accurate political commentary and even insightful analysis.  Okay, so maybe satire isn’t all mere byproduct.  But accidental or not, last night’s recurrent segment called "Black on Black", hosted by comedian Lewis Black, exhibited a sound-bite-rich analysis leveling the argument the U.S. sub-prime lending debacle coupled with sales of several leading corporations – most notably including the sale of Anheuser-Busch, owner of Budweizer beer (which would definitely appeal to the show’s viewing demographic) – were clear signs of an ongoing decline of the United States "empire".

Everybody knows that empires fall.  They can be the subject of a dramatic fall, like that of ancient Rome; ended with Visigoths or some other barbarian horde bursting through the capital city’s gates or, through some pivotal battle like Waterloo.  Or they can fall gradually and gracefully, like the British Empire; upon which the Sun never set at its peak, yet gradually contracted over a period of about 50 years, as much by the will of its own people as the subtle yet powerful political pressures of personalities like Ghandi who led successful movements for independence.  So what does history tell us about the future of the United States, and what political force remains to fill the vacuum it would leave behind if indeed, the Sun is setting on the star-spangled banner?

One big problem I have with those who argue (as many do) that the United States is an empire in the colonial sense is that the supposed "colonies" are, in fact, politically independent.  There is no question, the United States exerts significant political influence over many parts where its key energy and economic interests lay – the middle east, in particular.  However, were Iraq a U.S. colony, there would be efforts to setup complete American cities along with classic American institutions to govern the surrounding area, peopled almost exclusively by Americans.  And, if we use Iraq as one example, there are a number of cases where the newly-formed Iraq government has successfully resisted efforts by the "home office" to exert direct control.  Indeed, we could draw parallels between the influence exerted over Iraq’s government and economy and that exerted over the Canadian government and its resources, and we’d find many more similarities than differences.  Yet few would argue that Canada is either a colony of the United States any more than it is a puppet government peopled by Americans, loyal to the President.

The American decline, if it exists at all, has more in common with that of the Soviet Union than ancient Rome or the British Empire.  Although the political institution called the Soviet Union completely disintegrated, it’s principal regime – the Russian government – not only survived but in recent years has staged something of a comeback.  While this has come at the cost of civil liberties and the installation of a KGB demagogue at the center of political power, the Russian empire is very much alive and, arguably, on a much more solid economic footing which makes the cool disposition of its leadership toward the west potentially distracting.

Like Russia, the United States controls a vast land area with a considerable resource base still available should the need arise (as it may well in the near future).  And even should the well of resources in its own territories run completely dry, it need only turn to a historical ally to the north, Canada, with whom it is in an extremely tight economic and military alliance to assist.  Perhaps most importantly, the American people are generally not disposed to fighting foreign wars without cause – particularly those whose conflict becomes measured in large numbers of casualties.  The experience in Iraq is very probably the maximum level of conflict its population would ever allow without impeaching the President, demonstrating the U.S. simply hasn’t got the political will to remain a colonial power.  (And rightly so.)  Thus, any decline of its political influence could not be outrightly measured in terms of a contraction of territories occupied.  But it could be measured in terms of economics – so are there signs on that front?

In short – yes there are.  But they’re not yet fatal in nature.  They could become so if at any point the national deficit ever rises to the point beyond the government’s ability to pay it back down again.  And although that number is fast approaching the neighborhood of $5 trillion annually, the United States is a both large and extremely wealthy country.  But if we look at per capita debt vs. national gross domestic product (GDP), the United States isn’t even the most indebted nation.  Far from it, in fact; and even extremely fiscally responsible nations like Canada are still playing catch-up, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) world factbook:


United States


Public Debt (% of GDP)

60.8 (26th)

68.5 (19th)

GDP (purchasing power parity)

$13.84 quadrillion (USD) (1st)

$1.266 quadrillion (USD) (15th)

Growth of Industial Production (%)

0.5 (164th)

0.3 (166th)

Per capita GDP

$45,800 (USD) (10th)

$38,400 (USD) (22nd)

* Figures cited are estimates yielded for the year ending December 31, 2007.

So the final, terminal decline, if this is one, is still surely in its early stages.  To a certain extent, the recent rises and falls of American fortunes are somewhat tainted by the seemingly meteoric rise of China and India – both countries enjoying the benefits of a large, still growing, prosperous middle class, forming demands for those things Europeans and North Americans have taken for granted for decades already.  To many, there seems no historical precedent for this, and the success of an economic competitor that was rated as a seeming upstart in the past makes a decline seem more palpable.  But there is precedent – and it even accompanies similar energy-driven economic circumstances: the energy crisis if the mid-to-late 1970s.

Many of my friends (generally 5-8 years younger than me) can’t remember, as they were too young.  But I can, sadly.  Yes, in the 1970s we saw a seemingly floundering U.S. administration being chastised by a belligerent regime in Iran, besieged by high energy prices and even fuel rationing (which we haven’t yet seen) added to the sudden emergence of oriental economies.  Back then it was Japan and its cheap, small car industry chomping at the heels of a then still powerful and rich American automotive industry.  Yet by the late 1980s, those fortunes waned as financial crises (of an equally non-fatal nature) hit Asian markets.  The United States not only recovered, but enjoyed two extremely prosperous decades to close out the 20th century – some say, the most prosperous it had ever had.

The U.S. could recover – and the odds are it will.  Historical precedent certainly agrees with that analysis.  Unless Al-Qaeda becomes a whole lot more successful than it has ever been, the U.S. will remain the dominant political presence in the world for a number of years to come, barring some kind of major terrorist-engineered cataclysm or major international conflict, with the U.S. on the losing side.  Such things are rare, and although there’s the potential for such tragedy to unfold at any time, America’s political decline beyond the point of pre-World War I influence, if and when it happens, will likely take many years.

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