The third of the topics I’ve discussed at length in my blogs over the last sixteen years, the decline and fall of America’s global empire, is especially timely just now. I noted in a post last year, while discussing the debacle of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the remaining scraps of America’s global hegemony might not be long for this world. Since that prediction seems to be fulfilling itself around us right now in real time, it may be helpful to take a little while to talk about what empires are, how they fall, and what the fall of the US empire means for the future.
An empire is a wealth pump. Yes, I know, every empire has its public relations flacks who love to insist otherwise, rabbiting on about the wonderful benefits that everyone else gets from being subjected to the rule of the empire du jour. If you believe them, I’ve got a cousin in Nigeria who just inherited a fortune and we’d be delighted to cut you in for a share. Whether it’s Virgil claiming that the gods predestined Rome to bring peace to the nations, Kipling babbling about the white man’s burden, or their forgettable American equivalents lauding the United States as the world’s policeman, they’re shoveling smoke. An empire is a system of unequal exchanges designed to pump wealth out of other countries for the benefit of one.
Not all those benefits end up in the hands of the ruling elite of the imperial nation, though it’s fair to say that a very large share of them do. The current situation makes a good demonstration of this. The United States is the third most populous country on the planet, after India and China, and its inhabitants make up about 5% of our species. Until quite recently, when the US empire began to unravel, that 5% of humanity got to use around a quarter of the world’s energy resources, about a quarter of its raw materials, and around a third of its manufactured products. That doesn’t happen because people in other countries don’t want these things. It happens because US policies, strictly enforced until recently by the world’s largest military, saw to it that things worked out that way. Again, that’s the nature of empire.
Mind you, the United States isn’t unusually rapacious as empires go. The British Empire was much more ruthless about plundering its colonies, for example—check out the economic history of Ireland or India under British rule sometime—and the Spanish Empire in its heyday made the British look abstemious. That said, empires in history have a bimodal distribution: in plain English, that means they fall into two loose categories. There are empires that are in it for the long term and settle for a level of plunder that doesn’t bankrupt their possessions, and there are empires that aren’t so patient and strip their colonies of wealth faster than wealth can be generated. The Chinese, Indian, and Ottoman Empires are good examples of the first category, while the Roman, Spanish, and British Empires belong to the second category. Yes, the US is in the second category too: closer to the middle than some, but still in there.
One of the main limits to American rapaciousness is the simple fact that we backed into empire so clumsily. Over the course of its first century of existence, the US fumbled its way westward from its original base on the Atlantic seaboard, now buying chunks of real estate from European powers, now sending troops to slaughter the native inhabitants or bully its neighbors to north and south. Its first tentative steps toward overseas empire—the takeover of the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893, the conquest of Puerto Rico and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War of 1898-1900, and a long list of incursions in Latin America and the Caribbean—were straightforward piratical raids meant to seize naval bases and force unfair commercial treaties on less powerful nations: the kind of thing that everyone with a navy of any size was doing just then.
It wasn’t until what future historians will doubtless call the Great European War of 1914-1945 that the United States transformed itself from a regional power to a global hegemon, and that, too, was as much a matter of stumbling clumsily into the role as anything else. The great question of 1914 was who would succeed the dilapidated British Empire as global hegemon. Once various minor contenders got knocked out of the running, the contest settled into a three-way slugfest between the United States, Germany, and Russia. The US won mostly because the British ruling class decided that submitting to American military occupation was less awkward than handing things over to either of the alternative powers. So we took on the role of global empire, pushed a policy of containment on the Soviet Union until Communism collapsed from its own internal contradictions, and had a relatively brief window of unrivaled power before the inevitable downsides of empire began to bite.
Those downsides are primarily economic in nature. The first of them is that the flow of wealth from the subject nations to the imperial center has inevitable impacts on the imperial center’s economy. That wealth doesn’t stay in the hands of the ruling classes, after all: au contraire, whole economic sectors spring up to relieve those classes of the burden of excess wealth by providing them with goods and services they can be talked into wanting. That drives inflation, which is after all the normal outcome when an excessive amount of money starts chasing goods and services, and it also distorts the economy by producing a constantly expanding service-and-bureaucracy sector that produces nothing of value but always has its hand out for a share of the take. If you’ve ever wondered why a dollar buys around 1% of what it did before we got into the empire business, or why so many Americans these days make lavish incomes doing nothing that produces anything of value, why, now you know.
There’s another issue, however. If your empire extracts more wealth from its subject nations than those nations can afford to spare, the wealth pump sooner or later begins to run dry as the supply of surplus wealth to extract falters. Meanwhile the costs of empire go up, largely because of all those people just noted who have their hands out all the time. That’s why British newspapers in the early twentieth century were full of splenetic articles about how the Empire no longer paid for itself, and by gad, something had to be done about it! Of course nothing could be done about it, since it’s a safe bet that once you strip a conquered nation to the bare walls, the opportunities for further plunder are going to drop off noticeably, and because the people yelling about how the empire no longer paid for itself were by and large members of the classes whose ever-inflating share of the imperial take was a large part of the reason why the empire no longer paid for itself.
So an empire inevitably ends up suffering from economic woes that have no simple solution. Inflation guts the productive sectors of its economy by making it cheaper to import goods, causing unemployment in the working classes and driving social crises; the service-and-bureaucracy sector balloons uncontrollably, burdening what’s left of the productive economy; the flow of wealth from the periphery to the center fails to keep pace with the costs of empire, while these latter ratchet steadily upwards. Look through the history of empires and you’ll find this pattern repeating itself over and over again; look out the window, if you happen to live in the United States, and you can witness it in front of your eyes, playing out in the usual fashion.
Of course the question that most of my readers will have in mind is what happens next. It’s a valid question, and it’s easy to answer, because the next stage is taking shape right now.
The British Empire, here as elsewhere, is a useful model to keep in mind. Anyone who was paying attention in 1921 knew that the British Empire would shortly be pushing up daisies in the graveyard of dead hegemonies. In that year, after two years of bitter counterinsurgency warfare, the British government bowed to the inevitable and let Ireland claim its independence. Ireland was the first British imperial colony, and one of the most ruthlessly pillaged; the British Army had fought any number of previous counterinsurgency campaigns there, engaging in war crimes on the grand scale to break the back of Irish resistance; but in 1921 the British no longer had the resources left to hang onto Ireland. From that point on, the wholesale implosion of the British Empire was a foregone conclusion.
In a certain sense, Afghanistan was our Ireland. Of course we held onto it for only twenty years, rather than the nearly three centuries during which England ruled Ireland directly, and we also held it in a typically clumsy fashion, by imposing a puppet government propped up solely by American guns and dollars and then insisting at the top of our collective lungs that this was the wave of the Afghani future, a sure sign that everyone in the region would eventually become the kind of people we wanted them to become. We all got to see, in a naked clarity verging on the obscene, just how much that was worth the moment the US let it be known that it couldn’t afford to keep propping up the facade any longer.
We’re getting a second helping of the same embarrassing discovery in Ukraine right now. Those of my readers who follow the US media will have noticed with a certain bemusement the way that our official propaganda outlets—er, excuse me, our “free press”—have pivoted on a dime. Until recently they insisted that the heroic Ukrainian forces were driving back the Russian invaders; now, they’re offering gloomy prognostications of Russian victory and awkward foot-scuffing pieces about how the Ukrainian government somehow prevented our lavishly funded intelligence agencies from finding out things that scores of bloggers have been discussing in detail for the last three months.
Behind that is one of the most fascinating transformations in the recent history of war. Until this year, the shape of land warfare had been effectively defined by the blitzkrieg concept, which was devised by Heinz Guderian in the 1930s and brilliantly executed by his panzer divisions in the conquest of France in 1940. Massed tanks with motorized infantry and ground-attack air cover dominated the battlefields of Europe in the Second World War and around the world thereafter. That concept became the backbone of the Airland Battle doctrine, the core concept of US land warfare, and most other nations adopted variations on the same theme if they had the resources.
The opening rounds of the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year followed the standard blitzkrieg template: invasion forces blasting their way across the frontiers on multiple lines of advance in an attempt to overwhelm the defenders and force a quick capitulation. This time, however, it failed. The Ukrainian forces retreated into built-up areas where massed tanks can’t function well, and relied on shoulder-launched antitank and antiaircraft weapons to target the assets of the attackers, costing the Russians more than they could afford. Those technologies didn’t exist in 1940, and this is the first time they’ve been used to deal with a full-scale assault by a major power. The result is a significant revolution in military affairs.
Ironically, pundits have been proclaiming the imminence of such a revolution for quite a few years now, but they got it almost entirely backwards. What has happened, as a result of new technologies and new strategies, is that the blitzkrieg revolution of 1940 has been reversed. The Russians, to give them credit, figured that out in a matter of weeks, regrouped, and proceeded to relaunch their invasion as though eighty years of military history had been rolled up and tossed into the trash. That’s why the Donbas right now is a fine imitation of the Western Front in the First World War, with the Russians using massive artillery barrages followed by infantry assaults to gain territory a slice at a time and cost the Ukrainian side more than it can keep paying.
Russia’s tolerably well prepared for this kind of warfare. So is China, so is India, and so are most of the other rising powers in today’s world; for that matter, though they’re losing, the Ukrainians have done an impressive job of holding the line so far. The United States is not prepared for this. Our military learned the lessons of blitzkrieg too well; nobody imagined that American forces might someday have to engage in an old-fashioned slugging match of massed infantry and artillery in which tanks and aircraft play only a supporting role. We don’t have the huge corps of trained infantry needed to take on that sort of fighting, we don’t have an officer corps that knows how to fight that way, and, er, we don’t have the resources we would need to make the necessary changes any time soon.
That’s what’s behind the increasingly flustered cackling issuing from Washington DC and the capitals of US client states when the Russo-Ukrainian war comes up for discussion. The armies of the EU are mostly a joke. The US Army is large and tolerably well equipped, but it’s very poorly prepared for the kind of war that’s broken out in Ukraine. Turkey, which has the only other large combat-ready army in NATO, has made it very clear that it’s not interested in bailing out the US and its allies this time. Meanwhile Russia is deploying only a modest number of second- and third-string units in the war; most of its forces, including all its best units, are being held in reserve to deal with an expected NATO intervention. The horrifying realization creeping through the corridors of power in Washington right now is that the US no longer has the power to enforce its will in eastern Europe—or, potentially, much of anywhere else.
That new reality was made painfully visible when the US leadership called on the nations of the world to subject Russia to a trade boycott once the fighting broke out. The only nations that followed our orders were our client states in Europe and on the fringes of the western Pacific. Everyone else shrugged and ignored the increasingly shrill demands coming from Washington. Biden insisted that the ruble would become rubble—I hope the speechwriter who came up with that impressively stupid turn of phrase can find something better to do for a living—but the ruble is doing fine just now, as is the Russian economy more generally. Our economy, and that of our client states, are quite another matter.
I wonder how many people have realized, in fact, just how awkward a revelation the total failure of Biden’s sanctions has turned out to be. The US and its client states have slapped just about every economic sanction on Russia that they can think of; the result has been that the Russian economy is doing fine, but the economies of the United States and Europe are cratering. The unpalatable truth that has been revealed by this turn of events is that the “global economy”—that is to say, the structure that has been erected since the collapse of Communism to manage the flow of real and financial wealth from country to country—benefits the United States and its inner circle of client states, and nobody else. To Russia, and arguably to a great many other nations as well, it’s entirely parasitic: a means of pumping wealth out of their hands and into those of America’s and western Europe’s kleptocratic elites.
That matters, because now other nations have an alternative. That’s why India is eagerly cutting deals, not just with Russia, but also with Iran and influential regional players such as Vietnam; it’s why Russia itself has just signed a new set of agreements with Nicaragua, which include the right to base Russian troops and planes in that small but strategically vital Central American country, and why Iran is making agreements of its own with Nicaragua and Venezuela. It’s why the president of Mexico rolled his eyes at US demands and pursued his own nation’s interests at the expense of ours. The age of American global hegemony is over, and the only people in the world who don’t seem to have noticed it are the self-proclaimed masters of the world in Washington DC.
The consequences will, I think, be far more drastic than most people seem to have realized. The US economy these days is an empty shell propped up by gargantuan flows of unearned wealth funneled in from overseas. We still produce considerable amounts of food and fossil fuels, but the colossal industrial economy that provided the winning edge in two world wars got offshored decades ago and most Americans, responding sensibly enough to the realities of an imperial economy, have pursued careers as bureaucrats, hucksters, and corporate flacks, not as farmers, builders, and factory hands. As the American empire implodes and takes the imperial tribute economy with it, Americans will have to produce most of their own goods and services again. To say that we’re very poorly prepared to do this is to understate things considerably.
Even if we hadn’t cannibalized the productive sectors of our economy in the rush to build an imperial economy of metastatic bureaucracy and freewheeling grift, we are going to have to get by on much, much less wealth than most Americans are used to. Once we can no longer extract wealth from the rest of the planet, after all, we won’t be using a quarter of the world’s energy and raw materials or importing a third of its manufactured goods; the 5% of us who live here in the US will have to get by on 5% of the world’s wealth…if we’re lucky. The resulting 80% pay cut is going to be a rough road for most of us to walk. The one bright spot in this otherwise gloomy picture is that there will be some benefits in exchange.
In becoming an empire, after all, the United States shed many of the things that Americans once took pride in. We gave up a decentralized federal system of government for a near-dictatorship of the executive branch; we gave up our regional cultures for a mass-produced pseudoculture wholly subservient to a corporate elite; we surrendered a galaxy of individual liberties in exchange for various scraps from the tables of power; we forgot about the culture of resilience that made “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” a matter of common sense in most American households, in order to fixate on the frantic quest to claim some of the goodies from the feed trough of empire. We’ve got a lot of work to do to recover some of what we lost, but it’s not as though we have many other options at this point.
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There are five Wednesdays this month, and it’s something of a tradition on this blog for me to ask readers what they want to hear about in a fifth Wednesday post and write something based on the most popular subject. With that in mind, what do you want to hear about?