What marks the end of an empire? Have recent events upon the global stage merely reinforced the notion that the era of the preeminence of the U.S. has long since passed? In this 2 part series, I’ll examine the claims for and against the notion of a “post American world,” examining past choices and current developments that have altered the dynamics of power on the international stage.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States’ standing as the world’s unipolar hegemonic power was all but formally assured. U.S. dominance had begun at the end of World War II, when it had transcended the conceptualization of the nation state and assumed a role unlike any other upon the global stage – in the eyes of Washington the United States had become the physical embodiment of liberty and the ideals of its founding fathers. Communism remained the last ideological obstacle to American hegemony, and with its fall, premature predictions suggested that “the triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.” Such perceptions of America’s role upon the international stage were echoed by its leaders – for George H.W. Bush, “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” and was as such dedicated to “making kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world.” With such grandiose claims and the fervent belief that the America represented a new era in the age of empires, it appeared as though the dominance of Washington was once which possessed the capability to endure for generations.
Yet no empire has ever been exempt from the powerful lessons of history, and the downfall and demise of those which fill the pages of history have often followed a similar pattern of falling pray to the allure of ever increasing levels of influence and power. In the case of the United States, it has forfeited investments in its future for the short term spoils of war – tanks have taken precedence over textbooks (the United States currently ranks 33rd in reading, 27th in math and 22 in science according to a 2009 OECD report), infrantry over infrastructure (which received a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent report). With the establishment of a framework for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the full impact of its most recent military pursuits can begin to be properly assessed, an enquiry which yields frightening conclusions. According to the National Priority Project which has compiled expenses for the duration of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through its Cost of War website, the $1.3 trillion spent is equivalent to providing a $5000 bursary to nearly 250 million university students, low income healthcare for 280 million individuals, or the payroll for 20 million teachers for one year. Military expenditures of $676 billion are significant – as noted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “adjusting for inflation, the level of funding proposed for the base defense budget in the FY 2012 request is the highest level since World War II, surpassing the Cold War peak of $531 billion (in FY 2012 dollars) reached in FY 1985.”
More troubling still is the gains (or lack thereof) which have been derived from Washington’s emphasis upon military pursuits abroad. The Arab Spring revealed the misplaced emphasis of American foreign policy within the Middle East – democracy is best fostered from the ground up, not through the barrel of a gun. Furthermore, its recent emphasis upon the region has taken its attention away from other pressing geopolitical concerns, particularly in the Pacific region (which left the Obama administration scrambling to announce the dawn of a “Pacific Century” for the United States). Thus not only has the necessary long term reinvestment been ignored, but the glimmering short term mirages it has pursued have left it stretched thin across an uncertain world. Such realities have been exacerbated by developments within the emerging powers – Russia has begun to reassert itself in the military arena, while China’s sharp increase in military spending this year places it firmly in second place behind the United States.
In a farewell address delivered to the nation on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower discussed at length the concept of the “military industrial complex,” defined as “the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” a relationship which Eisenhower feared would bring about a significantly weakened state if its influence were left unchecked. He noted that despite the emergence of new threats to American security both at home and abroad, there existed a need to “maintain balance in and among national programs — balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage — balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”
In the post-9/11 era this balance has now been lost. A perceived need to engage in military pursuits abroad has stripped from the hands of the American people a percentage of its resources which are so desperately needed at home to lay the foundation for a prosperous future. The belief that there exists a necessity to protect a fragile homeland in the post-9/11 era, coupled with the power of the military industrial complex has thus weakened both the economic and military pillars which have allowed for American hegemony upon the international stage to varying degrees of strength to persist since the end of the Second World War. It has fostered a vicious circle of effects – military engagements abroad drain crucial funds, yet simultaneously provide jobs in periods of economic uncertainty which have been driven in part by military engagements.
A belief in the collapse of the American empire is not to suggest that it lacks the potential to restructure itself and return to a position of superior reach and influence upon the international stage, but rather that in order to do so the nation must first seriously assess its addiction to action abroad. Similarly, placing the blame for the collapse of the American empire upon its military endeavours is not to suggest that other factors have not had a significant impact upon its current global standing, but rather that these expenditures represent the largest unnecessary (and bloated) cost within the national budget. A streamlined American military, coupled with significant reinvestment in research and design, education and infrastructure improvements, would not only address these concerns but reignite the nation for the future. Should these necessary changes be forestalled and forgotten (or ignored in the name of American exceptionalism discussed in an earlier post), however, then the age of the American empire is surely in its final hours.
In part 2 I will examine the case against claims of the demise of the American empire through an examination of its economic strengths. Stay tuned!