End of Empire
There’s a well-worn trope amongst doomsday prognosticators wherein the United States is compared to ancient Rome in the waning days of the Roman Empire.
As the story goes, the debauched Roman citizens were so busy bouncing between orgies and vomitoria that there was no time to focus on the job of running the government or defending their territories.
The tale of moral decline leading to the end of empire is used as a corollary to remind Americans to cling to their righteousness and stay vigilant against the Barbarians massing at the gates.
While this is an oversimplified analog at best, it is not to say there are no lessons or warnings in the fall of Rome or of any other empire.
The reality of the decline of ancient Rome is far more evolutionary, predictable, and boring.
In the waning decades before its fall, Rome faced a protracted financial crisis, high taxation, and a huge gap between the rich and poor. Civil wars and divisions within the conquered territories contributed to widespread instability and corruption in the government, and Rome’s once great army deteriorated to the point where they were no match for the growing number of outside invaders.
The ascendancy and decline of ancient Rome is a pretty standard blueprint for the rise and fall of every empire before or since. The road up is filled with aspiration, conflict, conquest, and ultimately peace and achievement; while the path down is littered with despair, entitlement, and military, political, economic, and social strife – as the old empire gives way to the new (either through conflict or evanescence).
As citizens of the greatest empire of the 20th Century, there is reason for Americans to note and reflect on the empires that came before.
The American Century
The ascension of the American Empire is as impressive as any. In less than two centuries, the United States grew from a fractured and displaced colony to the most powerful nation in the world.
By the end of World War II, the United States stood atop the world hierarchy with greater prosperity, technology and military might than any other nation. From its position of power, the United States established itself as a benevolent empire – a champion and defender of peace and freedom.
“We tell ourselves that we have emerged from this war as the most powerful nation in the world – the most powerful nation, perhaps, in all history. That is true, but not in the sense some of us believe it to be true. The new thing – the thing which we had not known – the thing we have learned now and should never forget, is that a society of self-governing men is more powerful, more enduring, more creative than any other kind of society, however disciplined, however centralized.”
~Harry S. Truman
In the second half of the 20th Century, the United States stood as a shining beacon of democracy and hope against the communist threat of the Soviet Empire. And after a nearly 50-year Cold War, the United States again emerged victorious. This time not through direct military victory, but on the might of its socio-economic system.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new wave of democracy was sweeping the world as market-based economy, individual freedom, and rule of law took hold. And on the heels of the Oslo Accords even in the conflict-ridden Middle East, peace appeared possible.
Over the course of the Cold War, the United States had put a man on the moon, made great strides toward racial and gender equality, and shown the strength inherent in its governmental system – even when the men in power had been less than perfect.
When the war was over, the American Empire – with no serious geo-political rivals remaining – seemed poised to continue and expand its world dominance perhaps, as Harry Truman predicted 45 years earlier, for another thousand years.
But after decades of arms build-up, proxy wars, and political sabre rattling all aimed at defeating a singular enemy, the nation tired of war and the foreign entanglements it required. In this fatigue, Americans turned to optimism and faith over strategy and diplomacy. The nation’s ideals and economics had proven victorious. It was time to let the market itself sort out the peace.
America began to draw down its military and unwind many of the political alliances of the Cold War, which set the stage for a decade of new conflict. Puppet regimes stood up and/or supported by the US government began to collapse or act in defiance of American interests. From Panama and Haiti to the Gulf War to Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan, the impacts of American untangling created a new era of global discord throughout the 1990s, setting in motion the events that would establish a fresh wave of dissidence in the new millennium.
But even as America (temporarily) vanquished its new rivals abroad, there was a silent and incipient new threat growing within its borders.
The underpinnings of the lauded American economy had hit a snag. While the nation’s economy and GDP continued to grow, the gap between the rich and poor began to drift further and further apart – a trend which has continued well into the 21st Century.
Even with a steadily growing Gross Domestic Product, the cost to maintain the American Empire outpaced its growth. The United States began to rely increasingly on debt to fund its operations.
This trend was notably reversed in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican-led Congress managed to steadily reduce deficit spending and actually reach a budget surplus by the end of the decade.
But at the turn of the millennium, America was in the midst of a recession after years of economic growth. Still, the government was running under an operating surplus when President George W. Bush assumed office in 2001.
The nation’s $7 Trillion debt was concerning, but with its new budget windfalls, the United States was poised to reduce its debt position.
Then on the morning of September 11, 2001, the world changed.
The New Millennium
At the time of the terrorist attacks, America enjoyed the appreciation and esteem of much of the world. In the aftermath of the attack there was a global outpouring of sympathy for America. In France, Le Monde newspaper ran a bold headline declaring, “We Are All Americans.” In Beijing, tens of thousands of people left flowers, cards and notes of condolence at the U.S. Embassy. Throughout Europe, hundreds of thousands of citizens from London to Berlin held moments of silence and tribute. Across the Middle East, citizens donated blood and held their own public memorials.
In an address to a joint session of Congress and the American people, newly-elected President George W. Bush captured the American mood, “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
The resolve of the American people was strong. The terrorist attacks had been the first on American soil since Pearl Harbor and the world understood and sympathized with their cause.
The terrorist threat against the United States had been growing for a decade. From attacks on US military personnel and allies abroad to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the terrorist threat was real, but few believed terrorists would be able to successfully wound the nation at home.
The U.S. military response throughout the 1990s had been limited to mostly-ineffectual cruise missile strikes (See Operation Infinite Reach.), followed by a shrug and a nod by American citizens. The attacks of 9/11, however, had taken the lives of nearly three thousand Americans. Justice by American standards would not be served by merely launching a couple of cruise missiles or engaging in a protracted global police effort to find those responsible.
Unlike the hegemony of the global efforts against Iraq in the first Gulf War, America acted nearly unilaterally in the wars of the new millennium.
The United States went to war – not with a nation, but with a radical ideology. While an ideology itself was impossible to target, America found enemies in (some of) the nations they believed to be harboring those responsible.
America entered a new war with Iraq and then Afghanistan, bringing “shock and awe” to each nation in an overwhelming show of military might. These protracted wars, however, came at an exorbitant price, with a combined cost of some $6 Trillion.
Unlike the hegemony of the global efforts against Iraq in the first Gulf War, America acted nearly unilaterally in the wars of the new millennium. Its actions had consequences not only in the nations impacted by the wars, but on America’s reputation in the rest of the world. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, America’s global image transformed from that of a benevolent protector to a morally-bankrupt persecutor.
Meanwhile, domestic problems continued through the 2008 financial meltdown, which shone a spotlight on the problems inherent in the U.S. economy: consumption dangerously outpaced savings, trade deficits rose while the economy slowed, and the government was running on rapidly-increasing debt. Meanwhile, the American industrial sector (once the greatest in the world) continued to fade.
In an effort to guide the economy to a “soft landing,” the government took aggressive action to keep the economy afloat and steer the United States out of recession through an expensive combination of corporate bailouts and debt spending.
Hope & Change
In 2009, a new President took office in the midst of a failing war on terror and a troubled economy.
Barack Obama had campaigned against the status quo on the promise of “hope and change.” His election was seen as a mandate against the war on terror and voters’ desire to move the country in a new direction. Americans were eager to once again disentangle from the international quagmire that the war on terror had become and focus on domestic issues. Over the course of the war, Americans lost the taste for the cost and complexity of serving as the world’s policemen. A groundswell of isolationist ideology began to take hold.
With its primary focus on propping up the struggling US economy, the Obama administration strove to disengage from the global conflicts, and in many instances allowed the United States to take a secondary role in global politics. The United States took a softer stance on Syria, turned a blind eye to the Russian annexation of Crimea, conceded in nuclear negotiations with Iran, ignored the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and allowed Russia to extend and increase its influence in the Middle East.
Just as the nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 was understandable from an emotional (though not strategic) standpoint, the populist wave calling for retrenchment and isolationism also makes sense. From a strategic perspective, however, American isolationism would only accelerate its problems. In response to the withdrawal, and as America’s military and economic clout, prestige and power all decline, a global power vacuum has been created – leaving opportunity for a new empire to step in and fill the void.
America’s economy, which once represented nearly half of the entire world’s Gross Domestic Product, is now less than 20 percent of the global GDP, and is on pace to be overtaken by China in the next decade. Deindustrialization of the American economy has left a massive void in the employment sector. America, who once led the world in manufacturing, has long since ceded that position to China.
As the U.S. debt continues to grow, the dollar (once the global currency standard) atrophies. If something is not done to address the nation’s debt problem, the debt vs. GDP balance will reach a tipping point, which could lead to complete destabilization of the already-fragile American economy.
Americans, of course, sense the change and are understandably angry. But the complexities of the global reality are out of the power and comprehension of its citizenry.
The populace gave a measured, soft-spoken, progressive idealist two terms to address the issues they had with the previous administration. And despite the introduction of the country’s first attempt at universal health care, clear economic growth, and drawdown of deployed troops, most voters saw little change in their own quality of life.
Obama, for his part, managed to drive away a number of progressives during his tenure in office. Despite his campaign promises, he never managed to get around to closing Guantanamo Bay. He also drew fire from the peaceniks in the party for his commitment to use of aerial drones for targeted assassinations without sufficient clarity about their legal framework (see Somalia and Yemen in particular, with whom the United States was not in direct, armed conflict). And despite the massive leaks from Edward Snowden, Obama did little to change NSA policies.
Deaf to the voices of dissent, in the 2016 Presidential election the Democratic Party fielded a candidate who many saw as nothing more than a continuation of the same policies and agenda of the previous eight years. Without popular support from their base, the party fractured. Many turned their support to a far-left candidate whose views were outside the mainstream American ideology and others chose to sit out the Presidential election altogether, citing equal dislike and distrust of both candidates.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Republicans watched a bombastic reality television star systematically decimate the best candidates the party had to offer and ultimately hang on to win the Presidency.
While progressives and intellectuals scoffed at Donald Trump, focusing on the political outsider’s acerbic, vulgar style and obvious ineptitude, they completely missed how well his populist message resonated with frustrated voters.
Trump campaigned on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” He would do this, he said, by sealing the nation’s borders, withdrawing from international treaties he saw as unfavorable to the United States, cutting taxes, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (with something “much better”), and bringing back U.S. manufacturing.
This message was a siren song to disenfranchised citizens who saw the once-great United States in serious decline. It resonated with a large segment of society that had lost faith and trust in the institutions of government.
Trump promised to give the power back to the people. This was, after all, what Truman had said made America exceptional in the first place. In his inauguration speech, Trump addressed this belief directly, echoing the sentiment of many in the electorate. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed,” he said.
This populist message tapped into a sense among his base that the existing political system was broken. He was a new kind of politician — one who would restore America’s greatness by giving power to the “forgotten men and women of our country,” whom he promised would be the focus of his government.
He spoke out about the end of empire. “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”
He promised to put America first, saying, “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.”
His agenda included tax cuts, health care reform, focus on infrastructure improvement, and building a modern day Great Wall on America’s southern border.
“The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me.”
~ Dean Wormer
Despite his failure to deliver on any of his campaign promises in his first year in office, the American economy rose steadily. Meanwhile, in the midst of constant turmoil in his administration, Trump did manage to take a wrecking ball to America’s international reputation by openly warring with allies around the globe, pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ongoing internet sparring against the North Korean dictator, weakened partnerships with Asian allies, openly disparaging NATO and casting doubt on America’s commitment to the agreement, and essentially dismantling the U.S. State Department.
Barbarians at the Gate
At a time when nascent empires like China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia have all been emboldened to test and probe the current world order by thumbing their noses at the United States.
China, especially, is eager to re-establish itself as the preeminent world power — restoring its former glory. The Chinese are perfectly positioned to take the lead in world politics with their rapidly-growing economy and industrial clout. Trump himself knows this. They were a steady reference in his campaign rhetoric. However, since taking his office he’s offered no new approach to the Eastern threat to American supremacy.
In June of 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense released a 145-page study in which it outlined the pending collapse of American primacy. The study, “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World,” clearly notes U.S. power is in decline and the current international order is unraveling. “While the United States remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors,” the report says, noting in particular the ascension of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.
Clinging to the Past
It is important to note that Trump’s only legislative accomplishment of his first year in office is a tax cut — not for his base who drove him into office, but for corporations. But his defenders don’t care. Nothing he has done in his first year in office has benefited them in any way, but they remain loyal. His core stands with their leader because he is, in their eyes, battling the same system they’ve railed against for years.
As the realities of the past century have faded to a new world order, the American ethos has not kept pace. The Cold War is over. Coal is not coming back. Globalization will not stop. Climate change is real. And the American government is broken.
The new millennium has brought with it a steady transfer of global wealth and power away from the West to the East. Global innovation has outpaced American innovation, and a less-educated younger generation of American scientists are no longer at the forefront of technological innovation. Jobs continue to move overseas, and rather than moving at full speed to innovate with the rest of the world, the current American diplomatic agenda is to cut the nation off from the rest of the world and focus on dead or dying industries.
While American military spending still outpaces the military budgets of the next ten nations, this pace cannot continue under the current economic structure. How long will it be before rising empires will be able to outspend the U.S. military?
The glory days of the industrial revolution are gone forever. Just as horse-drawn carriages gave way to motorized vehicles, union-wage assembly line workers will never come back. Coal power will never come back. And the reality of the global economy is that everyone in the world prospers from equal and open trade — a trade that cannot exist in the absence of diplomacy, engagement and negotiation. America no longer has the financial or industrial clout to set that standard.
No politician or political movement can change that.
While the disenfranchised Trump supporters may only want to watch the status quo burn, they would do well to consider what might replace it.
Fear, Distrust & Ignorance
Their confidence in institutions is justifiably nill. From the near-collapse of the American banking industry in 2007 to the inability of their elected officials to course correct amidst the protracted decline of American supremacy, institutions have given them little indication they are deserving of the people’s trust.
A 2015 Pew Research study found that less than one in five Americans trusted the federal government “all” or “most of” the time. Republicans, in particular, trust institutions less than they did in the past, with a recent study showing that 58 percent of the Republican respondents believe that American universities “negatively impact the state of the union.” They don’t believe climate scientists who say humans are causing global climate change, and they have less faith in medical scientists than they did in the past (notably eschewing vaccinations, in particular).
This lack of trust in institutions extends to expertise of any kind.
A large part of Trump’s base is composed of uneducated, anti-intellectual populists who are proudly ignorant of science, history, or economic theory.
“To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.”
~ Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise”
Expert findings based on study and logic are dismissed as nothing more than one pinhead’s opinion with no more credence or weight than the opinion of any other, no matter what the contrasting opinion is (or is not) based on.
And in that reality, debate is not won by science and reason, but by bombast and volume.
Because an angry, disenfranchised populace will believe all manner of negativity comes from those in power.
They don’t trust the government, they don’t trust the media, they don’t trust science, or seemingly common sense. They are the flip side to Truman’s proud prognostication that a “society of self-governing men is more powerful, more enduring, more creative than any other kind of society, however disciplined, however centralized.”
Because in a democracy, the leaders don’t shape the nation. The nation shapes its leaders. And the American Empire is not failing because of Trump. He is only a symptom of the underlying necrotic disorder at its heart.
And the American Empire is not in decline because its people are fat, drunk and stupid. They are fat, drunk and stupid because their empire is in collapse.