THE VIEW FROM THE END OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE

by Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept:

IN HIS UNITED Nations General Assembly speech last week, President Donald Trump loudly stated his intention to effectively dismantle the world order that the United States painstakingly built over the past century. Trump lauded nationalism before the assembled delegates at the same global institution that the U.S. helped create: “I will always put America first just like you, the leaders of your countries, should put your countries first,” he thundered. “There can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, independent nations.”

Trump’s speech was a remarkable departure from decades of U.S. policy aimed at creating an integrated post-nationalist world under its own leadership. At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. emerged for the first time in its history as a true superpower: a country able to reach out beyond its borders and reshape the nature of global politics. Most people alive today were born into a world whose institutions, economic systems, legal rules, and political boundaries have all been shaped to some degree by American influence. While the U.S. has never been comfortable with embracing its identity — preferring to refer to itself with such euphemisms as “the indispensable nation” — a sober accounting of America’s influence on world affairs can only arrive at the designation of an “empire.”

Through a network of nearly 800 military bases located in 70 countries around the globe, in addition to an array of trade deals and alliances, the U.S. has cemented its influence for decades across both Europe and Asia. American leaders helped impose a set of rules and norms that promoted free trade, democratic governance — in theory, if not always in practice — and a prohibition on changing borders militarily, using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemony intact. Meanwhile, although the U.S. generally eschewed direct colonialism, its promotion of global free trade helped “open a door through which America’s preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all the underdeveloped areas of the world,” wrote the revisionist historian William Appleman Williams in his more-than-half-century-old classic, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy”.

That strategy of “non-colonial imperial expansion,” as Williams called it, became the basis for U.S. foreign policy over the past century. For American elites, such a policy has provided remarkable benefits, even if the resulting largesse has not always trickled down to the rest of the country. Thanks to its status as the world’s only superpower, the U.S. today enjoys the “exorbitant privilege” of having its dollar serve as the world’s reserve currency, while U.S. leaders dominate the agenda of international institutions promoting governance and trade. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the successful creation of a global military alliance to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that same year, America’s imperial confidence reached a zenith; President George H.W. Bush publicly declared the start of a “new world order” under American leadership.

Looking back on Bush’s speech a few decades later, however, that prediction of a stable U.S.-led order seems to have been wildly optimistic. The world today faces a range of interwoven crises related to migration, inequality, war, and climate change, yet the structures and leadership needed to meaningfully respond to them seem woefully inadequate. Instead of the U.S. embracing the role of global leadership and filling the vacuum created by the fall of the Soviet Union, Americans have seen their country consumed by domestic crises and have responded with a mixture of ineptitude and paranoia towards international ones.

Meanwhile, the global system of free trade deals and military deployments built by U.S. leaders over the past 75 years — the hard infrastructure supporting America’s hegemony — has come to be viewed by many Americans as a costly burden rather than a benefit. Even before Trump rode to victory on a wave of promises to knock over the pillars of the post-World War II international order, the possibility that the U.S. would continue to enjoy clear primacy seemed questionable even with competent governance. With Trump now in power and doing his utmost to tank America’s global standing, what kind of new world order is actually coming into existence?

U.S. President Donald Trump waits after making a speech during the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, on Sept. 19, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump waits after making a speech during the 72nd session of the U.N. General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, on Sept. 19, 2017

ALTHOUGH THERE IS a long history of “declinist” writing about U.S. power, the election of a president hostile to the U.S.-created order marks the start of a genuinely unprecedented era. Imminent preparations now being made for a post-American global future. Two recent books — “All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power,” by Thomas J. Wright, a fellow at the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power,” by Alfred McCoy, a legendary investigative journalist and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison — offer a glimpse into what such a world may look like.

Although both books deal with the subject of America’s imperial decline, their approach differs in both scope and definition. Whereas McCoy explicitly discusses the rise and fall of America as an “empire,” a word that he intends not as an epithet but as an honest descriptor of the U.S. global footprint, Wright speaks about the possible collapse of the American-led “liberal international order” — the system of rules, norms and institutions that have governed global affairs in America’s favor since the end of World War II.

Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.

It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power.”

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