This Week: Media Orientation Part 3: Decline of the U.S. Empire
“Quote” of the Week: All hail Charlevoix!
Chapter 2 in The Book: Decline of the U.S. Empire
Is There a U.S. Empire?
Seeing Declining Empire, The Pentagon Issues “A Wakeup Call”
So the Empire is Declining. Who Cares?
Scarcity and The Empire
I’m in the middle of a lengthy series I’m calling “Media Orientation,” which is all about how to deal with what I am calling “Trump Disorientation.” You know, those feelings of hopelessness, despair, “What’s next!?”, and the sense that we’re living an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Put briefly, my response to this disorientation has to do with setting our own agenda for our “daily news”—that is, the things to which we pay attention every day—rather than getting caught up in the absolute madness that is the media obsession with the Trump Celebrity Show. As it turns out, the series is taking a lot more research time than I expected, so I plan to change the approach a bit.
I was hoping to do seven consecutive issues on the seven major themes that I’ve identified as examples of the Big Stories, or Big Themes, that define life in the early 21st Century. Themes that are so big that each might merit a chapter in a future history of this era.
They’re big themes, all right. So big that they’re taking longer to put together than I like. So I’m thinking I’ll make it an occasional series—interspersing “regular” issues of the Notes into the mix in coming months—so I can comment on more things as they come up in the news. But Wait! you say. Isn’t this a contradiction? I’m interrupting a series on setting our own agenda for the daily news so I can comment on the daily news?! Well, so be it.
Chapter One in my “People’s History of the Early 21st Century” was about Inequality and this week’s Chapter 2 is about Empire but, as always, at root they’re about the same thing: Who gets the stuff? Capitalism says, “The rich get richer.” But another world is possible. It starts with understanding the world as it is.
As always, if you want to download a printable PDF version of this issue of Nygaard Notes, just click HERE.
“Quote” of the Week: All hail Charlevoix!
Last month the leaders of seven of the world’s most powerful countries held their annual meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada. The “Group of Seven,” or G-7, is comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. The group started in the 1970s as a way for the already-declining USA to “partner” with other powers as they worked out how to maintain the post-WWII Imperial Order (with them at the top). Trump stormed out of the 2018 meeting and repudiated the text of a routine communiqué on trade offered by the other nations. This was widely reported as a serious undermining of the unity of the G-7.
In a June 15th commentary entitled “The G-7: A Demise to Celebrate”, Global Systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein wrote this week’s Nygaard Notes “Quote” of the Week:
All hail Charlevoix! Trump may have done us all the favor of destroying this last major remnant of the era of Western domination of the world-system. Of course, the demise of the G-7 will not mean that the struggle for a better world is over. Not at all. Those who back a system of exploitation and hierarchy will simply look for other ways of doing it.
This brings me back to what is now my central theme. We are in a structural crisis of the modern world-system. A battle is going on as to which version of a successor system we shall see. Everything is very volatile at the moment. Each side is up one day, down the next. We’re in a sense lucky that Donald Trump is so foolish as to hurt his own side with a massive blow. But let us not cheer therefore Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron, whose more intelligent version of oppression is fighting Trump.
Read the commentary for yourself HERE.
Chapter 2 in The Book: Decline of the U.S. Empire
At the start of this series on breaking out of the orbit of Donald Trump I quoted Nikhil Pal Singh who reminds us that “we did not suddenly awake in a different country the day after Trump ascended.” And yet our collective disorientation proceeds, fueled by the media’s obsession with The World’s Biggest Celebrity. (Yes, even bigger than the Kardashians.)
In the first part of this series I suggested that we all need to think of ways to set our OWN agendas for learning about the world, and I further suggested that we project ourselves into the future and look back on today as if we were writing a history of the era. I suggested some chapters that I, personally, would include in my “People’s History of the Early 21st Century.” I encourage you to make your own list, but I’m spending some time (a few issues) here in the Notes to illustrate how we might go about collecting information that we think is important. In other words, how can we “re-orient” ourselves away from the Media/Trump Agenda and toward an agenda that will help us understand what kind of world we live in and, following from that, what kind of world we want to build. Effective action starts with thoughtful analysis.
Here, again, are my seven “Chapters,” which I think of as “crisis areas” that together make up The Big Crisis that I believe is unfolding even now:
1. Inequality and Resource Allocation
2. The Decline of the U.S. Empire
3. The State of U.S. Democracy
4. The Browning of America
5. Climate Change/Humans and the Environment
6. The Evolving State of Capitalism
7. Social Health
In the last issue I talked about the first chapter: Inequality and Resource Allocation. (It pains me to think of how tiny a window I was able to explore, but this is a small newsletter, not a PhD thesis!)
In this issue of the Notes we’ll have a look at The Decline of the U.S. Empire.
Is There a U.S. Empire?
When assessing “The Decline of the U.S. Empire,” the collective denial in this country is so great that we are compelled to begin with a question: Is there such a thing as a “U.S. Empire”?
There’s a sort-of standard definition of Empire that has to do with one country more or less exercising direct political control over several, or many, other countries. That’s an outdated definition, as that’s not how it is these days. These days, Empire is simultaneously less formal and more global than the traditional definition would have it. Less formal in the sense that the structure of Empire is nowadays characterized not by literal rule by a viceroy or similar governor, but instead by ideology and latent power. It’s more global in the sense that there are established global trade and financial patterns—in which more-or-less the whole world participates—that work to direct the world’s wealth and resources in certain directions, serving the interests of certain people at the expense of others. In other words, 21st-Century Empire relies less on force and more on what might be called market forces. It’s not “a country” that directly rules other countries, it’s an Imperial Order that enforces the rules, which are designed in line with the interests of the Imperial Power or, increasingly, Powers. I call it Empire.
So, is there such a thing as a “U.S. Empire”? Short answer: Yes, although it’s considered impolite to use the term. In fact, back in Nygaard Notes #445 I quoted the neo-conservative scholar Thomas Donnelly who, writing in Foreign Affairs points out that “it is still inflammatory to speak openly of empire—hence the prevalence of euphemisms such as hegemony, preeminence, primacy, sole superpower” and so forth.
So you’ll see these euphemisms in this issue of the Notes, but only in direct quotes. The word I use is Empire, and I would say that the U.S. has been an empire since the beginning. Actually since before the beginning, as the European project always involved governing as much of the continent as possible. This, in turn, involved killing and displacing the hundreds of indigenous nations that were here when the Euros arrived. This actually is beyond Empire, as the U.S. project never envisioned “ruling” the various nations on the continent; it was genocidal nearly from the beginning. That’s another subject.
Much later there was the period that mainstream historians sometimes refer to as “The Age of American Imperialism,” which started in 1898 when “the United States began to play a more prominent role in the world beyond the North American continent.” That delicate wording comes from the Wikipedia entry, but the reality of this “more prominent role”—which included the “acquisition” of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii—was sufficiently horrifying as to give rise to the Anti-Imperialist League, U.S. citizens who were appalled by the entire imperial project. There is always resistance to Empire, and not only from the targets!
A third imperial phase came about in the 1940s. The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain said in an article from last September, “At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. emerged for the first time in its history as a true superpower.” That is, a true Imperial Power. And so it remained for 25 years or so, depending on who you talk to.
One of the people I “talk to” is the Global Systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein who said in a 2013 commentary:
“I have long argued that U.S. decline as a hegemonic power began circa 1970 and that a slow decline became a precipitate one during the presidency of George W. Bush. I first started writing about this in 1980 or so. At that time the reaction to this argument, from all political camps, was to reject it as absurd. In the 1990s, quite to the contrary, it was widely believed, again on all sides of the political spectrum, that the United States had reached the height of unipolar dominance.
“However, after the burst bubble of 2008, opinion of politicians, pundits, and the general public began to change. Today, a large percentage of people (albeit not everyone) accepts the reality of at least some relative decline of U.S. power, prestige, and influence. In the United States this is accepted quite reluctantly. Politicians and pundits rival each other in recommending how this decline can still be reversed. I believe it is irreversible.”
The Pew Research Center periodically surveys United Statesians on the subject of “America’s Place in the World.” The most recent survey, conducted in early 2016, found that many respondents “view the United States as a less powerful and important world leader than it was a decade ago.” Adds Pew, “The share saying the U.S. has become less powerful has declined since 2013, from 53% to 46%, but is among the highest numbers expressing this view in the past four decades. These attitudes also are divided along partisan lines: Republicans (67%) remain more likely than independents (48%) or Democrats (26%) to say that the U.S. has become less powerful and important.” A longing for this lost American power no doubt contributes to the resonance of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” although the shift in global power relations will proceed with or without Trump. As we used to say in my home town of Waseca, that horse has left the barn.
Wallerstein is correct that there is now a widely-shared agreement on the fact of a U.S. Empire, as evidenced by the willingness to discuss its decline. It’s now easy to find headlines like these:
“Are We Witnessing the Fall of the American Empire?” (The New Republic, March 7 2018)
“The View from the End of the American Empire” (The Intercept, September 24 2017)
Even The American Conservative ran a piece last week headlined “American Empire Demands a Caesar,” referring to you-know-who.
Of course, out of the mainstream one have long been able to find great headlines like this one from the journal Postcolonial Studies of last September: “Tropes of Fear and the Crisis of the West: Trumpism as a Discourse of Post-territorial Coloniality.”
That last one is really fun to say.
The best headline of all may be this one, which appeared atop a major study from the U.S. Army War College that was published in June 2017: “AT OUR OWN PERIL: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World.” And it’s not just a good headline; the study is fascinating, which is why I will summarize it in the following essay.
Seeing Declining Empire, The Pentagon Issues “A Wakeup Call”
One year ago the U.S. Army War College published a study entitled, “At Our Own Peril: DoD Risk Assessment in a Post-Primacy World.” (DoD is the Department of Defense.) True to form, At Our Own Peril never uses the word “empire,” preferring the term “Primacy.” But the “Post-Primacy World” to which they refer is the world of today, and the “Primacy” that is now behind us was the Primacy of U.S. power that most of the world would call—and did call—the U.S. Empire.
The title kind of says it all: There was a period when the U.S. called the shots–the period of “primacy”—but those days are gone. What follows is a collection of a few of my favorite quotations from the 141-page study. I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually read it (as you’ll see, the language is dense and less than poetic), but the variety of ways they express the reality of Empire Lost is worth a look.
The study speaks of “two adverse realities confronting the United States and its defense establishment. The first is the increasing vulnerability, erosion, and, in some cases, the loss of an assumed U.S. military advantage vis-à-vis many of its most consequential defense-relevant challenges. The second concerns the volatile and uncertain restructuring of international security affairs in ways that appear to be increasingly hostile to unchallenged U.S. leadership.”
“Indeed, this study argues that the volatile restructuring of international security affairs currently underway marks the American entrance into a third transformational era since the end of the Cold War…
They call this third era the “Post-Primacy” era and say that “The first of the preceding two eras is commonly referred to as the ‘post-Cold War’ period, a time where the United States and its military benefitted from unprecedented reach and advantage vis-à-vis the nearest or most threatening of its state rivals. The second era can most reasonably be described as the ‘post-9/11’ period. It saw the United States and its defense establishment suffer a disruptive ‘“strategic shock’.”
“Now, it is becoming increasingly clear that the United States is either at the doorstep or in the midst of a third—even more uncertain—wave of foundational strategic change. This study labels this period ‘post-primacy.’”
“The Status Quo May, in Fact, Be Collapsing.”
“While the United States remains a global political, economic, and military giant, it no longer enjoys an unassailable position versus state competitors. Further, it remains buffeted by a range of metastasizing violent or disruptive nonstate challengers, and it is under stress—as are all states—from the dispersion and diffusion of effective resistance and the varied forces of disintegrating or fracturing political authority. In brief, the status quo that was hatched and nurtured by U.S. strategists after World War II and has for decades been the principal ‘beat’ for DoD is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing.”
“While the United States may still be the most important international actor in the state system, it can no longer count on the unassailable position of dominance, supremacy, or pre-eminence [still more euphemisms for Empire!] it enjoyed for the 20-plus years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Recognition of post-primacy is not a defeatist perspective. It is a wakeup call.”
“The United States and its international partners rely on unimpeded access to air, sea, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum in order to underwrite their security and prosperity.” [Any threat to this unimpeded access to everything is known in military circles as “anti-access/area denial”, which I wrote about in Nygaard Notes #546 “Threatening The Threat”]
“Purposeful, malevolent, or incidental interruption of access to the commons, as well as critical regions, resources, and markets are accelerating features of the post-primacy environment.”
“The American commitment to its foreign partners is thus a fundamental investment in U.S. security. An important feature of the post-primacy environment is the increasing adherence to self-interest first among Western politicians and other U.S. allies. This leaves the United States facing the prospect of being at-risk and friendless in an increasingly hostile environment where barriers to entry into effective counter-U.S. resistance are increasingly lower.”
“While the United States still clings to significant political, economic, and military leverage, that leverage is increasingly exhibiting less reach, durability, and endurance. In short, the rules-based global order that the United States built and sustained for 7 decades is under enormous stress.”
“A broad front of hostile challenges and forces are in position to sweep the status quo aside and in the process, create conditions that are profoundly unfavorable to U.S. interests.”
“Defense strategists and senior decision-makers should be under no illusion about the current tenuous degree to which the United States exercises meaningful control over key strategic outcomes in the international security environment. The United States and its defense enterprise are navigating uncharted waters of late. The potency, endurance, and resilience of once unassailable post-Cold War American reach, influence, and effectiveness are increasingly in doubt.”
“Many states and peoples are operating under a renewed commitment to self-interest over any notions of collective common good. This more Hobbesian worldview makes alliance building and maintenance challenging.”
“For example, the United States is in direct competition with revisionist great powers like China and Russia who have discovered complicated military and non-military work-arounds to limit U.S. freedom of action, drive up U.S. risk perceptions, and erode American reach.”
You may have noticed that there is quite a bit of repetition in this document. But remember that they said it is a “wakeup call.” And if someone is deeply asleep, sometimes voices must be raised if the sleeping person (read: Commander in Chief) is to be roused. Think of this document’s repetition as the bureaucratic equivalent of shouting.
So the Empire is Declining. Who Cares?
Most people alive today have known no other global order than one with the U.S. at the controls. People of different ages grew up at different points: some when the talk was of “The American Century”; some during the insane Cold War when the U.S. called itself the Leader of the Free World; some when the Soviet Union crumbled and the U.S. was a “Hyperpower,” or “The World’s Only Superpower.” However we talk about it, the U.S. has been so dominant for so long that I suspect few people have given it much thought. And I suspect that even fewer have considered how our lives might change if the global system were to shift away from a system dominated by the United States to… some other kind of system.
Such a shift is well underway, if little discussed, and as the Empire fades it will not be pleasant. The media has a responsibility to follow this story—the story of the descent from the summit of the former U.S. Empire, that is—yet it’s a story so un-followed that it remains a non-story in the minds of a public trained to jump at every tweet from our 45th president.
To give a hint as to what most of us are missing, I offer here a few comments on the subject from thinkers whom I respect. (It’s not the cheeriest subject, so I apologize in advance…)
“A Major Rewriting of the American Social Contract”
Here is Alfred McCoy, from his 2017 book “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power”:
“The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, may already be tattered and fading by 2025 and, except for the finger pointing, could be over by 2030… For the majority of Americans, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralizing decade of rising prices, stagnant wages, and fading international competitiveness. After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands, in 2030 the U.S. dollar eventually loses its special status as the world’s dominant reserve currency.”
In an interview with esteemed journalist Jeremy Scahill in July of last year, McCoy was asked if the already-underway decline of the U.S. Empire is “a bad thing.” McCoy says “Yes, it is,” and points out some “implications for the United States. Most visibly,” he says, “I think that when the dollar is no longer the world’s unchallenged, pre-eminent, global reserve currency, the grand imperial game will be over. Look, what we’ve been able to do for the last 20 years is we send the world our brightly colored, our nicely printed paper, T-notes, and they give us oil and automobiles and computers and technology. We get real goods and they get brightly colored paper. Because of the position of the dollar. When the dollar is no longer the global reserve currency, the cost of goods in the United States is going to skyrocket.”
And what happens then? Says McCoy, “We will not be able to travel the world as we do now. We won’t be able to enjoy the standard of living we do now. There will be lots of tensions that are going to occur in the society from what will be a major rewriting of the American social contract. This will not be pleasant. And arguably, I think it’s possible if we look back, we could see Trump’s election and all the problems of the Trump administration as one manifestation of this imperial decline.”
In other words, the story of the decline of the U.S. Empire is far, far bigger than the partisan shouting match that is the endless preoccupation of the daily headlines.
“A Serious Decline in the Standard of Living of U.S. Citizens”
In the same 2013 Commentary I mention elsewhere in this issue, the global systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein gives some further insight into the nitty-gritty of declining Empire. After noting that it is not clear who will step into the power vacuum created by a declining United States, Wallerstein says that “what happens when the much lessened power of the erstwhile hegemonic power seems clear to other countries is that relative order in the world-system is replaced by a chaotic struggle among multiple poles of power, none of which can control the situation. The United States does remain a giant, but a giant with clay feet. It continues for the moment to have the strongest military force, but it finds itself unable to make much good use of it…”
“The problem for everyone in a situation of geopolitical chaos is the high level of anxiety it breeds and the opportunities it offers for destructive folly to prevail. The United States, for example, may no longer be able to win wars, but it can unleash enormous damage to itself and others by imprudent actions…
“Finally, there are two real consequences of which we can be fairly sure in the decade to come. The first is the end of the U.S. dollar as the currency of last resort. When this happens, the United States will have lost a major protection for its national budget and for the cost of its economic operations. The second is the decline, probably a serious decline, in the relative standard of living of U.S. citizens and residents. The political consequences of this latter development are hard to predict in detail but will not be insubstantial.”
(Long-time readers may be having a déjà vu moment, as I quoted a part of this back in 2013 in Nygaard Notes #543)
I remember a time, long before I ever heard the word Empire applied to my own country, when I pondered global hunger and poverty and wondered what could possibly explain what I was seeing. Long before I learned about systems thinking. Long before I learned about racial ignorance. My ignorance—imposed upon me and all of us by forces I did not understand—put me in a hole from which I am still digging myself out. Understanding one’s place in the Imperial Order is an important step in understanding not only the global dimensions of inequality and injustice, but also how it relates to inequality and injustice right here at home.
I think that the forces being unleashed as the Empire declines are shocking many people into considering the nature of Empire and the terrible human costs involved in maintaining it. It’s so often true that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” The Empire will soon be gone. What will we have then? That depends on what we do.
Scarcity and The Empire
In terms of how we treat our non-wealthy citizens, the United States—the world’s wealthiest nation—falls far short of being a generous and compassionate society. Still, it is true that popular struggle has won some major victories in the United States. From Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid, from food stamps to public education, from rural electrification to food safety standards, the various levels of government have been forced to address a range of human needs in ways large and small. Needs about which “market forces” care not a whit.
None of these successes are to be taken for granted. The wealthy always resist even the smallest attempts to address the cruelties built into a capitalist system and, once a victory is won, the attempts to reverse it begin immediately. The propaganda foundation for such resistance to popular successes is always “scarcity.” The arguments are familiar: Social Security is going broke; Minimum wages will drive companies out of business; Single-payer health care is too costly, etc etc etc. All of the arguments against doing the right thing rest on a foundation of “there’s not enough for everyone.” That is, scarcity.
At times of growth and prosperity, the threat of scarcity has less power than it does at lean times.
(Of course, for some of us it’s always “lean times,” which leads me to digress and re-tell a story I told in these pages back in 2003. When I worked on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota in the early 1970s, there was a joke going around. As the joke had it, a series of interviews was being conducted with the state’s seniors to learn about their experience of living through the Great Depression of the 1930s. The survey was going well until the researchers got to the reservation. When they asked an elderly Anishinabe woman what it had been like to live in the Depression, she responded, “What? You mean, it’s over?”)
During times that the white majority call “good times” it becomes a little harder to invoke scarcity in service to attacks on the poor. (The arguments are still made, they’re just a little easier to resist.) These are the times when some of us push to use a bit more of the nation’s wealth to make material life a bit better for marginalized communities, and moral life better for all of us.
During lean times the scarcity argument becomes stronger and is used to justify all kinds of rollbacks, program cuts, and other attacks on programs for the 99 percent. Lean times also amplify the voices pushing us to scapegoat the “other,” as “they” are said to be taking things away from “us.” Immigrants, people of color, women, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and anyone who can be defined by those in power as “less than” or defined in other ways so as to make them vulnerable, all suffer more acutely when those at the top feel even the slightest threat to their power and privilege.
As the United States’ perch on the top of the global heap becomes ever more precarious—that is, as the decline of the U.S. Empire intensifies in coming years—the struggle will play out on many stages, large and small. In the last essay we heard Alfred McCoy say that we can expect to see “a major rewriting of the American social contract” which “will not be pleasant.”
As we read the papers and scroll through our news feeds, we will be wise to look at many of the stories in the context of declining U.S. power in the world. The ongoing military operations in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan (the reporting of which has recently been blacked out by the Pentagon) all can be seen as signs of the U.S. inability to impose its will in those nations. Trump’s flailing about in multilateral trade agreements, as well as his tariff decisions, can be seen as a President making attempts to regain hegemonic power, a losing battle in which there are no good choices. The shrinking of the State Department is not a sign of a nation at the peak of its diplomatic power.
There are many ways that the world outside of the United States is changing and will affect those of us inside the country. And the story of the declining Empire is only one of the chapters in our future book of the Big Themes of the early 21st Century. Things are changing inside the U.S., too, in various ways that will affect the already-underway rewriting of the social contract. More about that in a future Nygaard Notes.