It’s not fashionable to talk about American empire these days, much less our empire’s coming demise. Our status as the world’s preeminent superpower remains largely unquestioned (at least domestically). Politicians and media pundits still portray our military as the world’s last great hope against tyranny and global terrorism.
And yet, despite the U.S. military’s clear planetary dominance — its hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in more than 150 countries, its growing interventions in Africa and the Middle East, and its vast network of bases and installations across the globe — our empire’s days are indeed numbered. Like other past empires, the unraveling of our empire is shrouded in denial, masking the fraying foundations of our once-prosperous nation.
Ironically, the seeds of America’s decline were planted with its founding, marred as it was by the brutal conquest of the native population, the rapacious destruction of the natural environment, the shameful enslavement of African peoples, and the hypocritical disenfranchisement of women and non-property-holding immigrants. These traumatic beginnings have echoed through the centuries that followed, in the form of aggressive military interventions, deepening social divisions, and ecologically ruinous relations to the country’s land, air, and water. Together, these festering dynamics now threaten to upend the great American experiment.
Of course, they’ve also provided the backdrop against which most Americans have struggled to secure their place in the social order, their human rights and dignity, and the protection of their precious lands and watersheds. America’s central animating ideal of "liberty and justice for all" may have been poorly instituted in practice, but the hopeful movements it inspired have gone a long way toward creating a more equitable and democratic union.
Today, as compound stresses and fractures undermine the foundation of U.S. empire, the central question remains: will the forces of hate and domination prevail, hijacking today’s crises to justify an authoritarian state and continued aggression? Or will enough people and communities willingly abandon the vision of empire, and reassert America’s cherished values of freedom and democracy?
The answer to that will depend on how we respond to the multiple signs of empire’s passing that are increasingly coming to a head. Here are ten (in no particular order) that are especially worth noting:
1. SKYROCKETING INEQUALITY: It’s now a popular truism that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. President Obama often derides the fact that the middle class is shrinking, that average wages are barely keeping up with inflation, and that more and more American children are going to bed hungry. But neither he nor his allies in Congress have been able to halt these trends, much less slow them. According to a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, most recent economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent, who took home more than half (53.9 percent) of the total increase in U.S. income over the past several decades. "Over this period, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by [only] 18.9 percent. Simultaneously, the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much — by 200.5 percent," stated the authors. And that’s just income. Distribution of total wealth when one includes stocks, property, and other assets has also widened to levels now resembling a new gilded age. Indeed, the wealth gap has become so obscene that billionaires themselves are starting to sound the alarms about the stability of American society. One tech billionaire recently wrote a scathing article in Politico arguing that unless something is done to redistribute wealth more equitably, we can expect everyday people falling between the cracks to foment a pitchfork rebellion.
2. DETERIORATING INFRASTRUCTURE: Decades of neglect and underinvestment have left America’s roads and bridges, its waterways and sanitation systems, its power plants and electrical grids (most of which are hopelessly outmoded and geared mostly to run on diminishing fossil fuels), and its harbors and transport hubs in severe disrepair. According to a report by The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our nation faces an infrastructure investment shortfall of $1.1 trillion by 2020, possibly increasing to $4.7 trillion by 2040. If sufficient investments fail to materialize, Americans can expect increasing risks associated with using deteriorating infrastructure, lower standards of living due to rising costs, and a less and less hospitable climate for commerce, given that businesses also rely heavily on smoothly functioning infrastructure. Shifting even a fraction of the $500+ billion spent annually on the military would be a wise investment in our future.
3. HOLLOWED-OUT DOMESTIC INDUSTRY: It’s little surprise that high-wage U.S. manufacturing would suffer in a race-to-the-bottom, über-competitive global economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturing employment fell from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007. The decade of 2000-2010 was particularly devastating, according to a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: "Not only did America lose 5.7 million manufacturing jobs, but the decline as a share of total manufacturing jobs (33 percent) exceeded the rate of loss in the Great Depression." A misplaced faith in so-called "free trade" agreements that favor corporate offshoring of jobs while sacrificing much-needed tariff revenue has contributed mightily to this decline, along with a reluctance to boost training and skills-building among our nation’s growing underemployed and unemployed. The consequences of this "hollowing out" of domestic manufacturing are already being keenly felt in terms of wage stagnation, a shrinking middle class, and diminished consumer spending capacity. Perhaps even more tragic is the growing dependence Americans now have on imported goods, and the fact that we’re rapidly losing our capacity to make tangible goods of real value.
4. THE U.S. DOLLAR’S DECLINE: The status of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency is quickly eroding. Between 2002 and 2012, the dollar declined 54.7% against the euro, which coincided with a near tripling of the U.S. debt, from $5.9 trillion to $15 trillion. Meanwhile, rising powers like Russia, China, Brazil and other emerging economies are separating themselves from the dollar-based global financial system, either by trading in other reserve currencies or actively proposing replacements. All told, foreign countries own more than $5 trillion in U.S. debt, with China alone owning more than $1 trillion. If enough major debt holders started dumping their Treasury notes on the open market, this could cause a panic leading to a collapse of the dollar, and along with it a major decline in the standard of living for most Americans. At this point, the biggest holders of U.S. Treasury notes also rely on American markets for the sale of their products, minimizing the likelihood of any major dollar sell-offs. But with consumer buying power declining, infrastructure deteriorating, and America’s ability to repay debt diminishing, the U.S. dollar’s future standing as the global currency of choice is in doubt.
5. DOMESTIC ENERGY SCARCITY: As recently as 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was predicting that the United States would overtake Saudia Arabia in oil production by 2020, and that North America would be a net oil exporter by 2030. Now, the world’s leading energy agency has done a 180 degree about-face, predicting in its latest report that the United States will have to rely more heavily on Middle East oil in the years ahead, now that North American sources are starting to run dry. Probably the most damaging news to the industry came earlier this year when the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently downgraded its earlier assessment of the Montery Shale “tight oil” fields by a whopping 96%. Admittedly, U.S. energy production has had a "boomlet" recently, with much of it coming from oil and gas extracted from shale. But the IEA now says U.S. production will start to lose steam around 2020, putting more bargaining power back in the hands of OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and diminishing our influence abroad. Sadly, the search for energy in ever-more remote and sensitive locations has also ravaged the environment, endangering sensitive waterways, gulf zones, the arctic, and even the stability of the global climate.
6. DIMINISHING U.S. INFLUENCE ABROAD: From the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War, U.S. imperialism moved into overdrive. Following the devastating U.S. nuclear bombardment of Japan, American presidents began using the "fight against communism" to justify interventions throughout the globe, most notably in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Haiti, among others. Almost always, the actual "threat" was the desire of the local populations in these countries to decide their own economic destinies, rather than submit to open exploitation of their markets by U.S. or Western-based corporations. In recent decades, however, as U.S. debt has grown and popular uprisings like the "Arab Spring" and new populist movements in Latin America have gained traction, American influence has diminished. A resurgent Russia under President Putin has rebuffed U.S. attempts to encircle the country with new NATO members, bases, and pro-Western regimes — even brazenly annexing Crimea with only symbolic protest from a largely helpless United States. American empire is also waning in parts of the Middle East, especially in Iraq where previously deposed Sunni militants have taken control of much of the country’s northern cities and towns, and may even bring down the pro-Western government in Baghdad. The most recent presidential election in Afghanistan has also revealed the growing limits of American influence, with the losing candidate threatening to set up his own parallel government rather than honor the much-lauded democratic process the U.S. military spent so much effort supposedly trying to establish. But perhaps the most telling example is the growing instability in Israel, arguably the U.S. empire’s most beloved ally. In its grossly lopsided conflict with the occupied Palestinians, the Israeli government has increasingly defied attempts by Washington to sit down and hammer out a workable peace agreement, even though time and time again the terms are mainly in their favor. Instead, they use any provocation by Palestinians as an excuse to launch merciless air strikes and invasions of their territories, ensuring a nightmarish future for all concerned. Once the lavish U.S. military subsidies begin to dry up, the state of Israel will have a very difficult time maintaining peaceful conditions, much less its own survival.
7. DEMOCRACY FOR SALE: The high esteem that public officials once held in America seems little more than a quaint memory today, as democratic "contests" for seats from City Hall to the White House now appear more like auctions than elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions, most notably Citizens United, have undone even the most basic restrictions on special interest contributions to political candidates, opening the floodgates to private donors seeking special favors and legislation from candidates once they’re elected to office. Sadly, the trends are only getting worse. In 2008, spending on the U.S. presidential election almost doubled compared with 2004. In 2012, it nearly quadrupled compared with 2008. What’s worse is that as inequality worsens (see above), it’s largely the super-wealthy who are now providing the most donor power. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a mere 0.01% of Americans in 2010 accounted for one-quarter of ALL money given to politicians, parties and political action committees. Little wonder most Americans think the system is rigged.
8. THE RISE OF CHINA: Ever since it shook off its British and Japanese imperial chains and reunified under the banner of Communist revolution, China has been a resurgent global economic superpower. Under Communist Party rule, the country established universal education and health care, modernized its rural agrarian economy, and invested heavily in technology and infrastructure. Decades of internal development and policies that protected domestic industry combined to provide the foundation of modern China’s world-class economy, which has been averaging unrivaled growth rates of 9% each year. Of course, since the 1980s, China has also opened its economy to more direct foreign investment, privatized much of its industry, and slashed its social safety net, creating a new elite class of wealthy capitalists alongside an increasingly exploited class of landless rural peasants and urban poor. As the U.S. has encircled China’s borders with pro-Western governments (Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines, etc.), China has largely taken a non-aggressive approach, favoring a strategy of developing ever-greater economic relations with countries around the world. Initially, it pursued investment mostly in developing countries for resource purposes, but has recently ramped up investments in industrial regions like Europe and North America. This still leaves China vulnerable to imperial attacks on its investments by the U.S. and other powers (i.e., the U.S./NATO military strikes on Libya, which forced the evacuation of 35,000 of its oil workers and engineers). In response to this threat, Chinese military strategists successfully called for a 19% annual increase in military spending from 2010 through 2015. And while this will still amount to a fraction of what the U.S. empire spends militarily, it foreshadows a new era in Chinese determination to back up its meteoric economic rise with increasing military muscle.
9. THE GROWING SURVEILLANCE STATE: In recent decades, with the dramatic advances in computers, communications, and information technologies, U.S. intelligence and security agencies have developed intricate systems of monitoring and assessing “threats” to American assets both at home and abroad. A shift is happening toward increasing surveillance of the U.S. domestic population, growing numbers of whom find themselves on the margins of society, whether through sudden unemployment, downsizing, or existential angst in a meaning-starved, conflict-ridden materialistic age. Much of what the security apparatus was actually doing remained shrouded in secrecy until very recently, when the heroic actions of former National Security Agency specialist Edward Snowden helped reveal the full extent to which Americans’ civil liberties were being routinely violated. Perhaps most disconcerting among these revelations was the indiscriminate, sweeping process by which virtually every citizens’ phone records, e-mails, purchases, and other important data were being collected, analyzed, and vetted – not solely to assess potential “terrorist” activity, but also to target those deemed “radical” by the NSA. According to The Huffington Post, the NSA recently hatched a plan to discredit a group of “radicalizers” who merely held "extreme" views based on their Muslim faith, a tactic that FBI and NSA officials have employed over the decades against civil rights leaders, environmental activists, and labor organizers. Clearly, the security state is getting nervous. The fact that increasing sums of taxpayer funds and expertise are being used to spy on U.S. citizens doesn’t bode well for the future of American democracy.
10. APOCALYPTIC DREAMING: Rarely does a summer blockbuster season now pass without several mega-budget motion pictures hitting theaters that feature catastrophic, apocalyptic, or wrenchingly dystopian themes. Almost all of the recent super hero flicks have seemingly required that major U.S. cities be bombarded, thrashed, or completely devastated, almost with a feeling of cathartic glee. The zombie genre has also made a powerful comeback, with scores of films released in the last decade alone, including such widely popular flicks as 28 Weeks, I Am Legend, and World War Z. Fantastical, supernatural themes have also been accompanied by increasingly realistic accounts of a world in chaos. Children of Men depicts a world experiencing a plummeting human population due to sudden universal infertility, Contagion tells of a merciless virus that kills millions upon millions in only a few days’ time, and Elysium portrays a world divided where the wealthy elite have fled the earth to live on a luxury satellite while the rest of the planet wallows in squalor and environmental devastation.
All of these signs of U.S. empire’s passing may, at face value, seem deeply disturbing. To be sure, most Americans will face increasingly hard times as the disproportionate wealth that now flows freely through military force to our shores finally begins to slip from our reach. There will be demagogues (indeed, there already are) who will call for more campaigns to reclaim our imperial birthright. They will conjure tales of lost glory to enlist us in more futile wars to maintain our "rightful place" as the world’s greatest superpower. We must ignore their call.
The passing of empire affords us all with an incredible opportunity to reclaim those values that once inspired America to true greatness, and lifted the spirits of all who call this beautiful country our home. Virtues like self-reliance, democratic self-government, and conservation of our land. Current and future generations deserve much better than being saddled with crushing debt, being conscripted into wars in the Middle East and beyond, or wasting away in meaningless jobs hawking more and more needless consumer products. Our nation harbors a wellspring of talented, hardworking, and passionate souls who yearn for the chance to do right by their families and their communities. Rather than bemoan empire’s loss, we can rebuild our cities and towns to work with nature’s cycles rather than against them; we can reforge lost arts, crafts, and industries that were so carelessly discarded in the rush to globalization; and we can revitalize our local democratic institutions and practices that were once the lifeblood of community life, ensuring that everyone has a voice in the great transformations ahead.
We can create a better future. It won’t come without serious challenges. Indeed, it may only come through them.