Features — 06 June 2018
Book Review, “Empire in Retreat. The Past, Present and Future of the United States”

Continued from page 39 of the Friday, June 1, 2018, #3182 issue of the Amandala

The Empire incorporated Western Europe after WWII, and built military bases in many of those countries. It also encompassed Japan, part of China (Taiwan, which incredibly occupied China’s seat at the UN until 1971), South Korea (after fighting a war that ended in stalemate), Indonesia and other countries. In the Middle East, the “Eisenhower Doctrine” declared in 1957: “the United States regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East”. As usual, the words meant exactly the opposite: the right of the US “to intervene in the Middle East whenever there was a perceived threat to US hegemony”. At the end of G W Bush’s presidency, the US had some 909 military bases and facilities in more than 80 countries around the globe, many of them in the former USSR, and it has often intervened to force its will, most of the time with success. But as Bulmer-Thomas notes, “even the major defeats—in Angola, Cuba, Iran and Vietnam—did not mean the empire had gone into reverse. On the contrary, the semiglobal empire was still strong as the Cold War came to an end.”

The “unipolar moment” that transpired then, before the rise of China and the recovery of Russia, is described in a chapter that outlines the global dominance exercised by the USA for about two decades. This was the period that saw the coming to fruition of the WTO, free trade agreements such as NAFTA, the explosive growth of information and communications technology with the USA dominating the internet for military, security and business purposes.

NATO, a Cold War institution created in 1949, would have seemed to have outlived its purpose in 1990, but the US soon reshaped it to carry out its world domination schemes, for attacks on countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, and when not enough of its allies were willing to engage in what were clearly illegal wars, the US resorted to “coalitions of the willing,” or itself willingly employed unilateral action. The “peace dividend” expected with the end of the Cold War was a chimera, especially after 9/11, and in 2011 military spending reached $711 billion. More is yet to come: under Trump, the bipartisan budget was expected to include $716bn for military spending in 2019, up 13% from 2017 spending levels (The Guardian, 9 Feb. 2018).

Bulmer-Thomas rightly emphasizes that there was a big increase in extraterritoriality in the unipolar moment, “defined both as the application of national laws outside the nation’s territory and as immunity from foreign laws by the nation’s citizens”. The best-known example is the criminal blockade against Cuba, but the rapid spread of US bases, forces, private security companies and the “war on drugs” also led to a big increase in extraterritoriality, perhaps the highest expression of the power of Empire. After 9/11, with or without legislation, the US has greatly increased its forceful interventions throughout the world, using “hard”, “soft” and “smart” power as the occasion demanded.

Perhaps the biggest weapon in the Empire’s arsenal, however, still holds dominance in the world: The Almighty Dollar. When the obligation to sell gold at a fixed dollar price was blown away in 1971, “the US economy could increase both balance of payments and fiscal deficits almost without limit in the knowledge that the deficits would be financed by issuing debt in US dollars. Countries with surpluses would be obliged to recycle these back to US capital markets as long as the dollar remained the international reserve currency of choice”. This framework provides great autonomy on US policymakers while curbing that of other States, which in turn provides the financial basis for US military supremacy.

How this seemingly all-powerful and everlasting empire began to unravel forms the most intriguing and controversial part of the book. The author had made clear from his introduction that the retreat from empire is due more to internal than external factors, and that it does not necessarily imply the decline of the nation-state.

These internal factors include the fact that there has always been a strong current of anti-imperialism in the United States, and that this is progressively becoming stronger, with a marked increase in anti-globalization and neo-isolationist thought. Even the concept of “American Exceptionalism,” the bedrock of Empire, has begun to lose support, beginning way back with Native Americans and African Americans (Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X). The author quotes a survey in 2014 showing that only 15% of “millennials” claimed that the USA was “the greatest country in the world,” while the figure was only 28% for the nation as a whole. I am certain, however, that few of us inside or outside the USA can give credence to those figures. How many “Americans,” of whatever ethnic or social group, have you ever come across who do not believe that “America” is the greatest?

Of course, the decline of Empire has to a lot do with the relative decline of the US economy in the world. Investment in US infrastructure as well as in human capital has fallen, and the pace of technological change has dropped significantly in the last two decades. In the 1980s, the US was responsible for between 20 to 30 percent of world GDP, but that share will have fallen to 14% by 2021 and to just 6% by 2050. US share of world trade is also falling sharply—from 18.6% in 2000 to a projected 8.6% in 2021, and in 2014 it was already replaced by China as the world’s largest exporter of goods and services. Furthermore, the US share of net outward Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) fell from 40% in 2000 to under 25% in 2014, a sign of serious slipping.

Since WWII, moreover, the US has gone from being a creditor to a debtor nation; the fall began with the massive expenditures resulting from its war against Vietnam. The accumulated Government deficit from 2000 to 2015 was nearly $14 trillion, and in 2016 the share of US federal government debt obligations owned by foreigners were valued at $6.3 trillion.

Meanwhile, the US people aren’t doing so well on major social indicators. Life expectancy in the USA is now lower than in Cuba, and in education it is doing terribly compared to other developed and even underdeveloped countries. This has been accompanied by rising inequality and falling social mobility, and many people blame free trade and globalization for this. Bulmer-Thomas notes that “free trade is the cornerstone of the American semiglobal empire,” and that antiglobalization in the United States is gradually pushing the Empire into retreat.

Furthermore, US leadership in the world is on the decline. The institutions built by the US at the height of its power (the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO), although still dominated by the USA, are no longer as efficacious in projecting US power. The same has occurred with the regional institutions created by the US, including the OAS and NATO. In addition, non-state actors once totally subservient to the State tend to take a more independent stand. The US Executive, which adopted the self-appointed role of leader during the semiglobal empire, has been increasingly constrained by the role of Congress, especially when the other party controls one or both Houses: “While the Senate has constrained the executive by rejecting or failing to pass treaties, the House of Representatives has used the power of the purse strings for the same purpose . . . As a result, the semiglobal empire that America created after the Second World War has become increasingly difficult to sustain”.

Empire in Retreat chronicles the many cases of outright failures or even US irrelevance in different regions where once the Empire held sway: the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. In all these regions, the imperial presence has been waning and will continue to do so, and friendly nations are “preparing for the day when the US empire will no longer be their shield”.

In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, following Trump’s disastrous European tour in May 2018, said that Europe could no longer rely on the US as an ally and must now be prepared to “take its fate into its own hands”. In sub-Saharan Africa, whose countries account for almost 50 members of the UN, China has become the dominant commercial power, eclipsing the USA in terms of exports, imports and inward investment. In the Middle East and North Africa, China had replaced the US as the region’s principal source of imports by 2007 and was well on the way to selling twice as much as the US a decade later.

The increasing dominance of China in world financial matters is also notable. Designed to sideline the US-dominated World Bank and IMF, the New Development Bank set up by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, both headquartered in China, represent “a major challenge to US leadership and [the latter] is a significant milestone in China’s quest for regional hegemony”. Chinese companies are using the country’s vast foreign reserves to buy stakes in US companies; Bulmer-Thomas remarks that when China says “Jump,” Apple, the US high-tech behemoth, asks “How high?”.

The author insists, however, that internal factors have played the greatest role in bringing the Empire to heel. On trade, climate change, international security and global human rights, US leadership has been stymied by ideological divisions that have grown fiercer over time, and that have reached a new high with Trump. Meanwhile, the media (now with social media playing a big role) are much more fragmented, the philanthropic foundations more independent, the think tanks less subservient, and multinational enterprises so big and global that they no longer feel committed to the US empire in the way they did before.

Russia is far from being the superpower that was the USSR, but it has grown in strength over the past two decades, and its close relationship with China (not so when it was part of the USSR) is of strategic importance. The intense rivalries between China and the USA have so far been resolved peacefully, and we saw in recent weeks how both countries pulled back from what could have been a trade war with disastrous consequences. Bulmer-Thomas suggests that if it ever comes to a hot war, “the United States will no longer be able to count on a wide array of allies. China has been too successful at marketing itself as the rising power that other countries will not wish to defy”.

Bulmer-Thomas’s reflections on the US Empire are not new. His valedictory address at Chatham House in 2006 (“Living with two megapowers: the world in 2020”) accurately predicted China’s megapower status, and made the important point that culturally, almost every household in the world will be using at least one Chinese manufactured good of high quality and low price in 2020, and, most importantly, China has the self-belief and the consensual national confidence and determination required to be a megapower.

Bulmer-Thomas opines that the US

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Deshawn Swasey

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