The Empire Strikes Back | The Nation


The Empire Strikes Back

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However, what has happened--first in China and then in Russia--is that the political elites of these countries have become massive property-holders, and this in turn has given them a massive stake in the stability of the international capitalist system, and hence in the avoidance of major war. It may be argued, of course, that this was also true of the European elites of 1914. But unlike their predecessors, the elites of today do not come trailing a heritage of military aristocracy led by military monarchy; and the masses over which they are ruling, like those of the West over the past century, have been largely demilitarized by socioeconomic change and urbanization. So while the notion of a "democratic peace" may be overblown, that of a "capitalist peace" seems valid--as long as the United States does not so infuriate and humiliate the rulers of other major countries as to lead them to forget their own best interests. It may be, however, that their fears in this regard are exaggerated, and that as far as the threat from the United States is concerned they just have to sit it out for ten or twenty years, until a majority of Americans decide that empire is just not worth the cost.

About the Author

Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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The Obama administration simply cannot afford a confrontation with Russia, given the challenges we face elsewhere.

What Clinton--like Eisenhower--also realized is that the expansion of raw, direct American power in the world depends on and is also limited by the need to maintain the health of the US economy, and through this the economic well-being and hence the long-term political support of the majority of the American people. For the US imperial project suffers from three main underlying weaknesses. The first is the new threat to the American mainland from terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. In the short term, this, as I have suggested, can even strengthen US imperialism by adding the fuel of national vengeance; but if, God forbid, terrorists ever gain the ability to strike such heavy blows that they seriously damage the US economy, then American power will also be weakened.

The second weakness is lack of military resources. This may sound absurd, given the fact that America is now spending nearly as much on the military as the rest of the world put together. If one looks at the actual numbers of US troops, however, a rather different picture begins to emerge. For if the United States spends much more than anyone else on its troops, its troops are also much more expensive to maintain than those of most other countries, and more costly than the "scum of the earth" who staffed the colonial armies of the nineteenth century. It does not have very many of them, and a very high proportion of them are now tied down for the foreseeable future patrolling Iraq. It may be, therefore, as many US officials say in private, that the Bush Doctrine was a "doctrine for one case only"--namely Iraq; and that a planned war to invade and occupy Iran or North Korea is inconceivable. That doesn't necessarily mean that such wars won't happen, but that they will be the accidental rather than the deliberate results of Bush Administration policies.

This brings me back to the third weakness: the willingness of American citizens, particularly among the elites, to make sacrifices for the sake of empire. For one thing is gradually becoming clear: Given its immense wealth, the United States can afford a military capable of dominating the earth; or it can afford a stable, secure system of social and medical entitlements for a majority of its aging population; or it can afford massive tax cuts for its wealthiest citizens and no tax raises for the rest. But it cannot afford all three, unless it can indefinitely sustain them through a combination of massive trade deficits and international borrowing. This seems most unlikely, especially in the midst of a global economic downturn.

It is quite true, as the radical imperialists argue, that in the 1950s the United States sustained far higher levels of military spending as a proportion of the budget and GDP, but at that time, the rest of government spending was considerably lower, and the United States was in the midst of an era of very steep economic growth lasting three decades. Unless today's US and world economies can return to such growth--not for years but for decades--then something is sooner or later going to break, and break disastrously, if the Bush Administration continues its present policies. Such a disaster, however, would engulf not only the American empire but the lives and hopes of countless Americans, the stability and growth of the present world economic system, and possibly even the US political order. And this would be the ultimate American tragedy, for it is above all the mixture of economic opportunity and the US Constitution that are the bedrock of America's moral and ideological power in the world today, and will be America's chief legacy to future ages of the world.

It is interesting in the light of all this to revisit the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. The title of his new book, The Decline of American Power, appears curious at first sight. So regularly has Wallerstein predicted the decline of American power over the decades, and so steeply has American power in fact risen, that he has often appeared as the boy who cried wolf. But then, in the fable, the wolf, of course, eventually turned out to be all too real, just a bit late. And even if one finds Wallerstein's model of the world system too schematic and undifferentiated, he is still worth reading for the tremendous breadth of his scholarship and the fecundity of his insights.

Among these is his grasp of the essentially insatiable nature of capitalism--or at least of American capitalism, for one criticism that might be made of Wallerstein is his relative indifference to the importance of different national cultures in capitalism. Anyone who doubts their importance even when it comes to economic policy might want to contrast the two great newspapers of the Western capitalist classes, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and note the horrified incredulity with which FT writers have attacked the Bush Administration's tax cuts, so ardently demanded by the editorial page of the Journal.

For just as US imperialism, emboldened by a strong shot of nationalism, is busy undermining the world political order of which the United States is hegemon, so dominant sections of the US capitalist elite are suicidally gobbling up the fiscal foundations of American economic stability and the American capitalist system. Their pathological hatred of FDR, who did more than any other man in the twentieth century to preserve and extend American capitalism, has been echoed in our own day by their visceral, hysterical loathing of Clinton, who, objectively speaking, also served them very well. This is a truly strange and awful sight, and--pace Niall Ferguson--one that bears little resemblance to the behavior of the old British imperial elites, at least once their empire had been achieved. In their criminal arrogance, these contemporary American projects and attitudes are much more reminiscent of Wilhelmine Germany, and we must hope that they do not receive a condign punishment. For in the words of Arnold Toynbee, "great empires do not die by murder, but suicide."

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