The Future of the American Empire

The Future of the American Empire

Historian Alfred McCoy discusses his new book, the deep state, and Donald Trump’s threats to the US’s position as a global power.


In the early 1970s, before he was an award-winning author and the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Alfred McCoy was a young rebel academic who waded into the war zone in Southeast Asia to investigate the relationship between the CIA, crime syndicates, and local drug lords. The result, which the Agency tried unsuccessfully to suppress, was his classic The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade. In the 45 years since, McCoy has consistently probed the underside of American global power, analyzing how the United States uses covert interventions, local proxies, torture, and worldwide surveillance to maintain its global empire.

Those decades of investigation have yielded a new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, which investigates America’s use of cyberwar, space warfare, trade pacts, and military alliances and reveals the contours of the shadow war that Washington wages to maintain its status as the world’s sole superpower. I recently asked McCoy to tell me about the book, the world of covert interventions, the deep state, and whether Donald Trump is accelerating the fall of the American empire.

Nick Turse: You first gained notoriety 45 years ago when, as a graduate student, you set off to a war zone to explore the nexus of CIA covert operations, the heroin trade, and the war in Vietnam. You traveled the world, walked into an ambush in Laos, and were targeted by the US government. How did you do it—and why?

Alfred McCoy: The “how” was simple. I just followed one lead to the next from Hong Kong to Saigon, Bangkok, Rangoon, and Paris until I had circled the globe on a life-changing voyage of discovery. But the “why” was more complex. I was driven to understand the political dynamics of a war that was destroying three Southeast Asian countries and dividing my own.

By following the heroin trail from South Vietnam, where a full third of US soldiers were heavy users, into the mountains of northern Laos where the opium poppy was grown, I witnessed a secret war fought by the CIA’s “Armée Clandestine” of 30,000 local militia and an Air Force bombing campaign that was the biggest in military history. While hiking through those highlands, far from paved roads or even electricity, I looked up to see the sky completely covered with a cat’s cradle of wispy-white jet contrails from countless US aircraft on bombing runs.

A year later when my manuscript was in press, the deputy head of CIA covert operations walked into my publisher’s office to demand my book be suppressed. When rebuffed, he retaliated. Phone tapped. Taxes audited. Grad school fellowship audited. Sources silenced. Life scrutinized. By the time that book was done, I had discovered the extraordinary power of this covert apparatus, the core of a unique empire, to devastate a country on the far side of the planet or penetrate deep inside private lives at home in America.

NT: All these years later, you’ve got a new book—and, full disclosure, it’s published through the imprint I co-founded with TomDispatch’s Tom Engelhardt—called In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power. It’s a big title and a big story. What’s it about?

AM: Not only is America the most powerful and prosperous empire in the history of the world, but it’s also the least studied and the least understood. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union denounced America as “imperialist,” so US historians adopted the idea of “American exceptionalism.” America might be a “world leader,” or even a “superpower,” but never an empire.

After 9/11 and our disastrous intervention in Iraq, observers across the political spectrum adopted the term empire to ask whether Washington’s hegemony was in decline. Suddenly, analyzing the US empire was no longer some academic parlor game. All those years of denial about the reality of US global power had led to an ill-informed public debate. Americans had been on top of the world for so long they no longer understood how they got there.

So, after spending a decade working with a network of 140 historians on four continents to correct that oversight by comparing America to other world empires, I decided to pull all those insights together into this book, minus all the academic jargon—a single, succinct guide to the rise and decline of US global power.

NT: Will the United States be the next empire to fall? Will another one replace it?

AM: We are certainly witnessing the end of the US empire, but not empire as a form of global governance. If you look behind the headlines in the daily press over the past 18 months, the signs are increasingly clear that Washington’s world dominion is crumbling with the sort of cascading setbacks that often accompany imperial decline. In its periodic futurology reports, the National Intelligence Council, Washington’s supreme analytic body, has been blunt that US hegemony will end by 2030. But it doesn’t really have a clue about what will replace it.

At the risk of joining that long line of historians who made fools of themselves by using the past to predict the future, here goes my leap into ignominy. My money is on China with its trillion-dollar infrastructure program to integrate Eurasia into an economic powerhouse, another trillion to develop and dominate Africa, and a resurgent, tech-savvy military to slice through Washington’s encirclement of their continent and push the US navy back across the Pacific toward Guam or Hawaii.

Naysayers can point to China’s restive population, its aging demographics, its shaky economy, or its still neophyte technology to argue it’s a paper tiger that will never surpass America. But they miss the main point: with the emerging economic integration of Asia, Africa, and Europe into a unified “world island” with China at its epicenter, the tides of trade and geopolitical power will all flow, as if by natural law, away from Washington and toward Beijing.

NT: You’ve got a chapter in your new book titled “Covert Netherworld” about the ongoing interplay between clandestine intelligence services and crime syndicates. We get glimpses of this secret world, from time to time, but it remains a mystery to most. Can you pull back the curtain?

AM: The “covert netherworld” is a useful tool that helps us understand the real significance of clandestine operations. Such a milieu can form anywhere through the collaboration between the only organizations on the planet capable of operating beyond the bounds of civil society—state security and criminal syndicates. During its rise to world power right after World War II, Washington built a powerful clandestine service to resolve the central contradiction of the age: How to exercise global hegemony in a post-colonial world of sovereign states supposedly immune to such intervention.

As the world’s hundred new nations secured their borders and slapped taxes on all sorts of imports in a scramble for revenues, smuggling soared and transnational crime syndicates swelled worldwide, controlling drug traffic worth 4% of world trade—lots of people and lots of extra-legal power to aid any state security service, which they did with surprising frequency. During the Cold War, the CIA manipulated this netherworld successfully in Africa, Central America, and Central Asia, but now its mastery of this domain is fading as the Taliban use their control over the Afghan heroin traffic to sustain their protracted fight against the US presence.

NT: You focus on key instruments the US uses to exercise power such as covert military interventions and torture. Can you talk a little about what they’ve meant for our country and for people overseas?

AM: Covert intervention and torture are the flip sides of America’s imperial coin, with one often successful and the other not. After World War II, as 7 European empires gave way to 100 new nations, the CIA proved skilled in assuring these presidential palaces were filled with pliable leaders. When manipulated elections failed to work, military coups often did the trick, as happened in Chile, South Vietnam, and Laos. While these coups accomplished Washington’s tactical objective of putting an amenable ally in the palace, they often condemned people worldwide to long years of tyranny, privation, and violence—whether in Chile, Guatemala, Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, or the Philippines.

By contrast, torture has proven unambiguously negative. Whether in South Vietnam in the 1960s, Central America in the 1980s, or Iraq after 2003, whenever the awesome aura of US power failed to intimidate, Washington reverted to torture, always with disastrous consequences. Despite 41,000 extrajudicial killings and countless tortures in South Vietnam, the CIA’s Phoenix Program failed to capture a single high-ranking Viet Cong, raising the possibility that communist counterintelligence, doing what counterintelligence always does, had flipped the program and fed the killing machine with innocents, deftly subverting the entire US war effort in the bargain.

In desperation over their decline, fading empires—whether Britain, France, or the United States—have resorted to torture to shore up their waning hegemony, only to find, as we saw at Abu Ghraib, that the recourse to such barbarism discredits their global leadership at home and abroad, accelerating their imperial decline.

NT: You’ve been digging into government secrets your whole adult life. I want to throw some topics of the Trumpian age at you and just get some rapid-fire answers.

What’s your take on the power of the so-called “deep state”?

AM: Mushy concept spiced with paranoia that’s soup du jour for the alt-right who dine out on Breitbart News. Just as the term “empire” was rendered useless by ideological baggage, so the same has happened to the term “deep state.” Instead of invoking a vague, dark force, I find it more useful to analyze how the security services operate, as part of government bureaucracy, in specific ways at particular times.

NT: Cyberattacks in the US and US cyberwar abroad?

AM: Arguably, the NSA’s worldwide surveillance of select foreign leaders and their millions of citizens is a cost-effective instrument for the exercise of global power, though Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping has raised the political cost. With surprising speed, the covert netherworld is now moving to the Internet, for example with Russian and East European scammers protected in exchange for hacking enemy sites on command.

NT: The influence of Russia on the last US election?

AM: Cyber-espionage is a sharp, double-edged sword, as indicated by Russian cyber-manipulations in the 2016 US elections—a clear sign of Washington’s waning global power. A global hegemon manipulates other nations’ elections; a fading superpower is manipulated.

NT: You see the power of the United States in fairly precipitous decline. What has driven this?

AM: Short answer: long-term adverse trends, of the sort that bedevil any aging world power, compounded by the recent emergence of a credible challenger in China. Not only is China’s economy likely to surpass America’s in 2030, but it already has nearly half the world’s new patents, the most formidable array of supercomputers on the planet, and the best educated younger generation who will propel its military, industry, and technology to world leadership by 2030. Like every American academic these days, I have Chinese students in my classes—super-smart and hard working—who remind me of my father’s generation who built America’s empire. And even if Beijing falters, thanks to a decline in economic growth or a surge in popular discontent, there are still a dozen rising powers working to build a multipolar world beyond the grasp of any global hegemon.

NT: What has the effect of the Trump presidency been on this trend of US decline?

AM: Almost as if driven by some malign design, Trump is systematically toppling the pillars that have sustained US global power for the past 70 years. Since the end of World War II, Washington has controlled the Eurasian landmass from its strategic strongholds at the axial ends of that vast continent. But now, Trump is weakening the NATO alliance at the western end and damaging relations with four key allies in the east along the Pacific Rim—Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

Trump is trashing Washington’s long history of international leadership by exiting the Paris climate accord and possibly voiding the Iran nuclear agreement, alienating close allies in the bargain. For decades, the US used trade pacts to extend its economic reach, but Trump cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership as his housewarming gift to the world. He may yet do the same with NAFTA and the South Korean free-trade agreement.

On the security side, Trump’s bluster could soon become blunder, either sparking a military firestorm on the tinder-dry Korean peninsula or launching some abortive anti-missile strike that exposes the limits of American power. Trump’s penchant for unilateral military action reminds me of Prime Minister Anthony Eden whose ill-fated invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 exposed the once-mighty British lion as a toothless circus animal that would, in the aftermath of this disaster, jump whenever Washington cracked the whip.

NT: You end your book with several scenarios for the decline of the United States. These are detailed intelligence assessments that offer a really thoughtful—and in many ways frightening—look at the possible ends of the American empire. Without giving away too much, can you talk about what you see coming in the decade ahead?

AM: Even the mightiest of empires is surprisingly fragile, vulnerable to sudden collapse from unforeseen causes. Who could have guessed that the British empire that covered half the globe for over 200 years would be gone in less than 20? That the French imperium ruling over 10 percent of humanity would dissolve in a decade. Or the ferocious Soviet bloc would collapse in just two years.

So I projected four scenarios for the end of US global power by 2030, in the expectation that actual events would combine elements of each in ways that nobody could imagine. At the most benign level, the tides of geopolitical power flow toward Beijing, the US military retreats from Eurasia, and Washington becomes just one of several major powers. More malign would be an American version of the British bumbler Sir Anthony Eden, either Trump or some inept successor, blundering into an ill-conceived military strike, akin to Suez, that exposes the limits of American power. Or there could be a World War III with China that America, according to recent Pentagon assessments, might not win.

If all else fails, the crushing costs of climate change, which nobody in Washington has yet managed to add up, will redirect the roughly 5 percent of GDP now used for global defense to domestic recovery. Every modern empire is, more or less, a 5 percent proposition. During the 1950s, Britain liquidated its vast empire by diverting that imperial 5 percent to domestic social programs, and found its last imperial adventure at Suez brought its currency to the brink of collapse. It’s possible that climate change will do the same for America by 2040, forcing abandonment of overseas bases to rebuild the country.

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