The spring of 2003 may have been the high point of the American Empire. The very next year, the fiasco of the Iraq invasion prompted the self-described "neoliberal" Michael Lind to complain on the pages of Financial Times that Bush the Lesser’s bumbling ways have ruined imperialism:
"Neoliberalism, like neoconservatism, depended on the mystique of American power… Without US forces doing the heavy lifting in UN or Nato interventions, the ambitious neoliberal strategy of muscular internationalism becomes impossible."
To counter the looming specter of long defeat, the Empire resorted to bravado and perception management. The "surge" supposedly "won" the war in Iraq, which was quickly forgotten as the PR focus shifted to Afghanistan. Resistance to Imperial will in places like Serbia was publicly crushed, to discourage others; this was then touted as an important victory, so as to impress both foreign clients and the people at home.
Rulers of the Empire were confident they could deal with the loss of moral and "mythic authority" (as Michael Vlahos put it in 2007), because these were matters confined to the realm of perception. Eventually, however, the Empire ran out of money. The housing bubble collapse in 2008, and the financial crisis that followed, were only the beginning of a major depression. Now even the dedicated imperial propagandists, such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, are tolling the death knell of Pax Americana.
Earlier this week, Tom Engelhardt wrote:
"the U.S. is an imperial power in decline… We’re talking about massive unemployment that’s going nowhere and an economy which shows no sign of ever returning good jobs to this country on a significant scale, even if ‘good times’ do come back sooner or later. We’re talking about an aging, fraying infrastructure – with its collapsing bridges and exploding gas pipelines – that a little cosmetic surgery isn’t going to help."
No matter what sort of brave face Emperor Obama and his generals try to present – or not – the structural problem facing the Empire can’t be fixed with sound bites and promises of Hope and Change.
Without a Hegemon
It would be a safe assumption that proponents and advocates of Empire haven’t actually given up, but rather consider this a passing phase. After all, doesn’t the world hunger for America? Isn’t America a benevolent empire, protecting human rights, punishing the evildoers and promoting democracy? Doesn’t the world need a hyperpower to keep everyone in line?
Well, no. The harder the Empire stomped on the world, the fewer people actually called for the boot. That is only logical. Those who proclaim to love continued American hegemony are Imperial clients who dread the day they may have to fend for themselves.
Nor has America ever been a benevolent empire. Such a thing cannot exist, even in theory. In practice, it has made a mockery of everything it claims to champion, from human rights to democracy and law.
Yet it is the third belief that will cause most trouble. As Engelhardt describes:
"We’ve just gotten way too used to the idea that the United States must be the planet’s preeminent nation, the global hegemon, the sole superpower, numero uno. We’ve convinced ourselves that neither we nor the world can exist without our special management."
A world in which America’s disappearance results in chaos and warfare certainly makes a good backdrop of implausible Australian techno-thrillers, but will it really come to that? Unlikely. The world has carried on quite nicely without global powers for most of history, though. Global imperialism is a late XIX century phenomenon, and its direct result was the XX century bloodbath.
Fears of Russia or China rising as the new global empire are mostly projections by those who cannot imagine the world without a hegemon. There is nothing in Chinese history or culture that would provide a platform for global dominance. Likewise, it wasn’t Russia that sought global influence, but the Soviet Union, driven by the universal ideology of Communism. But Communism is gone, ruined by the demonstrable failure of its concept of society, which treated people as things. Russians and the Chinese have experienced its horrors first-hand. Once bitten, twice shy.
One reason there is no new hegemon lurking below the horizon may be the manifest failure of the American Empire to run the world. If America — the wealthiest society in recorded history, with a military no one could defeat head-on — can fail as a hegemon, then perhaps the entire project is a futile boondoggle to begin with. Autocracy just doesn’t scale well. Humanity resists central control.
Getting rid of something so hypocritical, that doesn’t work, cannot work, and consumes vast amounts of lives and treasure, is surely a good thing. However, there will certainly be blowback, as arrangements around the world set up and maintained by American force and funds become unsustainable. Empire’s clients may decide to use whatever power they have to secure their position, while their enemies may want to "renegotiate" the bargains the Empire forced them to accept at gunpoint. Tragic as these events may be — and they will involve loss of life and property, as all wars do — one should resist the temptation to blame them on Empire’s retreat, when Empire’s meddling to begin with is far more culpable.
What happened to the former Yugoslavia is just one example. Instead of negotiating a peaceful divorce, leaders of many separatist groups enlisted outside support — from Berlin, or Washington — hoping that someone else would fight their wars. This has subsequently happened elsewhere as well. The Empire, of course, pursued its own agenda while doing so; as a result, the "peace" in the Balkans is anything but. And that is just one corner of the world where Imperial meddling has influenced the destinies of millions.
Other questions remain. What will happen to the militant jihad movements, which went global thanks to the Empire? What regional powers may rise, to fill at least some of the vacuum left by Empire’s exit? Last, but not least, how will America itself handle the loss of empire? For too long, America has been an empire in fact, if not in name. The Republic has long since passed out of living memory; it even possible to resurrect it?
The founders patterned the American Republic on ancient Rome. Like Rome, it succumbed to the imperial temptation. Those that believe in determinism will read Gibbon for clues as to what happens next. But history doesn’t have to repeat itself. America was originally founded on that argument. It may yet find redemption in proving it right.