by Kirkpatrick Sale
It is quite ironic: only a decade or so after the idea of the United States as an imperial power came to be accepted by both right and left, and people were able to talk openly about an American empire, it is showing multiple signs of its inability to continue. Indeed, it is now possible to contemplate its collapse.
The neocons in power in Washington these days, who were delighted to talk about America as the sole empire in the world following the Soviet disintegration, will of course refuse to believe in any such collapse. But I think it behooves us to examine seriously the ways in which the U.S. system is so drastically imperiling itself that it will cause not only the collapse of its worldwide empire but vast changes on the domestic front as well.
All empires eventually collapse. Sumerian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Hapsburg, British, Soviet, you name them, they all fell, and most within a few hundred years. The reasons are not really complex. An empire is a kind of state system that makes the same mistakes simply by nature of its structure and inevitably fails because of its size, complexity, territorial reach, stratification, domination, and inequalities.
In my reading of the history of empires, I see four reasons that explain their collapse. Let me set them out, in reference to the present American empire.
- Environmental Degradation
Empires end by destroying the lands and waters they depend upon for survival, largely because they build and farm and grow without limits. Ours is no exception, even if we have yet to experience the worst of our assaults on nature. Science is in agreement that all important ecological indicators are in decline and have been so for decades. As the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson has said, after lengthy examination of human impact on the earth, our “ecological footprint is already too large for the planet to sustain, and it is getting larger.” A Defense Department study last year predicted “abrupt climate change,” likely to occur within the decade, leading to “catastrophic” shortages of water and energy, endemic “disruption and conflict,” warfare that “would define human life,” and a “significant drop” in the planet’s ability to sustain its present population. End of empire for sure, maybe end of civilization.
- Economic Meltdown
Empires depend on excessive resource exploitation, usually derived from colonies farther and farther away from the center, and eventually fall when the resources are exhausted or become too expensive for all but the elite. This is the exact path we are on. Our economy is built on a fragile system in which the world produces and we, by and large, consume. At the moment we sustain a nearly $630 billion trade deficit with the rest of the world. It has leapt by an incredible $500 billion since 1993, and $180 billion since George Bush took office in 2001. In order to pay for that, we require an inflow of cash from the rest of the world of about $1 billion every day. That kind of excess is simply unsustainable, especially when you realize that it is the other world empire, China, that is supporting it, to the tune of some $83 billion on loan to the U.S. Treasury.
Add to that an economy resting on a nearly $500 billion federal budget deficit, making up part of the total national debt of $7.4 trillion as of fall 2004. Nobody thinks that is sustainable either, which is why the dollar is losing value fast, and the world is beginning to lose faith in investment here. In just a few years the dollar may be so battered that the oil states will no longer want to operate in that currency and will turn to the euro instead, and China will let the yuan float against the dollar, effectively making this nation bankrupt and powerless, unable to control economic life within its borders, much less abroad.
- Military Overstretch
Empires are by definition colonizers, always forced to extend their military reach farther and farther, and enlarge it against unwilling colonies more and more, until coffers are exhausted, troops are unreliable, and the periphery can no longer be controlled. The American empire, which began its worldwide reach well before Bush II, now has some 446,000 active troops at more than 725 acknowledged (and any number of secret) bases in at least 38 countries, plus a formal “military presence” in no less than 153 countries, and no less than a dozen fully armed courier fleets on the oceans. And now that Bush has declared war on “terror,” instead of the more winnable war on Al-Qaeda we should have waged, our armies and agents will be on a universal and permanent battlefield.
So far that military network has not collapsed, but as Iraq indicates, it is mightily tested and quite incapable of establishing client states to do our bidding and protect resources we want. As anti-American sentiment continues to spread, and, as more countries refuse the “structural adjustments” our IMF-led globalization requires, the periphery of our empire will likely begin resisting us, militarily if necessary. Far from having the capacity to fight two wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon once hoped, we are proving that we can barely fight one.
- Domestic Upheaval
Traditional empires collapse from within, as well as often being attacked from without. So far the level of dissent within the United States has not reached the point of rebellion or secession—thanks both to the increasing repression of dissent and escalation of fear in the name of “homeland security” and to the success of our modern version of bread and circuses: a unique combination of entertainment, consumption, drugs, and religion that effectively deadens the general public into a stupor.
It’s hard to believe that the great mass of the American public would ever bestir itself to challenge the empire at home until things get much, much worse. It is a public, after all, of which a 2004 Gallup poll found that 61 percent believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems.” According to a 2002 Time/CNN poll, 59 percent believe in the imminent apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation and take every threat and disaster as evidence of God’s will.
And yet, it’s also hard to believe that a nation so thoroughly corrupt as this, resting on a social and economic base of intolerably unequal incomes and property, will be able to sustain itself for long. The upsurge in talk about secession after the last election, some of which is deadly serious, indicates that at least a minority is willing to think about drastic steps to “alter or abolish” an empire it finds itself fundamentally at odds with.
Those four processes by which empires fall seem to me to be inescapable, in varying degrees, in this latest empire. And I think a combination of them will bring about its collapse within the next fifteen years or so.
Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse details the ways societies crumble and suggests that American society, or industrial civilization as a whole, can learn from the failures of the past and avoid such fates. But it will never happen, for a reason Diamond himself explains. As he says, in his analysis of the doomed Norse society of Greenland that collapsed in the early fifteenth century, “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.”
If this is so, and his examples certainly support it, then we can isolate the values that have been responsible for American society’s greatest triumphs and know that we will cling to them no matter what. They are, in one rough mixture, capitalism, individualism, nationalism, technophilia, and humanism (as the dominance of humans over nature). There is no chance, no matter how grave and obvious the threat, that as a society we will abandon those.
Hence no chance to escape the collapse of empire.