Are we destined for the same fate as that other empire?
At the end of World War II, the US enjoyed geopolitical supremacy unmatched since the Roman empire. Friends and foes had been devastated by the war: millions dead, thousands of towns and cities destroyed, commercial and industrial infrastructure decimated. The only conflict on US soil was Pearl Harbor. Total war casualties were comparatively light. The US had the atomic bomb. American industry was intact, could quickly be retooled for production of civilian goods, and would face limited competition in global markets.
Power corrupts in direct relation to the degree of power; absolute power corrupts absolutely. That leaves only one direction for the occupant of a summit: down. That would be the proper starting point for some future Edward Gibbon, writing a magnum opus on the decline and fall of the American Empire.
The New Deal was a motley menagerie of ineffectual statist nostrums, cover for a naked power grab. The government took control of the economy, credit, the financial system, agriculture, industry, and a much larger share of the gross domestic product. Notwithstanding its unprecedented call on American incomes, it ran record deficits. Opposition was demonized, cowed, or persecuted. The judiciary was reconstituted as a rubber stamp and the Constitution stretched beyond recognition. The New Deal paved the way for further expansion of government control during World War II.
At war’s end, America’s rulers had no intention of relinquishing that control. Conveniently, the Soviet Union, wartime ally but postwar foe, developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. Now the US government had the excuse it needed—the Cold War—to justify global interventionism as “leader of the free world,” and the military and intelligence programs and budgets needed to sustain that role. Leaving office, Eisenhower issued his famous warning about the “military-industrial complex,” but by then it was too late. The establishment would maintain its empire by fair means or foul.
To its “free world” allies the US made an offer they couldn’t refuse. The US would provide their defense and pay the lion’s share of the costs. Trade access would be granted to the US market, often without reciprocal access to the foreign market. In return, the ally gave up its sovereignty, its ability to conduct an independent military or foreign policy. The dollar was the reserve currency, and trade in oil, the world’s most important commodity, was to be conducted in dollars. Countries which ran trade surpluses with the US were expected to recycle their excess dollars back into US government debt.
The velvet-glove treatment for its friends doesn’t hide the iron fist. The US has ways of dealing with regimes it doesn’t like, and enemies of the regimes it does. US military and intelligence traffic in regime change, revolutions, direct wars, proxy wars, repression, subversion, sabotage, subterfuge, and espionage against “hostile” regimes, while propping up dictatorships, euphemized as “authoritarian regimes,” that toe the US line. The US provides its allies with arms; intervenes in their wars; trains militaries, intelligence agencies, and secret police; doles out “development assistance,” financing, and bribes; rigs elections; propagandizes on their behalf, and goes to bat for them in international forums.
Corruption’s silver lining is that it carries the seeds of its own destruction. Unfortunately, demise always takes too long.
Money backed only by a promise―always broken―not to manufacture too much of it is corrupt by definition. In 1971, Richard Nixon removed the reserve from the reserve currency, “temporarily” suspending the dollar’s convertibility into gold (it has never been reinstated). The empire was free to flood the world with its flimsy fiat currency and fiat debt. Its vendors and creditors at home and abroad could accept the paper or pound sand.
Or they could start tightening their terms. It was a long time coming, but interest rates probably reached a generational low on July 6, 2016. Only the machinations of its captive central bank had kept rates trending downward for as long as they did. In a world carrying a record debt load, plus an unsustainable pile of pension and medical care promises, with virtually every income stream pledged and asset mortgaged, creditors call the tune on the availability and price of credit. The US empire will find its debt increasingly costly, central banks likely the main buyer.
That the world’s “best” military hasn’t won a war since World War II is an important clue about what wars have become. They’re another welfare state scam. Defense and intelligence contractors, their lobbyists, pro-intervention think tanks, corrupt foreign governments, and their lobbyists are gravy train gluttons plumping for never-ending war. Winning would be tragic.
Welfare corrupts the recipients and the government doling it out. Evidence of corruption is ubiquitous. Washington area incomes are the highest in the nation. Cities and infrastructure crumble. The $20 plus trillion national debt climbs relentlessly higher. Educational and medical systems are failing. Opioid abuse, obesity, and suicide skyrocket. Much of the Middle East and Northern Africa lie in smoldering ruins from US-sponsored wars. Millions have been wounded or killed. Many of the US soldiers who survived those wars are broken and bitter. As legendary political analyst Ringo Starr once observed, everything government gets its corrupt hands on turns to crap.
When an empire is bent on turning the whole world into crap, there’s bound to be pushback. Russia and China have long chafed under US unipolarity. They have, for the most part, sidestepped the US’s inane interventionism and quest for global dominance. In part to counter US hegemony, they are reaching agreements with myriad nations in trade, finance, infrastructure, economic development, and military security. Not surprisingly, much of the world is more receptive to that approach than bluster, bribes, bullets, and bombs.
US vassals Europe, South Korea, and Japan are questioning their vassalage. Why should a currency its issuer can create at will continue as the reserve currency? Are Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran actual military threats? If not, why go along with US sanctions and trade restrictions? Why not seek access to those markets, and to Russian and Chinese-led development efforts? Why should Europe bear the brunt of terrorist and refugee blowback from the US’s Middle East and Northern Africa fiascos? Why not question the arrangements that have been in place for decades, especially when America has a president who is questioning them from the American perspective? Do we vassals have the fortitude to fend for ourselves and thus reclaim our sovereignty?
Donald Trump deserves credit for asking questions from the American perspective. What has the US got from its interventionism other than stalemates, carnage, and trillions of dollars down the drain? If such adventures in imperialism make no sense, does empire itself make sense? Perhaps there are gains to be had by reaching out to our adversaries.
As for our friends, Trump upset apple carts at the G-7 imbroglio when he argued the one-sided trade access the US has granted as a requisite cost of empire no longer makes sense. It’s partially responsible for the trade deficit, the hollowing of American manufacturing, and a loss of jobs. The countries enjoying the benefits of the US military shield are wealthy and can afford conventional defenses, even if, as likely, they remain under the US nuclear umbrella.
The swamp’s most noxious denizens lurk in the empire’s military-industrial-intelligence backwater, swimming in their own excrement. Russiagate reveals the depths of their toxic and terminal corruption. The question is whether or not they’ll finish pulling the rest of the country into the sewage. Can America reject the filth and change course? The answer determines if America ever lives up to its founding promise, or if the present day is merely a middle chapter in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.