What Makes the American Empire Tick?

To understand the impact that the fall of the American empire would have, it is crucial to understand what global empires are historically, how they operate and what causes collapse.

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building

The American empire doesn’t exist because its the only nation interested in goods, services or resources, but because those resources pump wealth from other nations into its own.

Photo by Fotolia/lar01joka

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Can the American empire survive? In Decline and Fall (New Society Publishers, 2014), author John Michael Greer reasons that it cannot. Shedding new light on the misunderstood idea of empire and the costs of imperial overstretch, Greer shows how the US has backed itself into a corner in the pursuit of political and economic power and explores the inevitable consequences of imperial collapse. The following excerpt from the prologue, “Understanding Empire,” details what defines an “empire” and provides historical references for those that came before the United States.

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Understanding Empire

The decline and imminent fall of America’s global empire is the most important geopolitical fact in today’s world. It is also the least discussed. Politicians, generals, diplomats, and intelligence analysts around the world are already wrestling with the immense challenges posed by America’s accelerating downfall, and trying to position themselves and their countries to prosper — or at least to survive — in the impending chaos of a post-American world. Outside the corridors of power, by contrast, few people anywhere seem to be aware of the tsunami of change that is about to break over their heads.

That needs to change. This book is an attempt to start a conversation that needs to happen, especially, but not only, in America — a conversation about the end of American empire and what will come after it.

In order to make sense of the impact that the fall of America’s empire is going to have on all our lives in the decades ahead, it is crucial to understand what empires are, what makes them tick, and what makes them collapse. To do that, however, it will be necessary to bundle up an assortment of unhelpful assumptions and misunderstandings of history and chuck them into the compost.

We can start with the verbal habit of using empire — or more exactly, the capitalized abstraction Empire — as what S. I. Hayakawa used to call a “snarl word”: a content-free verbal noise that’s used to express feelings of hatred. The language of politics these days consists largely of snarl words. When people on the leftward end of the political spectrum say “fascist,” or “Empire,” for example, more often than not these words mean exactly what “socialist” or “liberal” mean to people on the right — that is, they express the emotional state of the speaker rather than anything relevant about the object under discussion. Behind this common habit is one of the more disturbing trends in contemporary political life: setting aside ordinary disagreement in favor of seething rage against a demonized Other on whom all the world’s problems can conveniently be blamed.

The need to sidestep this habit makes it urgent to get past the currently popular custom of using terms like “Empire” as snarl words, and recover their actual meaning as descriptions of specific forms of human political, economic, and social interaction. Getting rid of that initial capital letter, arbitrary as it seems, is one step in the right direction. The younger President Bush’s administration was able to disguise a stack of dubious motives and justify a misguided rush to war by converting the tangled reality of Muslim resentment and radical militancy into the capitalized abstraction of Terror. In a similar fashion, many people on the other side of the political spectrum have covered equally dubious motives and justified equally unproductive actions by converting the tangled realities of influence, authority, and privilege in modern industrial states into the capitalized abstraction of Empire. The so-called Global War on Terror, of course, turned out to be an expensive flop, and much of what passes for “fighting Empire,” though a good deal less costly in blood and money, has been no more productive.

In this book, then, I will be discussing empires, not Empire, and as soon as some initial questions of definition are taken care of, I will be discussing specific empires — the one the United States currently maintains, primarily, but also the British Empire that preceded it, and several others that cast useful light on the American empire’s past, present, and future. One striking detail, of course, sets today’s American empire apart from most of its predecessors: the curious fact that the only people these days willing to admit in public that the United States has an empire are almost always those who denounce it.

That’s a very rare thing in the history of empires. As recently as the late nineteenth century, the world’s empires proudly claimed that title, and those who argued that the United States should hurry up and get an empire of its own saw no need to cover that ambition with euphemisms. The popular rhetoric of that era celebrated the huge European empires of the day — especially that of Britain, which covered a quarter of the planet’s land surface and had effective control over all its oceans — and insisted that since imperial rule brought peace and the benefits of European civilization to the rest of the world, it was a good thing for all concerned.

This same case has been made in recent years by a handful of conservative intellectuals, notably the historian Niall Ferguson, and a certain number of facts can be cited in its support. Periods when one imperial power dominates any given system of nations tend to be periods of relative peace and stability, while periods that lack such a centralized power tend to be racked by wars and turmoil. Imperial Britain’s century of world dominion from 1815 to 1914, for example, featured fewer wars — in Europe, at least — than any comparable period up to that time, and American dominion since 1945 has imposed an even more rigid peace on that fractious continent.

Outside Europe, to be sure, the imperial rule of Britain was a good deal less peaceful, and that of the United States has not been much better. Furthermore, peace, stability, and a Victorian ideal of good government for the natives are not necessarily the only benefits by which to measure. By this I don’t mean to bring up such intangibles as freedom and self-determination, though of course they also have a place in any meaningful moral calculus. The issue I have in mind is one of cold hard economics.

A broader view of history may be useful here. The first explorers to venture outwards from Europe into the wider world encountered civilizations that were far wealthier than anything back home. After returning to Italy from the Far East in 1295, Marco Polo was mocked as “Marco Millions” for stories of China’s vast riches, which later travelers found to be largely accurate. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first European voyage around the southern tip of Africa and on to India in 1497, he and his crew were stunned by the extraordinary prosperity of the Indian society they encountered. When Hernán Cortes reached the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlán in 1519, similarly, it was easily among the most populous cities on the planet — current estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000 within the city alone, and another million in the urban region surrounding it — as well as one of the richest.

A few centuries later, at the zenith of Europe’s age of empire, China, India, and Mexico ranked among the world’s poorest nations, while England, which had been a soggy backwater on the fringes of Europe known mostly for codfish and wool, was one of its richest. In 1600, for example, India accounted for an estimated 24 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, while all of Britain managed around 3 percent. Three centuries later India was among the most poverty-stricken nations on Earth, while England had become the center of the global economy.

Plenty of reasons have been advanced for this astonishing reversal, but there are times when the obvious explanation is also the correct one, and this is one of those. To make the point more clearly, consider that the 5 percent of humanity that lives in the United States of America uses around a quarter of the world’s energy and roughly a third of its raw materials and industrial product. This disproportionate share of the world’s wealth doesn’t come to us because the rest of the world doesn’t want such things, or because the United States manufactures some good or provides some service so desirable to the rest of the world that other nations vie with each other to buy it from us. Quite the contrary; the United States produced very little during much of its empire’s most prosperous period, and the rest of the world’s population is by and large just as interested in energy, raw materials, and industrial product as Americans are.

It’s considered distinctly impolite to suggest that the real reason behind the disparity is related to the fact that the United States has more than five hundred military bases on other nations’ territory, and spends on its armed forces every year roughly the same amount as the military budgets of every other nation on Earth put together. Here again, though, the obvious explanation is the correct one. Between 1945 and 2008, the United States was the world’s dominant imperial power, filling the same role in the global political system that Britain filled during its own age of empire, and while that imperial arrangement had plenty of benefits, by and large they flowed in one direction only.

With this in mind, we can move to a meaningful definition of empire. An empire is an arrangement among nations, backed and usually imposed by military force, which extracts wealth from a periphery of subject nations and concentrates it in the imperial core. Put more simply, an empire is a wealth pump, a device to enrich one nation at the expense of others. The mechanism of the pump varies from empire to empire and from age to age; the straightforward exaction of tribute that did the job for ancient Egypt, and had another vogue in the time of imperial Spain, has been replaced in most of the more recent empires by somewhat less blatant though equally effective systems of unbalanced exchange. While the mechanism varies, though, the underlying principle does not.

None of this would have raised any eyebrows at all in a discussion of the mechanics of empire, in America or elsewhere, during the late nineteenth century. Such discussions took place, in the mass media of the time as well as in the corridors of power, and it was widely understood that the point to having an empire was precisely that it made your nation rich. That’s why the United States, after a series of bitter public debates that will be discussed in a later chapter, committed itself to the path of empire in the 1890s, and it’s why every nation in western Europe either had or desperately wanted an overseas empire — even Belgium had its own little vest pocket empire in Africa, and exploited it ruthlessly.

The near-total domination of the world by European empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in conjunction with the popular racism of the time — Kipling’s pompous blather about “the white man’s burden”  was embarrassingly typical for its era — has given rise in some circles to the notion that there’s something uniquely European or, more precisely, uniquely white about empire. In reality, of course, the peoples of Europe and the European diaspora were by and large Johnny-come-latelies to the business of empire.

Ancient Egypt, as already mentioned, was as creative in this as in so many other of the arts of civilization, and had a thriving empire that extended far south along the Nile and north along the Mediterranean coast. The great arc of city-states that extended from modern Turkey through the Tigris and Euphrates valleys and the mountains and plateaus further east to the Indus Valley gave rise to dozens of empires at a time when Europe was a patchwork of illiterate tribal societies whose inhabitants still thought bronze was high tech. China had its own ancient and highly successful empire, and half a dozen other east Asian nations copied the Chinese model and pursued their own dreams of imperial expansion and enrichment. Sub-Saharan Africa had at least a dozen great empires, while the Aztecs were only the latest in a long history of Native American empires as splendid and predatory as anything the Old World had to offer. Empire is one of the most common patterns by which nations relate to one another, and emerges spontaneously whenever one nation has a sufficient preponderance of power to exploit another.

Empires have thus been around for a long time. The evidence of history suggests that they show up promptly once agriculture becomes stable and sophisticated enough to support urban centers, and go away only when urban life also breaks down. Anyone interested in tracking the rise and fall of empires thus has anything up to five thousand years of fairly detailed information from the Old World, and well over three thousand years from the New — plenty of data, one might think, for a coherent picture to emerge.

Reprinted with permission from Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America by John Michael Greer and published by New Society Publishers, 2014.