Sunday, September 09, 2007

Bound to Fall? The Coming End of U.S Imperialism

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I don't love the "America-as-empire" meme. But as Dan Nexon points out in the comments to my "What's at Stake in the American Empire Debate?" thread, it's a pretty well-developed line of thought.

David Rieff picks up a bit more on the theme in today's Los Angeles Times:

In Washington these days, people talk a lot about the collapse of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that existed during the Cold War. But however bitter today's disputes are about Iraq or the prosecution of the so-called global war on terrorism, there is one bedrock assumption about foreign policy that remains truly bipartisan: The United States will remain the sole superpower, and the guarantor of international security and global trade, for the foreseeable future. In other words, whatever else may change in the decades to come, the 21st century will be every bit as much of an American century as the 20th.

This assumption rests, in turn, on two interrelated beliefs. The first is that because no country or alliance of states has shown any great desire to challenge U.S. preeminence -- or demonstrated the means of doing so -- no country is going to....

The second is that the world needs the U.S. and appreciates the role it plays. (In some versions of this argument, the world needs the U.S. far more than the U.S. needs the world.) If there have been no serious challenges to American hegemony to date, it is asserted, it is because the U.S. provides what are referred to by foreign policy analysts as "global goods": It maintains political and economic stability around the world, it guarantees a democratic capitalist world order and, by virtue of its unparalleled military strength, it acts as a world policeman of last resort.
Rieff appears up on his international relations theory. But more interesting is his expectation of impending U.S. imperial decline:

It is hardly farfetched to scan the historical record and conclude that self-love and imperialism go together, whether it was the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes insisting that British colonialism in Africa had been "philanthropy plus 5%" or President Bush insisting that it was America's special mission to spread democracy throughout the world. But what the historical record also shows is that imperial moments are, in fact, fleeting, and that hegemony has a shorter and shorter shelf life. The Roman Empire lasted more than 700 years (more than a millennium if you count the Byzantines); the British Empire lasted a little more than 300 years in India and less than a century in much of Africa. The economic challenges facing the U.S. at least suggest that America's time as sole superpower could be shorter still.

Americans, who grow up believing in their country's exceptionalism (which in foreign policy terms often seems to mean not believing that the historical constraints that apply to other nations apply to the U.S.), are not predisposed to believe that American predominance could possibly be coming to an end. And yet it seems more like wishful thinking than rational analysis to believe that the United States -- which in the coming decades will certainly have to adapt to a multipolar world in geo-economic terms, as China and India reoccupy the central place in the global economy that they had 500 years ago -- can continue indefinitely to play a hegemonic role.
I don't discount Rieff's argument in the least (that is, on the eventual decine of U.S leadership - I don't think we're an empire though). The U.S. cannot sustain primacy forever. But depending on one's research reference, it might still be decades - if not centuries - before America's international leadership is challenged (and the country is dislodged from its hegemonic position).

I've blogged a lot about this. However, one of the best recent scholarly arguments on the future of American primacy is Mark L. Haas', "
A Geriatric Peace: The Future of U.S. Power in a World of Aging Populations."

My entry on the Haas piece
is here (I think he makes an excellent case for the demographic bases of continued U.S. preponderance). But see also my entry on Fareed Zakaria, who looks at continued U.S. economic and techological dynamism as the foundation for long-term American primacy.

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