Are we seeing the decline of the American empire? Not long ago, historians said we were experiencing the end of history with the ending of the Cold War and the Soviet Empire, and with the USA becoming the sole superpower. Within a decade much has changed. Historians (I am not one) should be able to explain what is happening, based on the demise of other empires like the Roman, Ottoman and British, but the lessons have proved hard to extract and each decline appears to be a somewhat unique case.
I am interested in the rise and fall of the British Empire, and from this case suggest the following to note about today:
1. The British Empire spanned the years 1500 to approximately 1965. Rapid growth occurred from 1800 to 1914, at which time the empire reached its pinnacle but in a weakened state. Decline took place over the next half century.
2. The decline started in the late 19th century as the UK was forced to compete with other European powers for colonies in Africa and other places. It was weakened further economically as a result of WW1, the depression of the 1930s, WW2, and increased debts owed to the US and other countries.
3. Politically, the loss of empire was aided by widespread pressure for decolonization and independence for countries of the empire, promoted strongly by the US, which in the 18th century had been a revolting colony – or 13 of them.
4. A bipolar world evolved after 1945 with the USSR and the USA as the two superpowers. This lasted until the meltdown of the USSR after 1989 leaving the US as the sole imperial power, although it would not have called itself an empire.
5. Two questions are, what has happened over the past decade, and can the US be said to be in imperial decline? A third asks whether this is in any way similar to what happened to the British Empire?
First some observations: the USA is itself an outgrowth of the British Empire. The thirteen colonies which revolted were part of the that empire, as arguably is the remainder of the US on the mainland and overseas. The Americans took over from the British as imperialists and have continued to behave as such with overseas excursions into, amongst others, Afghanistan, Cuba, Granada, Haiti, Iraq, Panama, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The US has become the major economic world influence with the dollar as the sole global currency, at least for the moment, and a large foreign trader and investor. The US is also a major player in world institutions like the UN and its organizations such as the WTO, and in NATO.
In the same way that the UK suffered from imperial overreach, as Paul Kennedy and others have shown, the US is now experiencing similar pressures. Its budget is hugely in deficit. Its debt is rising. A serious recession is being experienced, with well paying jobs being lost and high unemployment experienced. Although 91% of the workforce remains employed, much higher unemployment exists among young and poor people than the average of 9% reflects. Income inequality has also reached a level which causes political unrest at home; the “occupy” movement reflects these circumstances.
The military budget of the US of $698bn, or 4.7% of GDP, is equal to that of the next largest 23 countries. (Saudi Arabia has a budget of 11.7% of GDP; the 24th largest country, Iran, has a budget of $9bn, 1.3% of the US budget.) Arguably, the US acts as the global police force for the world and in its own interest, but in the process may bankrupt the country, or cause its own sovereign debt crisis if investors ever become reluctant to buy US government debt. Towards the end of the British Empire, the UK at times found it increasingly expensive to borrow from abroad.
Domestically in the US, we are witnessing a political comedy in the workings of Congress and the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. To outsiders, the nine Republicans presidential contenders provide more amusement than Jim Henson’s muppets or reruns of Monty Python. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show delivers a scathing but accurate account of domestic US politics. The operations of Congress are, as Stewart shows, pathetic to observe, but wonderful material for a new Gilbert and Sullivan opera. In the New York Times, David Brooks espouses a similar view. This is what respected commentators in the US are saying about themselves, as the approval rating for Congress sinks to an all-time low of 9%. This is scary for both allies and enemies of the US, because no one knows what the elected members will do next, and how other countries will react. Social media provide mass distribution around the world for both the good and bad news.
The future is always uncertain but perhaps more so today. Twelve months ago, there were no predictions of the Arab spring in North Africa and today’s fall out in Syria, or for what might emerge in places like Saudi Arabia which has already sent troops into Bahrein. Now China is making noises about its role in the South China Sea which, added to its relations with Taiwan, could cause instability in this part of Asia. While the UK decline took place in a world with different postwar conditions, many of the unknowns and circumstances then have similarities to those we are now observing.
In sum, it appears that today the US is experiencing similar but not identical domestic and foreign forces to those experienced by the UK in its declining years. Well before its supposed peak in the 1900s, the UK’s European neighbours were testing its position, and there was a severe economic recession in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Today reveals similarities for the US, and it may already be in decline. If so, what comes next? Many point to China. Maybe, but be prepared to be surprised by what no-one foresees at present. Political and economic forecasting is about as good as the weather forecast for the next 48 hours. Beyond that, all is unknown. Finally, if the US Empire is an extension of the British Empire, then we may be witnessing the final death throws of the British Empire.