America is simply the latest in a long line of empires, having secured this position following World War II when Europe had to rebuild and England dismantled its colonies in India and elsewhere. Ours is not an empire of colonies but of “economic domination”, with a reinforcing global military presence.
But what comes next? Will China be the next empire, or are we entering a multipolar world with no sole superpower? Dilip Hiro’s newest book, After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World, suggests the latter, pointing to the resistance to American power from multiple sectors – Russia, Iran, Venezuela, China and India among others.
Russia fell following the breakup of the Soviet Union, but rose to prominence once more under eight years of Vladimir Putin. As of 2008, the country had the third largest foreign currency and gold reserves. What helped Russia become an economic giant again was the nationalization of the energy sector, allowing oil profits to go into the government’s coffers and become distributed to populist programs, reducing poverty. All of Europe depends on Russia for its oil and natural gas, with Hungary and Finland completely reliant. Gazprom, Russia’s national energy company, became the third largest corporation by market value, behind Exxon and General Electric, when gas prices exploded from 1998-2006. As the nation grew powerful, so did the individual. The average Russian wage increased ninefold as the GDP soared. (Caveat: Monthly wages in 1998 averaged $70, so a ninefold increase still leaves many in poverty.)
Iran has had a tense relationship with America, beginning in the 1950s with a CIA coup, through the 1980s with the Iran-Iraq conflict, and the more recent claim that they are in an “axis of evil”. We have rejected talks with Iran with the simplistic reasoning that “we don’t talk to evil.” A poll of Middle Eastern countries in 2008 suggested a rising support for Iran over America due to our support of Israel over Palestine. This and other American foreign policies gave Iran a boost. Besides the Palestinian issue, US-supported leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Iranian neighbors, embrace Shia Islam and thus align culturally with Iran. On top of all this, Iran has enough natural gas to last 450 years and oil until 2095. This guarantees a steady income from their number one customer, China. No Middle Eastern nation has more influence than Iran, and by rejecting an alliance with them, America loses out.
Venezuela rose to dominance within South America in the early 2000s. Hiro suggests that Washington’s support for Hugo Chavez’s overthrow “showed that the Bush administration’s commitment to democracy was skin deep”, but I suspect South America had no such illusions with nearby Chile still recovering from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Chavez created ALBA, a trade agreement amongst South American nations modeled on Venezuela’s exchange with Cuba of oil for doctors. ALBA reached eight members in 2009. Chavez brought poverty from 43% to under 30% within ten years, and expanded the private sector’s share of GDP, a slap in the face to those who falsely labeled him a socialist dictator. The military grew, too, with Venezuela becoming the second largest buyer of Russian weaponry behind Algeria. Venezuela purchased Argentina’s debt, helping them escape their need for the IMF. Bank of the South was set up to handle the job of the IMF, largely seen as a tool of North America. And “Unasur” was proposed, a union of South American countries modeled on the European Union. Venezuela by itself could not be a global player, but by aligning with other regional forces, the balance of power could shift considerably.
China has become the workshop of the world, and American power bows to them. Within two and a half years, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson visited China over 70 times. We rely on China so much to invest in our debt that when China threatened to stop doing so, President Bush agreed to stop criticism of their policies. They produce 80% of the world’s electronics, 70% of plastics and 60% of electrical goods. China has reached a level of industrialization in 30 years that took Europe more than 200 years. They have the most favorable view of any country by Africans at over 70% — America is viewed as 42% favorable. China is also seen as more of a benign power, and Americans are seen as exploiters. One reason for China’s success is their encouragement of children to learn English, helping them get a foothold internationally. In January 2009, China reached 300 million Internet users, accounting for a substantial share of online opinion and influence. China’s military is also self-reliant, keeping costs within their border, with their J-10 fighter jet being equal to an American F-16 and producing submarines at five times the American rate.
But the biggest threat is not from outside — Hiro says President Bush hastened the empire’s end through overreacting to 9/11, starting two wars, reducing taxes, alienating our allies and unleashing a “financial tsunami” via reckless fiscal policy. “As the trajectory of every imperial power since the Roman Empire shows, a great power brings about its decline by overextending its reach.” Indeed, Bush did turn a $120 billion surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit, which conservatives incorrectly say was an unavoidable response to terrorism. And his war in Iraq did serve to foment, rather than quash, terrorist cells while alienating our allies abroad. And for the first time in the United Nations, American-supported resolutions that ended up passing fell below 25% in 2006.
To blame the 2007-2008 financial meltdown on Bush, like Hiro does, is unfair. While one cannot deny that his policies did little to prevent the crash, he should not bear the burden alone. Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan had been painting a rosy picture for years, and the deregulation that caused the most damage was enacted on Clinton’s watch. The rise and fall of the financial sector cannot be blamed on partisan actions; the world of big business has overshadowed politics of every stripe.
Hiro is naively partisan with regards to America’s future, saying, “McCain’s defeat marked the end of the Reaganite phase of capitalism, which stressed deregulation of markets, in the United States.” On the contrary, President Obama has largely “stayed the course” on this path to ruin. And although he has been friendlier with other nations than Bush was, the administration has its limits. VP Joe Biden was stern with Iran, saying, “Stop uranium enrichment; stop supporting terrorism.” More of the same “do as I say, not as I do” that pushes countries away.
The American Empire’s end is inevitable, what matters is on how we adjust to this realization. We can cry out in denial and continue our unsustainable policies, or we can accept that the world does not need to be run by one person – perhaps not even “run” at all. Two of our greatest leaders — Washington and Lincoln — lived in a time when America was one of many great nations, with no “leader of the free world”. It is through strategic alliances and coalitions, not unilateral force, that we can continue to remain relevant.