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The last days of the American Empire

Posted on December 25th, 2010 in Government,History,Politics by Robert Miller

My guess is that most Americans have thought about the long-term future of our country, but immediately relegate the issue to the back burner of their brain because it seems too far away and too remote from today’s more pressing set of problems. Besides, isn’t someone else supposed to take care of these issues for us–the long-range planning stuff? Well historian Alfred McCoy has targeted his lens on the near future of America and does not see a very pretty outcome down the road in ten to twenty years. His projections paint a dire future for the American Empire: he suggests that we will lose our empire status sometime in the 2020s and projects that it will not be possible for America to keep her global empire abroad while facing destruction in our standard of living here at home: they are related to one another and always have been. We managed to live as we have so far, with erosion of our domestic standards and got away with it because no one was around to challenge us. But that has changed, especially in the last decade, with the rapid growth of the Asian economy, especially that of China.  McCoy has assembled a group of 130 scholars from four different continents whose mission is to evaluate how empires decline. In a timely way, they have collectively deliberated on the prospects for future continuity of the American Empire. One of the central questions they have addressed is whether the United States can continue the global hegemony we have maintained since WW II, as we face new realities here at home, including a decline in our standard of living, a need to rely increasingly on imported oil,  a sluggish economy, and an erosion in our standards of education, science and technology.

You can view a summary of the McCoy project at the University of Wisconsin (where McCoy is a history professor) Harvey Goldberg Center website. This effort has been defined as the “Empires in Transition Project”, which led to a publication last year “Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009). McCoy has also written a recent summary of this work, “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire”, which can be viewed at the TomDispatch website. No matter what you may think of doomsday prophecies, you don’t want to miss McCoy’s article. It is a sobering view of the future we face, as the resources we used to rely on, such as the energetic inventive economic dynamism that served as the basis of our success after the Second World War has been dissipated to the point where we are increasingly less competitive in the world we still want to dominate. There is a huge mismatch in our will to dominate the world and the backing we have to match our intentions. McCoy’s article was written to alarm us about the future of our country and it undoubtedly achieves its objective. The projected scenarios for our future are partially based on an assessment by the National Intelligence Committee (see below; from the McCoy’s article):

Today, three main threats exist to America’s dominant position in the global economy: loss of economic clout thanks to a shrinking share of world trade, the decline of American technological innovation, and the end of the dollar’s privileged status as the global reserve currency.”

“By 2008, the United States had already fallen to number three in global merchandise exports, with just 11% of them compared to 12% for China and 16% for the European Union.  There is no reason to believe that this trend will reverse itself.”

“Similarly, American leadership in technological innovation is on the wane. In 2008, the U.S. was still number two behind Japan in worldwide patent applications with 232,000, but China was closing fast at 195,000, thanks to a blistering 400% increase since 2000.  A harbinger of further decline: in 2009 the U.S. hit rock bottom in ranking among the 40 nations surveyed by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation when it came to “change” in “global innovation-based competitiveness” during the previous decade.  Adding substance to these statistics, in October China’s Defense Ministry unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A, so powerful, said one U.S. expert, that it “blows away the existing No. 1 machine” in America.”

If you thought that empires decay very slowly and that America will be given plenty of time for error correction to avoid the anticipated crash, McCoy’s message is this– think again! His point is that great empires are fragile entities and unravel very quickly (from the TomDispatch article):

So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.

McCoy suggests that future historians will mark 2003 as the beginning of the end of the American Empire; that was the year in which GW Bush hoodwinked the country into invading Iraq. He bookends the end of the American Empire taking place between 2020 and 2030, the projected decade in which the Chinese economy will become larger than that of the United States. In 2050, India’s economy is projected to overtake that of the U.S. But it is not the second place status of the American economy that puts the United States in jeopardy of empire decay according to McCoy. It is an over extension of power, too much debt and too little investment in supporting the strengths of a modern civilization, including education, science and technology. The disinvestment strategy we have had towards to elemental features of a thriving culture has us in line for a hard landing in our international relations and dominance.  The projected end however will be unlike that of Rome, which was sacked as its empire was destroyed and the city ravaged. The end of the American Empire is more likely to be through our economic decay and collapse from excessive debt, abandonment of the dollar as the international currency mark, accompanied by holding onto our military bases far too long; the actual projected ending has one of four possible outcomes, one of which includes the loss of a cyberwar with China, which we could lose because by then the Chinese will have better and faster computers and more sophisticated satellite capabilities, driven by better trained scientists and technologists. We are already weaponizing space where the next and last war may take place and be won or lost without a single life given up before victory is secured.

What is most interesting about McCoy’s hypotheses is that they were derived from our own National Intelligence Council estimate of 2008, based on the fact that we have been responsible for one of the greatest transfers of wealth in the history of the world (West to East; quoting from the article):

Significantly, in 2008, the U.S. National Intelligence Council admitted for the first time that America’s global power was indeed on a declining trajectory. In one of its periodic futuristic reports, Global Trends 2025, the Council cited “the transfer of global wealth and economic power now under way, roughly from West to East” and “without precedent in modern history,” as the primary factor in the decline of the “United States’ relative strength — even in the military realm.” Like many in Washington, however, the Council’s analysts anticipated a very long, very soft landing for American global preeminence, and harbored the hope that somehow the U.S. would long “retain unique military capabilities… to project military power globally” for decades to come.”

So McCoy’s group has merely applied the 2008 NIC estimate, but removed the slow decay factor and replaced it with a more rapid one commensurate with historical reality. The idea that the United States would have a long period of global dominance in the face of its declining power and influence is precisely what McCoy argues is not supported by the historical record of empires–they can spin out of dominance very quickly and it seems likely that we will follow such a path over the next ten to twenty years.  If China should impose a new form of global dominance, let’s just remember who financed their rise to power–yes we did it!

It has always been my gut reaction that America is a country that should never go to war unless it is absolutely unavoidable. The supposedly unavoidable wars for us were WW II and our own Revolutionary War. All the others were optional and had we insisted on a more just peace at the end of WW I, at the Paris peace conference, as Wilson had promised, WW II would almost surely never have happened, at least not on the scale that took place. The reason I give for America as a country that shouldn’t go to war is that virtually every conflict we have engaged in, especially those since the Korean War,  have produced a huge controversy here at home and contributed significantly to the deep polarization we see in the domestic politics of today. It seems like every new war produces a new fissure in America. The Vietnam War is still with us today and was  lurking around the corner as John Kerry discovered with the Swift Boat antagonists to his bid for the Presidency as they appeared with force and heavy funding in 2004. So successful were the Swift Boaters, that exit polls on the day of election showed that the majority polled did not believe Kerry was a Vietnam hero entitled to medals.  One has to recognize that the current level of polarization politics in our country is designed to prevent us from having a discussion about whether it is wise for us to continue with our global dominance policies, which includes the $ billions we spend on maintaining hundreds of military bases throughout the planet. If we were able to have that discussion, we would certainly be in a better position to avoid the hard fall that McCoy is talking about. Of course, this is not just McCoy, but more than a hundred other historians who have contributed to this project, which tries to identify common threads in the decline of imperial powers: empires never last and our projected future by this group suggests that the American Empire will not last more than a hundred years, from the close of WW II to the projected decade of 2020-2030. We cannot respond to this threat in front of us because we live with the false narratives of our country that have us hopelessly divided and truly naive about the rest of the world. According to McCoy, we are nearly half way home to the bewitching hour, when we will see that the emperor or empire has no clothes.

According to McCoy, the victor in this struggle is likely to be the multinational corporations: the struggle for this century will be centered around global energy and international currency. China’s central bank officer has suggested that the future might lie with a global reserve currency, “disconnected from individual states” (namly the U.S. dollar). Such a move is now openly discussed and would likely lead to massive inflation of the dollar and make our energy imports that much more expensive, bringing on a fiscal crisis unlike anything seen since the Great Depression and far worse than what we are going through today. Under such conditions, defaulting on U.S. Treasuries is not out of the question and could add further to the American index of misery. Such an event would force us to bring home troops stationed at our bases throughout the world and adopt a more perimeter troop distribution.  Of course, it is always possible that some charismatic American leader could come along and plunge us into wars over oil, but a cyberwar could end that likelihood if the weaponization of space, which was supposed to be our ace in the hole, turned out to favor the Chinese.

We don’t generally give lots of attention to historians who try to project the future. Their main contribution is interpreting the past, and usually we take them more seriously when they are dealing with a much older past rather than a more recent one.  Yet there is an uneasy feeling in America and the McCoy group is not talking nonsense when they cite the facts that support their arguments and conclusions.  Ten to twenty years is not a lot of time to react with a new strategy that would give us a much softer landing, even though it seems likely that we will have to give up thinking and acting as if we still ruled the world. That will be the hard part–we’ve enjoyed our role as leader of the “free world” and we are unlikely to retreat quietly on this issue. But here is a dose of reality:  what did American hegemony really do for us? For one thing, the false war we initiated against communism got us into serious wars in which we were defeated in spirit (Korea) or on the battlefield (Vietnam).and certainly the trends McCoy has enumerated over the past decade or so, are all moving in the wrong direction. More meetings, summaries and books will yet emerge from the coalition of historians that McCoy has put together; in my opinion, McCoy is one of the best historians in America and he is one historian we need to listen to as he engages in future projections for the American Empire. Just don’t expect any pretty stories!


One good environmental outcome from the 2010 election

Posted on December 21st, 2010 in Climage Change,Culture,ecology,Politics,Science by Robert Miller

California said "NO"

During most of the GW Bush years, the response of our government to the threat of global climate change was largely one of denial. To aid in this posture of deception, the Republican-controlled Congress used author Michael Crighton and more recently George Will as their poster children to promote false, delusional stories against the overwhelming evidence that man is heating up the planet, with potentially dire consequences for our long-term and perhaps even our short-term future. I have commented many times on the anti-science policies of the Bush administration and the Republican Party’s undeclared, but very real war on science.  While the GW Bush years are now behind us, we are faced with Deja vu as the Republican Party is about to take power once again in the House of Representatives; as a result, we will see more anti-science propaganda and obfuscation in the place of clarity on an issue that should by now be part of our American reflexes and known by the youngest members of our culture. Knowledge of the science of global climate change and its implications for our future should be taught in every school at every level and be among the most common elements of discussion in our society–not just when we are about to lose the Polar bears. We live on a small planet in which everything is in a dynamic state of change, impacted by multiple factors, not all of which are currently understood. But with atmospheric carbon dioxide reaching 380 ppm, we are approaching the levels at which the ice trapped in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland ice masses could melt, giving rise to an elevation of sea levels of more than 200 feet. But Republicans will once again try to make sure that discussion of global climate change does not become part of our national dialog.  We can rest assured that the Republican Party, while out of House control for four years, has not repented from its past sins of denying science and the objectivity required for its successful implementation.  Because of this, we can expect to see more anti-science behavior coming out of the House and more anti-science propaganda coming through the air waves, courtesy of Faux News.  The House is planning hearings and investigations which are intended to cloud the issue and the science of global climate change  rather than add some desperately needed clarity to this very complex, but unavoidable problem lying in our present trajectory.

In the desert years of the Bush administration, environmentalists concerned with anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions, took up the issue with state governments and largely abandoned efforts directed at the Federal level. Four years ago, through the state Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, Californians decided to cultivate an environment that would benefit all human and other biological organisms. This California law was one of the most important state laws ever passed to protect the environment and it set a bold new trajectory for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% of the 1990 levels by the year 2020. But in the last election, this law was directly challenged by the oil and gas industries who poured huge sums of money into California to force rejection of the emissions law by voting for proposition 23.  So, despite the distractions provided by the Tea Party, the 2010 election in California included the boldest attempt by any American entity to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and corporate America tried to make sure the environmental mechanisms established by the law would never see the light of day.  But, in the election of November 2010, 61% of Californians voted against proposition 23 and preserved the state’s strong greenhouse-gas emissions standards that will soon begin to take hold.  The California Air Resources Board is in the process of implementing the law and introducing a cap-and-trade system that will allow industries to decide where to make reductions in emissions. To me, cap-and-trade is not really a solution to greenhouse-gas emissions, but we have to start somewhere. Since California, with about 12% of the U.S. population, generally leads the nation in environmental laws, we can expect that other state governments will follow suit and that eventually the Federal Government, regardless of its political composition, will also have to bend to the growing public recognition of the problem. In fact, at the present time, seven other western states and four Canadian provinces have joined in the Western Climate Initiative and six other states and one Canadian province have formed the Midwestern Greenhouse-Gas Reduction Accord. These two programs promise to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 15% and 20% respectively. In addition, ten northeastern states have joined in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and committed themselves to a reduction of current emission levels by 10% in 2018. Thus, a total of 23 states and five Canadian provinces have recognized the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions and are doing something about it. Estimates are that the region covered by these states includes about half the US population and three quarters of the Canadian population.

The Obama administration is planning to introduce Federal greenhouse-gas emission regulations next year that will result in a 28% reduction from the 2008 levels by 2020. Unfortunately, with the House in control of the Republicans and the Senate unlikely to overcome a filibuster on greenhouse-gas legislation, Obama will have to use the power of the Federal purse in order to achieve such reductions. But we shouldn’t dismiss these efforts, particularly since the EPA is now in charge of CO2 regulation and the President’s control of the military budget can also be used to bring greenhouse-gas technologies on line. The success of this strategy will rely on being mostly clever but strong-willed action.

We must salute the state of California that sometimes does things in a crazy way, like electing Arnold Schwarzenegger, but with respect to proposition 23, they got it right.  We now face the intriguing  possibility that beating back proposition 23, may begin a small avalanche leading to an improved intellectual climate for more action on global climate change. The rejection of proposition 23 was not merely a victory for environmentalists; it showed that giant multinational corporations can sometimes be beaten back and lose on important issues that will affect our future existence and health. We have a President who appears primed for action on this topic and may, if carried out with sufficient cleverness, actually achieve major results on reductions of greenhouse-gas emissions. At least we have new hope that something might get done. Indeed we can further speculate that if done properly, it could be the beginning of the new economy that we desperately need to pull us out of the most serious recession since the Great Depression. Although not anticipated, the single bright spot produced by California’s action on proposition 23, could be the beginning of a fascinating year in politics. We should all perk up and stay tuned. Perhaps the environment will have a good year.

[Data for this posting was taken from a Nature editorial States or the Union,” , 468, p. 133, 2010]


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A 2010 Christmas Stocking Gift

Posted on December 16th, 2010 in Books,General by Robert Miller

In view of the recent death of Chalmers Johnson (November 20, 2010; age 79),  I decided to re-issue last year’s book endorsement that originated from Bill Moyer’s PBS show of December 2009: his book recommendation was the last of Johnson’s trilogy “Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic.” I have commented many times on Johnson’s books, and reviewed Nemesis shortly after it came out. His trilogy began with Blowback followed bySorrows of Empire.” These books were instrumental in shaping my own views about the danger of our militarism and how we are going broke trying to feed the false image we have of ourselves as the world’s only superpower and the continued need to assert global American hegemony by unearthing ever new false enemies. You cannot take Johnson lightly on this subject–he was an inside adviser for the CIA and was at one time was quite conservative–hence his admission to the inner circle. As our militarism towards the outside world continues, the internal costs remain high as we are falling behind in almost every category of a modern, civilized society including health, percentage of our population living in poverty and even  life expectancy, as a result of our healthcare system or lack thereof. Yes, we continue to have the world’s largest economy, but China is scheduled to overtake the bragging rights for that one in fifteen years or so. What then will be our claim to world supremacy? Well, we will still have bragging rights to the largest number of military bases around the world–more than 650 we are willing to admit to. Chalmers Johnson did have an encouraging suggestion as a way for us to avoid our almost certain fate of decline and bankruptcy, by doing what the British did in the twentieth century. They gave up their colonial empire and, though the road was bumpy and had many moments of uncertainty, they survived intact with an identifiable culture, coupled to  diminished expectations for ruling the globe. The British are currently going through rough times, in part because they followed the American model a little too closely.

In my opinion, it is not possible to read Chalmers Johnson’s books and not be alarmed and sobered by the third world country attitude that drives our own internal development. It seems like the true sacrifice we make for ruling the world is the increasing destruction of our own social fabric.  A poll taken of Americans  in August of this year revealed that nearly 2/3 of those who responded thought that the United States was in a period of decline. So, where is the investment in our infrastructure and our education system, the things that we will need if we are ever going right our badly tilting ship? It seems the Tea Party has come along at just the right time to, if anything, accelerate our national  decline. What’s the antidote? America must reinvent itself, but we had better get started. It’s not too early. Right now it is the politics of distraction that prevent us from seeing with any clarity the challenge in front of us. Rosy the riveter is not yet on the scene!


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