Tuesday 19 April 2005

Is America Really Experiencing Imperial Decline?

by Trowbridge H. Ford

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the adoption by the West of a policy of pre-emption in the war on terrorism - thanks to the United States' willingness to lead it after the 9/11 attacks - have renewed inquiry into what capabilities nations must possess to manage effectively the affairs of others, what are the signs when they start to lose their grip on the process, and when can it be said that decline has reached a point of no return. It is only by answering these questions, and related ones that viewers can get a real idea of where the world is now when it comes to imperialism - whether it is growing or receding, and when and how we will know for sure, one way or the other.

Despite the existence of imperialism since the dawn of history, man has been most loath to investigate it in any kind of systematic way. It wasn't until the 18th century that historian Edward Gibbon made a most belated effort to explain the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, concluding that it due to an increasing lack of civic virtue, what had characterized the Roman Republic - the process of decline starting with the vices of Emperor Commodus. "If a man were called upon," Gibbon explained; "to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."

In speaking so glowingly of the age of the Antonines, roughly the first century after Christ, Gibbon overlooked Rome's institution of slavery, the Emperors', especially Marcus Aurelius's, persecution of the Christians, and the capital's excesses at the expense of the countryside and its subjects. "The economic system was very bad;" Bertrand Russell wrote in A History of Western Philosophy, "Italy was going out of cultivation, and the population of Rome depended upon the free distribution of grain from the provinces. All initiative was concentrated in the Emperor and his ministers; throughout the vast extent of the Empire, no one, except an occasional rebellious general, could do anything but submit." (p. 262)

Still, the Empire - whose ending of anarchy essentially benefited the small elites of its cities - lasted for another three hundred years, thanks especially to the efforts of Emperors Diocletian and Constantine. Diocletian to open the leading ranks of the army to the barbarians, and instituted local self-government, leaving the onerous collection of taxes to local officials. "Constantine's most important innovation," Russell added, "was the adoption of Christianity as the State religion, apparently because a large proportion of the soldiers were Christian." (p. 275)

These reforms, though, proved only stop-gap measures since they compounded the problem of imperial extravagance at the expense of local tax collectors - who simply fled into exile when they could not come up with the demanded funds - and made the Empire ever more dependent upon the Christians - led by Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome - who increasingly devoted their efforts to fighting one another over true doctrine and the spoils rather than Rome's enemies, leaving Emperors ever more dependent upon barbarians for protection. In due course, they learned to put their skills in attacking Rome rather than defending it. In 410 A.D., the Goths sacked Rome, and the Ostrogoths finished it off 68 years later, while other barbarian tribes were carving up the rest.

The impact of the collapse of the Roman Empire was muted by the fact that the invaders, having adopted Christianity, retained the established church, leaving many of them of believe that the Empire still survived. In the Middle Ages, people were often still seeing their societies as if Rome still existed. As for the causes of its collapse, economic factors, of course, were increasingly emphasized, but they were constantly downplayed at the time while Christian zealots tried to give the empire a moral basis. "It is no wonder," Russell concluded, "that the Empire fell into ruin when all the best and vigorous minds of the age were so completely remote from secular concerns." (p. 344)

A similar lack of due attention to secular concerns seems to explain the fall of another great empire, the Ming dynasty in China, after it had finally expelled the Mongols in 1368. While Europe was divided among a bunch of backward, squabbling feudal lords, China was again the envy of the world with its developed infra-structure, science, and orderly bureacracy. Printing with movable type, and the circulation of paper money had been introduced into China by the 11th century. It had developed a country-wide system of canals, and produced 125,000 tons of iron per annum. The Chinese had invented gunpowder, and used cannons to dislodge the Mongol invaders. China also had a large, sophisticated navy, and commerical fleet for long-range trading.

Despite these considerable advantages in developing and speading Chinese wealth and power, it suddenly adopted a completely defensive strategy when faced with continuing threats from the North, the West, and the East. The root of the change, it seems, was the conservatism of the Confucian bureaucracy which wanted to recapture the past, now that the real threats had been defeated. The mandarians, with their Confucian code, sound much like the Christian officials during the dying days of Rome, with their dislike of armed forces, and their suspicion of traders. Given this kind of Maginot line strategy, Chinas went into a slow but steady decline which ultimately left it powerless to the threats from the West, and Japan.

A similar process ultimately destroyed the Ottoman Empire, though it had a far easier time in threatening the rest of Europe, given its weakness, after the fall of Constantinope in 1453. Thanks to its cultural and technological lead over all of Europe, it made short work of its adversaries in North Africa, and in the Balkans, but imperial efforts had few economic benefits. "The system as a whole," Paul Kennedy has written in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, "like that of Ming China, increasingly suffered from some of the defects of being centralized, despotic, and severely orthodx in its attitudes toward initiative, dissent, and commence." (p. 11) The Ottomans could only continue to expand, an increasingly difficult, and expensive task, or decline and die - what actually happened.

When the emergence and expansion of European states finally took place - increasingly at the expense of the Ottoman, Ming, and other empires, especially Mogul India and the ones in the Americas - it was against a background of Roman relics, like the rule of Charlemange in France, and Holy Roman Empire of the Hohenstaufen family, inducing European leaders and historians to have an inflated view of what they were attempting, and was being accomplished. Europe had many "power centers", political fragmentation due to its geography, terrain, and differing climate, as Kennedy has explained, making it most difficult for any one to gain comfortable control of it.

What one country gained from its geographic position, or dynastic holdings, others rectified by advantages in commerical activies or banking facilities. All these developing nation states were driven to find cash to improve their arsenals of ships and weapons, and loans to make up for financial shortfalls. They all needed alliances to further their goals or to avoid defeat, a process made easier by the fracturing of Europe by its religious Reformation. As a result, the struggle for its mastery made for a shifting balance of powers in which any one combination made little progress in the process, and at great expense.

First, it was the Habsburgs who attempted to master Europe, given their dynastic position, religious persuasion, and financial windfall from the New World. They did not succeeded, however, because of the increasingly expensive, asymmetric wars they were conducting - what almost always worked to the advantage of their poorer opponents - no let up in costs even during times of relative peace, and, most important, always trying to do too much, especially in Northern Europe, and with a too disperate population. "As such," Kennedy concluded, "it provides one of the greatest examples of strategical overstrech in history; for the price of possessing so many territories was the existence of numerous foes, a burden also by the contemporaneous Ottoman Empire." (p. 48)

After awhile, it was France's turn to emerge from the pack, and try its hand at mastering Europe. By the latter half of the 17th century, France was by far the largest, most heavily armed country on the continent but it suffered from a most cumbersome system of making law, and administering it - what made France's ambitions always overly optimistic, as Napoleon ultimately demonstrated, given its economic conservatism. With all France's neighbors nursuing wounds from previous conflicts, Louis XIV decided to take advantage of the weakness on all fronts. The only trouble with such a strategy was that successes would soon reach a point of disminishing returns, and ultimately rollback by the Grand Alliance it engendered. France's policy was a classic case of what A. T. Mahon used to justify just the opposite in The Influence of Sea Power upon History.

It took Britain until the end of the Napoleonic Wars to put into practice the policy of the 'naval' school, given its continuing struggle to maintain some kind of balance of power in Europe, the growing difficulties of administering its own colonial empire, especially near home, and its limited financial resources. In its competition with France, it always seeking out patners - Sweden, Prussia, Spain and Russia - to curb its continental ambitions, what tempered its ambitions as a naval and trading power. Then it had to consolidate its hold on Scotland and Ireland while ridding itself of troublesome colonies, starting with the American ones. Only with the crushing of Napoleon - what turned out to be in the words of Wellington, "a damned close-run thing", was Britain able to afford a full exploitation of its 'maritime' potential without any serious European worries.

Of course, the 19th century is noted for Britain coloring in the world's map increasingly in red - what its continuing economic expansion at home and abroad made possible, and increasingly easy and
inexpensive to maintain. "It is therefore hardly an exaggeration to suggest," Kennedy explained, "that between 1815 and 1880 much of the British Empire existed in a power-political vacuum, which is why its colonial army could be kept relatively low." (p. 155) In the process, though, the Empire was helping dig its own grave by supplying potential competitors, especially the United States, Germany, and Russia, with the means of making their own ones - what was accelerated by these nations consolidating their hold on domestic production, international trade and finance. The culmination of the whole process was World War I - what led to a revolt against the West of serious proportions because of the losses, changes, and fears it had experienced and engendered which the League of Nations proved incapable of resolving.

The 20th century witnessed the dismantling of these empires, especially after WWII had led to the complete exhaustion of Western Europe's great powers. As they retreated from their spheres of influence, and colonial holdings, the vacuum left was increasingly taken over by America and the Soviet Union, although the dominance of the former was largely shielded by the creation of the United Nations, the IMF, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Marshall Plan while the media were clamoring about the expansive ambitions of the latter. Instead of America being a land power which threatened to return to 'isolationism', it was an expanding sea power, thanks to having secured its home territory, which promised "a response of events" which would leave it the sole imperial power. Henry Luce of Life magazine explained: American experience is the key to the future....America must be the elder brother of nations in the brotherhood of man." (Quoted from ibid., p. 360)

It was only with the USSR's collapse, though, that this became manifest. Instead of the United States being plagued by traditional imperial overreach - what could leave it vulnerable to a combination of other powers, economic difficulties because of the unavailability of resources, markets, and capital, etc.- it has slowly combined military forces, political organization, and economic interdependence in a way which has made the whole world its oyster. It is only now that political analysts - noted for their belief in America's exceptional character, like the NYT's Paul Krugman from Princeton - have spoken in the wake of 9/11 of America's imperial ambitions, seeing them as a diversion "...from dysfunctional security agencies, a sinking economy, a devastated budget, and a falling out with allies." (Quoted from "White Man's Burden", Sept. 24, 2002.)

It has taken an British historian, Naill Ferguson, in his new book, Colossus, to clear up the fog that American academics have surrounded its imperial development with. According to him, America has been involved in empire since its inception with its cheap purchases of vast lands, and uncontrolled settlement of the territories of others, and wars in the name of good government, freedom, and the imperialism of others - resulting in an "empire in denial" (p. 68) - making it the only surviving imperial power, thanks to the vast capitulations of authority by others. The United States has always done what it wanted, or served its interests - no matter what allies, the United Nations and international financial institutions, or international law said to the contrary.

In this context, Ferguson called for America to go for broke when it comes to the war on terrorism, adding this about President Bush: "And if the only way to defeat terrorism was to overthrow regimes that sponsored it, he would not hesitate." (p. 153) Of course, the only real constraint on the Bush imperial doctrine seems to be how much American indebtedness the rest of the world is willing to put up with. It is apparently an incredible amount, given the global interpendence of matured capitalism. While stock markets show volatility to sinking economies, and devasted budgets of other countries, the United States has an exceptional position, thanks to the dependence of other economies on its performance, and the protection against the dollar going the way of the Weimar mark - its holders cannot let it become anywhere near worthless.

Ferguson's optimism about America's future as an imperial power is only tempered by what the American people want, and are willing to tolerate. If they prefer stopping malls over building other nations, imperial affairs could turn sour. "The true feet of clay of the American Colossus," he concluded, "are the impending fiscal crises of the systems of Medicare and Social Security." (p. 28)

Given all the good sense Ferguson has shown about the American empire up to now, this seems like hardly a great impediment, given Washington's powers to tax, and redistribute slight amounts of wealth when political circumstances demand it.

In short, it seems the American empire has a much longer shelf life than its opponents or critics are contending, and they better prepare themselves for a bumpy future for quite awhile.