No empire lasts forever.
That’s the thesis of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy. Kennedy, a historian, says that all empires have this in common: militaries that make them great and also lead to their downfall. Eventually, the resources needed to keep a military powerful become a drain on the nation, and it begins to decline. And because a strong military outlasts the “soft power” and influence of a nation, it may not even realize it’s declining until it’s too late.
Because it’s a democratic nation that hasn’t invaded and held onto territory, we’re not used to thinking of the United States as an empire. But in terms of its outsized influence in the global economy and politics since the end of WWII, America is most definitely an empire like no other – a country that could project its power across the globe and wrapped global culture around itself like a coat.
And yet it’s hard to imagine the modern world existing at all without America’s ingenuity, its passion for freedom, its culture and its influence in global affairs. The sea lanes, for example, that let goods and resources flow around the world freely are policed by America’s navy. Without the Pax Americana we’ve enjoyed for 70 years, you wouldn’t have bananas in your breakfast cereal and coffee in your cup.
But what if America is a great power in decline?
The challenge of change
History is a funny thing. You have to wonder if the Romans watching the Alaric sacking their city in 410 AD knew it was the beginning of the end. These things are always easier to see in hindsight. But if we look around critically today, would we see evidence of America’s decline?
According to Kennedy, decline is always relative. One power falls and another rises – so for America to be in decline there would need to be another country rising.
I’ve often thought that when Bill Clinton brought China into the World Trade Organization in the 90s, that was the beginning of the end. After that, American manufacturing left for China and never came back. Add to that the Bush administration’s misguided war on Iraq that squandered global sympathy after 9/11, and the Trump Administration’s systematic alienation of traditional allies, tragic mismanagement of the COVID epidemic, exploding racial tension, collapsing economy and rampant corruption, and the last 30 years begin to fit the classic Kennedy thesis of decline.
And while America can still lob cruise missiles wherever it wants, its ability to rally the world around itself – the soft power of diplomacy and influence – is fading fast. To be blunt: the world isn’t going to be lectured on ethics by Donald Trump. He is literally a laughingstock.
It may seem like the U.S. is finally getting what it deserves.
But hold on a sec. Are we really ready for a world without American influence? Where oligarchs in Russia and elsewhere can ignore international law? Where China can continue to bake the globe like a briquette with their coal-belching plants and where it can siphon the resources out of Africa without a thought to the environment? And what about human rights? Do we think other countries will respect human rights – and fight for them – like America?
Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote that, “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”
I think about this a lot these days. I think there’s little doubt we are experiencing the end of the American Empire. For all its faults, without the United States to champion liberal democracy, the world my children will grow up in will not only be different from this one, but potentially a lot more dangerous.
Today – like every moment of transition in history between great powers – we are in an uncertain, in-between time. By being alert to the currents around us we can still affect them. We are not helpless.
But only if we stay awake.