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Post Imperial

My friend in the Netherlands came through over Skype as if he was just down the street.  We were chatting about global economics when the fear of losing our global dominance naturally came up as a discussion of Empire.  “If the end of your Empire is what people fear, I have to tell them, we live with that every day over here and … it’s not bad at all.”  The Netherlands wasn’t a huge empire, but it was able to shed its possessions in Indonesia and the Caribbean without missing them all that much.  Life went on.

That sentiment appears to also be playing out in the UK as well as many other former great globe-straddling forces that have quietly turned inward.  The US is facing the same situation and it weighs heavily on our politics and economy.  But it shouldn’t.  Life after Empire isn’t the barbarian-sacked end of Rome, it’s simply the natural progression of Liberty that we should embrace if we’re going to master it rather than let it destroy us.

It was once said that the sun never set on the British Empire.  Today, the sun sets every day on the Commonwealth – but rises again the next morning.  Television shows on BBC America give us a glimpse into the popular culture that has digested this reality and come to celebrate the basic sense of decency and bravery amid struggle which Brits have apparently decided defines them far better than telling everyone else what to do. Post imperial life suits them well, turning inward as they take care of their own.

We can learn a lot from our cousins in the UK.

It may not seem right to call the USofA an “Empire”, given that we do not have an Emperor.  But it’s worth remembering that as early as our own Revolution the King was little more than a figurehead – it was Parliament that passed the Stamp Act and sent troops to brutally enforce it.  Our beef wasn’t with paying our fair share, it was having Taxation without Representation.

Tea Party protesters here may feel our government has over-reached, but they at least get to vote on who represents them.  People who feel our influence around the world do not have that – something we started out by calling a basic right of all people.

We can call our current arrangement an Empire when we look at the influence our military has across the globe.  We spend about $660 Billion a year on our armed forces, counting all the various wars and other actions that have been moved “off budget” for the convenience of our politicians.  That’s 43% of the world’s total military spending, more than six times the second highest spender, China.  It accounts for 4.3% of our GDP, a precious amount in times of high unemployment and spiraling deficits.  The recent attempt by President Obama to squeeze $110 Billion out of the budget, universally derided as insufficient, is only a 17% cut to our military – about the same amount every state is looking at swallowing right now.

What do we get for that?  The ongoing revolt in the Middle East tells us a lot if we observe carefully.  For the most part, the US is neither the hero nor the villain, but is confined to watch from the sidelines and hope it all turns out well.  For all of our expense we are quite helpless to do anything one way or the other.  The great changes sweeping over the world are happening with no regard to us at all.

It may seem difficult to cut the military, but with over 75k people stationed in Europe we know that, as always, we are mainly positioned to fight the last war.  Explaining to my kids how someone like Hosni Muarak was able to hold onto Egypt for as long as he did required me to get into the strange logic of the Cold War, now a generation passed into history.  That conflict is gone, as is Mubarak.  Yet the soldiers remain in place as if the Soviet tanks were about to roll through any day.

This plays through our economy in more ways than the budget deficit.  We have dramatically lowered our gasoline consumption, but the price continues to rise – largely because the developing world is now reaching for the same lifestyle that we once enjoyed as our nearly exclusive right.  Globalism has worked more or less as planned, and the old dictators are being tossed off.  The world is simply not just about us anymore.

What do we do about this?  It’s vital that we start being honest about our ability so that we don’t make promises that we simply cannot keep.  We can also start to take much better care of ourselves, such as joining the ranks of every other developed nation by having an energy policy that leads us to sustainability.  We will have to balance our budget at some point, and that almost certainly means taking steps to grow our way into a position where we can service the debt we’ve already accrued.

This isn’t retreat.  It’s what has happened to every other post imperial nation that enabled them to go on.

It may not sit well to call us “Post Imperial” for many reasons, if for no other reason than no one wants to live in a post-anything world.  But, for now, we’re constantly looking back at our Glory Daze and wondering how we lost them.  Someday we’ll get over that.

There is little to fear as we give up our position around the world, but there is a lot to accept.  That has proven hard for the “American Exceptionalism” crowd that seems to insist this can continue forever.  It can’t.  Today’s world is more free, more equal, and generally more balanced than ever before.  That’s much more like a victory than a defeat for us.  We should learn to accept our success graciously and move on to better things ahead.

29 thoughts on “Post Imperial

  1. I’ve thought a bit about this but reached no firm conclusions. We should consider giving the “World’s Policeman’s” badge to someone else–or maybe no one, though, for starters. It’s time to rethink our place in the world.

  2. At the end of the cold war we heard a lot of talk about reducing our military, but it went nowhere. I haven’t heard anyone talk about this for a long time now. Its breathtaking how large it has grown. We can’t keep doing that. A brilliant analysis that takes on the sacred cows like no one else, once again!

  3. I don’t like the term at all but the way you lay it out I can see how we have to make the same adjustments that other nations have. It does seem ridiculous to spend what we do on military while we have to cut everything else. Everything should be on the table.

  4. Jack, that is an easier way to put it. I guess I got a bit carried away thinking about the kind of change we’re in and why people are so upset about it – an era is ending and it does seem like the end of the world to some people (thought it really isn’t).

    Anna, I don’t know why we dropped the ball so badly on this. The War on Terror(tm) is one thing, but we’ve gotten even crazier than that. If we spend twice as much as our nearest competitor, China, we’d still have an extra $460B to play with each year. Talk about tax cuts, balanced budget … etc. Oh, and we’d owe a lot less to … China …. talk about security!

    Dale, I think this is a time for tough ways of putting things. People need to be jostled out of the narrow old ways of thinking. Thinking of us as an Empire allows a lot of really useful comparisons, so as tough as that word is I do think it works well.

  5. I think this hits the nail on the head for explaining why everything seems to be falling apart at the same time. Your hopeful message of life beyond empire is refreshing and right on. I hope this is widely read and accepted because we can’t keep going like we are now. Thank you for this unique and insightful blog.

  6. I hated this blog when I started reading it but I think you convinced me. I suppose we do look like an empire from the outside but that image just bothers me. Ever read Pat Buchanan’s “A Republic, not an Empire”? I think he covered a bit of the same ground except he was insisting we are not an empire in the classic sense. I think you two might get along real well. 🙂

  7. Mary, thanks! tell all your friends. 🙂

    Bob, I know Buchanan well and I find it fascinating how we agree on a few points, this especially. I think if we did turn inward and take care of ourselves better we’d fight like all heck, but for now we have something to talk about!

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  15. OK, but the old colonial empires were based on economic exploitation–the Brits or the Dutch or the Portuguese generally didn’t “invest” in military action unless they expected a return (for their corporations). To put it another way, it was armed theft.

    The US these days, seems to me, is liquidating its economy to maintain military imperialism that’s largely without economic benefit (Morals aside …). Generally, every dollar invested in bombing someplace is a dollar not invested in restoring and restructuring our economy. Economic power trumps military power in today’s world. This seems to be a lesson the US simply has not learnt.

    One could cite the American Revolutionary War–from the British site–as an example of the same thing. Many Brits understand perfectly well that fighting the North American colonies was a losing proposition but arrogance and emotion prevailed….



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  20. Chapter 62 – A Bad Thing
    America was thus clearly top nation, and History came to a .

    – a description of the Versailles Peace after WW1 from ‘1066 And All That: A Memorable history of England’ by WC Sellar and RJ Yateman, published in 1930.

    Chapter LII – Conclusion
    The United States is now entering a New Era.1 It’s path is fraught with peril, full of hazards, and strewn with obstacles. What this country needs is a good street sweeper.

    1 What, again?

    – from a similarly humorous history of the USA, published in Moscow in 1991 as part of Learning English, book 3 – but with other publication details in Russian and thus not readable by me.

    It started to rain.
    ‘Look at them,’ said the general, staring out of the drizzle-dotted window as his plane taxied towards the little RAF terminal and the forlorn looking British reception committee.
    ‘Nothing ever changes in British Army, you know that? They’re actually proud of it.’
    One of the crew handed the general his coat.
    ‘They always look the same. Down at the heel but defiant. Like they just got off the boat from Dunkirk. The worst thing about being a great power is when you’re not any more. It takes centuries to get over it. Look at the Portuguese. They just gave up altogether.’
    ‘Sir, Yes, sir!’ said the young airman, not having the faintest idea what the general was talking about.

    – US SACEUR Jack Kent in ‘Blast from the Past’ by Ben Elton 1998.

    There’s not a lot I can add to that, except to point out that with the cost of maintaining your military and it’s operations at around 5% of GDP you’re doing pretty well for this stage in the life cycle of a great empire. The US isn’t suffering from Imperial overstretch so much as the decadence of it’s wealthy business elites and the cravenness of it’s political class, who together have for decades refused to collect that taxes needed to make the US pay it’s way.

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