The Decline and Fall of the American Empire

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Recently
by Tom Engelhardt: The
United States of Fear

Trying to play
down the significance of an ongoing WikiLeaks
dump
of more than 250,000 State Department documents, Secretary
of Defense Robert Gates recently offered
the following bit of Washington wisdom: "The fact is, governments
deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not
because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because
they believe we can keep secrets… [S]ome governments deal with
us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because
they need us.  We are still essentially, as has been said before,
the indispensable nation."

Now, wisdom
like that certainly sounds sober; it's definitely what passes for
hardheaded geopolitical realism in our nation's capital; and it’s
true, Gates is not the first top American official to call
the U.S.
"the indispensable nation"; nor do I doubt
that he and many other inside-the-Beltway players are convinced
of our global indispensability.  The problem is that the news
has almost weekly been undermining his version of realism, making
it look ever more phantasmagorical.  The ability of WikiLeaks,
a tiny organization of activists, to thumb its cyber-nose at the
global superpower, repeatedly shining a blaze of illumination on
the penumbra
of secrecy
under which its political and military elite like
to conduct their affairs, hasn't helped one bit either.  If
our indispensability is, as yet, hardly questioned in Washington,
elsewhere on the planet it's another
matter

The once shiny
badge of the "global sheriff" has lost its gleam and,
in Dodge City, ever fewer are paying the sort of attention that
Washington believes is its due.  To my mind, the single most
intelligent comment on the latest WikiLeaks uproar comes
from
Simon Jenkins of the British Guardian who, on
making his way through the various revelations
(not to speak of the mounds
of global gossip),
summed matters up this way: "The money-wasting is staggering.
[U.S.] Aid payments are never followed, never audited, never evaluated.
The impression is of the world’s superpower roaming helpless in
a world in which nobody behaves as bidden. Iran, Russia, Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Yemen, the United Nations, are all perpetually off
script. Washington reacts like a wounded bear, its instincts imperial
but its power projection unproductive."

Sometimes,
to understand just where you are in the present, it helps to peer
into the past – in this case, into what happened to previous "indispensable"
imperial powers; sometimes, it's no less useful to peer into the
future.  In his latest TomDispatch
post
, Alfred W. McCoy, author most recently of Policing
America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise
of the Surveillance State
, does both.  Having convened
a global working group of 140 historians to consider the fate of
the U.S. as an imperial power, he offers us a glimpse of four possible
American (near-)futures.  They add up to a monumental, even
indispensable look at just how fast our indispensability is likely
to unravel in the years to come.  ~ Tom

Four
Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025

By Alfred
W. McCoy

A soft landing
for America 40 years from now?  Don't bet on it.  The
demise of the United States as the global superpower could come
far more quickly than anyone imagines.  If Washington is dreaming
of 2040 or 2050 as the end of the American Century, a more realistic
assessment of domestic and global trends suggests that in 2025,
just 15 years from now, it could all be over except for the shouting.

Despite the
aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history
should remind us that they are fragile organisms. 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.

Future historians
are likely to identify the Bush administration's rash invasion of
Iraq in that year as the start of America’s downfall. However, instead
of the bloodshed that marked the end of so many past empires, with
cities burning and civilians slaughtered, this twenty-first century
imperial collapse could come relatively quietly through the invisible
tendrils of economic collapse or cyberwarfare.

But have no
doubt: when Washington’s global dominion finally ends, there will
be painful daily reminders of what such a loss of power means for
Americans in every walk of life. As a half-dozen European nations
have discovered, imperial decline tends to have a remarkably demoralizing
impact on a society, regularly bringing at least a generation of
economic privation. As the economy cools, political temperatures
rise, often sparking serious domestic unrest.

Available economic,
educational, and military data indicate that, when it comes to U.S.
global power, negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and
are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American
Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II,
will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could
be history by 2030.

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.

No such luck. 
Under current projections, the United States will find itself in
second place behind China (already the world’s second largest economy)
in economic output around 2026, and behind India by 2050. Similarly,
Chinese innovation is on a trajectory toward world leadership in
applied science and military technology sometime between 2020 and
2030, just as America’s current supply of brilliant scientists and
engineers retires, without adequate replacement by an ill-educated
younger generation.

By 2020, according
to current plans, the Pentagon will throw a military Hail Mary pass
for a dying empire.  It will launch a lethal triple canopy
of advanced aerospace robotics that represents Washington’s last
best hope of retaining global power despite its waning economic
influence. By that year, however, China’s global network of communications
satellites, backed by the world’s most powerful supercomputers,
will also be fully operational, providing Beijing with an independent
platform for the weaponization of space and a powerful communications
system for missile- or cyber-strikes into every quadrant of the
globe.

Wrapped in
imperial hubris, like Whitehall or Quai d’Orsay before it, the White
House still seems to imagine that American decline will be gradual,
gentle, and partial. In his State of the Union address last January,
President Obama offered
the reassurance that "I do not accept second place for the
United States of America." A few days later, Vice President
Biden ridiculed
the very idea that "we are destined to fulfill [historian Paul]
Kennedy’s prophecy that we are going to be a great nation that has
failed because we lost control of our economy and overextended."
Similarly, writing in the November issue of the establishment journal
Foreign Affairs, neo-liberal foreign policy guru Joseph
Nye waved
away
talk of China’s economic and military rise, dismissing
"misleading metaphors of organic decline" and denying
that any deterioration in U.S. global power was underway.

Ordinary Americans,
watching their jobs head overseas, have a more realistic view than
their cosseted leaders. An opinion poll in August 2010 found
that 65% of Americans believed the country was now "in a state
of decline."  Already, Australia
and Turkey,
traditional U.S. military allies, are using their American-manufactured
weapons for joint air and naval maneuvers with China. Already, America’s
closest economic partners are backing away from Washington’s opposition
to China’s rigged currency rates. As the president flew back from
his Asian tour last month, a gloomy New York Times headline
 summed
the moment up
this way: "Obama’s Economic View Is Rejected
on World Stage, China, Britain and Germany Challenge U.S., Trade
Talks With Seoul Fail, Too."

Viewed historically,
the question is not whether the United States will lose its unchallenged
global power, but just how precipitous and wrenching the decline
will be. In place of Washington’s wishful thinking, let's use the
National Intelligence Council’s own futuristic methodology to suggest
four realistic scenarios for how, whether with a bang or a whimper,
U.S. global power could reach its end in the 2020s (along with four
accompanying assessments of just where we are today).  The
future scenarios include: economic decline, oil shock, military
misadventure, and World War III.  While these are hardly the
only possibilities when it comes to American decline or even collapse,
they offer a window into an onrushing future.

Economic
Decline: Present Situation

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.

Add to this
clear evidence that the U.S. education system, that source of future
scientists and innovators, has been falling behind its competitors.
After leading the world for decades in 25- to 34-year-olds with
university degrees, the country sank
to 12th place in 2010.  The World Economic Forum ranked
the United States at a mediocre 52nd among 139 nations in the quality
of its university math and science instruction in 2010. Nearly half
of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are now foreigners,
most of whom will be heading home, not staying here as once would
have happened.  By 2025, in other words, the United States
is likely to face a critical shortage of talented scientists.

Such negative
trends are encouraging increasingly sharp criticism of the dollar’s
role as the world's reserve currency. "Other countries are
no longer willing to buy into the idea that the U.S. knows best
on economic policy," observed
Kenneth S. Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International
Monetary Fund. In mid-2009, with the world’s central banks holding
an astronomical $4 trillion in U.S. Treasury notes, Russian president
Dimitri Medvedev insisted
that it was time to end "the artificially maintained unipolar
system" based on "one formerly strong reserve currency."

Simultaneously,
China’s central bank governor suggested
that the future might lie with a global reserve currency "disconnected
from individual nations" (that is, the U.S. dollar). Take these
as signposts of a world to come, and of a possible attempt, as economist
Michael Hudson has
argued
, "to hasten the bankruptcy of the U.S. financial-military
world order."

Economic
Decline: Scenario 2020

After years
of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands,
in 2020, as long expected, the U.S. dollar finally loses its special
status as the world’s reserve currency.  Suddenly, the cost
of imports soars. Unable to pay for swelling deficits by selling
now-devalued Treasury notes abroad, Washington is finally forced
to slash its bloated military budget.  Under pressure at home
and abroad, Washington slowly pulls U.S. forces back from hundreds
of overseas bases to a continental perimeter.  By now, however,
it is far too late.

Faced with
a fading superpower incapable of paying the bills, China, India,
Iran, Russia, and other powers, great and regional, provocatively
challenge U.S. dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace. 
Meanwhile, amid soaring prices, ever-rising unemployment, and a
continuing decline in real wages, domestic divisions widen into
violent clashes and divisive debates, often over remarkably irrelevant
issues. Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,
a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric,
demanding respect for American authority and threatening military
retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention
as the American Century ends in silence.

Oil
Shock: Present Situation

One casualty
of America’s waning economic power has been its lock on global oil
supplies. Speeding by America’s gas-guzzling economy in the passing
lane, China became the world’s number one energy consumer this summer,
a position the U.S. had held for over a century.  Energy specialist
Michael Klare has
argued
that this change means China will "set the pace
in shaping our global future."

By 2025, Iran
and Russia will control almost half of the world’s natural gas supply,
which will potentially give them enormous leverage over energy-starved
Europe. Add petroleum reserves to the mix and, as the National Intelligence
Council has
warned
, in just 15 years two countries, Russia and Iran, could
"emerge as energy kingpins."

Despite remarkable
ingenuity, the major oil powers are now draining the big basins
of petroleum reserves that are amenable to easy, cheap extraction.
The real lesson of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf
of Mexico was not BP’s sloppy safety standards, but the simple fact
everyone saw on "spillcam": one of the corporate energy
giants had little choice but to search for what Klare calls
"tough oil" miles beneath the surface of the ocean to
keep its profits up.

Compounding
the problem, the Chinese and Indians have suddenly become far heavier
energy consumers. Even if fossil fuel supplies were to remain constant
(which they won't), demand, and so costs, are almost certain to
rise – and sharply at that.  Other developed nations are meeting
this threat aggressively by plunging into experimental programs
to develop alternative energy sources.  The United States has
taken a different path, doing far too little to develop alternative
sources while, in the last three decades, doubling
its dependence on foreign oil imports.  Between 1973 and 2007,
oil imports have risen
from 36% of energy consumed in the U.S. to 66%.

Oil
Shock: Scenario 2025

The United
States remains so dependent upon foreign oil that a few adverse
developments in the global energy market in 2025 spark an oil shock. 
By comparison, it makes the 1973 oil shock (when prices quadrupled
in just months) look like the proverbial molehill.  Angered
at the dollar’s plummeting value, OPEC oil ministers, meeting in
Riyadh, demand future energy payments in a "basket" of
Yen, Yuan, and Euros.  That only hikes the cost of U.S. oil
imports further.  At the same moment, while signing a new series
of long-term delivery contracts with China, the Saudis stabilize
their own foreign exchange reserves by switching to the Yuan. 
Meanwhile, China pours countless billions into building a massive
trans-Asia pipeline and funding Iran’s exploitation of the world
largest natural gas field at South Pars in the Persian Gulf.

Concerned that
the U.S. Navy might no longer be able to protect the oil tankers
traveling from the Persian Gulf to fuel East Asia, a coalition of
Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi form an unexpected new Gulf alliance
and affirm that China’s new fleet of swift aircraft carriers will
henceforth patrol the Persian Gulf from a base on the Gulf of Oman. 
Under heavy economic pressure, London agrees to cancel the U.S.
lease on its Indian Ocean island base of Diego Garcia, while Canberra,
pressured by the Chinese, informs Washington that the Seventh Fleet
is no longer welcome to use Fremantle as a homeport, effectively
evicting the U.S. Navy from the Indian Ocean.

With just a
few strokes of the pen and some terse announcements, the
"Carter Doctrine,"
by which U.S. military power was
to eternally protect the Persian Gulf, is laid to rest in 2025. 
All the elements that long assured the United States limitless supplies
of low-cost oil from that region – logistics, exchange rates, and
naval power – evaporate. At this point, the U.S. can still cover
only an insignificant
12%
of its energy needs from its nascent alternative energy
industry, and remains dependent on imported oil for half of its
energy consumption.

The oil shock
that follows hits the country like a hurricane, sending prices to
startling heights, making travel a staggeringly expensive proposition,
putting real wages (which had long been declining) into freefall,
and rendering non-competitive whatever American exports remained.
With thermostats dropping, gas prices climbing through the roof,
and dollars flowing overseas in return for costly oil, the American
economy is paralyzed. With long-fraying alliances at an end and
fiscal pressures mounting, U.S. military forces finally begin a
staged withdrawal from their overseas bases.

Within a few
years, the U.S. is functionally bankrupt and the clock is ticking
toward midnight on the American Century.

Military
Misadventure: Present Situation

Counterintuitively,
as their power wanes, empires often plunge into ill-advised military
misadventures.  This phenomenon is known among historians of
empire as "micro-militarism" and seems to involve psychologically
compensatory efforts to salve the sting of retreat or defeat by
occupying new territories, however briefly and catastrophically.
These operations, irrational even from an imperial point of view,
often yield hemorrhaging expenditures or humiliating defeats that
only accelerate the loss of power.

Embattled empires
through the ages suffer an arrogance that drives them to plunge
ever deeper into military misadventures until defeat becomes debacle.
In 413 BCE, a weakened Athens sent 200 ships to be slaughtered in
Sicily. In 1921, a dying imperial Spain dispatched 20,000 soldiers
to be massacred by Berber guerrillas in Morocco. In 1956, a fading
British Empire destroyed its prestige by attacking Suez. And in
2001 and 2003, the U.S. occupied Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. With
the hubris that marks empires over the millennia, Washington has
increased its troops in Afghanistan to 100,000, expanded the war
into Pakistan, and extended
its commitment
to 2014 and beyond, courting disasters large
and small in this guerilla-infested, nuclear-armed graveyard of
empires.

Military
Misadventure: Scenario 2014

So irrational,
so unpredictable is "micro-militarism" that seemingly
fanciful scenarios are soon outdone by actual events. With the U.S.
military stretched thin from Somalia to the Philippines and tensions
rising in Israel, Iran, and Korea, possible combinations for a disastrous
military crisis abroad are multifold.

It's mid-summer
2014 and a drawn-down U.S. garrison in embattled Kandahar in southern
Afghanistan is suddenly, unexpectedly overrun by Taliban guerrillas,
while U.S. aircraft are grounded by a blinding sandstorm. Heavy
loses are taken and in retaliation, an embarrassed American war
commander looses B-1 bombers and F-16 fighters to demolish whole
neighborhoods of the city that are believed to be under Taliban
control, while AC-130U "Spooky" gunships rake the rubble
with devastating cannon fire.

Soon, mullahs
are preaching jihad from mosques throughout the region,
and Afghan Army units, long trained by American forces to turn the
tide of the war, begin to desert en masse.  Taliban fighters
then launch a series of remarkably sophisticated strikes aimed at
U.S. garrisons across the country, sending American casualties soaring.
In scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, U.S. helicopters rescue
American soldiers and civilians from rooftops in Kabul and Kandahar.

Meanwhile,
angry at the endless, decades-long stalemate over Palestine, OPEC's
leaders impose a new oil embargo on the U.S. to protest its backing
of Israel as well as the killing of untold numbers of Muslim civilians
in its ongoing wars across the Greater Middle East. With gas prices
soaring and refineries running dry, Washington makes its move, sending
in Special Operations forces to seize oil ports in the Persian Gulf. 
This, in turn, sparks a rash of suicide attacks and the sabotage
of pipelines and oil wells. As black clouds billow skyward and diplomats
rise at the U.N. to bitterly denounce American actions, commentators
worldwide reach back into history to brand this "America’s
Suez," a telling reference to the 1956 debacle that marked
the end of the British Empire.

World
War III: Present Situation

In the summer
of 2010, military tensions between the U.S. and China began to rise
in the western Pacific, once considered an American "lake." 
Even a year earlier no one would have predicted such a development.
As Washington played upon its alliance with London to appropriate
much of Britain’s global power after World War II, so China is now
using the profits from its export trade with the U.S. to fund what
is likely to become a military challenge to American dominion over
the waterways of Asia and the Pacific.

With its growing
resources, Beijing is claiming a vast maritime arc from Korea to
Indonesia long dominated by the U.S. Navy. In August, after Washington
expressed
a "national interest" in the South China Sea and conducted
naval exercises there to reinforce that claim, Beijing’s official
Global Times responded
angrily
, saying, "The U.S.-China wrestling match over the
South China Sea issue has raised the stakes in deciding who the
real future ruler of the planet will be."

Amid growing
tensions, the Pentagon reported
that Beijing now holds "the capability to attack… [U.S.] aircraft
carriers in the western Pacific Ocean" and target "nuclear
forces throughout… the continental United States." By developing
"offensive nuclear, space, and cyber warfare capabilities,"
China seems determined to vie for dominance of what the Pentagon
calls "the information spectrum in all dimensions of the modern
battlespace." With ongoing development of the powerful Long
March V booster rocket, as well as the launch
of two satellites in January 2010 and another
in July, for a total of five, Beijing signaled that the country
was making rapid strides toward an "independent" network
of 35 satellites for global positioning, communications, and reconnaissance
capabilities by 2020.

To check China
and extend its military position globally, Washington is intent
on building a new digital network of air and space robotics, advanced
cyberwarfare capabilities, and electronic surveillance.  Military
planners expect this integrated system to envelop the Earth in a
cyber-grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield
or taking out a single terrorist in field or favela. By
2020, if all goes according to plan, the Pentagon will launch a
three-tiered shield of space drones – reaching from stratosphere
to exosphere, armed with agile missiles, linked by a resilient modular
satellite system, and operated through total telescopic surveillance.

Last April,
the Pentagon made history.  It extended drone operations into
the exosphere by quietly launching
the X-37B unmanned space shuttle into a low orbit 255 miles above
the planet.  The X-37B is the first in a new generation of
unmanned vehicles that will mark the full weaponization of space,
creating an arena for future warfare unlike anything that has gone
before.

World
War III: Scenario 2025

The technology
of space and cyberwarfare is so new and untested that even the most
outlandish scenarios may soon be superseded by a reality still hard
to conceive. If we simply employ the sort of scenarios that the
Air Force itself used
in its 2009 Future Capabilities Game, however, we can gain "a
better understanding of how air, space and cyberspace overlap in
warfare," and so begin to imagine how the next world war might
actually be fought.

It's 11:59
p.m. on Thanksgiving Thursday in 2025. While cyber-shoppers pound
the portals of Best Buy for deep discounts on the latest home electronics
from China, U.S. Air Force technicians at the Space
Surveillance Telescope
(SST) on Maui choke on their coffee as
their panoramic screens suddenly blip to black. Thousands of miles
away at the U.S. CyberCommand’s operations
center
in Texas, cyberwarriors soon detect malicious binaries
that, though fired anonymously, show the distinctive
digital fingerprints
of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The first overt
strike is one nobody predicted. Chinese "malware" seizes
control of the robotics aboard an unmanned solar-powered U.S. "Vulture"
drone
as it flies at 70,000 feet over the Tsushima Strait between
Korea and Japan.  It suddenly fires all the rocket pods beneath
its enormous 400-foot wingspan, sending dozens of lethal missiles
plunging harmlessly into the Yellow Sea, effectively disarming this
formidable weapon.

Determined
to fight fire with fire, the White House authorizes a retaliatory
strike.  Confident that its F-6
"Fractionated, Free-Flying" satellite system is impenetrable,
Air Force commanders in California transmit robotic codes to the
flotilla of X-37B space drones orbiting 250 miles above the Earth,
ordering them to launch their "Triple
Terminator" missiles
at China’s 35 satellites. Zero response.
In near panic, the Air Force launches its Falcon
Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle
into an arc 100 miles above the Pacific
Ocean and then, just 20 minutes later, sends the computer codes
to fire missiles at seven Chinese satellites in nearby orbits. 
The launch codes are suddenly inoperative.

As the Chinese
virus spreads uncontrollably through the F-6 satellite architecture,
while those second-rate U.S. supercomputers fail to crack the malware’s
devilishly complex code, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of
U.S. ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised. Carrier fleets
begin steaming in circles in the mid-Pacific. Fighter squadrons
are grounded. Reaper drones fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing
when their fuel is exhausted. Suddenly, the United States loses
what the U.S. Air Force has long called
"the ultimate high ground": space. Within hours, the military
power that had dominated the globe for nearly a century has been
defeated in World War III without a single human casualty.

A New
World Order?

Even if future
events prove duller than these four scenarios suggest, every significant
trend points toward a far more striking decline in American global
power by 2025 than anything Washington now seems to be envisioning.

As allies worldwide
begin to realign their policies to take cognizance of rising Asian
powers, the cost of maintaining 800 or more overseas military bases
will simply become unsustainable, finally forcing a staged withdrawal
on a still-unwilling Washington. With both the U.S. and China in
a race to weaponize space and cyberspace, tensions between the two
powers are bound to rise, making military conflict by 2025 at least
feasible, if hardly guaranteed.

Complicating
matters even more, the economic, military, and technological trends
outlined above will not operate in tidy isolation. As happened to
European empires after World War II, such negative forces will undoubtedly
prove synergistic.  They will combine in thoroughly unexpected
ways, create crises for which Americans are remarkably unprepared,
and threaten to spin the economy into a sudden downward spiral,
consigning this country to a generation or more of economic misery.

As U.S. power
recedes, the past offers a spectrum of possibilities for a future
world order.  At one end of this spectrum, the rise of a new
global superpower, however unlikely, cannot be ruled out. Yet both
China and Russia evince self-referential cultures, recondite non-roman
scripts, regional defense strategies, and underdeveloped legal systems,
denying them key instruments for global dominion. At the moment
then, no single superpower seems to be on the horizon likely to
succeed the U.S.

In a dark,
dystopian version of our global future, a coalition of transnational
corporations, multilateral forces like NATO, and an international
financial elite could conceivably forge a single, possibly unstable,
supra-national nexus that would make it no longer meaningful to
speak of national empires at all.  While denationalized corporations
and multinational elites would assumedly rule such a world from
secure urban enclaves, the multitudes would be relegated to urban
and rural wastelands.

In Planet
of Slums
, Mike Davis offers at least a partial vision of
such a world from the bottom up.  He argues that the billion
people already packed into fetid favela-style slums
worldwide (rising to two billion by 2030) will make "the ‘feral,
failed cities’ of the Third World… the distinctive battlespace of
the twenty-first century." As darkness settles over some future
super-favela, "the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies
of repression" as "hornet-like helicopter gun-ships stalk
enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts… Every
morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions."

At a midpoint
on the spectrum of possible futures, a new global oligopoly might
emerge between 2020 and 2040, with rising powers China, Russia,
India, and Brazil collaborating with receding powers like Britain,
Germany, Japan, and the United States to enforce an ad hoc
global dominion, akin to the loose alliance of European empires
that ruled half of humanity circa 1900.

Another possibility:
the rise of regional hegemons in a return to something reminiscent
of the international system that operated before modern empires
took shape. In this neo-Westphalian world order, with its endless
vistas of micro-violence and unchecked exploitation, each hegemon
would dominate its immediate region – Brasilia in South America,
Washington in North America, Pretoria in southern Africa, and so
on. Space, cyberspace, and the maritime deeps, removed from the
control of the former planetary "policeman," the United
States, might even become a new global commons, controlled through
an expanded U.N. Security Council or some ad hoc body.

All of these
scenarios extrapolate existing trends into the future on the assumption
that Americans, blinded by the arrogance of decades of historically
unparalleled power, cannot or will not take steps to manage the
unchecked erosion of their global position.

If America’s
decline is in fact on a 22-year trajectory from 2003 to 2025, then
we have already frittered away most of the first decade of that
decline with wars that distracted us from long-term problems and,
like water tossed onto desert sands, wasted
trillions of desperately needed dollars.

If
only 17 years remain, the odds of frittering them all away still
remain high.  Congress and the president are now in gridlock;
the American system is flooded with corporate money meant to jam
up the works; and there is little suggestion that any issues of
significance, including our wars, our bloated national security
state, our starved education system, and our antiquated energy supplies,
will be addressed with sufficient seriousness to assure the sort
of soft landing that might maximize our country’s role and prosperity
in a changing world.

Europe’s empires
are gone and America’s imperium is going.  It seems increasingly
doubtful that the United States will have anything like Britain’s
success in shaping a succeeding world order that protects its interests,
preserves its prosperity, and bears the imprint of its best values.

December
6, 2010

Tom
Engelhardt [send him mail]
co-founder
of the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, is the co-founder of
the American Empire
Project
. His book, The
End of Victory Culture
, has recently been updated in a newly
issued edition. He edited, and his work appears in, the first best
of TomDispatch book, The
World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire

(Verso), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. His new book
is The
American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's
. Alfred
W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
A TomDispatch
regular
, he is the author, most recently, of Policing
America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise
of the Surveillance State
(2009). He is also the convener
of the "Empires
in Transition"
project, a global working group
of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results
of their first meetings at Madison, Sydney, and Manila were published
as Colonial
Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State

and the findings from their latest conference will appear next year
as "Endless Empire: Europe's Eclipse, America's Ascent,
and the Decline of U.S. Global Power."

The
Best of Tom Engelhardt

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