DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE
The rise now of China, Japan, Europe, and others – India, Korea, and to some extent Russia and Brazil – means the United States must be relatively diminished on the world stage, much as an only child whose mother just gave birth to quintuplets.
The United States is loosing its capacity as supplier of many useful things to the world. This role is being seized by China and others. The American working class, which briefly achieved the status of world’s working-class aristocracy after World War II – industrial workers who enjoyed homes, cars, long vacations, and even boats – has seen real wages declining for many years. It works against rising competitors who can now deliver the benefits of their much lower costs to the world owing to the phenomenon of globalization. American manufacturing jobs are moving to the lower-cost places, replaced at home if at all by relatively low-wage service jobs.
The American establishment’s vision of the future, implicit in its behavior and policies, has been that traditional manufacturing jobs will pass to developing countries while greater value-added high-tech jobs and intellectual property rights will provide America’s economic strength.
But that is a somewhat arrogant vision, because competitors like China and India do not plan to do only lower value-added work, and they are uniquely gifted to succeed. The Chinese, Japanese, and Indians have an extraordinary reservoir of natural mathematical and engineering talent – every international competition or test shows this starkly – that is only now beginning to be harnessed. There is every reason to believe that over any substantial time the US will decline to a secondary role in high-tech. China or India each likely have something on the order of three or four times the natural mathematical endowment of the US. Their new high-growth economies and emerging modern infrastructure prepare the way for full application of this priceless talent.
There are more forces at work on the place of the American Empire than the emergence of other economic powers, important as that is. Major studies of the decline of empire – from Edward Gibbon to William Shirer – speak to the overwhelming importance of the moral dimension in a society and of the crucial role of capable and responsible leadership.
Polls show that three years after launching its pointless war in Iraq, nearly half of Americans still believed that Iraq was involved in making weapons of mass destruction. Five years after 9/11, better than forty percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. Both of these ideas have been proved complete fairy tales. But the concentration of American media and their shared establishment interests with George Bush have produced a fabric of omissions and exaggerations as great as we might expect in a non-democratic society like China.
So-called liberal media, the New York Times being the best example, do almost nothing seriously to correct these misunderstandings. Indeed the Times helped drum America into Iraq, an unforgivable manipulation from people who had the resources to know better, and it did the same thing for horrific failures such as the war in Vietnam. The American people are desperately misinformed. What is the good of a ballot where grave ignorance prevails and is indeed actively promoted?
A menagerie of vitriolic radio and television commentators plus a vast apparatus of phony think-tanks, propaganda mills subsidized by right-wing interests, help greatly in the effort to confuse public understanding. The vitriolic commentators, little more truthful or civil in their speech than those doing the same job for third-world dictators, reinforce popular myths and prejudices, appealing to people’s lowest instinct to enjoy a good laugh at the expense of others. The phony think-tanks, much like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain pulling levers to generate puffs of smoke and dramatic noise, offer what passes for learned analysis. Both groups receive an immense amount of broadcast time and publication space in the United States.
Going back to the beginning, it can be argued that many parts of the American Constitution – regarded by Americans with a reverence usually reserved for scripture and a document that is close to impossible to change in any meaningful way – are seriously flawed and promote neither responsible government nor democratic principles. The right-wing commentator and think-tank crowd always play up to the quasi-religious notion that the Constitution is the most perfect political document ever conceived. A disgraced, crooked, nasty right-wing politician, Tom DeLay of Texas, always bragged of having a copy folded in his pocket, almost like a priest carrying a bottle of holy water.
The Constitution’s flaws leave little optimism for substantial political and policy change in the United States. It’s as though all important political institutions were trapped in amber. Without changing the Constitution’s flaws, it is hard to see how America’s destructive policies at home and abroad can be altered. There are many such flaws, but I’ll mention just a few.
One is the Electoral College. Many Americans do not understand that their vote for president technically does not count. The Electoral College, besides being remarkably anti-democratic, promotes corruption in elections with its winner-take-all provision in states. It is amazing that a country more than two centuries old and making great claims for democracy still can’t hold honest national elections, both of George Bush’s victories, but especially the first, being as dubious as something in an emerging nation.
Another ugly flaw in the Constitution is the power of the Senate. It can veto the more democratic House’s legislation. It must approve all major Presidential appointments and treaties. It is a fundamentally anti-democratic institution, for much of American history not being elected at all, but even now being elected in a staggered fashion that insulates its membership from issues of the day. Its internal sixty-percent rule for debate is plainly undemocratic. You only have to look at photos of American Senators to see the swollen, crinkled faces of arrogant (mostly) men, faces of bloated entitlement, grasping power into their seventies and eighties. They resemble the faces of heads of powerful families in the 16th century or, what is almost the same thing, Mafia godfathers. Surprisingly often sons, or other relatives, follow fathers as though they had inherited fiefdoms or money-minting American evangelism ministries.
The Senate’s two members for each state is an archaic nonsense that makes members from large states virtually unreachable demigods. The two senators from California each “represent” sixteen million people. The huge expense of mounting media campaigns in large states, where a member could never hope even to offer a live smile to most constituents, turns senators into full-time Fuller Brush salesmen soliciting funds. The expense creates two classes of constituents, those who give and the rest. Lobbyists naturally exploit the situation, meaning policy reflects virtually only the interests of the small group with meaningful access.
Dependence upon advertising means tight control over what is disseminated, with voters expected to believe the actor posing in a white lab coat on a patent medicine commercial is giving genuine information. Advertising and brief appearances on favorably-rigged talk shows generates attitudes of aloofness and celebrity dangerous to the public interest. Thoughtfulness and real debate at the national level have become uncommon.
The designation of the President as commander-in-chief has proved an unfortunate provision with effects the founders never foresaw. Many Americans do not realize that it was the Parliament of Great Britain against which the early Patriots railed. They saw the British Parliament as acting without the beneficent King’s full knowledge, understanding fully that the King’s powers were already heavily curtailed by the evolution of British parliamentary government. The idea of the King as tyrant was built up later during the Revolutionary War as a propaganda device, and it has been played on by elementary text books since.
So in America’s constitutional arrangements, command of the armed forces was granted to the new king-substitute, the President (many founders had favored a lifetime or long-term president who would be “above politics”). This authority was supposedly offset by Congress’s having the only authority to declare war. But as we all know, over the last sixty years not one of America’s many colonial wars has been formally declared. The power to declare war has become almost meaningless, but the power of America’s Frankenstein armed forces taking orders from a president-commander (often not even honestly elected) is anything but meaningless.
The President does not himself suddenly launch a war, although he clearly has at hand intelligence and other agencies of limitless resources, whose leaders serve at his pleasure, capable of constructing compelling myths for what he wants done. He consults with key Senate and Congressional leaders, all under the intimidating shadow of being branded as cowards (or almost worse in America, poor patriots) in a fashion that is little different to what a late-eighteenth century monarch would have done with key parliamentary figures.
For that matter, few Americans realize that even a dictator with such dreadful power as Hitler, for the most part, did not summarily order dire events. Hitler consulted and argued with other prominent members of government concerning major turns in policy. Factions and other centers of power exist even in dictatorships. It is just the people who are not effectively consulted.
The United States, under George Bush, has spent itself silly on the military and security. It has also foolishly spent much, if not all, of its moral authority in the world – something derived from the many world institutions and arrangements established at the end of World War II when America felt generous and expansive – by going ahead with pointless destruction, ignoring world opinion, as though the very act of doing so were the same thing as bold leadership rather than the bullying it is. Bush is almost a parody of poor leadership, believing himself a convincing figure with his jaw squared, his eyebrows knit, while he mumbles what millions recognize as platitudes and bald-faced lies.
The business of Bush wearing a radio device concealed under his jacket for debates or press conferences or important meetings – an indisputable fact from pictures of his back taken at many angles – is a damning revelation of how under the American system an incompetent can serve two terms as President. It is damning, too, of the mainline media which never pursue such matters, choosing never to embarrass a man who has done a great deal of harm to the nation.
America’s history is important to understanding the attitudes of its people, although we perhaps should judge American democracy today more by its external actions which include invading pretty much any country it chooses, violating the free elections of other countries, toppling democratically-elected leaders, supporting the oppressive regimes, assassinating leaders, frequently imposing destructive economic sanctions, and generally behaving the way you would expect a bully to act who happened also to be the richest kid in town.
Even an honestly elected government which behaves without regard for those outside its territory, which treats others as though they had no rights, can hardly be called democratic in any meaningful sense.
The War in Iraq has been called by an American expert the worst strategic mistake ever made by the United States, and I believe that will prove a deadly accurate assessment. How do all those American patriot types, clutching their private arsenals in paranoid fear of government tyranny, fail to see how millions of others, like the Iraqis, view American government tyranny abroad? The enemies America has made in destroying and occupying Iraq will engage it for many years in totally needless war and terror.
The Middle East has become more unstable and less predictable for decades thanks to George Bush. All recent American policies have been almost the opposite of what would have proved appropriate and effective to a better future.
The glaring injustice of giving Israel its way in almost anything, including bombing women and children in Beirut, while the U.S. invades Muslim lands can only generate frustration and despair beyond measure. Israel has become a garrison state, a grossly inefficient economy, subsidized by the United States, that maintains a nuclear arsenal and one of the world’s most powerful armies, spending an extraordinary portion of its GDP on unproductive military and security apparatus. It is now walling itself in and preparing to carry on with little or no reference to the millions with which it shares its part of the world, except to bomb and rocket them whenever it feels rankled. This is a national vision from hell. The vision has no long-term viability without endless subsidy, an indefinite drain on American resources and the world’s patience and a painful injustice for millions of the region’s people.
Condoleezza Rice’s disgusting words about children and others torn apart by Israeli cluster bombs in Beirut representing the birth pangs of a new Middle East pretty much speaks for itself. Democracy? Democratic values? Human values? Nonsense. Rather, they are words about as far removed from these values as you can get.
I do not believe that any nation which ignores the serious flaws in its democracy and treatment of others can maintain the moral authority in the twenty-first century required for leadership in the world. The world generally is evolving towards democracy and respect for human rights. This is not a result of American policy, it is the natural evolution of human affairs, it is what happens as countries grow and prosper.
It is true, too, that any nation which spends so much on its military, holding dear the anti-democratic and anti-human rights values of any military, cannot maintain that same moral authority. Eisenhower’s predicted military-industrial complex is not a friendly face on the world, but it is indisputably the face of America today.
Just consider, as one tiny aspect of this, the disgraceful relationship between Vice-President Cheney and Halliburton Corporation. Halliburton has prospered mightily from Cheney’s role as a powerful advocate of war, and Cheney, the company’s former CEO, has openly prospered from Halliburton with all kinds of special payments since first running for office. It is an open disgrace, but no more of a disgrace than the way money runs American elections. The world outside America sees all this clearly, and what else can the knowledge generate but cynicism and disgust? How on earth can a man of this quality address the great principles of humanity without causing listeners to snicker? How can anyone be expected to take America’s high-sounding rhetoric seriously?
The American international structure carefully built up after World War II is beginning to crumble, although it is not always obvious yet since good appearances are carefully maintained. A prime example is the crumbling of NATO. The grass is still kept well-trimmed at headquarters, but America’s insistence on making unnatural demands on this alliance, such as those it has made in Afghanistan, are surely destroying what was once a powerful international organization.
It may be just as well, for Europe has a future more independent of the U.S., and perhaps the decline in NATO only reflects an unavoidable changing reality. Europe’s commercial know-how and technology make a natural marriage with Russia’s vast natural resources. America has for a couple of decades worked to suppress this development, especially with respect to Russian natural gas exports, but it must in the end prove a losing battle.
Britain’s Tony Blair has been exploited by the U.S. to spike European aspirations, much as Margaret Thatcher was previously. Because of a shared history with the former colonies, a good deal of residual xenophobia regarding people on the Continent, plus a sense of its own special importance engendered by memories of empire, Britain remains confused about its role in Europe, and the United States keeps playing on this confusion to avoid a more cohesive E.U. Such American policies in the long run can leave only bitterness over manipulating Europe’s affairs, and they cannot prevent what physical facts and natural self-interests dictate as destiny.
So, too, with respect to Europe’s relations with the Middle East. Israelis sometimes talk of Europe as being anti-Semitic simply because Europeans are more critical of Israel’s policies. But Europe simply sees the problem of Palestine/Israel in a clearer light than the U.S. where religious fundamentalism and other powerful factors blur vision. Europe also naturally wants to cultivate the best commercial relations with the owners of the world’s great reservoirs of crude oil, so commercial incentives add to the force of the moral view. Not only must Europe look to its future energy supplies, but the E.U. is expanding, and Western Asia is becoming a next-door neighbor.
These are just some of the reasons we can expect a decline in the relative influence and importance of the United States over the next decades. A more balanced, multi-polar world is emerging. Unfortunately, the people who seem least ready to deal with it are Americans.