US Imperial Decline in Geopolitical Perspective


Eurasia (orthographic projection). Credit: Keepscases / Wikimedia Commons

Historian Alfred McCoy has quickened my interest in the discourse of geopolitics applied to the waning state of US empire.  His book, In the Shadows of the American Century:  The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2017), makes a clear case that the end of global dominance is near.  The question is what kinds of disruption and what degree of violence the imperial fall will occasion.  What might a post-imperial era mean for Americans and others caught up in the transition?  From the perspective of geopolitics, McCoy sees a number of mostly disturbing possibilities.  His observations are valuable for indicating the challenges ahead. 

The nature of those challenges, I believe, is cause for strengthening, rather than further eroding, the democratic character of US political culture.  Which is not to say I am optimistic that the country will rise democratically to the challenge at hand.  It is instead a reason to reflect on the relevance of a robustly democratic discourse for addressing the kind of trouble the country is likely facing.

Empire was a term used sparingly by historians to describe US global presence, power, and governance prior to the implosion of the Soviet empire in 1991.  Nevertheless, America’s global dominion—“history’s most powerful empire” (McCoy, p. 44)—and its liberal world order have rested since 1945 on the development of a potent combination of strategically located military bases, multiple alliances, cultural exports, economic clout, superior military weaponry for land, sea, and air operations, global telecommunications satellites, cyberwar capabilities, clandestine operations, and recurring interventions and warfare.  But its grasp on world power began slipping at the turn of the 21st century.

McCoy’s geopolitical account of the current predicament boils down to the US, after seventy years of supremacy, losing its ability to secure “axial positions at both ends of the Eurasian landmass” in order to contain the core of future global power (p. 38).  China, he observes, is working “a radical geopolitical change . . . inside the Eurasian landmass” to link its “rising industries to the vast natural resources of the Eurasian heartland,” which could lead to a Chinese global empire unifying Europe, Asia, and Africa, especially as China expands its military capacity to breach US containment forces in the Arabian and South China Seas (pp. 202, 225).

This geopolitical contest between the US and China might take many forms, ranging from commercial competition to protracted warfare (McCoy, p. 226).  The demise of US preeminence, beginning with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, may come more slowly or quickly, quietly or loudly, but is likely to “aggregate rapidly by 2020 and could reach a critical mass no later than 2030” accompanied perhaps by a generation or more of economic privation and domestic unrest (pp. 227-28). The question is not whether the US will lose its position of global preeminence but “just how precipitous and wrenching the decline will be,” that is, whether it will entail some combination of economic decline, military misadventure, and even a World War III (pp. 229-230).  Soaring prices, increasing unemployment, and declining wages could exacerbate domestic divisions (p. 240).  Fading empires historically opt to pursue ill-considered military adventures to recoup lost power and prestige (p. 241).  The Pentagon and its closely allied think tank (the Rand Corporation) already have begun contemplating war with China (p. 245).  The pervasive and intensifying impact of climate change is likely to accelerate the US-China rivalry, which already extends to the weaponization of space and cyberspace, making future military conflict between the two at least feasible, if not inevitable (p. 255).

Dan Lamothe, reporting in the Washington Post on March 15 of this year, provides an immediate example of the intersection of global warming with US-China military competition.  The Department of Defense, in conjunction with the National Security Council, is drafting a new Arctic defense strategy embedded within a national defense strategy that shifts resources from countering terrorism to great-power competition with China and Russia.  The receding polar ice has opened new paths that allow it to become “increasingly militarized as it becomes easier to navigate.”  China has set off alarms by declaring itself a “near-Arctic nation” consistent with its desire to defend a “Polar Silk Road” on which “Chinese goods would be delivered by sea from Asia to Europe.”

Neoconservative historian Robert Kagan fears an impending collapse of US empire and, with the loss of the US “as a restraining force against evil actors in the world,” the liberal world order returning to the jungle.  The “darkest elements of the human spirit” (“tyrants, aggressors and mass killers”) will “crawl out” from under the overturned rocks of a broken world—civilization lost.  The “Hitlers and Stalins are all around us, waiting to reveal themselves if given half a chance.”  What, he asks, will an unconstrained China become?

“Of all the geopolitical transformations confronting the liberal democratic world these days,” Kagan insists that “the one for which we are least prepared is the ideological and strategic resurgence of authoritarianism.”  China and Russia are “championing anti-liberalism as an alternative to a teetering liberal hegemony.”  Authoritarians are even “reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.”  They want to roll back, not just contain, liberal democracy worldwide.  Even in the US, Kagan notes, “a growing number of American conservatives, including those in charge of U.S. foreign policy, find themselves in sympathy with the resurgent authoritarians and proponents of illiberalism.”  He is referring here to “the highest reaches of the Trump administration” and its supporters.  And on the political left, Kagan continues, progressives are decrying the liberal world order and attacking “liberal capitalism as deeply and perhaps irrevocably flawed.”  The progressive left, in Kagan’s view, “is more concerned about alleged U.S. ‘imperialism’ than about resisting authoritarianism in places like Venezuela.”  Today’s progressives, from Kagan’s neoconservative standpoint, do not recognize the superiority of “liberal democratic capitalism” and do not wish to resist the “rising authoritarian power” of China and Russia.

Whether one considers the geopolitical decline of US empire as inevitable or geopolitical transformations as a threat to liberal-capitalist global power by the forces of domestic and international authoritarianism, the struggle with imperialism is democratically challenged.  McCoy observes that empire undermines democracy and cultivates militarism.  By way of example, Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, in a 1954 meeting of the National Security Council, advised his colleagues to “stop talking so much about democracy” and start supporting “dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.”  The government can talk publicly about ideas and idealism, he continued, but its leaders have to be “a great deal more practical and materialistic.”  President Eisenhower concurred.  It became the system of US global dominion, in McCoy’s view, of “setting aside democratic principles for a tough realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader who backed us” (pp. 62-63).  The stark choice, McCoy observes, has been “between maintaining the empire abroad and sustaining democracy at home” (p. 208).  While empowered elites are unlikely to adapt well to the demands of the times and the erosion of US global power, the possibility remains in McCoy’s estimation that “the American people could come together . . . to build a more just society at home and a more equitable world abroad” (p. 256).

The people’s ability to respond well to the exigency of global change will surely require a richer democratic culture and discourse than currently exists, which is a subject for further consideration.  For now, it is worth noting that rightwing populist demagoguery, itself symptomatic of imperial decline, is consistent with neither liberal nor democratic values.  It is authoritarian.  And we must make a distinction between upholding the values signified by liberal democracy versus the guileful use of an empty signifier to mask imperial excesses.

Liberalism resists the encroachment by the state and other forces on human liberty, natural rights, and individual freedom.  Its focus is the proper limit of political power.  Democracy promotes collective self-governance, equality, inclusion, and respect for diversity.  Its focus is popular sovereignty as the source of legitimate political power.  As political theorist Russell Hanson explains, “there is nothing intrinsically democratic about liberalism, nor . . . anything especially liberal about democracy.”  Hence, the “defining feature of liberal democratic discourse involves the simultaneous embrace of liberalism and democracy, and the history of this kind of discourse is in large measure the result of successive efforts to reconcile their contradictory implications in practice” (The Democratic Imagination in America [Princeton University Press, 1985], p. 13).

Ideally, liberalism’s pull toward personal freedom is sufficiently counterbalanced by democracy’s draw to egalitarian community, which requires a political discourse that speaks across differences without quelling dissent or expecting uniform consensus, that recognizes the humanity of political rivals, and that acknowledges the surety of human fallibility and the limits of any given perspective.  Clearly, this is not a present reality, but it is a cultural ideal toward which a liberal democratic polity might be drawn to navigate the turmoil of these post-imperial times.



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