December 1, 2005
Decadent America Must Give Up Imperial Ambitions
power, as presently conceived by the overwhelming majority of
the U.S. establishment, is unsustainable. To place American power
on a firmer footing requires putting it on a more limited footing.
Despite the lessons of Iraq, this is something that American policymakers
- Democrat and Republican, civilian and military - still find
extremely difficult to think about.
reasons why the American empire is bust are familiar from other
imperial histories. The empire can no longer raise enough taxes
or soldiers, it is increasingly indebted and key vassal states
are no longer reliable. In an equally classical fashion, central
to what is happening is the greed and decadence of the imperial
elites. Like so many of their predecessors, the U.S. wealthy classes
have gained a grip over the state that allows them to escape taxation.
Mass acquiescence in this has to be bought with much smaller -
but fiscally equally damaging - cuts to taxes on the middle classes.
is that the empire can no longer pay for enough of the professional
troops it needs to fulfil its self-assumed imperial tasks. It
cannot introduce conscription because of the general demilitarisation
of society and also because elite youths are no longer prepared
to set an example of leadership and sacrifice by serving themselves.
The result is that the U.S. is incapable of waging more wars of
occupation, such as in Iraq. It can defeat other states in battle
easily enough but it cannot turn them into loyal or stable allies.
War therefore means simply creating more and more areas of anarchy
and breeding grounds for terrorism.
It is important
to note that this U.S. weakness affects not only the ambitions
of the Bush administration, but also geopolitical stances wholly
shared by the Democrats. The Bush administration deserves to be
savagely criticised for the timing and the conduct of the Iraq
war. Future historians may, however, conclude that President Bill
Clinton's strategy of the 1990s would have made the conquest of
Iraq unavoidable sooner or later; and that given the realities
of Iraqi society and history, the results would not have been
significantly less awful. For that matter, can present U.S. strategy
against Iran - supported by both parties - be sustained permanently
without war? Indeed, given the nature of the Middle East, may
it not be that any power wishing to exercise hegemony in the region
would have to go to war at regular intervals in defence of its
authority or its local clients?
the relative decline in U.S. economic independence means that,
unlike 1917 or 1941, really serious war risks U.S. economic disaster.
Even a limited U.S.-Chinese clash over Taiwan would be likely
to produce catastrophic economic consequences for both sides.
the desirable U.S. response to its imperial overstretch is simple
and has been advocated by some leading independent U.S. thinkers
such as Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard. It is to fall back
on "offshore balancing," intended to create regional
coalitions against potential aggressors and, when possible, regional
consensuses in support of order and stability. Not just a direct
military presence, but direct military commitments and alliances
should be avoided wherever possible.
one traces what this might mean in practice in various parts of
the worlds, it becomes clear how utterly unacceptable much of
this approach would be to the entire existing U.S. political order.
In the former Soviet Union, it could mean accepting a qualified
form of Russian sphere of influence. In Asia, it could mean backing
Japan and other countries against any Chinese aggression, but
also defusing the threat of confrontation with China by encouraging
the reintegration of Taiwan into the mainland. In the Middle East,
it could involve separating U.S. goals from Israeli ones and seeeking
detente with Iran.
today, some at least of these moves may, however, prove inescapable
in a generation's time. For it is pointless to dream of long maintaining
an American empire for which most Americans will neither pay nor
fight. My fear though is that, rather than as a result of carefully
planned and peaceful strategy, this process may occur through
disastrous defeats, in the course of which American global power
will not be qualified but destroyed altogether, with potentially
awful consequences for the world.
Lieven is a senior research fellow at the New
America Foundation and author of "America
Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism."
This article originally appeared in the Financial
Times and has been reprinted with the author's permission.