Hasty obituary for an empire

Opponents of US hegemony have been looking hard to see the ogre bleed. But in a world dominated by American politics, warplanes and labels, it makes little sense to question the global supremacy of the United States. Quite the opposite, in fact. Burgeoning US defiance of international law, and the ease with which US-led troops conquered Iraq, have reinforced fears that America has begun to see itself as a Gulliver that is free, at last, for global power play. For Emmanuel Todd there’s no cause for concern. America’s decline is not a yearning, but a process in the making. «There is no reason to panic and to condemn the emergence of an American empire which – a decade after the end of the Soviet empire – is actually in a process of decomposition,» the French historian and anthropologist says in his latest book «After the Empire,» which was recently launched in Greek translation by journalist Nikolas Voulelis (with a brief introduction by journalist Alexis Papahelas) and which is already a best seller (Kritiki 2003). If the US is dangerous, he goes on, that is not because it is powerful but because it is losing its grip on power. America’s resurgent militarism is nothing but the spasms of a crumbling giant. The US, according to Todd, has reached a point where it needs the world more than the world needs it. Its faltering economy is dependent on foreign capital, resulting in a trade deficit that more than quadrupled during the 1990s. «In the period from 1990 to 2000, the [US] trade deficit went up from $100 billion to $450 billion,» explains Todd. «To pay for this deficit, the US needs to import an equal amount of foreign capital,» he explains. The influx of capital has become so essential to the survival of the US economy that Washington is ultimately behaving both as a «beggar and predator.» In order to sustain the myth of American omnipotence, the US seeks to maintain «a certain level of international tension, a condition of limited but endemic war.» As a result, Todd says, Washington conjures up insignificant enemies (targeting military pygmies like Afghanistan and Iraq) in order to «create the impression that it is the center of the world.» US militarism is nothing but a «fuss» aimed at impressing the world. America is at pains to show the world that it needs the US. But the world doesn’t. On the contrary, the author says, as the world grows more democratic, Washington as the legitimate custodian of democratic order is becoming ever more irrelevant. Besides, teaching democracy to the world would be quite a surreal task for a state that shows strong signs of an oligarchic bent at home; an inevitable offshoot of overwhelming business and media power. In short, Todd sees the world undergoing a double – and quite ironic – reversal: Economically speaking, the US needs the world more than the world needs it while, in political terms, the world is becoming more democratic at a time that America’s democracy is subdued. This worldwide democratic momentum, Todd notes, vindicates Fukuyama’s theory that history is marching toward a liberal world order. However, he says, Fukuyama’s is a theory based on erroneous, economistic premises. If the family of liberal states is growing, that’s because of falling birthrates teamed with an upward trend in literacy rates. In truth, Todd discards Fukuyama’s grand narrative only to replace it with his own pet fixation: demographic trends. His obsession with birthrates is dubious – almost metaphysical. But it is explicable: Demographic rates have worked for him in the past. In his «La Chute Finale,» published back in 1976, Todd famously predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, his reasoning sounds far-fetched: «A slight increase in Russian infant mortality between 1970 and 1974 made me understand the degeneration of the Soviet Union back in 1976 and allowed me to predict the system’s collapse.» Quite naturally for Todd, the USSR’s sliding birthrate underscored «the likely emergence of normal Russians, perfectly capable of overthrowing communism.» (Similarly, we are told that the carnage in former Yugoslavia was the outcome of «fertility gaps» between the Slavic and Muslim populations.) Eurasian get-together In any case, the writer claims that America’s militarism could actually give birth to something new: Indeed, a new world order. America’s «theatrical neo-imperialism,» the French social scientist explains, may well backfire, bringing Russia, a major nuclear rival, closer to the great industrial powerhouses of Europe and Japan (even China). In other words, far from interpreting Washington’s go-it-alone policy on Iraq as a sign of rabid US unilateralism, Todd treats it as an indication that the world (especially Germany, as shown by its count-me-out stance) has already grasped America’s hegemonic decline. Of course, projections of America’s relative economic decline are nothing new; historians and international political economy theorists such as Robert Gilpin and Paul Kennedy have long recounted the tale of a Captain America threatened by regional antagonism or the strains of imperial overstretch – even if the fad of American declinism proved to be somewhat exaggerated. Once again, there seems reason to believe that Todd has been too hasty in posting America’s death notice. The writer seems to ignore the fact that sources of structural power are multiple. As the late international relations theorist Susan Strange demonstrated, a hegemon’s position is determined with respect to all these sources, namely security, production, finance and knowledge. Apart from Todd, few doubt that the US remains unchallenged on land, sea and air. Economically speaking, it is not only the value of American exports that counts, as Todd seems to think, but also the amount of goods produced in the US and by outside firms which are ultimately headquartered in the US. Moreover, as Strange says, Washington can control the supply and availability of credit denominated in dollars and hence exert significant influence over the global economic system (the vast majority of loans are also denominated in dollars). Finally, few will question America’s lead in advanced technology sectors such as telecommunications, software or microelectronics. For all the dire predictions for American hegemony, it appears that Gulliver will be surrounded by Lilliputians for some time to come.