Americans are well-known for their ingenuity and many of them (including Pres. Donald J. Trump) love to crow about being “Number One!” Now, the whole world is seeing the United States achieving a nearly unprecedented record: The country that was this planet’s unchallenged hegemon for the past 28 years is undergoing a collapse of its global empire that is fueled by many of the actions of the government itself.
Soon after I first started watching (and experiencing) the anti-science and dangerously botched responses Pres. Trump made to the eruption of Covid-19, I concluded that his ineptitude would mire the country in a state of economic as well as medical distress from which it would take many months– perhaps years– to escape. I foresaw that this situation would lead to a serious weakening of the United States’ power on the world stage. Now, the country’s twinned medical and health crises still continue; and they have been joined by an equally dire crisis of internal governance and legitimacy.
It is impossible to see how the United States can at any point in the next quarter century regain anything like the commanding position in the world system that it occupied from 1991 through late 2019. What we are experiencing is not just a decline but a collapse of America’s global hegemony.
This is the first time any significant world power has undergone a collapse as speedy and dramatic as what the United States has been undergoing since early March. Yes, in the past, empires have come and gone. Most recently, in 1974-75, the significant global empire Portugal had amassed over the preceding 450 years underwent complete implosion after young officers tired of having to police the country’s large colonies in Mozambique and Angola returned home, overthrew the dictatorship in Lisbon, and made decolonization their first order of business. Then, in 1991-93, the sphere of strong influence that the Soviet Union had built for itself in East Europe and Central Asia– not wholly an empire– collapsed.
The collapse the United States’ position as world hegemon is starting to experience now is more dramatic and far-reaching than either of those two collapses. It is also to a large extent being fueled by its own leadership. With decision after decision after decision, Pres. Trump has been cutting Washington off from having any effective ties with governments, alliances, and global institutions that previous presidents had worked hard to establish and that provided the vital underpinning for the country’s global power. Trump exited speedily and with little preparation from the JCPOA with Iran, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the previous massive trading relationship with China, UNRWA, and a range of other institutions… And now, in these recent weeks of growing despair and immiseration at home, he has continued with a blindly bullying, “smash it all” approach to international relations that promises to further accelerate the collapse of Washington’s international influence. He vows he will leave the World Health Organization– at a time of unprecedented global health emergency? He promises to “eliminate” Hong Kong’s special status– effectively leaving the region’s 7.5 million people to the mercies of their central government. Even the step he took May 15th to try to cut the power of China’s Huawei tech giant may well, as The Economist noted, end up pushing high-tech chipmakers to flee the United States, not China.
Any collapse of an empire, or even the slower ending of one, is always a period of uncertainty and risk. In the present case of declining US power and rising Chinese power, Prof. Graham Allison has since 2012 warned of what he calls the “Thucydides Trap”, building on the conclusions that that Greek historian drew about the conflict sparked when the city-state of Sparta, fearing the rising power of its neighbor Athens, launched a strike against Athens that mired the two city-states and their neighbors in a war that lasted 30 years… More generally, the Thucydides Trap is understood as the heightened possibility that any rapid decline of a formerly great power (especially if it happens in the face of the rise of a new power) will lead to a new period of conflict, risk, and uncertainty.
It is true that the decline of every single large, European-heritage empire in modern history has been followed (and often also accompanied) by outbreaks of very lethal violence. Britain’s withdrawal from India/Pakistan, Palestine, Cyprus, “Malaya”, or other areas. Belgium’s withdrawal from Congo or Rwanda. France’s withdrawal from Algeria… or Portugal’s from Mozambique and Angola: All left some degree of violence in their wake. We should remember, though, that all those previous empires–like the United States’ own globe-girdling hegemonic order— had only ever been built and maintained by violence… (And throughout the lives of those empires, their leaders cynically fostered precisely the kinds of “divide and rule” that greatly increased the likelihood of internal violence erupting after their departures.) But at least, in the era of decolonization, the attainment of independence gave the formerly occupied/colonized peoples a chance of rebuilding their societies on a sound and dignified basis that imperial/colonial rule had never allowed them.
So how about this period of the extremely speedy collapse of the U.S. empire that we are now entering? What are the main risks we need to watch for and strive to avoid?
Primarily, we need to watch out for the real possibility that the “Masters of the Universe” who have been running this massively sprawling U.S. empire will strike out, Sparta-style, against the currently rising power in an attempt to blunt or end its rise.
The rulers of the rising power, China, almost certainly share this concern. In this recent article in South China Morning Post, Shi Jiangtao wrote:
While observers generally agree that an all-out war between the nuclear-armed nations is improbable, there are potential risks for a limited military conflict.
President Xi Jinping has shown personal interest in the Thucydides trap concept… Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Xi said the Thucydides trap “can be avoided … as long as we maintain communication and treat each other with sincerity”.
But since then, the devastating Covid-19 pandemic has driven the deeply fraught US-China relations to the brink of an all-out confrontation as a result of strategic distrust and misperception, said Wang Jisi, president of Peking University’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies.
“China and the US are shifting from an all-around competition to a full-scale confrontation, with little room for compromise and manoeuvring,” Wang said in a speech in late March. “We cannot rule out the possibility that the two powers may fall into the Thucydides trap.”
A second risk we should keep in mind is less clear-cut but equally serious. It is the risk that, as the power that the United States has exercised worldwide since 1991 collapses relatively suddenly, many regions around the world might fall into chaos as local actors, spooked by the sudden change in security architecture– and with many of them anyway suffering the same toxic stew of medical and economic collapse as the USA– compete to try to secure their own advantage, or even their own survival.
This is not unprecedented. Look at the fallout from the sudden collapse of the Soviet sphere of control in the early 1990s, or from the collapse of the Portuguese Empire in 1974-75. (Eighteen months before either of those earlier collapses started, how many students of world affairs saw them as likely?) The implosion of the United States’ hegemonic power in the world would have consequences far more widespread and potentially many times more violent and destabilizing than either of those collapses…
With Trump, we should also, always, keep in mind the possibility of a third kind of scenario: that he might take some deeply irrational decision in the international arena, possibly in a “wag the dog” attempt to divert attention from domestic disorder… and that this action itself would have consequences of a quickly cascading and destabilizing nature.
The U.S. empire is unprecedented in all of human history, in at least two ways. It is the first empire in history that that has exercised its hegemonic sway over nearly the whole of the planet. Previously, some imperial leaders might have thought that they controlled “the whole known world”, but in fact, there were still large parts of the planet of which they knew (or cared) nothing. The geographic extent of the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. empire could well be without precedent.
Secondly, this is an empire that remains in many ways (and most especially, to its own citizens) virtually “invisible.” This empire’s leaders have intentionally never described it as an empire, talking instead only about the role of “American leadership” within a slippery, anodyne body known as the “international community.” As a result, many U.S. citizens find it hard to recognize or acknowledge the hegemonic/imperial role that our government has played in international affairs. Large numbers of Americans remain persuaded that, despite some “lapses” such as occurred in Vietnam or Iraq, in the main our country’s engagement with the rest of the world has had effects there that have been extremely positive– progressive, liberalizing, a light unto the nations, the “indispensable nation”, and so on. Or, when the effects of an American action are recognized as undeniably negative, as in Libya, many Americans argue that the fact that the government’s intentions were pure should somehow absolve Washington of any accusation of malfeasance.
This invisibility of the United States’ hegemonic/imperial role in the world makes it a lot harder for most Americans than it was, say, for Brits in the era of the proudly proclaimed “British Empire”, to have any kind of serious discussion about how to describe, let alone change or correct, our country’s relations with the rest of the world. (There is a parallel here with one of the well-known aspects of “White privilege”, namely, that a lot of “White” people don’t even see their privilege and thus find it hard to start to think about what might be needed to end it… )
Today, Americans in cities and towns across our country are hurting, badly. We need all the help we can get, from any bodies domestically or internationally that are able to help. We need a speedy and effective national response to the coronavirus that is boosted by, and a cooperative part of, the best scientific and public-health capabilities available anywhere on the planet. We need a national health system that provides decent care to everyone, not one designed to line the pockets of investors. We need a federal government that leads a massive FDR-style effort to put money into Americans’ pockets (not into the financial sector), while rebuilding our badly battered national infrastructure. We need a revival of popular democracy and community-controlled policing…
What we do not need is another war, hot or “cold”, or any other kinds of bullying attempt to use our remaining financial or military muscle to bend other nations like Iran, Syria, Venezuela, or Cuba to our will.
I grew up in a Britain that was rapidly decolonizing– but we got the National Health Service instead, in a deal that is still highly valued by Britons until today. Portugal, after the collapse of its empire 45 years ago, turned out to be a very pleasant place to live…
America can be, too, if we are smart and humble enough to realize that we need to build a sounder relationship with that 95% of the world’s people who happen not to be Americans. And if we recognize that our imperial-style hegemony over the world has existed for too long, that it has inflicted real harm on too many of the world’s peoples, and that ending it will be good for the other 95%– and for us.