Analysing the signs of the downfall of the American empire

Developing Just Leadership

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Sha'ban 27, 1426 2005-10-01

Book Review

by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 8, Sha'ban, 1426)

After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order by Emmanuel Todd. Translated by C. Jon Delogu. London: Constable, 2004. Pp. 243. £8.99.

By Yusuf al-Khabbaz

As American neo-conservative academics, policy experts, government officials and corporate media continue to proclaim the "new American century," those on the American left lament the emerging imperial power of the US. Although they are viciously opposed to one another on many points, both parties agree that America is "the sole superpower" in the world today, and that the emerging American empire is an inevitability to be either celebrated or decried. In the mean time, those in the center of the political spectrum still hold onto the "American dream" as a defining feature of contemporary life, and hold out hopes for a post-George Bush American order. In the midst of all this posturing and pontificating, American consumer-citizens remain confused and divided, many happy to continue pursuing their "American way of life", and a few bewildered and restless.

To Emmanuel Todd, it seems that Americans are living in a fantasy world, a cultural delusion of sorts, and that they are unwilling or unable to recognize the true path upon which their nation has embarked. In his book After the Empire (2002), updated for the British edition under review here, Todd cautiously but convincingly describes the "breakdown of the American order." He is a respected French anthropologist and historian who writes primarily on family systems and demographics, and is perhaps best known for his important book La Chute Finale (1976), the English translation of which was published as The Final Fall in 1979, and which predicted the fall of the Soviet empire. Although many researchers claimed to have foreseen that momentous event, most were speaking after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight. But Todd's work, published more than a decade before the fall of theSoviet Union, was based on careful analysis of population demographics, economic performance and cultural trends that most other researchers and analysts had not been able to grasp.

Having worked on other projects since then, Todd returns to his analysis of the rise and fall of empires with his most recent effort on the supposedly emerging American empire, to which he applies the same methodology as he applied to the Soviet empire. He predicts convincingly that there will be no American empire in the future and that the American order is in the process of decline and decay. At best, Todd believes, the USA will simply have to join the ranks of other nations and give up its increasingly untenable claim to being the "leader of the free world." At worst, the USA will continue to devolve into an oligarchy, with a rich and highly educated elite ruling over a plebeian underclass. In arriving at this conclusion and foreseeing its possible outcomes, Todd traverses several areas of study, including population demographics and economic performance within the US, the emergence of independent democratic states in the former Third World, the rise of universal literacy worldwide, and the political restructuring of the world around independent regional powers such as Russia, the European Union and several emerging trade blocs in East Asia and South America.

Todd is optimistic that, despite the growing pains of this new global order, the world is heading toward stability and that the US is increasingly, and alarmingly, becoming the prime obstacle to this stability. The centerpiece of his analysis is the twofold observation that while the developing world is slowly formulating its own independent democratic systems, the US is retreating toward oligarchy and isolation, and that it has become heavily dependent, economically, on the rest of the world. This economic dependence is in two main forms: the flow of foreign capital into the US, and itsvoraciously consumerist lifestyle. The US has ceased to be a producer of anything useful to the rest of the world, and has instead become a bloated and parasitic consumer. This uselessness is not only economic, as Todd suggests, because the American post-1945 ideology of universalism has given way in recent years to virulent forms of differentialism and exceptionalism, with racist and paranoid beliefs.

Todd summarizes the three main structural weaknesses of the "American pseudo-empire" as: 1) lack of economic and financial resources, which makes it impossible for the US to devise a new economic aid-plan for Iraq, thus opening the way for permanent social chaos; 2) lack of military resources, which has led to the "present strategic nightmare" of the American occupation of Iraq, with 150,000 troops mired in a conflict with a nation of 25 million people, and the US struggling to maintain its military mobility and supply lines; and 3) lack of a "true universalist" and egalitarian ideology, which explains the arrogance, violence and incompetence of the US military in its treatment of the "liberated" Iraqi people. These are indications, Todd continues, of what he calls the American "theatrical micro-militarism," characterized by its consistent attacks on largely defenseless and, by comparison, militarily weak "Third World" opponents. Rather than the "full spectrum dominance" dreamed of by US military planners, they are instead trapped in a bloody and senseless war, highly destructive for Iraq and America alike.

Todd describes the American "theatrical micro-militarism" as an obsolete, temporary and immoral solution to America's needs. Todd bases this on four observations: 1) a new form of American dependence on foreign goods and moneys that has developed over the past ten years, which can be monitored by the American trade-deficit and the net capital influx into the US; 2) the spread of democracy, especially since the collapse of communism, in a world that is no longer in need of American protection; 3) the invention by the American ruling elites of "new pseudo threats," such as the "axis of evil" and "universal terrorism," intended to sustain belief in America's being the "indispensable nation," but used primarily to justify an American levy on world financial and economic resources; and 4) nuclear proliferation and deficiencies in America's conventional military power, which suggest that the US can effectively only confront very weak enemies that can be spectacularly defeated.

Some of Todd's points are an allusion to the work of Niall Ferguson, a British academic hired by New York University for a salary of US$350,000, who is well known for two recent books, Empire and Colossus. The former describes the role of Great Britain in forming the modern world and the latter suggests that the US take over that role. Todd indirectly suggests that these works miss the point completely, although they are eagerly sought and handsomely rewarded by the American ruling elites, who are losing touch with reality and retreating into delusions of grandeur. For all the triumph and horror of the British Empire, the US does not possess anything like the military and economic competence needed to create or run anything like an empire such as the British empire was in its heyday. Those days are gone, Todd contends, and the world is moving into a completely different order that is largely leaving the Americans behind.

Instead of accepting this fact and taking their place among the nations of the world, the American ruling elites are marked by "economic mystification," "ideological crisis," and a "denial of reality." With the financial scandals of American corporations like Enron and fiascos such as those perpetrated by theAnderson accounting firm, no one is quite sure what actually constitutes the American economy. Though he does not elaborate, Todd suggests that honest economists should perhaps write a book about the US economy, for which he suggests the title The Biggest Confidence Trick in History. This trick is the Americans' ability to attract vast sums of money from abroad without actually producing anything. The American economic con has led, in many instances, to a denial of reality on the part of both the American ruling elite and much of the American citizenry, one result of which is increasingly alarming attempts to stamp out internal heresy and criticism, which Todd sees as analogous to a similar attitude before the fall of the Soviet Union.

The distinctly American ideological crisis is focused on "evil as a central concept," which is occurring in parallel with a moral decline of American society and its economy. While the concept of the "axis of evil" was invented by the American ruling elites to "maintain the idea that America is still indispensable," Todd suggests that it "tells us nothing about the reality of world," although it may tell us something about the minds of those behind the Bush administration, and in reality may even be nothing more than a "psychological projection," in that when the Americans issue proclamations against "evil" in the world, they are actually talking about themselves. However, as Todd suggests, "This talk of evil by American politicians is explicable if they are aware at some level that they are turning America into a monster but cannot accept the alternative – a world without permanent war in which Americais one nation among others." In failing to recognize this, the American ruling elites may actually be described as evil.

The Americans perhaps at one time had an opportunity to develop into a global empire, Todd observes, but this opportunity has long since gone, despite the American elites clinging to their hope of it. In order to emerge as a true global empire, the Americans would have had to dismantle Russiacompletely, and maintain firmer control over Germany and Japan after 1945. None of this happened, and despite the chaotic transition from communism there are signs of Russia's consolidation. Germany and Japan, while still within the American sphere of influence, have showed signs of emerging on their own, in particular when Germany firmly opposed the war on Iraq. Japan also has begun to move tentatively on its own course, and is currently seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, along with Brazil and India. The European Union is still suffering "growing pains", as Todd puts it, but there is a strong possibility that it, too, will emerge as a powerful social and economic bloc in the near future, possibly even absorbing Britain into its sphere of influence as British allegiance to the US becomes even more of a liability than it is already. Turkey refused to let the Americans use its bases for the war on Iraq, and soon after that the Spanish electorate voted Aznar out of office and the new president of Spain pulled its troops out of Iraq. China and Iran, Todd continues, show signs of emerging within their own spheres of influence. All these developments spell the decline of American empire.

Those readers who are looking for an emotional anti-American diatribe will be disappointed by this book. Todd is no anti-American radical, and his work is very different from those of anti-America dissidents such as Noam Chomsky. In fact, despite his radical analysis of American power, Chomsky is unable to situate American machinations within global trends. Todd's work is more empirical, even dry at times, and balanced, perhaps even too forgiving of American imperial adventures during and since the "Cold War", not to mention its history of dispossession and slavery. But in a way these are some of the strengths of Todd's work, since he cannot be easily written off as another whining anti-American radical.

For Muslims, After the Empire offers both despair and hope. For Muslims committed to the American dream, such as those who insist that the hope of Islam lies with America, or those who still feel that the US can be a fair arbiter of global conflicts, the book should be a rude awakening. For those in the Muslim world who fear further American invasions, which are possible as the American order continues to melt down, the book may also offer some hope, in that if Todd is correct the world will move on with or without America; in such a world, it would be prudent for Muslims to consolidate regional alliances among themselves, such as a common market and trading blocs, including economic ties with the emerging poles of power in the world, such as the European Union, Russia, Brazil, India, China and Japan. In this sense, Iran is perhaps the most prescient of Muslim countries today, as it has already recognized (albeit probably for somewhat different reasons) that America is not it as claims to be and may indeed be, as Imam Khomeini (ra) insisted, the "Great Satan." But such realizations are not enough, for hard work lies ahead, with the twofold task of disabusing ourselves of our illusions of American supremacy and moving on to build social and economic systems that can function independently of the waning American global order. Toward that end, this book deserves a broad readership among Muslims.

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