Jewish World Review July 27, 2006 / 2 Menachem-Av, 5766
How long will U.S. empire last?
By Jonathan V. Last
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The end is nigh. That's the bad news. The good news is that the end of the American moment has been nigh for a long time but hasn't happened yet.
All good empires must eventually come to an end. The Greeks ruled their world for 450 years; the Romans ruled an even bigger chunk of the world for more than 500 years. The British empire - the first on which the sun never set - stretched gloriously from the mid-1600s to just after World War II.
The British empire was the last of the Old World empires to dissipate. The first World War ended the Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Ottoman empires; the second World War finished the French, Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese empires. But so strong is the imperial essence that even today, half a century after they gave up their mantle, the Brits still occupy an enormous - and outsized - part of the global consciousness. The imperial afterglow can last a very long time. Just ask one of your Greek friends.
Modern America is, as Niall Ferguson puts it, "a peculiar kind of empire." America is "vastly wealthy," Ferguson notes in his book "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire." "It is militarily peerless. It has astonishing cultural reach." Yet America undertakes military adventures only sparingly, and when it does so, has decidedly mixed results. Save a few small historical protectorates, we do not have territorial holdings. And we do not send forth large numbers of people to settle in distant lands.
Nonetheless, we are an empire. And as with all empires before us, our moment will someday end. The question is: How?
We used to know the answer for sure: The U.S.S.R. and the bomb. Every era gives rise to its own doomsday scenario, and during the Cold War we feared mutually assured destruction and nuclear holocaust. The culture was overflowing with movies such as "On the Beach," "Fail-Safe" and "The Day After"; the nuclear freeze movement was born, and the Doomsday Clock was started.
That apocalypse never materialized. After 1989, the focus turned to China, with book titles such as "The Coming Conflict With China," by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, and "The China That Can Say No," by Zhang Zangzang and others. But China now seems so monstrously large as to be nearly ungovernable. Even if the country can be controlled, the Chinese have historically had regional, rather than global, ambitions.
After Sept. 11 of course, the end-of-the-world worries ran toward terrorism. Would it be a nuclear device in Baltimore's harbor, or perhaps a bioweapon plague, that brought an end to the American empire? Or maybe a small fire in the Middle East - say, a kidnapped Israeli soldier - might become the Archduke Ferdinand, setting off a regional conflagration that turned into a global clash of civilizations. Perhaps it will be the World War III that does us in after all.
Recent events certainly aren't encouraging on this score.
But before we begin polishing America's eulogy, there are two reasons to wonder whether perhaps the American empire could be endless, that it might stretch, asymptotically, out to the horizon.
The first is that, empirically speaking, our empire isn't very imperial. We have few land possessions outside our presently established physical borders. There are no colonies to rebel, no land or physical resources to lose. We have nothing of which to divest ourselves.
The second is that America is an ideological, not a geographic or ethnic, construct. Being an "American" means about as much as being a "New Yorker." You can be from Kansas or Puerto Rico or Indonesia, but once you move to the Big Apple, you're part of it.
It's the same with America.
"The United States," Ferguson notes, "is an importer of people. ... (A)n empire without settlers, or rather the settlers come to the metropolis rather than leave it for distant lands." We lure the world's elites to our shores with universities and shopping malls and an incredibly high quality of life. It's hard for other countries to get a leg up on us when we poach their best talent. We're a little bit like the New York Yankees in that way.
There is a large pool of study in the field of imperial autopsy, beginning with Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" and stretching to include Arnold J. Toynbee's "A Study of History," Correlli Barnett's "The Collapse of British Power" and Ferguson's own "Empire." The two principal causes of imperial demise are external events (such as war or plague) and internal decay.
Our control over the former is tenuous. We can act responsibly and wisely in foreign affairs and still not avoid conflicts or attacks. But the latter are wholly within our power to manage. If we bankrupt our economy or tear at the social fabric, if we make America a less attractive destination, either by not protecting ourselves well enough or by sacrificing too much in the name of security, then we endanger the future of our peculiar little empire.
The American moment may be destined to pass. But we shouldn't hasten it along. And the surest way to preserve an empire is to recognize its responsibilities and place in the world.
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Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.
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