Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Declaration of Dependence and the fall of the American empire
Let us never forget that, "Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." -George Santayana
228 years ago a great experiment was undertaken that has since shaped the world in a way never thought possible by mankind. A small group of colonists decided to break away from their king and empire and declare themselves an independent nation and free from the tyranny and unjust treatment of that empire. What started out from most humble beginnings would eventually encompass the globe with its power and influence. Like all empires before it, it too will one day cease to remain at the height of its glory and will eventually succumb to its excesses and egocentric view.
When looking at past empires one must of course look to the ancient past and see that Rome has some striking parallels to our own current empire. The Roman Republic began as what historians call a “Hegemonic Empire”. This early beginning was one where Rome used its military legions to control small areas of land directly. The surrounding regions became client states. The client state system worked well because in exchange for trade and tribute to the empire, the client states received the protection of Rome and its military legions and were for the most part left to govern themselves with little more than guidelines.
As Rome entered into its zenith, it surprisingly kept its legion strength fixed at 28 legions for the sake of economics It often ignored advice from some of its more brilliant intellectuals and former legion commanders, such as Gaius Cornelius Tacitus. The brilliance of Tacitus, regarding the use of the military and the need to keep it flexible and adaptable in accordance with the growth of the empire was later largely ignored. In addition to changes in its military structure, the leadership in Rome was struck with constant infighting, corruption, and paranoia that led to a succession of leaders who, along with their citizenry, began to hoard money leading to severe deficits and lack of economic circulation.
By the time of Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161 AD, the Roman bureaucracy was all-encompassing. Naturally, too, as benevolent paternalism and bureaucracy took over, personal freedom tended to disappear. All the while, the middle class was squeezed out of existence by a constant rise in taxation in order to bear the burdens of civil projects, and the poor were made into serfs both leading to dissent among the populace.
In addition to the Roman empire, when we look to the Spanish colonial empire of the 16th and 17th centuries, as Spain grew increasingly dependent upon external supplies of wealth from its colonies. This dependence on external wealth led to a decrease in domestic production and technology, that when added to its increasing levels of consumption, eventually resulted in the collapse of the Spanish empire.
Then with the Soviet empire of the late 20th century, an exceedingly disproportionate amount of the economy was placed into military expenditures that led to diminishing social condition, a spiraling debt, and a reliance on militarism. In addition to its inflexible domestic policy which placed greater hardship on the people; an expansionist foreign policy and war with smaller states outside its borders led to further social and economic decline. The failure of the Soviets to predict the resistance of bloc states to assimilation is something that should be noted in the current examples with the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
Like empires of the past, the United States is indeed an empire in both scale and influence. Unlike any other empires before it, however, the United States is one that spans the globe and even reaches out into space. The reasons that our nation has risen to such power and influence in such a short time scale are many and varied, but a few need to be noted in particular, as they are some of the key elements of our nation that have been the most changed.
The system of government in the United States was born out of great deliberation and effort, borrowing ideas and concepts from several previous systems of governing and government that eventually culminated into what we see today. A framework that denotes the citizenry as the primary focus is one that is both bold in concept and noble in principle. We enjoy a system of economy that was meant to benefit and encourage forward thinking, hard work, and freedom from most governmental control. We were the first nation that by our very design has encouraged not only a melting pot of people, but a mix of ideas that would eventually result in the world’s greatest system in nearly every aspect of how a civilization is measured.
Unlike the empires of Rome and the former Soviet Union, the United States does not rely upon satellite states for the purpose of buffering from invasion or as its primary means of economic well being. However the United States does most certainly have a de facto system of host states. It should be noted that, according to a publication from the Department of Defense [i], the United States currently has a military presence in 192 nations and troops stationed in 135 of them. This means the United States has a military presence in just over 70% of the world’s nations, making the United States far more influential and widespread than any empire before it.
The 2006 United States military budget is slated at 441.6 billion dollars which is as much as the next 17 largest nations combined. This means that the United States has spent nearly as much money as the entire rest of the world on military expenditures and six times as much as Russia, which is the world’s second largest military budget. This does not include the additional “supplemental” monies already requested by President Bush for Iraq and Afghanistan to the tune of 81 billion dollars. Nor does it include money in the budget devoted to military spending for Defense/Civil programs ($44.5 billion);, Homeland Security ($33.3 billion);, and Veterans Affairs ($68.3 billion), all pushing the total closer to 668.7 billion dollars. In addition when we add in the fact that a good deal of this money is borrowed and comes with interest, which of course is rarely considered publicly in budget requests, this adds approximately 130 billion to the bill, making a round about figure of 799 billion dollars. In essence the United States is realistically spending about 30% of its total government funding on the military, which is a little higher and more realistic than the published 17% in the budget report.[ii]
Despite these huge amounts of monies being spent on the military, we are bogged down in another series of guerilla style wars against people who by most western standards are still just a notch above third world status, which makes one take serious note of the prudence of our endeavors. It would appear for the time being the world will be engaged in a series of small scale regional bouts of warfare instead of the global scale of warfare such as WWII and that of the Cold War. This also makes one think about the large sums of money that are spent on the maintenance of our nuclear arsenal that is intended to deter other nations against warring with the United States, but which has little effect in our current global climate.
As the face of global warfare changes it seems that for once the United States is lagging behind, not because we have the world's largest military but in spite of it. The future of global warfare is not one of bullets but one of dollars. This is one commodity we are starting to fall behind in as we are financially leveraged all the way up to our grandchildren. As the economies of the European Union, Russia and especially of China are surging forward with greater and greater growth, the United States is running up trade and budget deficits that offset a greater portion of our own growth. Using history as a guide, it becomes very clear that the United States, like many empires before it, has turned to militarism as a means to cling to its current hegemony.
Aside from the focus on the military aspects of our society today, we also should look at the parallels between our economic views and practices and those of former empires. Of particular interest here we should look at our level of consumption as opposed to our level of production and specifically how it has changed since Word War II. In the years following the Second World War, the United States produced approximately 53% of the manufactured goods purchased worldwide, which is a stark contrast to today where we only produce about 9.6%, second behind Germany. [iii]
As America has switched from a manufacturing economy to a service based economy, the numbers speak for themselves. Manufacturing jobs have decreased from 34% in 1950 to just 13% currently, in contrast, service based jobs have increased from 59% to 82% during the same time period.[iv] Industries hardest hit by this change in our economic base have been the textile and steel manufacturing sectors which have been traditional staples of the US economy. Boeing has been surpassed by Airbus as the worlds leading manufacture of aircraft. Ford and Chevy stocks have been relegated to junk status as Toyota now leads the world in the manufacture of automobiles. The United States is once again poised to become a net importer of food, something that has not been the case for over 50 years.
Our consumption in relation to the rest of the world is well documented. The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas. As of 2003, the U.S. had more private cars than licensed drivers, and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were among the best-selling vehicles. New houses in the U.S. were 38 % bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average.[v] According to an article in Scientific American, if the rest of the world were to rise to the same level of consumption as that of the United States it would require the resources of four more planet Earths.
During this decline in the US manufacturing base, and our subsequent change to a service based economy, countries such as China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia have all taken greater shares of the general manufacturing sector. Meanwhile the European Union, (mainly Germany and France) and Russia have increased their share of manufactured durable goods and technology products, including such things as steel and textiles. The decrease in US manufacturing and the continued rise in consumption are leading America in an ominous direction.
US budget and trade deficits are often scoffed at as meaningless items because the United States economy is so massive that it can absorb massive debts and expenditures. This is true to some degree, but it is a fatalistic view as debt burden has been one of the leading causes of failure in nearly every previous empire before us. As private and public debt expansion keep increasing faster than growth levels, it only becomes a matter of when, not if, the system will no longer be able to sustain itself. The debt further burdens our growth and ability to compete in a tightening global market place and the effects of this are being felt by most middle and lower class Americans as we speak.
The standard of living in the United States has declined as a direct result of our continued globalization efforts through our economic and foreign policies, and that of the world banking system. As a growing number of other nations begin to compete for of resources, materials, and technology, their standards of living have risen, and as a direct result ours has declined as there are only a finite amount of resources available globally. To use a metaphor, “Water seeks its own level”, and ours is currently pouring into Asia.
The social condition of the United States at current has begun to resemble that of previous empires in the respect that the views of those who govern and those who are governed are growing further apart. Over the last several administrations, our government has been plagued with a growing number of scandals, investigations into impropriety and misuse of power, and general lack of morals and ethics. At the same time, and like previous empires, the middle and lower classes are being required to bear a greater portion of the financial burden of the nation. In addition, the very fundamental rights guaranteed to its citizenry are slowly diminishing.
The current administration in office has been one of the nation’s most prolific violators of the very principles of what the nation was founded upon. We now have a government in place that by its own admission will keep to its course of actions regardless of the will of its people. A great number of people in these United States now have a sense of hopelessness that their voice no longer matters and that their vote no longer counts. This is reflected in the numbers of voters who turn up to cast their ballot, which is one of the lowest among western nations. As the voices of the people call out for changes in our nation’s direction, they are falling on deaf ears; and in a slow but growing manner the people are becoming more angry as theirs voices are ignored.
In comparison to nearly all previous empires, the United States has fallen into a nearly identical pattern of diminished self-reliance, massive consumption, huge debt burdens, poor leadership, militarism, decreasing rights of the citizenry, and ultra-nationalism. Yet in spite of all these things, we still believe that the past fate of others will not befall us. It is this very denial of facts, and our belief that we are somehow superior to every other nation or culture before us, that will ultimately lead to our demise as the world’s sole superpower.
The inevitable fall of the United States empire will not be the last chapter of its history but a fresh start to the next era. Because of our size, our technology base, the education of our people, and our capacity to be prodigious producers as well as consumers, we will not fall into complete destitution. Although the transition into the next phase of our society’s future will be tumultuous at best, we will also have the benefit of our past experiences to better guide our future.
Considering the global nature and scale of the world today, I can no longer see a future where a sole empire or nation will come to dominate the landscape. Instead I see a more balanced structure to the global community, where by the next era will be shared between the United States, the European Union, Russia, and China respectively. I also have taken note that Asia, South America, and the Middle East have been moving towards a more unified position, much in the same way Europe has in the past ten years, but in varying degrees.
When we look to the past or to the natural order of the world around us, we are reminded daily of its cyclical nature. As every single empire before ours has risen, peaked, then declined or fell, so too will ours, as we are subject to the same set of circumstances that led to the demise of others. Many will scoff and rebuke at such a notion, as many in the past have done, and I suspect that it is this disbelief in our own fallibility that will further along the process of decline. This may well happen within our lifetime as a great many of the things that have led to the fall of other empires are currently in place. The fact we have maintained a hold on our power and influence for this long in a modern and complicated world is a testament to our tenacity. Hopefully we will approach the future with the same fortitude that lead to our rise and greatness, but tempered with the wisdom of experience that led to our fall.