In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power by Alfred W. McCoy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017).
In August of 2007, David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States and director of the Government Accountability Office, delivered a speech remarkable for its plainspoken nature to the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board. The gist of the speech was pretty simple. If the United States government and its people didn’t wise up fast, America might not survive in any recognizable form in the near future.
“There are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome,” he said. “The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.”
A decade later, it’s clear Walker’s call to action fell on deaf ears, with each reason for Rome’s fall only getting arguably worse in America. Identity politics on both Left and Right destroy any notion that America is an idea rooted in individual rights worth fighting for. Donald Trump brags that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s while the United States continues to arm the despotic Saudis as they wage a genocidal war in Yemen without public outrage. And even though the U.S. national debt is larger than its annual GDP, and current U.S. fiscal policy will probably add another $10 trillion to the national debt over the next decade
In 2007, Walker was clear that he was an optimist who believed America could conquer the challenges he outlined. Today another prophet of American decline, Alfred McCoy, is much more pessimistic. In his new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, McCoy pushes aside any notion that the United States is somehow still a republic. Rather it’s an empire that has used the dark arts of covert intervention, patronage of corrupt authoritarian clients, torture, and global surveillance to help maintain its hegemony.
To tell the story of the United States’s rise to history’s greatest superpower, McCoy rescues from relative obscurity Halford Mackinder, the director of the London School of Economics at the turn of the 20th century and the inventor of the discipline of geopolitics. Mackinder saw the world differently. When he looked at a map, he didn’t see Europe, Asia, and Africa as separate continents. Instead he conceptualized them as a “world island,” writes McCoy, with its “heartland … stretching from the Persian Gulf across Russia’s vast steppes and Siberian forests.” Or as Mackinder put it, “Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”
According to McCoy, U.S. foreign policy since World War II focused on denying first Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union the ability to conquer the Eurasian heartlands and thus the world. In 1943, Mackinder warned in the pages of Foreign Affairs that if the Soviet Union conquered Germany, it would have the “greatest natural fortress on earth.” To ensure its hegemony after World War II’s destruction of Europe, the United States began its massive buildup of bases around Eurasia bolstered with military and economic alliances such as NATO and the International Monetary Fund to project power into the heartland and contain the Soviet Union. The gambit worked, with the Soviet Union crumbling owing to its own internal contradictions in the 1990s.
McCoy describes the rise of American hegemony as a blend of previous empires’ best qualities. “This unique U.S. imperium was Athenian in its ability to forge coalitions among allies; Roman in its reliance on legions that occupied military bases across most of the known world; and British in its aspiration to merge culture, commerce, and alliances into a comprehensive system that covered the globe,” he writes at the outset of the book.
But as a persistent and trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy, he is also clear about its dark side. Emerging after World War II as history’s strongest superpower, the United States wasn’t about to give up the advantages gained by the War’s destruction of its competitors. “In a logic that would guide its dominion for the next forty years,” McCoy writes, “Washington would quietly set aside democratic principles for a realpolitik policy of backing reliable pro-American leaders.” The United States intervened in democratic elections worldwide. It supported dictators and trained their military and police forces to brutally suppress revolutionary and reform parties and movements hostile to U.S. interests.
This imperial logic was summed up in an exchange between Treasury Secretary George Humphrey and President Dwight D. Eisenhower at a December 1954 National Security Council meeting. Afraid of communism’s spread, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, Humphrey told his National Security Council colleagues that the United States should “stop talking so much about democracy” and “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” Eisenhower retorted, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.s” Humphrey agreed, stating, “Whatever we may choose to say in public about ideas and idealism, among ourselves we’ve got to be a great deal more practical and materialistic.”
That logic has led the United States to partner with a rogues’ gallery of criminals, such as Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Ngo Dình Diem in Vietnam, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, just to name a few. The list could go on. But the corruption of American ideals articulated by Humphrey over six decades ago and put into practice ever since has caught up with the United States, destroying the myth of it as a principled defender of liberal democracy in the world and exposing it as the debauched empire it is.
Take Karzai, for example. The United States installed the exiled tribal leader in power after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Between 2002 and 2015, McCoy notes, $114 billion in U.S. development aid poured into Afghanistan. Little made it to the poor villages it was intended for, as Karzai and his cronies gobbled it up. In 2009, Transparency International deemed Afghanistan the second-most corrupt nation, behind Somalia. That same year, Karzai’s presidential ticket was dubbed “the warlord ticket,” made up of men associated with grave human-rights abuses and drug trafficking. Karzai won, naturally, engaging in widespread electoral fraud. “The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners,” said UN envoy Peter Galbraith, who was fired soon afterward for telling inconvenient truths.
Nine years later, the United States continues to wage the longest war in its history with no end in sight, appropriating more than $900 billion from 2001 through fiscal year 2018, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. In fact, the United States has spent far more on the war in Afghanistan than on the Marshall Plan, which supposedly rebuilt a Europe devastated by war, with nothing to show for it. As of June 2017, according to the U.S. government, the Afghan government controlled only 60 percent of its territory. The American people should have revolted a long time ago at this sordid state of affairs as their hard-earned tax dollars go to fill the pockets of corrupt warlords, defense contractors, and the national-security bureaucracy. Instead many cheer when Trump says we’re underfunding the military.
Clearly the American empire has begun to unravel during the first two decades of the 21st century. As McCoy demonstrates, the United States has sapped its moral, military, and economic strengths in the ill-advised “war on terror,” with its two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; special forces and drone attacks across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; global surveillance practices that infuriate allies; and its decision to engage in a moral abomination: systematic torture. At the same time, China has used its economic clout to build up its military and expand its influence throughout Eurasia through new alliances and infrastructure spending. Great-power competition is with us again, warns McCoy, bringing with it the chance for cataclysmic war between a fading American empire and a rising Chinese superpower.
McCoy ends his book evaluating five scenarios of U.S. decline as it tries to check China’s rise, which range from the emergence of a multipolar world where the United States is a key player in global governance through multilateral institutions to a climate change-ravaged globe where the U.S. turns inward, forced to deal with regional security concerns, such as massive refugee flows due to catastrophic weather. Looking to history, McCoy writes, “So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly wrong, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, eleven years for the Ottomans, seventeen years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, just twenty-seven years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.” McCoy believes historians will point to the U.S. aggression against Iraq as the first domino of American downfall.
The idea that the United States will no longer be the preeminent power isn’t even controversial inside the U.S. intelligence community. In 2012, the National Intelligence Council, the organization that produces the country’s National Intelligence Estimates, predicted, “By 2030, no country — whether the U.S., China, or any other large country — will be a hegemonic power.”
McCoy, however, isn’t so sure. In his most striking scenario, World War III breaks out between the United States and China. Both superpowers have weaponized space, but China’s cyberwarfare capabilities have eclipsed the United States’s. Using its world-class supercomputers, Chinese malware compromises the U.S. satellite system, blinding the U.S. military and killing its ability to wage war or protect the nation from attack. “Without a single combat casualty on either side,” writes McCoy, “the superpower that dominated the planet for nearly a century is defeated in World War III” as it loses its ability to project power into Eurasia.
The one scenario McCoy doesn’t explore, which is understandable given U.S. foreign policy since the Spanish-American War, is the idea that the United States gives up on militarism and empire entirely. That, however, isn’t going to happen unless the voters demand it through a rejuvenated anti-war movement sick of the death, destruction, waste, fraud, and loss of individual liberty and privacy that naturally arise out of imperialism. Without an anti-war movement that equally condemns the liberal internationalists’ and neoconservatives’ foreign adventurism to stop human-rights abuses abroad or export “democracy,” respectively, one of McCoy’s five scenarios of American decline — with all the pain that entails — may well come true.
Right now, there’s still time to rein in a reckless foreign policy that could prove more disastrous than just the dismantling of the American empire with Trump in control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But forgive me for being pessimistic that U.S. foreign policy could ever resemble the republican one articulated in George Washington’s farewell address. It’s something stirring to contemplate, until you remember that the bipartisan belief in America’s right to rule the world is sacrosanct in our nation’s capital. If you oppose the interventionism of the liberal internationalists, you’re heartless, or worse, probably racist. And if you push back against the imperialism of the neoconservatives, you’re either a ridiculous peacenik or worse, a sympathizer with America’s enemies — whoever they may be at any moment.
And for those reasons, the chance that America can forsake empire for a return to a modest republic seems fanciful. All of McCoy’s scenarios ring truer. The depressing reality is that empires don’t end well, and anti-imperialists and libertarians should prepare for the worst and hope the United States can somehow become the next Great Britain — a stable and strong country despite its sudden imperial collapse. Maybe out of the ashes of the American empire, a new liberty can arise again in a country once again content with territorial limits. Just don’t bet on it.
This article was originally published in the April 2018 edition of Future of Freedom.