Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 09:01 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 09:01 | SYDNEY

Is America going the way of empires past?


Sam Roggeveen


1 October 2008 08:20

Atlantic Monthly blogger Andrew Sullivan today quotes John Gray on how a combination of war and debt has, historically, sunk empires. Sullivan comments:

Until the US scales back its imperial ambitions across the Middle East and seriously cuts its entitlement state, the country's global hegemony will come to an abrupt and humiliating end.

Perhaps Sullivan, like me, is reading Andrew Bacevich's The Limits of Power, which I confess I have so far found underwhelming. Bacevich's basic argument is interesting: the US has an overly ambitious foreign policy, he says, and it should be doing much more to put its own house in order. But Americans, argues Bacevich, don't wish to be told that there are limits to their personal or national ambitions, and that some bills eventually have to be paid. Carter tried to tell them (in his famous 'malaise' speech), but he was punished for it and replaced by a president who argued the American future was boundless. No president since has dared upset this narrative. 

What sours the book is it's strident tone and some pretty sloppy economic theorising. As with some Australian politicians, Bacevich seems hung up on the fact that his country no longer 'makes things' (see this interview for a sample of his thought). I would have thought the movement of manufacturing to lower wage economies was rather a good thing for countries like the US and Australia, and has improved the prosperity of the low wage countries too. But Bacevich seems suspicious of prosperity (which he refers to pejoratively as mere 'consumption'), and would rather see America less dependent on the international economy. I am yet to read whether that means Bacevich wants a more protectionist America, but it does sound like it.

To return to Sullivan's observation, he may have overstated the extent of the financial crisis, but it would be interesting to know by how much. Where does this crisis stack up in historical terms, and in retrospect, will we see it as a marker for the decline of US global power and the rise of the rest?