The American Empire Is Going Nowhere
Tales of American decline have been exaggerated, the US will remain the world’s preponderant power far into the future.
When the world heard the recent news of the decision to withdraw close to 1,000 American military personnel from the Kurdish-held region of Northern Syria. It became common for pundits and mouthpieces to declare that this move was the tipping point of the American empire and the most obvious sign of its decline and slow but inevitable collapse into second-rate power status. I heard numerous comparisons to the Suez Crisis and many claims that this was the final withdrawal and defeat of America on the world stage. It was claimed that Trump had guaranteed American decline, that US enemies would swoop into the vacuum left by this decision and that American allies, such as the Kurds would be left abandoned to face their grim fate.
This post isn’t about the Kurds, but rather about the underlying trends of American power that this decision has brought into the public consciousness. I want to demonstrate to you that these claims are wildly exaggerated
Claims about the decline of empires are similar to doomsday prophesies about the end of the world, mainly that they come about every generation, and every generation they are proved wrong. Great empires do not collapse suddenly from some spectacular defeat but rather through a slow and steady fall into mediocrity or into the sphere of a rising power. Anyone that thinks that the US is at this stage now is simply overexcited.
Trump and the Renunciation of Empire
Think back to the 2016 election, and forget the more dramatic and theatrical aspects of his campaign. You might remember that the one area in which Trump was consistent throughout his campaign was his desire to remove American forces from their operations in the Greater Middle East. He repeatedly slated the Republican President George Bush Jr. for what he saw as massive expense of American blood and treasure. He also stated firmly that American actions against Gaddafi of Libya, or the removal of Saddam Hussein had been disastrous for everyone involved.
While many dismissed this as political calculation, and I’m sure some of it was. I would wager that this is a large part of this belief was genuine. We often forget but there is a long tradition on the American Right of skepticism towards foreign adventure.
In many ways Trump is an amalgamation of a very diverse and splintered American Right-Wing. He has absorbed aspects from multiple ideologies and worldviews. Alongside the ruthless, dog-eat-dog capitalism of the American New Right, the paternalism of the Christian Right and the implicit white identity of the Paleo-Conservatives, there is the isolationism of American nationalism.
While Trump is not an ideologue or even much of a true believer in anything, he has instincts which guide how he operates and one of the most powerful guiding instincts is his natural desire to refrain from military involvement with the outside world. This tradition is fairly niche these days but was once prominent worldview among American elites. It has ideological roots dating back to the Founding Fathers, most of whom envisaged their new nation as charting a course separate from of the monarchist infighting of the old world.
A core belief of modern American nationalism is that the USA would be better served by retreating from its imperial adventures. This is based on a reading of American power which is actually quite close to reality.
The Pillars of American Power
The territorial United States is a natural fortress. It is surrounded on either shore by the world’s largest oceans, both of which are dominated by its navy. To the north, a sparsely populated and militarily insignificant country represents no threat and to the south a dangerous dessert presents a natural barrier to attack.
This means that the United States is invulnerable to an attack from any other country. If you were an ambitious foreign dictator who wanted to invade the US you’d have to get through a ring of naval fleets, all of whom are surveyed by an advanced satellite network which spans the globe. If you somehow managed to get past all of this, you’d be faced with the world’s most well funded military and have to occupy a country of a quarter of a billion people, many of whom are armed to the teeth. This is to say nothing of the nuclear arsenal or alliances an American President can call upon.
The US possesses the world’s mightiest military force which is funded more than the next ten countries combined, most of which are its allies, and an economy which dwarfs all potential competitors (see below).
Empire Waits for No-One
No matter how skeptical a single President may be of America’s empire. Such a vast economic and military establishment will take a life on of its own, with thousands of civil servants and high ranking military officers aimed at continuing the existence and expansion, despite the particularly proclivities of the man or woman in the White House. Geopolitics cares little for the individual leader, just like economics cares little for the single entrepreneur.
The most effective leaders are ones who realise this and are able to build internal coalitions within the state and military apparatus’ of their countries. This is something that Trump has been able to do to some extent within the United States in domestic issues but has been unable to within the international dimension of American power. Considering the forces arrayed against him, and the fact that he will only have another five years at the time of writing, at most, we will not see any substantive change to American dominance as a result of his leadership.
No leader, no matter how capable, can truly resist large scale historical changes or geopolitical trends. The most capable ones are the ones who are able to identify these changes and are able to ride them, but the ones who attempt to resist them will either find themselves frustrated at every turn or simply drowned beneath the tide of history.
Control the routes of trade and you control the world. This has remained a fact of empires since time immemorial.
The Mongols sought to control the ancient Silk Road throughout Asia, the Romans dominated the Mediterranean, the Egyptians controlled the Nile and its offshoots. Every empire has risen both aided by and as a result of control over trade.
The modern arteries of trade are the sea-routes of the globe. It is both cheaper and faster to use the sea to transport vital commodities than it would be to take them over land. At every vital junction of the global trade network, whether it be the Strait of Hormuz, or the Panama Canal, the US Navy can be spotted. This is what gives the USA its true power; maintaining the naval presence to police the world’s sea-lanes and protect commodities from piracy or rogue states is immensely expensive and most countries are perfectly happy to have an imperial power to take the burden of the cost.
Another way in which empires have been able to rise and keep their dominance is their command of technological advantage. Again, this has applied to every empire in history. The British were famous for their saying, ‘Whatever happens we have got the Maxim gun and they have not.’ This a reference to the world’s first machine gun which was used by British soldiers in their subjection of African powers during the Scramble for Africa.
The United States has its vast weapons arsenal but has also been the country from which the internet truly emerged and which has been able to able to take advantage of Moore’s Law, ie. the continual shrinking of size of computer processing chips.
The presence of Silicon Valley, an area of the world with a GDP higher than many countries, and the fact that the United States has gained time in the development of the technological curve has netted it a huge advantage which has compounded and will likely continue into the future. Such a compounded knowledge base will take generations for other countries, such as China to overcome. While it is possible the US could begin to simply slow down it rate of technological innovation, which many are arguing is happening, institutions such as DARPA and the greater US military complex still dominate every sphere of technological progress. When we look at the bloated budget of the American military, we often forget that large portions are spent on R&D which will go on to benefit the civilian economy. Remember that things such as the internet and GPS, both key pillars of the global information economy, emerged from funding of the US military.
Empire Without Rival
Another advantage that the United States has is that there is simply no other power that is capable of replacing America as an imperial power.
China: from global workshop to global empire?
The theme of a China in its ascendancy has been a major idea of the 21st century so far, and like all powers who have seemed to be on an inevitable rise, this has been accompanied by a rising fear which can border on the ludicrous. A phrase that comes to mind is the idea that ‘Only the paranoid survive’ and this has proven apt thus far. American empire has been replete with terrifying predictions of the US being overcome by foreign powers from the East; in the 60’s it was the Soviets, in the 80’s it was Japan, now China occupies that space within modern American culture.
Undoubtedly, China will play a key role in the 21st Century and will act as a balance to the United States in certain arenas but to think that it will take the mantel of world leadership from Washington is just wrong.
China is, of course, the most populous nation on Earth. Numbering over a billion people, this fact has done much to contribute to myths of incoming Chinese dominance. The genetic arms race, as some people call it, has a visceral and deep effect on the human psyche at our most base and tribal level, which was useful for our ancestors but which can cloud our rational thought processes. It is deceptive to instantly link population to power. The belief that number of people equals power is an industrial age idea. In the modern world and into the 21st century, large teeming masses can and do act as a detriment to internal stability for an embattled state such as China.
More people means more mouths to feed, more houses to build and more resources being used to keep these people pacified. Extra pressure will be added by the incoming technological revolution, such as the mass adoption of robotics, AI and 3D printing, which will mean that less workers are required to make more goods.
China must fully integrate AI into its economy if it will remain competitive against the US and the Asian Tigers but this will mean increasing competition for jobs among a massive population.
We also see China as being one of the key fronts of the global Great Urbanisation which means that millions of Chinese citizens are migrating into already overcrowded cities every year, which obviously requires even more use of industrial resources. The fact that as Chinese becomes wealthier, its middle class is demanding more protein rich foodstuffs has put more focus on the production of meat which further strains water and arable land supplies.
This urbanisation, increasing tension over jobs and the coming social changes hastened by the mass introduction of AI has lead to a demographic and political crunch. This rise of tension is something which is occurring all across the planet but it will be felt most severely in China.
The Chinese Communist Party has marketed itself to its people by promising the populace that they will continue to deliver economic growth and a moderate level of comfort and security. Certainly, China has seen titanic growth in the last decades, but double digit economic growth cannot be sustained in perpetuity. The social contract between the multiple ethnic groups of China and the Communist Party is based on this economic growth and when the growth begins to slow, as it is already doing, alongside the increasing social tension between the wealthy coastal core and poor inner hinterland, we could see the Chinese state become even more ruthless in its use of force to guarantee its control over the population. The introduction of the nation wide Social Credit System and the doubling down on its repression of potentially rebellious ethnic groups is only the first steps in tightening control.
The power brokers at the heart of the Chinese state are well aware that repression alone cannot stop this coming social turmoil and have desperately begun to search the world for the resources needed to sustain the growth of Chinese cities and economic might.
The greatest manifestation of this is the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. This is an ambitious infrastructural project intended to bind Eurasia into a single economic unit with China at its centre.
Across the developing world, Chinese influence extends like tendrils into Africa. Large tracts of lands are being bought up at the expense of locals and Chinese professionals have descended with the support of the CCP state to take advantage of Africa’s bounty of precious and industrial materials by bribing out local rulers and offering development projects and infrastructure.
This is one area in which China begins to challenge American imperial power. Third-world dictators, who are weary of Western chastisement and keen to sell their resources to the highest bidder now have a welcome patron in the Chinese state.
The PRC does not care about issues such as human rights or democracy and will generally not bother developing world authoritarians aslong as they continue to supply China with the goods she needs.
China’s survival is dependent on this web of infrastructure and raw-material supplying states in the Global South. This system is intricate and expansive, and immensely sensitive to changes in global relations and economics in a way that the US is not.
Its worth remembering that one of the key elements of American power is that it is based on consent, meaning that the US has structured a global system which has benefited its allies and even its enemies.
When Trump slates American allies for not pulling their equal weight to maintain the global system he isn’t actually wrong, the problem is that he has misunderstood how much the US gains from such a system. American empire is based largely on the US shouldering a greater burden of international security in exchange for other nations playing by its rules. This initial investment pays dividends in the ability of America to influence other nations.
China, first does not have the capability to do this. China has no blue-water navy to protect global shipping routes so must rely on American safe-guarding anyway. Secondly, there is no universal knowledge of what kind of system China would seek to build should it replace the American empire. The PRC is regarded with suspicion by all its neighbours and even its allies do not trust its intentions.
The current Russian-Chinese alliance is a good example of this. It is entirely pragmatic and and based on balancing against the US, but if China was to become too powerful we could see a Russia gradually turn towards the West to balance against Beijing. If you think this is impossible, remember that this happened during the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s after the Sino-Soviet split. Russia and China are in no way natural allies and all it takes is Russia to judge China as more of a threat than the US to turn away from them. This could happen in the early 2030’s after a new leader takes charge in what remains of the Russian Federation.
There is no doubt that China will continue to play a prominent role as a world power but in many ways it will be at the mercy of the US. The Americans have constructed a wall of allies around the continental PRC which even includes Vietnam, a country scarred by their interactions with the US. Likewise China is faced with severe problems of social turmoil which could come to a head in the next few decades and will either result in increasingly brutal state authoritarianism or the collapse of the CCP.
The Russian Resurgence
What about Russia? We often hear of a newly emerging Russian confidence on the world stage. This really reached the public mind with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsular and the success of the Russian military campaign in Syria, however while media focus on these events does project strength, they do nothing to fix the underlying structural weaknesses that Russia must contend with if it is to replace the United States.
The truth is that Russia is actually a far weaker country than many in the West perceive it to be.
Looking at a map of the vast expanse that is modern Russia is deceptive for telling how powerful this country truly is. Looking back to the diagram above, we can see that Russian economic power is weaker than that of Italy. Putin did get lucky with the rise of oil prices after him becoming President but the money generated from this has not gone to grow other parts of the Russian economy. Billions have been siphoned off by key allies or by the Russian President himself which have not gone to generate any compounded growth in the Russian economy which could have been used to project power abroad.
Russia also has no means of securing the world’s trade routes, compared to the United States, its naval power is limited.Unlike the titanic number of naval bases the US maintains, Russia only has bases in several countries. While America has access to numerous warm water ports all years round which aids its global naval movement, Russia has very few, this has severely hampered their ability to develop naval power to the extent of the USA.
Its demography is another key pain point. Russia is the world’s largest country yet it has a population less than Bangledesh and only slightly larger than Japan. Alongside that, the majority white Russian population is dwindling.
As stated above, population is not completely necessary for success on the world stage but it is important for a state is exercise ethnic control over its territories. A country in which the titular ethnic group does not demographically dominate peripheral areas will find it hard to keep hold of such regions.
This is especially true of a nation in which the central authority is so distant (figuratively and literally) from many of its outer regions. The most dramatic example of this is the Russian Far East. Siberia alone is close to the size of continental Europe yet has less people living in it than Switzerland.
This shrinking population is made more precarious by severe social problems endemic in Russian society. Rampant alcoholism and drug addiction afflict poor Russians. The Russian middle class, the individuals responsible for the running of the apparatus of a functioning and powerful society has shrunk continuously since 2008.
Following the collapse of the USSR, suicides, drinking and drugs issues shot through the roof throughout Russia, while birth rates plummeted. This trend saw a brief halt with the rise of Putin but has since continued with a vengeance.
Putin should be credited with slowing some of this decline, but that’s all he has done, slowed it. White Russians are still an endangered people, and increased pressure from sanctions and rapacious corrupt elites have meant that even less money is floating into Russian society to ensure a stable population.
Deaths from despair and birthrates can often be a very useful metric by which to judge the mental confidence of a nation. It costs alot of money and takes a general sense of security to raise children and people generally don’t kill themselves or become drug addicted if they are optimistic about the future.
A nation cannot ascend to power if its primary and guiding ethnic group is killing its self. The British Empire would never have occurred if the English were drinking themselves into despair or mass aborting their babies on the scale the Russian people are now.
We also forget that the Russian Federation is not a singular nation-state but is more comparable to a union of nations, similar to the United Kingdom. The United Russia Party has tried to hold this union together by a mix of bribery and brute force. This has been most demonstrated in the small Muslim republic of Chechnya, which in an attempt to crush secessionist tendencies, has been subjected to numerous harsh military campaigns, but also has been awash with cash from the Russian centre.
This system is based on a key fear of the Russia elite, namely that should secessionists manage to take control of republics and oblasts on the Russian periphery, this could spark a chain-reaction which could see Russia collapse. This nightmare of a continent-wide balkanisation is always below the surface of Russian strategy. Remembering that this has already happened to a smaller extent in the collapse of the Soviet Union and that this experience has formed much of the mindset of Russian leadership is important.
This also doesn’t factor in the country’s geography and neighborhood. As I said previously, one of the benefits the US had is its dominance on the North American continent. This is the exact opposite case for Russia. Russia’s most populous and industrialised centre is located on the Northern European Plain. Throughout its history, Russia fell victim to numerous invaders, in the form of the French, German and other Western armies who came across this plain to strike at its political centre.
This sensitivity has been one of the guiding principle of Russian geopolitical strategy which has been focused largely on creating strategic depth to defend the Russian hinterland. This is what guided numerous monarchs in their expansion westward and why Stalin insisted on the creation of a Soviet controlled buffer zone after the defeat of Hitler.
On the Pacific side, Russia is also even more vulnerable. To the south-East (in its least populated territory) stands the formidable army of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese and Russians are allies at the moment, but this has largely come both countries view themselves as reactionary power bloc against the Americans.
With a weakened or non-interested America, it is entirely possible that the Chinese will begin to eye Siberia, with its vast forests and hydrocarbon deposits to feed the growing economic appetite of the Chinese industrial base, with a hungry look and could eventually seek to take it by force.
And when you think how far Siberia is from the Russian political centre and how few Russians actually live there, its entirely possible they will succeed in their goal. Likely this will not come from an invading Chinese army but through the state-sponsored mass migration of Chinese labourers to alter the demographics of the region, similar to the situation occurring in Tibet.
So the Russians are located in a crowded space between two rival power blocs, both of whom could turn hostile to Moscow in the near future. This, alongside internal problems with demographics and weak central power will prevent Russia from becoming the world power that many fear it will.
The current trajectory of Russia is extremely grim. While we may think of its successes in outflanking the West in certain arenas, Russia is on a downward slope which is unlikely to be reversed. The only real question is whether this desperate situation could prompt the Russian elite to lash out in ever more aggressive fashion as a way to consolidate their hold over the weakening Russian social fabric.
A New European Empire?
Occasionally some people point to the European Union as a possible successor to the United States’ empire.
Unlike the previously mentioned contenders, the idea of a unified EU taking the mantel of global hegemony is not actually very unrealistic. The will to rule is certainly there among the most powerful bureaucrats and leaders of the European continent. Guy Verhofstadt has repeatedly referenced this desire in public, in a speech nicknamed ‘the world of empires’ speech, he spoke about how the world is being re-structured into differing spheres of influence, and that the only way for Europe to secure its future in this world is to create an ‘empire of Europe.’
There are many people within the higher echelons of the European Union who wish to create a common European military force, and several European leaders have floated the idea of taking control of the French nuclear arsenal. Alongside this, if one was to add the GDP of every EU member together it would rival that of the United States.
Alongside the will to power and money, imperial power requires manpower. Euope’s history as the centre of mighty empires helps in this regard. To its south, lies the continent of Africa, a populous and resource rich zone in which all but one nation was at some point occupied by a European power. One might think this would cause resentment on the part of many Africans, and I’m sure it does, but we cannot underestimate the soft power that comes from having nations such as Mali or Angola speak European languages, or build their states around European institutions.
If we ever did see a United Europe, its leaders would hold sway over and have access to a continent which will in the near future be the world’s youngest and most populated landmass. Assuming it can muster the resources to seduce Africa away from China, this could act as an immense source of material for European manufacturing, key allies in international organisations, or even soldiers for a European army.
Europe, and especially France, continues to exercise immense influence within Africa. If a Unified Europe seeks to ascend to the status of a world power, it will have to take advantage of the resource rich and bountiful continent. Europeans could do this by providing economic support and military backing to African governments. Indeed we are already seeing this with French action against Islamist rebels in the Sahel, and propositions for the creation of a common European-North African energy network.
However, a unified Europe would be faced with steep internal divisions which could severely hamper its attempt to act in a united manner on the world stage. Europe is a diverse continent teaming with distinct identities, many of which have differing historical worldviews and cultural proclivities. Much of these differences can be repressed during times of economic growth, but the recent stagnancy of the EU’s economy has allows them to rise to the surface.
We can already see the disintegration of the EU into distinct regional blocs with shared political interests and cultural similarities, for instance, the Visegrad Group, or the PIGS countries. If this trend continues, its likely the EU will become, if it doesn’t collapse, an arena for internal squabbling between different tendencies across the continent. Such internal power struggles will detract from any ability that European leaders will have to become the new replacement to American supremacy.
This internal division could kill a United European power before it even starts. In some ways the EU today is in a similar position that the USSR was before its splintering. The Soviet Union was a supranational state which sought to merge diverse national identities into a singular worldview and state apparatus. The EU is attempting a similar thing, national stories and identities are suppressed beneath a common Pan-European identity.
While the USSR’s common belief system was Marxism, the EU’s guiding principles are those of Liberalism, and it is encountering the same problem that the USSR encountered, namely that the Union’s attempt to create a ‘new man’ is clashing with much deeper identities which have organically developed over past centuries.
The frailties of this union were shown during the 2016 mass migration of people from the developing world into the European hinterland. While the German Chancellor sought to welcome many of these people, the Eastern European states, led by Hungary and Poland and burdened by recent histories of domination from abroad, made every effort to disrupt movement into their nations.
The movement into Europe numbered about one million people. This is certainly alot of people but it is nothing compared to what we will likely see in the coming years, and if another crisis like that occurs, or the bloc suffers an economic crash, potentially started by the collapse of the Italian banks, for instance, then the EU could cease to function in any material way.
This disintegration doesn’t necessarily have to be as dramatic as the USSR’s crumbling was, but it could mean the death of the Euro and the splitting of EU institutions into its regional spheres which will lead to domination from outside powers. Perhaps we will see a southern bloc with countries such as Greece or Italy finding a patron in Russia, or a rump United Kingdom finally falling fully into the sphere of the United States.
This scenario is just a possibility but remember that for most of world history, Europe was a small peninsular of Asia occupied by squabbling nations, city-states and leagues. Europe was only really able to escape this reality by a mistake of history; namely the conquest of Anatolia by the Ottomans thus spurring a westward search for an alternative reach to the east which ended in gold pouring in from the Americas . History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme, and if we want to discern Europe’s future, we may find it resembles its past.
The American Century, continued
In many ways the coming years will be defined by increased regional competition between the nations mentioned above. However, the only power which has the room to grow in every metric, be it demographic, economically or technological advancement is the US.
While it is likely the US will remain the most powerful of the world powers, the coming decade of the 2020’s will prove increasingly tense and dangerous as these blocs rub against each other's zones of influence. We will see increasing tension between these big players, as Europe and China compete for influence in Africa, as Europe consolidates and pushes against Russia’s ‘Near Abroad,’ in countries such as Ukraine or Belarus, and as the US attempts to throttle China’s growth by bolstering a ring of Asian allies around it.
This tension will be set against the backdrop of global social upheavals such as the Great Urbanisation, the collapse of weak states in the Middle East and North Africa, geographic changes caused by climate change and another potential economic shock which will far outweigh the 2008 recession in its severity and length.
No doubt elites everywhere from Brussels to Beijing are aware that they are at a disadvantage against the US, but they also know that these coming decades are vital because they will decide who rules the world until the end of the 21st century and a prize like this is impossible for any would-be imperial power to resist.