June 6, 2022
A shorter version was printed as my column in China Daily on the same day here.
Empires go up and then they go down. None lasts forever. Imperial falls can be very dangerous. The Soviet Union dissolved thirty years ago. The US Empire is next in turn. In contrast to the Soviet case, the United States has no charismatic leader like Mikhail Gorbachev who with a sense of reality – that the system was out of function – held a vision of a better, disarmed Europe and world, and who conducted reforms – perestroika, glasnost, demokratyia – in a tempo that astounded the world and was bound to also produce mistakes.
Most importantly, we should be grateful to this day that Gorbachev never even contemplated using nukes when he recognised that the game was over.
There are many macro-historical theories with indicators of when empires decline, decay and then tumble to become, in the best of cases, normal and not imperialist states.
Inspired by, for instance, British macro-historian, Arnold Toynbee, there are six basic factors that will lead to the collapse of civilisations, including empires:
- Militarism – seeing all problems as something to be solved by threats, weapons and various types of warfare against others; you cling to the military while losing on other power scales such as economy, culture, politics and future thinking,
- Overextension – due to missionary zeal, ending up in mismanagement and ill-considered decisions,
- Growing disparity of wealth and poverty, inability to close it,
- Excessive use of natural resources and food shortages, ”climate change” today,
- Arrogance and the mirage of immortality and having reached the end of history,
- The clash between mind and heart, or intellect and emotions, or science and religion. You may add today – between media-created ”reality” and real reality: Propaganda catches up with yourself.
One could certainly add:
- Lack of legitimacy in the eyes of others,
- Internal breakdown and lack of reform capacity,
- Lack of long-term vision for the common good that others would buy into,
- Decreasing innovation – having been teaching others as # 1, you forget to learn from others who are moving up,
- Psycho-political projections of one’s own problems unto others, accompanied by paranoia, grumpiness, negative energy and increasingly experiencing boomerangs. The world turning away, no longer listening obediently. Add hubris, Groupthink and triumphalism.
- Approaching objective limits – of, say, exploitation of others, of Nature, of exceptionalism, of worldwide killing, of debt-creation, of management capacity and of deception. You may fool some of the people of some of the world some of the time but never all of the people in all the world all of the time…
- It’s gone too well too easily for too long a time and you drop self-criticism and humility. Others have caught up and may surpass.
On their way down, empires tend to make use of the power tools that have made them ”second to none.” In the case of the younger US Empire, its cultural global reach combined with political vision, economic strength and technological-scientific innovations made the world look up to it. Scandinavia where I live took in the American lifestyle, so did Europe and large parts of the world – inspiring literature, music, art, television entertainment, smart products including big cars, Coca Cola as a drink but also a way and living and object of consumerism’s iconic art (Andy Warhol).
It was a soft selling of the larger American narrative. The world was ”Americanised” but on most indicators, it happened voluntarily. Today’s US foreign policy has decayed into force – threats, sanctions, wars, exclusion, ganging up, power projection, exercises, demonisation – in short, negative energy. Mission by the Sword rather than the Bible.
What we see in the Cold War against China, in NATOs expansion – now sadly and foolishly also compassing Sweden and Finland – in the 40+ years of economic warfare against Iran and Syria, in twenty years of the Global War on Terror, and in the present massive arming of Ukraine as the battlefield to ”weaken” Russia militarily and as a society through massive, never-ending sanctions, isolation and demonisation – are all indicators of imperial decline and not expressions of moral or other strength the United States used to have.
I write it with sadness. I have never been anti-American; I am anti-militarism, anti-empire, and anti-enforcement of anybody’s values on other cultures and people. We should welcome and celebrate diversity instead of uniformity because diversity helps us learn and be enriched as individuals and as humanity. We should celebrate mutually beneficial cooperation because it reduces the risk of war and brings much-needed synergy so much needed to help humanity survive and thrive long-term.
So, what to do? If the US is able to listen – to friends and allies in particular – they should help the US accommodate to the decline and instead becoming a fascinating, dynamic country without an empire. Everybody else could support such a vision. Sadly the EU has proven incapable of being the new dynamic Occident and playing that role.
Countries that the US Empire keep harassing should come together defensively – without ganging up or seeking confrontation – and by example show the strength in cooperation and intelligent, nonviolent conflict management at a much lower military level.
Perhaps this is just naive hoping for miracles? Then let’s dialogue about better strategies before the risk of Project Humankind going down with a Bang or with a Whimper increases exponentially.