The Fall of the American Empire

Uncle Sam: No stranger to imperialism (from the Spanish-American War of 1898)

W.J. Astore

Why do empires fall?  Sometimes, it’s easy to identify a cause.  Whether led by the Kaiser or by Hitler, Germany’s Second and Third Empires were destroyed by world wars.  Germany’s ambition was simply too great, its militarism too dominant, its policies too harsh to win long-term converts, its leaders too blinded by the pursuit of power, its enemies too many to conquer or otherwise neutralize.

Other imperial falls are more complex.  What caused Rome’s fall?  (Leaving aside the eastern part of the empire, which persisted far longer as the Byzantine Empire.)  Barbarians and their invasions, say some.  The enervating message and spirit of Christianity, said the historian Edward Gibbon.  Rome’s own corruption and tyranny, say others.  Even lead in Roman water pipes has been suggested as a contributing cause to Rome’s decline and fall.  Taking a longer view, some point to the rise of Islam in the 7th century and its rapid expansion into previously Roman territories as the event that administered the final coup de grâce to a dying empire.

America’s empire, it is clear, is now in decline, and a key reason is imperial overstretch as manifested by endless wars and overspending on the military (with literally trillions of dollars being thrown away on fruitless wars).  An especially fine summary is Alfred McCoy’s article this week at  As McCoy notes:

In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy.  And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of U.S. power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions) …

In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for U.S. foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.

In this passage, McCoy stresses the damage being done by the Trump administration.  But Trump is just the culmination of certain trends, e.g. favoring the Pentagon over the State Department is nothing new, as I wrote about here in 2010.  And America has been in love with shimmering ships and shiny planes for generations, with several administrations supporting the F-35 jet fighter, a program that may end up costing as much as $1.4 trillion.  Plenty of money for weapons that kill; not so much for medicines that cure: that’s imperial America in a nutshell.

I would stress that America’s strength overseas was (and is) always based on its strength at home in areas such as science, education, infrastructure, medicine, manufacturing, and exports.  But what we’ve witnessed over the last 40 years is an immense and wasteful “investment” in wars and weapons even as our country itself has hollowed out. Science is now marked by the denial of facts (such as global warming). Education is all about students as consumers, with an overall decline in standards and performance. Infrastructure is crumbling. Medicine is too expensive and America’s overall health and life expectancy are both in decline. Manufacturing and exports have withered (except for the production and export of weapons, naturally).

As a result of all this, America is running a national debt of roughly 20 trillion dollars.  The future is being sacrificed for the present, a tragic reality reflected in the latest Republican tax cut, which benefits the richest Americans the most, along with big corporations, and which will likely add another trillion to the national debt.

In short, America’s foreign decline is mirrored (and driven) by its domestic decline as reflected by its choices.  Looking at the USA today, you get the sense it’s the best of times for the richest few, and the worst of times for so many Americans struggling with health care debt, student loan debt, and the uncertainty of low-wage jobs that could be outsourced at any moment.  At the same time, the American political scene is driven by fear: of immigrants, of a nuclear war with North Korea, of Russian meddling (real or imagined), of growing Chinese power, and of the perpetually-hyped threat of terrorist attacks on “the Homeland.”

Empires can fall very quickly, as the “thousand-year” Third Reich did, or they can fall ever so slowly, as the Roman Empire did.  But fall they do.  What is in the cards for the United States?  Readers, fire away in the comments section.

Update (1/20/18):  Secretary of Defense James Mattis now claims that China and Russia represent bigger threats than terrorism, along with Congress itself since it can’t pass an extended budget for the Pentagon.  He also claimed the U.S. military’s “competitive edge” is eroding in “every domain of warfare,” despite a defense budget of $700 billion.

None of this is a surprise.  Indeed, this is exactly what happens when you put a retired general and known war hawk in charge of the defense department.  Generals will always want more: more troops, more money, more resources, more authority.  And to support their demands, they will always find more enemies as well.

8 thoughts on “The Fall of the American Empire

  1. We’ve been sliding down the slippery slope since we prolonged our stay in Viet Nam well past the prudent perish date. Aside from the fact that we had no moral standing for being there in the first place. Just sayin’…


  2. There is at least one Lone Wolf in Congress for common sense and Peace – Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii. She said what I suspect many sentient human beings out side of the Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex have thought. North Korea has armed itself with Nuclear Weapons as a clear Trump Card (pardon the pun) to avoid a USA led regime change.

    Gabbard, interviewed on ABC News, declared unambiguously that the reason that North Korea has worked so diligently to develop nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering them to the US is that the United States over several decades and under a number of presidents, has had a policy of “regime change,” and a history of violently attempting to overthrow governments that it doesn’t like.

    I am sure the Neo-Cons that inhabit Congress would like to slam her as a pacifist snowflake. However, as the article mentions she also happens to be a major in the US Army, a member of the Hawaiian National Guard, and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. She served a tour in Iraq in 2006 and volunteered for a second tour in the Middle East in 2009, again making her a standout among all the chicken hawks of both parties in Congress and the White House.

    I suspect this maybe the last time Tulsi Gabbard will be invited on national TV.

    Full story and worth a read:


  3. The book – The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward N. Luttwak provides a blue print for our own American Imperialism. He writes, “Client states great and small are thus kept in subjection by their own perceptions of Roman power, and this deterrent force was complemented by positive inducements notably subsidies”. “Owing to its hegemonic nature, the sphere of imperial control is limited only by the range at which others perceive Roman Power as compelling obedience”. – Given the modern military we field this range is world wide. There is also the economic consequences of disobedience that can be imposed, such as embargoes, or sanctions. The client state dictators we have installed and their families can enjoy decades of power and wealth as long as they are not disobedient.

    One other point Luttwak makes is -The cultural and economic influence of Rome on the lives of all the neighbors of the empire is itself creating a cultural and political basis for common action against it. Men who had nothing in common now acquire elements of a culture shared by all but belonging to none. We have then created an anti-American cultural shared in Africa, Latin America, and Asia of the Ugly American.


    1. Well put, ML. You’ve inspired me to pull my copy of Luttwak from the bookshelf, which I got for $1.00 used, and to read it again.


  4. Read McCoy’s article on International Clearing House, and was a bit taken aback by some of the caustic comments. I think some readers misinterpreted him, yet on rereading, got their jist: He’s right for the wrong reasons, re Obama’s so-called trade deals with TPP & Trans Atlantic.
    No one can have successful trade deals omitting the biggest players: China & Russia. NAFTA also won’t work, though Trump should ‘tweak’ them, not ‘tweet’ them. Thus, they have little to do with ‘free trade’; more politically spiteful than sensible.
    Having spent my entire life in private enterprise, I can remember such sayings as “What’s good for GM* is good for America”. Rubbish today, but glorious in the 1950’s. (*GM also invented ‘built in obsolescence’ – and lost 60% of their market share by 1975.)
    Getting back to Astore’s excellent ‘Fall of the American Empire’, that again skims on the surface: America has failed miserably the last 30+ years on the consumer/export front. Without it, no national wealth. Sword dances with Saudi’s buying arms don’t count, nor do other less pretentious arms sales. The Pentagon is a huge part of US’s Federal budget, but is in fact unproductive compared to a state of the art automobile industry. (Germany anyone?)
    Healthy capitalism changes, say renewable energies vs old stalemated oil. Mostly in dangerous parts of the world, or fracking possibly, well probably, doing costly long term damage to America’s water table.
    Harley Earle, head designer for GM in the glory days, bragged: “It’s a design of embarrassment; my model is newer than yours”. Today in the Trump era of “my button is bigger than yours”, could be translated into “my fin is bigger than yours”. But I’ll keep it clean!
    The irony of all this today in US, is the super militaristic Napoleon, of all people, had exquisite taste in finery. Museums prove it! Yet the real motive was restore France’s finances, (so he could wage more wars of course.) The Revolutionists did trash the factories of aristocratic glitz he quickly rebuilt. Hard to fathom this military man sniffing perfumes & critiquing china designs – for export. To, you guessed it: “Make France Great Again!” It did work! For awhile….


      1. Yikes! WJAstore! I LOVED IT! Also reminded me why my school grades were low – yet even today I’d bet my life on the photos: ’56 Thunderbird, ’57 Imperial, ’57, ’58 Cadillacs. Geometry? Summer school!
        Because I’m a modernist, vs ‘traditional’ ie fake British chintz sofas & drapes, I preferred (American) Florence Knoll design, I was given a book – publically at a dinner party in Greenwich CT, where my shop was. It was to embarrass me: “get with the picture”: “America under Reagan is the new British Empire!”
        And the book was, drumroll, ‘Populuxe’* by Tom Hines architectural historian. Harley used the Lockheed P-38 to influence Cadillac’s 1948 fins, according to the book.
        *He made up this fake name, because it was “popular” & “luxurious” at a cheap price. Great book! Funny but true!
        Ah, I end tonight, with a great, honest, National Geographic interview years ago, with an old Portuguese aristocrat descendent in Macau, before it was turned back to China:
        “We had the world in the palm of our hands for 200+ years, and came home poorer than when we left.”
        America MUST think of his wisdom! Portugal before had a decent society: wine, food, housing. It was destroyed by their Empire costs.


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