Perhaps when America falls it will lie down like some mighty giant resting after a hard week of work, secure in the knowledge the world will persist without its labors.
And perhaps in anticipation of that day, we will make ourselves a bed and leave instructions for the next giant who might take our place.
The momentum of history is now on the side of those who would put an end to empires. The American empire is perhaps most strongly felt in its military presence abroad, but it is not often sustained by force. Its reach is more global and unrivaled, lighter and more powerful, than any from the past.
America rules through the allure of Harvard and Hollywood, the pull of a better life. It rules through the global markets it shapes. And however great the corruption, it still rules through the democratic ideals it pioneered. But the soft power of the American ideal, the economic power of the Washington Consensus, and the hard power of American military might are all quietly slipping away.
Most empires end by being replaced, but America has no serious competitor. And imperial decline can open up power vacuums, as in Iraq where the so-called Islamic State took over. If authoritarian states like China and Russia replace America, the next century might be much less democratic. The U.S. has overturned young democracies in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973, and it has often supported authoritarian allies like Mubarek in Egypt and the House of Saud. But it tends to support democratization these days because democracies make good allies and trading partners, and stable democracies almost never go to war with one another. China and Russia, on the other hand, tend to ally with authoritarian regimes that suppress human rights. Thus, the key to bringing down the American empire, while strengthening democracy and global security, is not to destroy but rather to transcend it.
Perhaps the most urgent task lies in expanding the UN Security Council and abolishing the veto. A more representative UNSC might mean a more stable global order, for it would be stronger, more independent, and less likely to tolerate war. It is now common in American foreign policy circles to speak of adding to the council both older and better established democracies, like Germany and Japan, and emerging democracies, like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. Foreign policy analysts expect it to happen; it is even supported by relatively conservative scholars, like the late Samuel Huntington Jr. and Walter Russell Mead. But the American and global left should be leading the movement.
American economic hegemony is at least partially sustained through the power of the dollar, which serves as the world’s reserve currency. This makes many poorer countries dependent upon the U.S., which often sets the terms of trade. It also makes the international financial system subject to American economic instabilities. Hence, even relatively conservative economists, like Martin Wolf of the Wall Street Journal, speak of replacing the dollar with a basket of currencies, which might include Euros, Pounds, Yuan, and Renmindi. This could make for a more stable global economy, while also reducing American hegemony. Global citizens should be taking the lead here as well.
American military support is often called on by weak states seeking protection. Taiwan and the Philippines seek protection from China; Poland and Ukraine from Russia. Americans are often uncomfortable with the idea of leaving democracies to the whims of authoritarian states. Hence, a good portion of American military might is committed to the protection of Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and other allied democracies. But this is an unsustainable financial burden, and the power tends to be wielded at the expense of greater global goods. The win-win solution is to transfer power to these and other emerging democracies over the course of a generation, which would allow for a gradual redistribution of power. Advocating such a transfer when calling for the dissolution of the American empire can reassure supporters of American power both at home and abroad.
The number of democracies has been increasing ever since America’s founding in 1776; they now constitute almost half of the world’s states. Stable democracies tend to be wealthy and allied together. Joined in a single association they would represent the world’s most inclusive body ever, and quite a broad swathe of humanity. The association would be a strong attractor to democratizing states and would help make American power irrelevant. The idea first came to prominence through John McCain in his 2008 Presidential bid, ironically. But it has been around at least since Immanuel Kant wrote about it in the late eighteenth century. It should have universal appeal, and a global coalition of citizens and states could make it a reality.
The U.S. rarely uses force now on stable states. Over the course of the last generation, it has used force in, or against, Somalia, Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Since these states were often plagued with violence, there tended to be support for the interventions. Violent social movements tend to destabilize states, thereby inviting outside interference. According to Erika Chenowith of the University of Denver, who catalogued over a hundred social movements since 1900, violent movements were only half as successful at achieving their aims as nonviolent movements. Although the toolkit of nonviolent strategies is growing, nonviolent movements tend to know little about them. A broader and more sophisticated international movement for strategic nonviolence could go far in making American military might obsolete.
American power also tends to be most strongly felt in the Middle East, to which the U.S. is drawn by the Israel lobby. Like other powerful lobbies, the Israel lobby frames discourse in its area of interest. This hurts the Palestinians, but it also drags the U.S. into Middle East conflicts. The Israel lobby played a key role in instigating the Iraq War, and it could lead the U.S. to war with Iran as well. But whereas support for Israel used to be bi-partisan, it is increasingly a Republican topic of concern. Yet, Republicans find it increasingly difficult to win the Presidency, where foreign policy is shaped. If the trend continues, it will become difficult for Israel to push the U.S. into Middle East conflicts. Hence, driving a wedge between Republicans and Democrats on Israel could lend to the American military presence a much lighter footprint.
These goals are all furthered when the citizens of the world join together for change. Global civil society can weaken American power, because it fills a void. In the absence of another rival power, a well developed system of international law, and a stronger global civil society, America is stepping into a power vacuum. America has also, of course, retarded the development of these challenges to its power. But each is now growing, and we can all further the development of a global community of citizens. Far from some sort of utopian agenda, most of these programs have elite American and international support.
The American empire is declining and the world is taking over. And much of the American intellectual establishment supports this transfer of power, since it will lead to a more stable world as American power diminishes. It will also lead to a more empowered and representative world. But the changes are slow in the making. Elites are not focused on these issues. And both the American and international left, who are most critical of American power, have been slow to advocate these measures. This is a massive strategic blunder. It is time we begin thinking about what a functioning world order will look like when America becomes yet one more among many great powers.
There is a momentum to the changes now taking place, which like water rushing down a mountain, need only be unleashed.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May