Imperial Decline: How Does It Feel to Be Inside a Dying Empire?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
This can’t end well.
But then, how often do empires end well, really? They live vampirically by feeding off others until, sooner or later, they begin to feed on themselves, to suck their own blood, to hollow themselves out. Sooner or later, they find themselves, as in our case, economically stressed and militarily extended in wars they can’t afford to win or lose.
Historians have certainly written about the dangers of overextended empires and of endless war as a way of life, but there’s something distant and abstract about the patterns of history. It’s quite another thing to take it in when you’re part of it; when, as they used to say in the overheated 1960s, you’re in the belly of the beast.
I don’t know what it felt like to be inside the Roman Empire in the long decades, even centuries, before it collapsed, or to experience the waning years of the Spanish empire, or the twilight of the Qing dynasty, or of Imperial Britain as the sun first began to set, or even of the Soviet Empire before the troops came slinking home from Afghanistan, but at some point it must have seemed at least a little like this -- truly strange, like watching a machine losing its parts. It must have seemed as odd and unnerving as it does now to see a formerly mighty power enter a state of semi-paralysis at home even as it staggers on blindly with its war-making abroad.
The United States is, of course, an imperial power, however much we might prefer not to utter the word. We still have our globe-spanning array of semi-client states; our military continues to garrison much of the planet; and we are waging war abroad more continuously than at any time in memory. Yet who doesn’t sense that the sun is now setting on us?
Not so many years ago, we were proud enough of our global strength to regularly refer to ourselves as the Earth’s “sole superpower.” In those years, our president and his top officials dreamed of establishing a worldwide Pax Americana, while making speeches and issuing official documents proclaiming that the United States would be militarily “beyond challenge” by any and all powers for eons to come. So little time has passed and yet who speaks like that today? Who could?
A Country in Need of Prozac
Have you noticed, by the way, how repetitiously our president, various presidential candidates, and others now insist that we are “the greatest nation on Earth” (as they speak of the U.S. military being “the finest fighting force in the history of the world”)? And yet, doesn’t that phrase leave ash in your mouth? Look at this country and its frustrations today and tell me: Does anyone honestly believe that anymore?
It wasn’t a mistake that the fantasy avenger figure of Rambo became immensely popular in the wake of defeat in Vietnam or that, unlike American heroes of earlier decades, he had such a visibly, almost risibly overblown musculature. As eye-candy, it was pure overcompensation for the obvious. Similarly, when the United States was actually “the greatest” on this planet, no one needed to say it over and over again.
Can there be any question that something big is happening here, even if we don’t quite know what it is because, unlike the peoples of past empires, we never took pride in or even were able to think of ourselves as imperial? And if you were indeed in denial that you lived in the belly of a great imperial power, if like most Americans you managed to ignore the fact that we were pouring our treasure into the military or setting up bases in countries that few could have found on a map, then you would naturally experience the empire going down as if through a glass darkly.