News & Politics

Will the End of the US Empire Be a Soft Landing or a Total Collapse?

History shows that empires, ultimately, are unsustainable.

Photo Credit: U.S. Military

History shows that empires, ultimately, are unsustainable. From the Soviet Union to the U.K. to the Roman Empire, imperialism carried much too heavy a heavy price tag for a long list of major global powers. But some empires suffered more painful endings than others—and for the United States, the question is: will its empire experience a “soft landing” like France, the U.K. and Spain or a devastating collapse like the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union?  

The U.K., France, Portugal and Spain are all examples of empires that experienced a “soft landing” rather than a total collapse. The Spanish empire, in its heyday, was huge, which is why Spanish is the official language in most Latin American countries (although Portuguese-speaking Brazil, once a colony of Portugal, is an obvious exception). But imperialism in Spain was gradually phased out, and Francisco Franco—the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1936-1975—had a definite isolationist streak and was much more focused on domestic policy than foreign policy. Similarly, the U.K., France and Portugal gradually phased out their empires when they realized that imperialism and empire-building came at the expense of domestic policy.

The fall of the Roman Empire was not a soft landing; it was a devastating collapse. And maintaining a communist empire was so costly and draining to the Soviet Union that in 1991, it ceased to exist. Is this where the U.S. is heading—or will the U.S. empire be gradually phased out as were the empires in the U.K., Spain, France and Portugal (all of which, post-empire, have been successful developed countries)?

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, neoconservatism—the imperialist ideology shaped by Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, among others—greatly influenced the policies of the George W. Bush administration. Prominent neocons argued like David Horowitz, Bill Kristol (Irving Kristol’s son and the Weekly Standard’s publisher), Vice President Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton (now national security advisor under President Donald Trump) all championed a more aggressive and interventionist foreign policy and supported the disastrous invasion of Iraq (which ultimately, made terrorism even worse and encouraged the creation of the Islamic State, Iraq and Syria, or ISIS).   

Not all right-wingers, however, embrace neoconservatism. When he was serving in Congress, Rep. Ron Paul argued that the U.S. needed to free itself from “the burdens of empire”—and Antiwar.com is a right-wing libertarian/paleoconservative website that favors a very isolationist foreign policy and often argues that empire-building will bankrupt the U.S. if it doesn’t cease.

Politics make strange bedfellows. And as much as Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com’s editorial director, disagrees with journalist Chris Hedges or activist Ralph Nader when it comes to economics, he shares their disdain for empire and imperialism.

Of course, being anti-empire or anti-imperialist isn’t automatically synonymous with being anti-military. One can favor a strong national defense and still be critical of the U.S.’ calamitous interventions in Iraq, Vietnam, Chile and so many other countries. But in the longrun, having a strong military won’t mean much if the U.S. falls apart domestically—and the Trump administration’s domestic policies have been abysmal on so many levels. 

A country without a strong middle class is a country that’s doomed to failure, and none of the policies of the Trump administration and the Republicans who currently control both houses of Congress have been good for the U.S.’ embattled middle class. Taxes are at the top of the list: as economist Robert Reich has emphasized, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 mainly benefits the super-rich—offering precious little tax relief to the middle class and making income inequality even worse.

The Trump administration has failed miserably when it comes to health care. Had the Republican-sponsored American Health Care Act not been defeated in the Senate in 2017, it would have resulted in 23 million Americans ultimately losing their health insurance. But while Trump hasn’t been able to overturn the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a.k.a. Obamacare, it has undermined it by flooding the market with junk insurance plans, cutting subsidies that help an estimated six million low-income Americans afford health insurance, making it harder to sign up for coverage, and causing premiums to increase.

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are also weakening the U.S. by neglecting its infrastructure, making draconian cuts to vital social programs like Social Security and Medicare, causing the federal deficit to increase considerably, undermining Net neutrality and emphasizing fossil fuels over green energy. Unless the U.S. changes course, the end of its empire could turn out to be not a soft landing, but a devastating collapse—which is what Hedges is envisioning.

Hedges correctly stresses that “the American empire is coming to an end,” asserting that “the U.S. economy is being drained by wars in the Middle East and vast military expansion around the globe” while it slides deeper and deeper into the abyss domestically. 

In one of his columns, Hedges asserted, “Our democracy has been captured and destroyed by corporations that steadily demand more tax cuts, more deregulation and impunity from prosecution for massive acts of financial fraud, all the while looting trillions from the U.S. treasury in the form of bailouts. The nation has lost the power and respect needed to induce allies in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa to do its bidding. Add to this the mounting destruction caused by climate change, and you have a recipe for an emerging dystopia.”

Hedges’ grim prediction for the U.S.: “The empire will limp along, steadily losing influence until the dollar is dropped as the world’s reserve currency, plunging the United States into a crippling depression and instantly forcing a massive contraction of its military machine.” 

As wildly unpopular as the Trump administration is in Europe, none of the U.S.’ European allies want to see the U.S. fall apart. Quite the contrary: in a volatile world that includes the likes of Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China and authoritarian figures such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the last thing the European Union (EU) wants is for the U.S. to do badly. But one need only read the newspapers and websites of France, Germany, Switzerland or Spain to realize how worried so many Europeans are about their ally the U.S. in the Trump era. For that matter, democratic U.S. allies in many other places (from Canada to Australia and New Zealand to Japan) are worried as well.

The U.S. is a troubled country that cannot afford its vast empire, and whether that empire experiences a soft landing—which is what its allies in Europe are hoping for—or a harsh collapse will affect not only the U.S., but also, its allies around the globe.

 

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.