In Review :: After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order

What do Europeans know about the United States that we don't know about ourselves? French demographer Emmanuel Todd's After the Empire, a critically acclaimed best seller in Europe and now available in English translation, presents a sobering view of the U.S. role in a changing world. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that the United States is on the verge of world domination, Todd argues that its power is waning and the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration is accelerating its decline. The fact that Todd was one of the few who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire gives his assessment special credibility.

Following World War II, Japan and Europe acquiesced to U.S. leadership because of their dependence on U.S. military power as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Empire collapsed so too did that rationale. Europe is now industrially more powerful than the United States, has no need to fear a militarily weakened, but resource rich Russia, and is being pushed by Bush administration policies ever closer to an alliance with Russia as a counter to an increasingly belligerent and unilateralist United States.

The United States entered the 20th century with an abundance of natural resources, a powerful manufacturing sector, and a huge trade surplus that made it, according to Todd, the most powerful and self-reliant economy on the planet. This combination positioned it to play a defining role in World War II and the subsequent rebuilding of Europe and Japan. It has, however, recklessly squandered its own resources and become increasingly dependent on the natural wealth of others. In addition it began exporting its manufacturing and technology base in the 1980s and has since run up a skyrocketing trade deficit—and a foreign debt now growing at the rate of nearly one and a half billion dollars a day. “America has become a sort of black hole—absorbing merchandise and capital but incapable of furnishing the same goods in return,” Todd says.

Todd concludes the United States has become an economic dependency of an increasingly educated and interconnected world that no longer needs U.S. protection and is ever less tolerant of foreign military domination. The growing potential of the Euro to replace the U.S. dollar as the world's reserve currency threatens U.S. financial power.

And U.S. military power—apart from an unusable nuclear capability—rests on a manufacturing and technology base that is rapidly eroding. The implications for the United States as a global power are exacerbated by current trends toward  the formation of geographically continuous trading blocks that are shifting the world's center of economic gravity toward the Eurasian continent.

Todd's bottom line: U.S. military and economic power rests increasingly on illusion, not unlike the 1990s high-tech stock bubble—which rested in large measure on accounting fraud. The United States is well on its way to being isolated economically, geographically, and diplomatically with an economy dependent on foreign subsidies the rest of the world has no further reason to provide. After the Empire is essentially a call to a world distressed by U.S. arrogance to pull away and let the United States move on down the slippery slide of isolation and decline of its own making.

For all its important and provocative insights, After the Empire has significant flaws. The economic analysis is conventional and though it deals extensively with the importance of access to oil, it largely ignores the implications of a growing global competition for a declining natural resource base. There is no mention of the role of transnational corporations in reshaping the global power equation. And it offers no guidance on how the world's nations might move beyond conventional geopolitical competition to create a world that works for all.

Todd offers no advice to the United States, but to the extent his analysis is correct, the implications seem clear. Turning to military domination as a solution to our growing global dependence is guaranteed to fail. One of the few available positive options is to take on the challenge of leading the world to a sustainable way of living. That would require a dramatic change of course, bringing our abundant entrepreneurial and technological capacities to bear on the task of learning to live within our own means. By any reckoning our ever increasing dependence on declining world oil reserves in the face of ever increasing global demand is a recipe for national disaster far more certain and devastating than any terrorist attack. Reducing that dependence must become a national priority of the highest order—the theme of this YES! issue.

Todd's book offers no answers, but it is a source of intelligent analysis and distinctive insights that merit close attention by all Americans concerned about our country's role in the world and the future we are leaving our children.

David Korten is author of and , and is chair of the board of the Positive Futures Network, publishers of YES! Magazine.



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