Sometimes I’m pleased when my assertions in this column are validated, and sometimes I’m pleased when they aren’t. In this column I give an instance of the first. Next week I’ll talk about the second — my erroneous prediction that the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi would not end our support of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen.
I’ve been contending that the best way to understand our nation’s present political condition is that we’re an empire in decline, and most of us are unhappy about that. From the Feb. 7 New York Review of Books, I learned of two recent books — Victor Bulmer-Thomas’ “Empire in Retreat: The Past, Present and Future of the United States” (Yale University Press) and David Hendrickson’s “Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition” (Oxford University Press) — that put in historical context the case I’ve been making.
Here’s an excerpt from the Yale press’s blurb on Bulmer-Thomas’ book: It “offers a grand survey of the United States as an empire. From its territorial expansion after independence, through hegemonic rule following World War II, to the nation’s current imperial retreat, the United States has had an uneasy relationship with the idea of itself as an empire. . . . Bulmer-Thomas offers three definitions of empire — territorial, informal, and institutional — that help to explain the nation’s past and forecast a future in which the United States will cease to play an imperial role.”
And here’s an excerpt from Goodreads’ summary of Hendrickson’s study: “America’s outsized military spending and global commitments ... undermine rather than uphold international order. They raise rather than reduce the danger of war, imperiling both American security and domestic liberty. An alternative path lies in a new internationalism in tune with the United Nations Charter and the philosophy of republican liberty embraced by America’s founders. The sum of the conventional view — touted by the national security establishment and embraced by Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush — is that it is impossible to have a liberal world order unless America has hostile relations with Russia, China, and Iran, together with a shifting cast of lesser states. ... But it is precisely those who would lead us into battle with ‘hostile states’ who threaten a liberal world order, because they look to a competition that is to be settled through dominance rather than reciprocity.”
In his NYR review of these books, Jackson Lears, a history professor at Rutgers, cites Bulmer-Thomas’ account of the many pillars of American power that are crumbling. Lears then adds, “Trump and his opponents in the Washington consensus still envision a unipolar world where the United States can ignore the legitimate claims of rival nations and do pretty much whatever it wants, whether because of its sheer greatness (Trump) or its exceptional goodness (Clinton et al.).”
Both authors regard our insistence on global dominance as boding disaster (as I did at the end of my first column of 2019), and that desisting would not be the lesser of two evils. They argue that imperial retreat is not the same as national decline; indeed, it can strengthen a nation just as imperial expansion can weaken it.
If we frame a change of course as giving up the role of “the world’s policeman” (which sounds as if we’ve always been well motivated) rather than as abandoning a selfish imperialism (the unpalatable truth), the majority of our fellow Americans just may go along.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.