The Project for the New American Century opened its doors in 1997. Of the 25 signers of PNAC's founding statement of principles, 10 served in George W. Bush’s administration, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. They staked their faith in U.S. global dominance on the invasion of Iraq. The PNAC folded in 2006. Its vision had proved as obsolete as it was arrogant. Our empire reached its apogee in the 60s and 70s of the last century. Since then it’s been in irreversible decline.
We live in a waning empire, and Americans are unhappy about it. Any analysis of current U.S. politics, including what happened in the 2016 election, must start with this reality.
In the first half of last century, our ability to drain wealth from countries beyond our borders was limited to Latin America and the Philippines. But after World War II, when European powers were unable to reassert control over their former colonies in Asia and Africa, we moved in.
We didn’t occupy them. Our neo-colonial domination — a combination of decisive control over global economic arrangements and selected “Black Ops” interventions in uncooperative countries’ political affairs — sufficed. We commanded raw materials from around the world at cheap prices and worked them up into high-value manufactured products. A big population growth thanks to the “Boomers” meant an expanding domestic market, so we didn’t need to sell a lot abroad. And we dominated global manufacturing because Japan and the industrial powers of Europe took a good while to recover from the war. We ran strong balances of trade. We were the world’s largest creditor nation.
Thanks mainly to the power of labor unions in the workplace and the political arena, most of the U.S. population shared in the fruits of empire. Union strength was concentrated in the manufacturing sector and the building trades, but its political power assured a livable federal minimum wage for all workers. And Social Security, Medicare and good private and public pensions reduced the poverty level of seniors from the highest to the lowest of our age segments.
But the Vietnam War weakened us, and the advent of OPEC made oil more expensive. Competition from revitalized Japanese and European manufacturers increased. And then our manufacturing began to shift from the center of empire to its periphery. With new trade arrangements crafted by and for economic elites whose loyalties to profits trumped national allegiances, the race to the bottom began.
Lots of money was still being made, but not widely shared. Unions failed to organize the service sector as their industrial membership shrank, so they lost most of their political clout. Wages stagnated and the minimum wage steadily lost value. People kept buying — we accrued personal debt on credit cards and later borrowed against home equity. The nation ran a chronic trade deficit. We became the world’s largest debtor nation.
National pride now focuses on our still-unrivaled military might, even though it is expensive and delivers few tangible benefits. Its glorification is another sure sign of a people unreconciled to imperial decline.
America will never again be great as Trump meant great and his voters understood it. The political task is to make America great again in a different way, one that will free both us and the world of the burden of empire.
Domestically, we must redefine individual success, devaluing material accumulation and extolling the exercise of talent, creativity, child-rearing and civic contribution. We must adopt public policies and make public investments that give everyone a good chance to succeed in these terms.
Globally, we need a new mission, a mission that is international, not imperial, based on diplomatic cooperation to promote justice, not military alliances to perpetuate exploitation. Such a mission would give renewed energy to our founding myth of the City on a Hill.
There is little indication from either major party that it understands the task at hand. Current politics presages only further decline, not just in global influence but in public morale and national cohesion. It is we who must re-imagine American greatness and then let our vision shine.
— Herb Rothschild lives in Talent.