Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Exhausted Empire

My 65th birthday is coming up, and I have been pondering what I have witnessed over my life time: the development of vaccines to prevent the scourges of polio, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough; a man walking on the moon and the placement of telescopes in orbit to study the history of the universe; increased rights for women and African Americans.

That's a few of the good things, but there have been some horrors as well: wars fought for no other reason than the enemy had commodities that we desired; the degradation of our air, water, and soil by our unwise use of energy; the depletion of the middle class and marginalization of the poor by the upper classes; the complete destruction of a once vibrant democracy by corporate interests. I watched the nation rise to become an empire. I am now watching that nation and that empire collapse under its own weight. The last decade has been especially hard on my country and on me.

Yesterday, during my usual Saturday visit to Watching America, I came across an opinion piece which really resonated with what I have been thinking about. Published in Germany's die Welt, the essay is titled "America: The Exhausted Empire."

It was clearly written as a warning to Europe that those countries would have to step forward and start assuming responsibility for their security because the US simply could no longer do it all. As such, it is an extremely timely and perceptive piece. What intrigued me the most was the stunning accuracy with which it describes the current state of the United States. Obama said, America will no longer be based on what it wants, but on what is possible. It is a creed that applies far beyond the Hindu Kush and to others as well. Obama’s speech marks not only a change in policy toward Afghanistan, but also in the ambitions of the country most important to global order. The empire is exhausted by a decade of constant war and it wants to scale back its foreign involvement in the face of dwindling financial resources. “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” was the most significant sentence in his address: Instead of rebuilding other countries, it’s time to rebuild U.S. economic strength; that is the basis for America’s role as a global power. Obama’s speech is therefore not only a warning to the Afghan government to get its own house in order, but it applies to Europe as well. The time of the national security free ride is rapidly coming to an end.

America’s power and worldwide influence depend largely on its military capacity to protect sea routes, support its allies and maintain regional balances. To accomplish this role over the past decade, America has reduced social services and expanded military capabilities to a far greater extent than has Europe. The old continent, on the other hand, built an over-the-top wealth-redistribution system while cutting back on military outlays, trusting that U.S. security policy would pull everyone else’s chestnuts out of the fire as it did in the Balkans.

We can no longer afford the role of empire, not if the nation is going to survive as a democracy in which anyone can become president, either of the country as a whole or of a company. We can't afford million dollar missiles fired from drones and world class institutions of higher learning. Hell, we can't even afford decent public schools staffed adequately with trained and competent teachers so they don't burn out within a few years. We can't fight three wars at once and provide decent safety nets for the vulnerable poor and elderly.

Here's the sad part, though. Clemens Wergin, the author of the essay cited, seems to assume that President Obama meant what he said, that he would focus on rebuilding that City on the Hill. I'm not so sure.

Not so sure at all.

During the past week of negotiating an increase in the debt ceiling, the White House made an offer on cutting expenditures which included cuts to Medicare and Social Security. He urged politicians to have the courage to make unpopular decisions, presumably with respect to those programs. Fortunately, this time, Democrats led by Nancy Pelosi refused. But that Obama would even float such a balloon is a signal that he is not interested in nation building, only in giving a boost to the mega-capitalists who already have 90% of the pie.

Sad, indeed.

Well, it was a good 235 year run and fun while it lasted.



Anonymous Jamie said...

Well, generally the empire extracts taxes and tribute that pay for all those messy complications of running an empire. Otherwise the empire goes away when the money runs out.

9:37 PM  

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