Chalmers Johnson, a renowned Asian-studies scholar, died a few weeks ago in his beloved California. One of America's genuine "thinkers" and the author of a superlative trilogy — Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis — the 79-year-old understood, perhaps better than most of his countrymen, that the United States was no longer the "city upon the hill" envisaged by the pilgrim John Winthrop but a dominant empire that rules through absolute force.

This, Johnson posited, was a recipe for disaster and concluded that "a country can be democratic or it can be imperialistic, but it cannot be both".

Politically correct reviewers of Johnson's objective research and controversial analyses labelled him contentious, because his post-9/11 books (Blowback was actually published before 9/11 but brilliantly anticipated the crises that followed the tragedy) challenged Washington's behaviour.

One of a handful of former "Cold Warriors" who served in the Korean War, Johnson perceived the US as distancing itself from democratic callings, which he lamented above all else.

Time and again, Johnson returned to this innate concern, reminding his readers that the American experiment insisted on a Republican structure, which meant that it stood by "the separation of powers and the elaborate checks and balances that the founders … wrote into the Constitution as the main bulwarks against dictatorship and tyranny, which they greatly feared".

What has happened since the Second World War, Johnson maintained, brought the country "on the brink of losing [its] democracy for the sake of keeping [an] empire".

"Once a nation starts down that path," he affirmed, "the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play — isolation, overstretch, the uniting of local and global forces opposed to imperialism and, in the end, bankruptcy" (page 33).

Cautionary tale

The 15 previously published essays assembled in this book identify the dangers that America faces as long as it relies on force to build a global empire of bases, fights a "war without end" and promises misery if anyone dares to challenge this quest, all of which boil down to "a suicide option".

Johnson cautions that the US must dismantle its empire to save an increasingly divided nation. He stresses the strategic errors in Iraq and Afghanistan and rebukes the bullying track records of the recent past. The erudite writer grieves the ill-fought economic wars and weeps over the unlimited expenditures doled out to the military.

For Johnson, the way out is to just dismantle the empire before the military-industrial complex, which former president Dwight D. Eisenhower courageously identified, rips apart the "American Dream".

How can the American people accomplish this? Johnson advances three recommendations. First, he calls for the abolition of the CIA, which he believes "has outlived any Cold War justification it once might have had" (page 28).

Secondly, he calls for the closing down of all overseas military bases; and, more controversially, ending the barrelling of politicians within the military-industrial complex that are bankrupting the country in the name of national security.

If the American people fail to take these actions, Johnson predicts, the "longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in [its] relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it" will destroy the country.

Johnson further posits that "failure to begin to deal with [this] bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the US to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union" (page 183).

Even if exaggerated, one ought to learn from the fates of past empires, given the near certainty of decline and fall, which has spared no one to date.

Yet there are those who continue to believe that many other powers are equally responsible for the global mess that is unravelling in front of us.

This may be entirely true, although Washington bears a greater share of responsibilities because of its hubris and, some would point out, the arrogance of America's leaders.

Still, Johnson's justified obsession with democracy is actually a heartfelt plea, given what is at stake.

He quotes Sheldon S. Wolin, the leading theorist of democracy, who warned of "the expansion of private [ie mainly corporate] power and the selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the wellbeing of the citizenry" (page 95).

Wolin and Johnson decry the "degree to which the so-called privatisation of governmental activities has insidiously undercut democracy", all to maintain the empire.

Dismantling the Empire is actually a love story from Johnson to his country. One is literally brought to tears when one reads the massive abuse that some of its sons and daughters engage in, to perpetuate what simply cannot be sustained.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (2011).