The influential media in the United States continues to be preoccupied with the aftermath of the government shutdown, and especially with the Obamacare — the object of the Republicans’ continuous ire — and whose web-based launch earlier this month experienced technical glitches.
The other object of Republicans versus Democrats dispute was resolved when the Republicans gave in and agreed to raise the ceiling for the national debt. The Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917 imposed an aggregate limitation on federal debt. It is worth mentioning here that Congress has modified the limit 10 times since 2001, because of persistent deficits.
Virtually totally absent from the plethora of analysis and debates and discussions that filled the air and the influential papers’ Op.Ed pages are important questions such as: Why the failure to control public debt? And importantly, what does the mushrooming deficit and the necessity to borrow to finance it say about our government? And crucially, can the United States continue to be the pre-eminent superpower while dependent on foreign countries to finance its costly life style?
Further, the government shutdown suggests at the very least that in addition to the economic crisis, there is another crisis: A crisis of governance. And does the out of control deficit financing of the most sophisticated war machine in the world suggest lack of confidence in Washington’s ability to hang on to its status as the dominant superpower of the time? In other words, is the awesome military machine the last guarantor of the American standard of living?
During the September 12, 2011, Republican presidential debate in Tampa, Representative Ron Paul, made the following statement about the reach of the US army: “We’re under great threat, because we occupy so many countrie. We’re in 130 countries. We have 900 bases around the world. We’re going broke.”
Therefore. One may legitimately ask: Is the decline of the American empire well under way?
There are two seminal studies that focused on the reasons for the decline and fall of empires.
The first is the classic work of Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon wrote that the collapse and fall of empires is inherent in their greatness: The more you expand the more you spend until the imperial power is no longer able to meet its financial obligations. Diverting resources to build an ever bigger military machine is ruinous in the long run and leads to a weakening of power. “The decline of Rome”, wrote Gibbon, “was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness… the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest.” What is surprising, he says, is not that the Roman empire collapsed, but rather that it subsisted so long.
The second study is by Paul Kennedy entitled Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy’s argument is not much different from Gibbon’s.
“The more states increase their power,” argued Kennedy, “the larger the proportion of their resources they devote to maintaining it. If too large a proportion of national resources is diverted to military purposes, this in the long run leads to a weakening of power.” Further, “Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure,” he observed.
Finally, Kennedy says that history shows that great powers in decline invariably hasten their own demise by shifting expenditure from the economy to the military.
The insights from Gibbons and from Kennedy’s can easily be compared with the foreign policy of the United States and its reliance on force in order to extrapolate Washington’s trajectory and its ultimate place in the ever dynamic constellation of powers.
At the end of Second World War, the United States stood unrivalled and unchallenged — the only possessor of the ultimate weapon, the atomic bomb, which it had just dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was less out of military necessity, and more out of political calculation. To demonstrate to the world, but especially to Russia, the formidable nature of the new weapon and the strategic and political implications that derive from the fact that the United States was the only country in the world to have the bomb.
The American military stood triumphant and supreme. It had just defeated the Nazis, liberated western Europe, weakened or excluded local communist sympathisers from effective governance.
When communists in Turkey and Greece threatened the pro-Western political establishment, US president Harry Truman respondent by asking the Congress for $400 million (Dh1.46 billion) in economic and military assistance to Turkey and Greece. Addressing a joint session of the Congress on March 27, 1947, Truman declared an open-ended commitment to resist communism and defend liberty. “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States,” he declared, to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
Although Turkey and Greece received military assistance from the United States, it was the economic package prepared by US Secretary of State George Marshall-which carries his name, that injected massive sums of money into the reconstruction of Europe, destroyed by the war. The Cold War followed, bleeding the protagonists of badly needed resources diverted to military purpose, and particularly financing a long and ultimately ruinous arms race.
Gibbon believed that the expansion of the empire carried with it the seeds of its destruction. America was no exception. The open-ended commitment of the Truman doctrine necessarily required American engagement worldwide. And thus the logic of perpetual conflict implied by the Truman Doctrine left no choice but to militarise American foreign policy and commit the fatal error of diverting resources from economic projects to military adventures. And this explain the unprecedented American military budget. At $682 billion, the US spent more on defence in 2012 than did the countries with the next 10 highest defence budgets combined: China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil.
Adel Safty is distinguished visiting professor and special adviser to the rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky and published in England by Garnet, 2009.