Empires come and go. Has the decline of the American empire begun?

Recent events have highlighted weaknesses in American society. There is much uncertainty about the future of the struggling empire but a look at other empires in history may shed some light on the matter.

Empires come to grief for a number of reasons but the most common are internal decay and external pressure or invasion. Often we see a combination of the two.

Where these two come together internal weakness allows a foreign aggressor to overthrow an empire that would otherwise probably withstand the attack.  Examples are the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire where a civil war was in progress and the Mogul Empire which started to fall apart thus enabling the British to play off the various elements. The Soviet Empire was brought down by internal dysfunction but a factor in this was pressure and a perceived military threat from the USA that pushed the Soviets to military expenditure they could not afford.

Once weaknesses are perceived by restless elements of the empire, danger looms as they see a chance to break free. The Soviets are an example of this as is the Aztec empire. While it was strong it had enemies and unhappy clients who jumped at the chance to join Cortes in overthrowing the Mexica. Without Tlaxcala, the Spaniards would probably not have succeeded.

Sometimes the Empire simply overextends itself financially or territorially. The British Empire fell when it ceased to be the most powerful economic power in the world and foolishly got into WW1 which was a financial disaster. WW2 was the coup de grace. The colonies took the opportunity to demand and get independence. Along with the other European empires, it suffered a massive loss of face when the Japanese swept through Asia. This showed the subject peoples their colonial masters were now weak.

Rome was initially strong militarily and was a role model for others but eventually, it declined militarily as it lost its coherence and became too big to keep together. Coups didn’t help. The barbarians and others saw the signs and Rome fell. The Eastern Empire fell to the Ottomans through military weakness egged on by the split between East and West.

The Chinese Empire is a classic case of internal weakness exacerbated by foreign invasion. It is also a classic case of hubris. China was the centre of the earth (the Middle Kingdom) and had nothing to learn from barbarians. It was thus overtaken technologically and militarily by others whose invasions succeeded because of China’s overconfidence in its own superiority. The new Chinese Empire claims to have learned from this error and so far is doing well.

So what does all this tell us about the American Empire? It began by conquering the neighbouring native American nations including those previously conquered by France and Spain. The Monroe Doctrine proclaimed hegemony over Latin America which was put into practice by propping up governments that suited US interests and overthrowing those that did not. Later it got involved in China. In 1898 the US invaded the Philippine Republic and after a brutal war turned it into an American colony. Like China, the USSR, Spain, Rome and most other empires it sought to impose its values and institutions on others and after WW2 it became involved in an ideological and strategic contest with the USSR. None of this was unusual as empires go.

Today we could well be seeing the beginning of the decline and fall of the American empire. A future Gibbon may still be writing the first books but much is uncertain. Domestic unrest is a weakness which is losing soft power and respect. It is still strong militarily but has lost every war since WW2 except Grenada. It is engaged in a contest with China in some ways like that with the USSR but in other ways different. Americans rightly see China as a threat to their supremacy and there are shades of the Roman Senator’s famous Cartago delenda est but China looks like a tougher nut to crack than Carthage. However, China is a threat because it is a rival empire. If both were willing to live and let live instead of insisting on being number one then a modus vivendi should be possible. However, Biden has made it clear that he wants to restore American leadership of the world which suggests that he shares the American exceptionalist ideology and there is a widespread view in the US that China is an enemy which must be defeated while Xi has made it equally clear that “China has stood up”. This does not bode well for the future.

The recent protest, sedition, insurrection or whatever you want to call it has raised questions rather than answered any. It was inspired by Trump and the crowd looks like those who followed Hitler, Mussolini or the Beatles. Mob psychology is not my field but this seems to have a lot to do with loyalty to a cult figure. The question is how widespread is this view?

Clearly, there are a lot of unhappy Americans out there as the votes showed but are they a monolithic mob of Trump devotees or a mixed bunch? After all, only a minority of unhappy Americans were involved in the attack on the Capitol. And more importantly, will this event unify Americans as some claim or widen the existing gaps? Only time will tell but the underlying causes of discontent will make the task of Sisyphus look easy. Trump certainly exacerbated existing problems but he did not create them and they will not go away just because he does – if he does!

Trump, the Capitol and the erosion of reputation

 

Today, the USA faces internal dissension and a powerful opponent in China. Trump has been a disaster in foreign affairs but how different will Biden be? Like Ming China, Americans see themselves as teaching and leading others rather than learning from or and working with others as equals. A series of military defeats, the election of a Caligula-like president and systemic internal weaknesses may well make it much harder to get international support. Europeans have been distancing themselves at least from Trump. Dyed in the wool camp followers like Australia will probably be the last to go but even here there have been rumblings.

Speculation on the future can be informed or uninformed but at present, it remains inevitably speculative.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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