We are witnessing the accelerating collapse of the United States’ imperial system. Yet despite the potentially awful consequences Australia remains wilfully blind.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan Government and its Army to the Taliban is a truly historical event. Despite expenditure measured in trillions of dollars, with many tens of thousands of lives lost or otherwise damaged, and the arming and training of a huge Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police; twenty years of intervention by some of the world’s most powerful countries has resulted in an epic failure.
There is an all-apparent sense of shock to current events in Afghanistan. How could it have it all gone wrong and so quickly? Who is to blame? Was the entire enterprise doomed from the start? Was it worth it? It is a moment where deep and honest reflection is well and truly warranted. It is a time to learn, or perhaps relearn, some fundamental lessons on the limitations of military force and the intervention in the affairs of other nations.
Magnify this current sense of shock tenfold, or maybe even 100-fold, and we can begin to approximate the impact of the collapse of the United States imperial system amongst Australia’s leadership. Yet despite what is quite clearly an accelerating collapse there is next to no discussion or debate on what this means for Australia. A contemporary example being the recent ASPI publication ANZUS at 70: The past, present and future of the alliance, which does not consider this possibility at all.
Perhaps it is just impolite to discuss the downfall of an empire, particularly when it happens to be your closest ally, has a stranglehold on the media and popular culture, and your entire defence strategy is based upon the assumption that it will remain the leading global military power for the foreseeable future. Yet there is an extensive list of authors who have argued the case that the United States empire is on the path to collapse such as Chalmers Johnson, Alfred McCoy, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Chris Hedges, Richard Wolff and Andrei Martyanov. The arguments made by these, and other authors are largely ignored by commentators on strategic matters in Australia. At best there is an acknowledgement of the United States’ ‘relative decline.’
Empires are wealth pumps. They suck wealth from peripheral nations and concentrate it in the imperial core. John Michael Greer in Decline and Fall highlights the effectiveness of the United States’ wealth pump which enabled it, with just five per cent of the world’s population, to consume a quarter of the world’s energy and a third of its raw materials and industrial output for much of the second half of last century. Empires are however, as noted by Joseph Tainter in his seminal work The Collapse of Complex Societies, subject to the law of declining marginal returns. The entirely foreseeable consequence of this law is that the wealth pump of the United States has been sucking an awful lot of air over recent decades. In other words, the costs and consequences of the United States imperial adventures are far greater than any strategic or economic benefits that have accrued.
The Ukraine provides an example of this phenomenon. After the United States facilitated and supported the 2014 coup d’état that installed a pro-Western puppet government, the Donbass region, the industrial heartland of the Ukraine, has essentially been lost and the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula is now a permanent part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine remains one of the poorest countries in Europe plagued by endemic corruption. Despite providing ongoing military support, the United States effectively had to tell Ukraine to stand down earlier in the year when its President commenced a military build-up along the borders with the Donbass and Crimea and threatened military operations to retake these regions. Military operations which would have resulted in conflict with Russia, who rapidly deployed approximately 100,000 combat ready troops in response. What exactly did the United States gain out of this misadventure, other than a very clear understanding that Russia has clear escalation dominance in its near abroad and a poor, unreliable and dysfunctional ally who could have dragged it into an unwinnable war?
The United States has run out of low-cost imperial projects that can prime the imperial wealth pump. To regain its previous position as the global hegemon, the United States must now take on both Russia and China (two countries that for all intents and purposes are in an alliance, realising that the United States cannot topple both if they remain united). The United States already spends far more than the rest of the world combined on its military, yet it has fallen way behind in key military technologies such as missile systems and air defence. As recent wargames indicate, the United States is likely to ‘fail miserably’ in a conflict with these countries.
The failure of the imperial wealth pump has also had pernicious effects on the home front. It is hardly controversial these days to state that the United States is a divided country with numerous fault lines. Growing inequality is driving these divisions. American author Charles Hugh Smith describes the United States as a moral cesspool where elite self-interest masquerades as civic virtue, where the moral legitimacy of the nation’s leadership has been lost and most of the economy is controlled by profiteering monopolies/cartels that wield far more power than the citizenry. John Michael Greer describes the contemporary United States as ‘a land of glossy facades and false fronts covering the stark but unmentionable reality of a society in freefall.’ It is difficult to see how these deep-rooted circumstances will be reversed particularly when the country’s President has indicated that ‘nothing will fundamentally change’ under his leadership.
We now have a situation where a once all-powerful hegemon has failed in all its recent imperial projects, has been humiliated by events in Afghanistan, has betrayed several of its allies in recent years, faces an ‘axis of resistance’ from a growing number of increasingly powerful countries, is divided at home with an economy that is being propped up by the most extensive money printing exercise in human history. Multiple financial commentators are now warning of hyperinflation risks in the United States. Noting that the collapse of an empire is a process rather than an event, this far from complete catalogue of data points makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the American imperium is following the same trajectory as all previous empires. We are now witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the American empire.
The collapse of the empire poses a potentially awful dilemma for Australia. There seems to be little indication that the leadership of the United States is willing to abandon its imperial impulses. Indeed, over the next year or two the domestic pressures on the administration from the debacle in Afghanistan could very well trigger a nihilistic misadventure to shake off the ‘Afghanistan syndrome.’ Alternatively, it could, as argued by US journalist Patrick Lawrence, intensify its ‘spoiler role’ in international affairs, creating further instability, chaos and hardship around the world. Or some form of domestic political or economic crisis could unfold where the focus of the United States shifts decisively inwards. None of these options are palatable for Australia.
Almost ten years ago I argued in the Australian Defence Force Journal that the questions arising from the potential collapse of the United States needed to be debated well ahead of time. We are now bearing witness to that collapse and yet the critical issues arising from this entirely foreseeable strategic conundrum remain both unrecognised and not debated. It appears that ‘methodism,’ which Dietrich Dörner defines in The Logic of Failure as seeing new situations in terms of old, established patterns of action, is at play here. Six months ago, the rapid collapse of the Afghan Government seemed unlikely, just as in 1990 the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed unlikely to virtually all observers. Dramatic changes can and do occur with seemingly no warning.
Ignorance maybe bliss, right up until the point where that ignorance results in disaster. This is the situation that Australia now finds itself in, largely due to our wilful blindness. At the very least Australia should be hedging its bets with regards to the future of the United States. A necessary first step in this direction should be avoiding becoming entangled in anymore of the United States’ imperial misadventures.