End of the US Empire?
He foresaw the Soviet collapse. Now Emmanuel Todd says America is next. John Kampfner assesses an intriguing vision of the future, After the Empire
Book Review: After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order
by Emmanuel Todd
Columbia University Press £21, pp233
The French coined the word before we did: ‘hyper-puissance’. On the road to war with Iraq the world divided between those who feared or hated American hegemony and those who gave thanks for it. Few, however, have challenged the very existence of that power, and that is what makes this latest contribution to the debate so intriguing.
After The Empire is a Franco-American production. The author, Emmanuel Todd, is a Frenchman who likes to advertise his American roots. His warm-up act is Michael Lind, a Texan whose account last year of the Bush White House and the southern prejudices that have infiltrated it remains a compelling read. Lind’s foreword is designed to provide an Anglo-Saxon imprimatur to what otherwise might seem part of a global Gallic conspiracy.
Lind describes Todd’s argument as ‘a powerful antidote to hysterical exaggeration of American power and potential by American triumphalists and anti-American polemicists alike’. The author, he says, understands ‘as the American political elite evidently does not, that military power cannot be understood apart from economic performance. For decades the US, while exporting soldiers, has helped to promote global economic growth by importing manufactured goods and immigrants’. In other words, the US is living on borrowed time. It depends on sweatshop labour, both within its borders and abroad, to sustain its wealth.
Nowhere is the mutual dependency greater than between Wal-Mart and the People’s Republic of China. America’s largest (and soon to be Britain’s largest) retail monster now accounts for a significant chunk of the GDP of the world’s fastest-growing economy. I am told that even those stars and stripes flags Americans like to hang outside their houses, bought naturally from Wal-Mart stores, are now made in China.
Todd claims common cause with American writers and statesmen such as Samuel Huntington, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger who, he says, share ‘the same moderate vision of an America that, far from being invincible, must cope with the inexorable reduction of its power within a world of rising populations and economic development’. He goes on: ‘Today’s Americans, so dynamic and so capable of accepting the insecurity of a deregulated work world, have become en masse the planet’s non-productive, ever-consuming government employees. An excess of individual responsibility has only generated a collective irresponsibility.’
So far, so interesting. Todd is part writer, part demographer. He is no mean soothsayer, either. As his publisher continually reminds us, he predicted the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 12 years before it actually collapsed (English version), and three years earlier than that in the French original. That forecast fell under the catch-all ‘collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions’ school. Having dispensed with one former Cold War rival, he has turned his attentions to the other. He peppers his tome with stats, comparing birth rates, literacy rates, debt ratios and trade gaps, all pointing to one conclusion: mankind is advancing everywhere in the world – except the US.
At this point the argument begins to tire. In moving from the specific to the general, Todd falls back on the worst instincts of the modern French political class, using lofty construction to mask an unattractive mix of cliche and wishful thinking. Hence: ‘The erratic and aggressive strategic path of the solitary superpower, like the precarious stagger of a drunkard, can only be fully explained by exposing unresolved or unresolvable contradictions and the feelings of inadequacy and fear that follow from them.’ I’ve re-read that sentence several times to check that I didn’t miss an original thought somewhere in there.
Todd, amusingly and peremptorily, dismisses the yearnings of British prime ministers towards American presidents as a ‘congenital condition’, pointing to the more healthy distance, or disdain, felt on the European continent. Then he undermines this argument by suggesting that a far rosier future awaits the economies of the old world, for the EU, whose strength, he argues, is derived from ‘economic integration and self-sufficiency’. For all its foibles, the book is not without its merits. Some of the language sparkles. I can think of no better way of describing the mismatch between the heavy armoury of the US and its failures in international diplomacy than ‘theatrical micro-militarism’. Todd is a big hit in France and Germany. You can see why.
· John Kampfner is the political editor of the New Statesman
Feb 8, 2004
Source: the Guardian.co.uk.
May 21, 2011
After the Empire:
The Breakdown of the American Order
(book by French Social Scientist Emmanuel Todd)
As a Frenchman, author Emmanuel Todd will be suspected of blatant “America bashing” in After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, but this is not an anti- American book; rather, it is a sobering analysis of America’s behavior based on a curious but revealing mix of anthropology, economics, demographics, and politics.
One way to understand Todd’s complex argument is to contrast, as he does, the “Good America” of 1950-1965 with the “Bad America” of the early twenty-first century. The former was marked by democracy, free speech, expanding social programs, and the civil rights movement at home, supported by a productive economy based on manufacturing and exports, and represented abroad by a generous foreign policy. “Bad America” has renounced the principle of equality and replaced it with a selfish oligarchy, allowed itself individually and collectively to fall into massive debt (including an unsustainable trade imbalance), and returned to its obsession with race. As a result, it has become driven by militarism, suspicious of international cooperation, and hence a force more for disruption than stability.
Equally disturbing for Todd is America’s rejection of universalism—its professed belief in the equality of all people. Using data on inter-racial marriages as a basis, he asserts that America’s inability to perceive Arabs as fully human drives its uncritical support of Israel and its war on Islamic terrorism.
Todd’s credibility as a prophet derives from his predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. Now he foresees a resurgent Eurasia, no longer dependent upon America militarily or economically. He argues that America needs to return to itself, “democratic, liberal, productive” if it is to regain its place in the world.
Though highly condensed, Todd’s arguments are cogently and calmly presented. Perhaps his most serious deficiency is his neglect of religion as a motivating force in contemporary American politics and an overly optimistic belief that education and control of reproduction will lead to widespread democracy. Many would find his claim of American economic weakness exaggerated. Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful and important book, one that needs to be read and seriously debated by Americans concerned about the nation’s direction and place in the world.
After the Empire:
the Breakdown of the American Order
Widely reviewed and critically praised, Emmanuel Todd’s After the Empire predicts that the United States is forfeiting its superpower status as it moves away from traditional democratic values of egalitarianism and universalism, lives far beyond its means economically, and continues to anger foreign allies and enemies alike with its military and ideological policies. As America’s global dominance evaporates, Todd foresees the emergence of a Eurasian alliance bringing together Europe, Russia, Japan, and the Arab-Islamic world.
Todd calmly and straightforwardly takes stock of many negative trends, including America’s weakened commitment to the socio-economic integration of African Americans, a bulimic economy that increasingly relies on smoke and mirrors and the goodwill of foreign investors, and a foreign policy that squanders the country’s reserves of “soft power” while its militaristic arsonist-fireman behavior is met with increasing resistance. Written by a demographer and historian who foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union, this original and daring book cannot be ignored.
About the Author
Book Review by Tony Noerpel
After the Empire
“America’s real war is about economics not terrorism. The country is battling to maintain its status as the world’s financial center by making a symbolic show of its military might in the heart of Eurasia, thereby hoping to forget and have others ignore America’s industrial weakness, its financial needs, and its predatory character. However, instead of reinforcing the image of America’s global leadership as the current [Bush] administration in Washington expected, its forced march into war has produced a rapid decline in the international status of the United States.” Emmanuel Todd, Preface to the English translation of After the Empire, 2003.
In my inaugural article in this series, I quoted T. S. Eliot that “humankind cannot bear very much reality” from his first Quartet “Burnt Norton”. Surprisingly, nobody seems to disagree with Eliot though I suspect that’s because we think it applies to everybody else as in “that’s why so many people disagree with me.” Um, no, Eliot is in fact writing about all of us. A heuristic definition of reality might in fact be that if it hurts, if it is uncomfortable, or if we find it inconvenient, it is probably true. ‘We’ includes you, dear reader, and me as well as all those minions who disagree with us. Of course, this is just a rule of thumb. To best understand reality requires contemplation and application of the scientific method.
Emmanuel Todd is an historian and anthropologist who wrote a book called The Final Fall, in 1976 correctly predicting the fall of the Soviet Union. He may have been the only human to have got that right and got it right so early. In 2002, Todd turned his laser analysis on the United States with the publication of the French edition of After the Empire. Unlike his prescient forecast of the fall of the Soviet Union, he was not alone in predicting the downfall of the United States as an imperial empire. Even I pointed out endlessly to friends, in letters to the editor and emails to newspaper columnist, for whom I still had some fleeting respect, Bush’s pernicious Iraq War besides being immoral, illegal, and unnecessary, would bankrupt the United States. I don’t have a crystal ball. This was bloody obvious. Todd wrote: “As for George W. Bush and his neoconservative helpers, they will go down in history as the grave diggers of the American empire.” This much at least, he got right.
Todd forecasts that Eurasia, including Russia, Europe, and Japan, will join forces economically and isolate an increasingly irrelevant and bankrupt United States. Ouch. Of necessity, Europe and Japan will make peace with Russia, Iran and other countries in the Middle East whose oil they need and who in turn need their exports. Todd uses demographic evidence to flesh out his forecasts.
Regards a resurgent Russia, Todd writes: “The existence of a mutually terrifying nuclear threat is still necessary given the current state of uncertainty of American society and its economy. It matters little whether this balance of terror is maintained by the Russians or by the implementation of a European nuclear deterrent force.” Todd reasons that Europe “will need Russia as a counterbalance to emancipate itself from American control.” And “the world is realizing little by little that a diminished Russia is not a source of worry but on the contrary is becoming almost automatically a balancing force in a situation made disturbing by an America that has become too powerful, too predatory, and too erratic in its international actions.”
Todd explains that it has been the policy of the United States to isolate Russia so that our own country could economically and militarily dominate the rest of the world as the only remaining superpower. He predicted back in 2002 that we would fail. How did events play out since the publication of his book?
In 2003, Bush invaded Iraq, a uniquely powerless country which happens to have lots of oil and virtually no conventional military force, ostensibly because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Bush entrapped our country in two long and bloody wars and occupations which are still going on all these years, resulting in great loss of life, and depleting out treasury, driving us into bankruptcy both morally and fiscally.
By contrast, Vladimir Putin, recognizing the destabilizing military buildup in neighboring Georgia, invaded the country on August 8, 2008, destroyed all of the expensive military equipment which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili imported from Israel and the United States at a cost to his economy. Russian troops approached Georgian pipelines and then left causing very little loss of life in comparison to the collateral damage we are still inflicting on the populations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s mission really was accomplished. The take home lessons include first that Russia is not interested in rebuilding another empire. They did not occupy Georgia. They eliminated from the world one more unnecessary destabilizing arsenal. They did not even remove Saakashvili (he was Georgia’s problem, not theirs). The second lesson was that the United States is a paper tiger. Certainly, we can push around and threaten the axis-of-evil, three impotent countries, carefully invading only the weakest. But we are not capable of confronting a country with real teeth even if those teeth were pretty rotten. By the way, we Americans ignore the fact that two members of Bush’s axis-of-evil were bitter enemies. The third lesson was the hypocrisy of Bush administration’s useless complaints regards Russian aggression in the light of our own predation. The whole episode was not flattering for our country. Putin had an exit strategy as if he was a student of Colin Powell. We did not. We still don’t.
Ironically, Georgia was part of Bush’s coalition of the willing with 2000 troops participating in the invasion of Iraq. If one lives by the sword and then dies by the sword, one doesn’t have much cause to complain.
Russia may not yet be wholly reformed. Other Eurasian countries may not yet trust the great bear. Eurasia might not be sanguine to the idea of cooperating and isolating our country. But if we add to our aggression and our economic troubles, our continued refusal to acknowledge the reality of global warming and participate in the Kyoto process and we continue to impoverish our own people, we will make fewer and fewer friends.
The rest of the world does not want us to fall apart. This is why they awarded President Obama the Nobel Prize for Peace. They really did think his election heralded a sea change, a stepping back from the precipice. I thought so too. Sadly, that does not appear to be the case.
The English translation of Todd’s book came out in 2003, and belatedly I’ve just finished reading it. Every American needs to read this book. He is remarkably kind towards the United States, more so than Americans Noam Chomsky or Harold Zinn, but that doesn’t assuage the fact that the truth hurts. Todd points out that democracy in America is giving way to a corporate oligarchy ironically just as democracy is experiencing resurgence in the rest of the world. He wrote that 8 years before the corporate controlled Tea Party elected a sea of clownish and corrupt politicians in the 2010 mid-term, uniformly denying global warming reality at the behest of ExxonMobil, the National Chamber of Commerce and the billionaire polluters, the Koch bothers. He wrote those words 7 years before, President Obama abandoned the people who elected him by continuing the disastrous war in Afghanistan, which had long since become meaningless, increased debilitating military spending, failed to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and recently invaded Libya. This was a man who said, truthfully, in 2002 that Bush’s Iraq War was dumb. Can anybody possibly lead this country back to democracy and sanity? Is the military industrial complex so entrenched in our country that it can spend our money well beyond our capacity to ever pay it back and nobody questions why? Is our presidency impotent? Does real power already exist in the corporate board rooms of our defense industry, our fossil fuels industry and Wall Street? Are we screwed?
Todd writes: “we do not yet know if the universalization of liberal democracy and peace is an inevitable historical process. We do know, however, that such a world poses a threat to the United States. Economically dependent, America requires a minimum level of global disorder in order to justify its politicomilitary presence in the Old World.”
While it is a brilliant “must read” book, I have two complaints. Todd is too hard on Noam Chomsky. What Todd doesn’t seem to appreciate is that while he is on the outside looking in, Chomsky, like all of us, is on the inside. We are not mere spectators to the fall of America, we are experiencing it. For Todd this may all be academic but for aware American’s this is visceral. Reality for Americans is quite painful.
Second, Todd makes little mention of diminishing resources, global warming, exponentially increasing world populations and what I call the Phillips Law (after Kevin Phillips who describes the phenomena in his book Bad Money) that bad capitalism drives out good capitalism but good capitalism cannot drive out bad capitalism. And bad capitalism is greed and greed seems to have overrun America and threatens the rest of the world. These problems will play an increasingly unpredictable role in our future spinning off black swans.