The Empire Strikes Out

The limits of empire are not typically circumscribed by ethical or moral constraints or even resources but rather by limited will. Rome fell, the great historian Edward Gibbon observed, because “prosperity ripened the principle of decay.” Moral decline sapped the Romans’ will, eroding the state from within. What of US might? Do we have the will to sustain our strength or will our strength be eroded by a lack of will?

It may seem an odd question at a time when America has demonstrated remarkable staying power in Iraq and Afghanistan—too much, according to many. Afghanistan is now the longest war in US history while Iraq lags closely behind. The interminable wars have cost a trillion dollars combined and have resulted in over 5,500 US combat deaths. It would seem, then, that America does not lack the will to protect its perceived national interests.

Yet where there is apparent will there appears no apparent way. We Americans, despite our diligence, see a setting sun: 58 percent of respondents to a Xavier University poll believe the country is in decline. No doubt, the economic crisis is casting a long, depressive shadow. But will the long-awaited return to prosperity, if and when it happens, make us once again the eternal optimists of old with the will to stand astride the world?

While a chicken in every pot has a way of raising morale and stiffening spines, a deeper affliction is responsible for our sense of fading glory. If we feel we are in decline it is because we are. No stock market revival or conclusion to long-running wars will change that. The causes are too entrenched.

Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich brilliantly addresses these issues in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. As Bacevich lays out, the paradox of American power dates to the country’s founding. Birthed in righteous ardor, the US held the promise of being a “city upon a hill,” a providential place where mankind, endowed with inalienable rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” would achieve earthly salvation.

Lincoln captured America’s universal sense of mission borne from its democratic government, calling the country humanity’s “last best hope.” Such sentiment runs deep. It is our national ethos, our civic theology. But if our mythological love of liberty is profound, it is also something of a lie. In the land of the free, freedom was not freely indulged: the country enfranchised only a minority of its inhabitants at the time of its foundation, white land-owning males, and slavery thrived.

“The most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy,” theologian Ronald Niebuhr once observed. But there is hypocrisy and there is American hypocrisy. We Americans hold onto our national myths with religious fervor despite the glaring evidence to the contrary. And it is not just that our founder’s interpreted freedom exclusively, a flaw largely rectified over time, but rather that the concept of freedom itself, in the American context, takes many perversely malicious forms, including its very denial for non-Americans.

The continent’s native inhabitants were to learn this first. The “Beasts of prey,” in George Washington’s words, were pushed off their land, re-settled, and eventually expelled from their new settlements. Treaties were abrogated. Wars fought. When this failed to eliminate the nuisance, attempts were made to exterminate Indians en masse.

Ethnically cleansing the native population did not slake the imperial lust. Indeed, Washington called the new nation a “rising empire,” while John Adams grandiosely claimed that it was “destined” to encompass all of North America. Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin greedily eyed Cuba and Mexico and joined Samuel Adams in calling for the digestion of the West Indies. Canada was also coveted. The hemisphere, in short, was pearl to be had, though getting at it required brutally shucking the oyster.

After fulfilling much of the territorial ambition of the country’s early founders, the US sought to consolidate its regional dominance. In 1823, President Monroe declared US the entire hemisphere its own. Meddling by European powers would not be tolerated in America’s sphere of meddling. Opportunity knocked in 1898. The Spanish-American War, a “splendid” affair with a fishy casus belli (sound familiar?), resulted in US control over Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. An empire was born, a prophecy fulfilled. “Of course,” Theodore Roosevelt remarked a year after the triumph, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.”

Subsequent imperialism occurred early and often, from Nicaragua to Iraq, Vietnam to Chile, justified, as ever, by noble ideals. So it was that the US invoked in 1954 the specter of communism to overthrow democratically-elected Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz, whose agrarian reform spooked the United Fruit Company. And so it was that the US in 2003 christened a pre-emptive invasion in the Middle East “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Such is the bogus rationale obscuring the time-honored rules of interstate relations. “Right, as the world goes,” Thucydides recorded the Athenians telling one of their defeated foes, “is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Of course, a strong America might do what it can but suffering is not the only result. The world was saved from the Axis powers with the US’ help, and the country’s continued provision of security explains why many nations are happy to host its bases—over 700 in 130 countries. The world’s sole superpower also guarantees open sea-lanes vital to international commerce. But these outcomes, however commendable, flow from US self-interest, not magnanimity. To paraphrase the British statesmen Lord Palmerston, nations have no friends, only interests, and the US is no exception.

If the matter of American empire is well established, the question as to why it exists is rarely acknowledged. Here again we return to the glorious ideals at the heart of American identity, freedom and liberty. Only, once again, they have an unorthodox meaning for us.

George W. Bush waxed lyrical about America’s “great liberating tradition,” but it would be more accurate to see that tradition as a personal one that seeks spiritual liberation through material acquisition. We are confirmed consumers. Indeed, the French chronicler of the young nation, Alexis de Tocqueville, sniffed out as early as the 1830s Americans’ “feverish ardor” for material accumulation. “[The American] clutches at everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications.”

This slavish slog for stuff is precisely what Americans really mean by “freedom” and “liberty.” It is as true a truth as any that we the people hold to be self-evident. It is a defining feature that makes Americans Americans. It is also primarily responsible for our imperialism, as material want necessitated the country’s early territorial expansion and continues to necessitate its aggressive foreign policy. The historian William Appleman Williams put it succinctly: “Abundance was freedom, and freedom was abundance.”

That “liberty” and “freedom” have come at others’ expense has not preoccupied Americans. Why would it? Imperialism may run counter to national myths about American exceptionalism, but it has helped guarantee prosperity. Sure, there have been hiccups. Foreign adventuring to secure resources and markets has suffered setbacks. Nor has prosperity at home been uninterrupted. Busts have followed booms. Yet in the main imperialism has served America’s interests. We are rich because of it.

This happy narrative held for much of American history. A balance existed between material want and the nation’s will to secure empire. But that began to change in the twentieth century. Determining exactly when is difficult, though it might be said to have occurred in the 1920s when productivity gains gave rise to a glut of consumer goods.

To stave off financial ruin, business leaders and trade groups deployed clever advertising campaigns to convince Americans to spend beyond their means. The task was not easy despite the acquisitive ethos. But the pitch worked.

The Depression and World War II temporarily postponed the ultimate triumph of unchecked profligacy, but, when hostilities concluded, Americans got down to business. Initially, the country’s industrial prowess justified the binge. Half the world’s manufacturing capacity resided in the US and one-third of global exports originated from America. The dollar was preeminent. Guns and butter could both be had.

The salad days lasted through the sixties. Then reality hit. Europe and Japan, now resurgent, became tough industrial competitors. In 1971, America’s trade balance turned negative. The next year, domestic oil peaked and thereafter went into irreversible decline. A recession ensued. Then oil shocks. Also inflation. All laid bare the price of profligacy.

Near the end of the decade, President Carter went on television urging Americans to reconsider their values. “Too many of us worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he said in a feeble attempt to counter the acquisitive ethos bankrupting the country. The quixotic appeal, predictably, fell on deaf ears. Carter lost his bid for reelection to a candidate championing consumption without shame or consequence.

“Morning in America” and other patriotic appeals helped reawaken credit-driven élan by reminding Americans of their imagined birthright to indulge without restraint. Washington would lead by example. Despite Reagan’s alleged distaste for big government, overall federal expenditures doubled during his tenure while taxes were cut. The national debt, as a result, tripled over his eight years. Consumers followed suit. America was back!

Our self-indulgence has continued. Perhaps the best exemplar is oil. The country began importing oil in 1950 and has done so at ever-greater volumes even though oil dependence worsens our trade deficit, sullies our environment, and requires our military to fight wars to secure its supply. So profound is our addiction that the US currently consumes a quarter of global petroleum production, spending about one billions dollars a day on overseas oil, often from countries that are unstable and intolerant.

Why can’t our counterproductive and unsustainable consumerism be checked? The answer is that as those barriers counseling prudential frugality fall away they are replaced with an ethic of selfishness and hedonism that slowly erode the very qualities that make society strong, namely the readiness to live within one’s means and invest in the future. It is the core contradiction of empire: the very values on which it depends are undermined by the avariciousness that it breeds.

Recent events suggest that we may be reaching the apotheosis of our reckless excess, as the gap between the cost of empire to support our material acquisitiveness and the willingness to pay for it are at the breaking point. Consider the Iraq war. The need to invade was presented in existential terms. However, the war was paid for with cheap credit and its burden borne almost entirely by an overstretched army—money for nothing and foreign kicks for free. When asked how Americans could contribute during this supposedly perilous time, George W. Bush said that we should go shopping.

The call to the mall stands in contrast to the demands made of the public during World War II. The “Greatest Generation” shared the burden of defeating fascism. Key staples went to the war effort and citizens bought government bonds. Taxes were raised, not cut: the top marginal rate peaked in 1944 at 94 percent (94 percent!).

The comparison, admittedly, is imperfect. An obvious difference: the Axis presented a real threat, unlike Iraq, inspiring common sacrifice. Another difference is time. The passage of nearly seven decades has allowed the acquisitive ethos to burrow deeper into the national psyche. And it is not just our wars that we want on the cheap, a serious problem in and of itself when, on average, we are engaged in conflict 20 percent of the time. We want an across-the board-societal discount, starting with taxes—what Oliver Wendell Holmes called the price we pay for civilization. Record budget deficits? Mounting debt? Massive trade deficit? Collapsing infrastructure? Failing public education? Gutted regulatory agencies? Pricey wars? Matters of no matter for a society consumed with consumption. Damn civilization!

The selfishness is all the more striking given that Americans are among the least taxed people in the industrialized world. More so now than ever: federal taxes as a percentage of the overall economy are at their lowest level since the Truman administration. But a society pathologically obsessed with the here and now no longer thinks about the there and then. It has no responsibility for the common good and sees no need to invest in the future, much less pay in full for public services rendered in the present. Such a society deems anteing up for the public kitty as an abridgement of “liberty” and “freedom.”

To blame Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, for our self-destructive self-indulgence misses the point. The seeds of our demise were planted early. Dispossessing the land of the Indian “other” was destined to redound to our own society—the moral corrosiveness of the whole colonial enterprise to support unbridled consumption assured that it would. We are now merely reaping the ripe fruits of a faulty ethos, the very paradox of our power.

It is a pattern Gibbon identified. America, like Rome, has succumbed to the “principle of decay.” Such decay has sapped our will, the will to pay those costs to ensure our strength, and where there is no will there is no empire, and where there is no empire there is no limitless abundance. Pax Americana? It’s no more. The empire has struck out. The cause: death by decadence.

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