A warning from the past. Might the American Empire drag down America?

Summary:  Hubris is the great destroyer of Empires.  Especially the mad American Empire, which costs much, brings no economic benefits (no treasure ships coming home, no advantage to our exports), and multiplies our enemies.  Britain’s post-imperial periods was painful, as it will be for us if we fail to learn from the past.

Americans take great pride in our weaponry, such as the new Virginia Class attack submarines — among the most sophisticated weapons ever built, $2 billion each, with no relevant foe warranting their deployment.  Likewise we exult in the Americans of our Special Operations Command, among the most skilled and dedicated soldiers in world history — almost 60 thousand strong (roughly the size of Canada’s armed forces), operating in 75 nations, “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine” (in the words of John Nagl, former advisor to Petraeus and President of Center for a New American Security).  And in our world-girdling chain of hundreds of bases around the world.

Can we afford them?  Or does their cost weaken us, more than offsetting their benefits?  This was asked at the twilight of the British empire.  They ignored the question, dooming Britain to decades of economic decline — punctuated by financial crises.  We can learn from these warnings, prophetic then and perhaps today as well.

Mike Lofgren (recently retired after years of work on the staff of the House and Senate budget committees; see his recent LA Times op-ed) sent me a powerful example, a memorandum from John Maynard Keynes (then in the Treasury), written in August 1945.  Days before we cut off Lend-lease aid, a severe blow to the UK.  In July 1946 Keynes negotiated the Anglo-American loan (see Wikipedia), incurring a crushing debt (at favorable rates) to keep the Empire afloat for another generation.  It was finally paid off in 2006.  This is from The Lost Victory: British dreams, British realities, 1945-1950 by Correlli Barnett (1995),

… we undertake liabilities all over the world and slop money to the importunate represents an over-playing of our hand, the possibility of which will come to an end quite suddenly and in the near future unless we obtain a new source of assistance.

… We have got into the habit of maintaining large and expensive establishments all over the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia to cover communications, to provide reserves for unnamed contingencies and to police vast areas eastwards from Tunis to Burma and northwards from East Africa to Germany.  None of these establishments will disappear unless and until they are ordered home; and many of them have pretexts for existence which have nothing to do with Japan.

To an innocent observer in the Treasury, very early and very drastic economies in this huge cash expenditure overseas seem an absolute condition of maintaining our solvency.  There is no possibility of our obtaining from others for more than a brief period the means of maintaining any significant part of these establishments.

… These are burdens which there is no reasonable expectation of our being able to carry.

For more information

See links to all posts about America’s Empire.  Of special interest:

  1. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2008
  2. Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
  3. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  4. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  5. “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
  6. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn, 24 January 2009
  7. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
  8. Team Obama, guardians of the American Empire (did you expect anything else?), 14 April 2009
  9. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire, 27 May 2009
  10. A wonderful discussion about the American Empire, 24 June 2009
  11. Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12), 24 September 2010
  12. The limit to America’s power is our ability to pay for it, 18 April 2011

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