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 Nagel, 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.