Why the end of America’s empire won’t be peaceful
As it leaves Afghanistan in chaos, America’s decline mirrors Britain’s a century ago. It may also invite wider conflict, warns a historian.
So many books and articles predicting American decline have been written in recent decades that “declinism” has become a cliché. But Britain’s experience between the 1930s and the 1950s is a reminder that there are worse fates than gentle, gradual decline.
Britain’s state of mind was the product of a combination of national exhaustion and “imperial overstretch”, to borrow a phrase from Paul Kennedy, a historian at Yale. Since 1914, the nation had endured war, financial crisis and in 1918-19 a terrible pandemic, the Spanish influenza. The economic landscape was overshadowed by a mountain of debt. Though the country remained the issuer of the dominant global currency, it was no longer unrivalled in that role. A highly unequal society inspired politicians on the left to demand redistribution if not outright socialism. A significant proportion of the intelligentsia went further, embracing communism or fascism.
Does Britain’s experience help us understand the future of American power? Americans prefer to draw lessons from the United States’ history, but it may be more illuminating to compare the country to its predecessor as an Anglophone global hegemon, for America today in many ways resembles Britain in the interwar period.
Despite its high covid-19 mortality, America is not recovering from the kind of trauma that Britain experienced in the first world war, when huge numbers of young men were slaughtered (nearly 900,000 died, some 6% of males aged 15 to 49 died, to say nothing of 1.7m wounded). Nor is America facing as clear and present a threat as Nazi Germany posed to Britain. Still, the resemblances are striking, and go beyond the failure of both countries to impose order on Afghanistan.
Follow the money Start with the mountains of debt. Britain’s public debt after the first world war rose from 109% of GDP in 1918 to just under 200% in 1934. America’s federal debt is different in important ways, but it is comparable in magnitude. It will reach nearly 110% of GDP this year, even higher than its previous peak in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it could exceed 200% by 2051.
It may seem fanciful to suggest that America faces comparable threats today—not only from China, but also from Russia, Iran and North Korea. Yet the mere fact that it seems fanciful illustrates the point. The majority of Americans, like the majority of Britons between the wars, simply do not want to contemplate the possibility of a major war against one or more authoritarian regimes, coming on top of the country’s already extensive military commitments.
Power is relative A relative decline compared with other countries is another point of resemblance. According to estimates by the economic historian Angus Maddison, the British economy by the 1930s had been overtaken in terms of output by not only America’s (as early as 1872), but also Germany’s (in 1898 and again, after the disastrous years of war, hyperinflation and slump, in 1935) and the Soviet Union (in 1930). True, the British Empire as a whole had a bigger economy than the United Kingdom, especially if the Dominions are included—perhaps twice as large. But the American economy was even larger and remained more than double the size of Britain’s, despite the more severe impact of the Great Depression in the United States.
America today has a similar problem of relative decline in economic output. On the basis of purchasing-power parity, which allows for the lower prices of many Chinese domestic goods, the GDP of China caught up with that of America in 2014. On a current-dollar basis, the American economy is still bigger, but the gap is projected to narrow. This year China’s current-dollar GDP will be around 75% of America’s. By 2026 it will be 89%.
It is no secret that China poses a bigger economic challenge than the Soviet Union once did, since the latter’s economy was never more than 44% the size of America’s during the cold war. Nor is it classified information that China is seeking to catch up with America in many technological domains with national-security applications, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing. And the ambitions of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, are also well known—along with his renewal of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological hostility to individual freedom, the rule of law and democracy.
The end of empires America’s empire may not manifest itself as dominions, colonies and protectorates, but the perception of international dominance, and the costs associated with overstretch, are similar. Both left and right in America now routinely ridicule or revile the idea of an imperial project. “The American Empire is falling apart,” gloats Tom Engelhardt, a journalist in The Nation. On the right, the economist Tyler Cowen sardonically imagines “what the fall of the American empire could look like.” At the same time as Cornel West, the progressive African-American philosopher, sees “Black Lives Matter and the fight against US empire [as] one and the same”, two pro-Trump Republicans, Ryan James Girdusky and Harlan Hill, call the pandemic “the latest example of how the American empire has no clothes.”
The right still defends the traditional account of the republic’s founding—as a rejection of British colonial rule—against the "woke” left’s attempts to recast American history as primarily a tale of slavery and then segregation. But few on either side of the political spectrum pine for the era of global hegemony that began in the 1940s.
In short, like Britons in the 1930s, Americans in the 2020s have fallen out of love with empire—a fact that Chinese observers have noticed and relish. Yet the empire remains. Granted, America has few true colonies: Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the north Pacific, and American Samoa in the south Pacific. By British standards, it is a paltry list of possessions. Nevertheless, the American military presence is almost as ubiquitous as Britain’s once was. American armed-forces personnel are to be found in more than 150 countries. The total number deployed beyond the borders of the 50 states is around 200,000.