Opinion

The American empire is crumbling

How Trump is hacking away at the foundation of America's global power

America's power and global influence have plummeted like a stone during the Trump presidency. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently claimed otherwise in a New York Times op-ed, but he is obviously wrong.

The American empire is crumbling.

What President Trump is destroying is a product of the postwar years. In the years after the Second World War, America constructed what amounted to a globe-spanning empire, with the active assistance of Western Europe. The immediate justification was to build a military coalition capable of countering and containing the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc — and an important secondary objective was setting up a solid economic system to ensure prosperity, manage trade, and avoid depression.

That empire carried out a slew of atrocities and war crimes — a variety of coups, pointless and failed wars, and abuse of powerless poor countries. Elsewhere, America made a cynical peace with brutal dictatorships. Africa and the Middle East especially did not fare well.

But when it came to Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, it worked out pretty well. Western Europe in particular, which was a smoking crater after the war, was rebuilt quickly under the astoundingly generous Marshall Plan. American policymakers realized that letting Europe fall to pieces in the interwar years was a disastrous error even on self-interested grounds. If democratic liberal capitalism was to survive, there was simply no alternative to setting up a functioning international system that actually provided economic and military security — for rich capitalist countries at least. Let capitalism blow itself up, and you get Hitler — but pick Europe up and put it back on its feet, and they'll have some money to buy American exports.

The American imperial framework consisted of the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military; disproportionate funding of and deep influence over the United Nations and its various sub-agencies, plus international economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; the U.S. dollar as global reserve currency and U.S. Treasury bonds as key global asset; and most importantly, the mostly-accurate perception among Western powers that sheltering under the American security umbrella was a good deal.

In retrospect, the fall of the Soviet Union was a massive blow against this system. For a time it proceeded on autopilot, but the lack of any superpower counterweight enabled George W. Bush's swaggering belligerence and the abuse of minor European alliances to carry out the disastrous Iraq invasion.

Meanwhile, triumphal neoliberal capitalists smashed several more large cracks in the system, by destroying what remained of international financial regulation and the managed trade system and setting the stage for the kind of global financial crisis and depression not seen since 1929.

Now we have Trump, our own addle-brained, would-be dictator, and Western powers are dealing with the shocking possibility that America is best considered an enemy. In his first foreign policy tour, while cozying up to the brutal Saudi monarchy, Trump offended Western European leaders for no reason, especially Angela Merkel, who said afterwards that "[t]he era in which we could rely completely on others are gone, at least partially." Trump also badly cracked the U.K. alliance simply by impulsively retweeting a British fascist, stoking fury across the country.

Trump is also letting the State Department rot. Only 61 out of 154 positions needing Senate confirmation have been filled, and many key positions don't even have a nominee — such as the ambassador post to South Korea. The department has been hemorrhaging top-level career staff, and Trump doesn't care — "I'm the only one that matters," he said when asked about it.

The American empire was built by people who recognized that often the best way to exert power was through non-coercive means. Trump represents a different tradition — a pinched, ignorant, aggressive, insecure tradition, one that insists only military force and chest-thumping belligerence matters.

As I said above, it is worth emphasizing the horrific carnage American imperialism has wreaked in places like Guatemala, Vietnam, or Iraq. But this kind of chaotic collapse is perhaps the worst of all worlds. The likeliest non-authoritarian nations to fill some of the power vacuum are Germany and France, but they are trapped in a grotesque failure of a currency area that will sap their strength indefinitely. The real core of the U.S empire was always its decent relationship with Western countries, and so as that goes, so will the bulk of its power. But it will retain more than enough strength to completely wreck poor countries for the foreseeable future. The most obvious successor to the U.S. is China, and it's a safe bet that sort of empire will be no better than the American version — and perhaps worse in some ways.

Future presidents will have their work cut out for them just salvaging any sort of workable international system from the Trump disaster.

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