Transatlantic Briefing No. 3-07

After the American Empire - by Professor Michael Cox, LSE

Since the end of the Cold War  most experts on US foreign policy appeared to be preoccupied with discovering the contours of  a new  ”grand strategy” for the last remaining superpower. Different candidates from  democracy promotion to market enlargement were put on the stand: however none succeeded in capturing the policy imagination. Certainly the United States was no nearer having a coherent foreign policy when Clinton left the White House in 2000 than when he entered it eight years earlier.

All this, we were told,  changed on 9/11. Unfortunately disappointment soon followed for those looking for a clear and present  danger around which to construct a new global doctrine. Radical Islam, it was clear,  did not carry quite the same universal punch as international communism. Indeed, many of America’s more important allies in the ‘war on terror’  were promoters of various versions of the same idea themselves. Nor was there very much agreement between the various pundits  as to how to define this threat  or where to fight it most effectively. Iraq of course  then undermined the case for the new doctrine almost completely by associating it with one of the great strategic failures of the last twenty five years.  The US, it would seem, was  still at sea.

Under cover of this policy debate – and sometimes intertwined with it - a much more interesting and potentially more important discussion has been occurring. Few may want to call it by  its right name. Some   would even deny its existence. Still, there is no missing the central issue which can be framed in terms of a very simple question: whether or not the failure of the United States to develop any sense of international purpose is but the manifestation of a much deeper problem -  namely its longer term decline as an international actor. The debate (consigned for the duration of the 1990s into that proverbial dustbin of history) is likely to become ever more intense  in the years ahead:  partly because of the emergence of new actors who may not want to play by American rules; partly because the United States is fast losing its ability to lead (note here its increasing isolation in Latin America and the Middle East); and partly because of President Bush’s own policies. Indeed, for a leader determined to show that the American imperial eagle was flying high once again, Bush has possibly done more damage to US influence abroad than any President in modern American history.  

However, not  all the blame should be heaped at the door of George W. Bush. As the prematurely correct Paul Kennedy noted in his magnum opus ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ back in 1988,  empires  decline not because of mistakes made by deficient leaders but because of deeper structural limits to the exercise of power by one single player. Unfortunately for Kennedy he penned his argument only a year before the end of the Cold War and three before the collapse of the USSR. Nor did American writers take kindly to being told by this ex-pat living in Yale that the British Empire represented their future – especially during a decade when everything seemed to be going America’s way. But his thesis about the limits  of imperial systems still bears a lot of (if not even more) weight today than it did when he formulated it a few years ago.

Of course predicting  the end of the American era is a  professionally dangerous thing to do as Kennedy himself  soon discovered. Indeed, as I have argued myself, because of its market size, vast military capabilities and  global reach, the United States is simply not like other great powers. And because it has some very  unique qualities, we should be careful not to make silly comparisons or premature announcements. As the late  Walt Rostow once remarked in a savage critique of the original  Kennedy thesis,  Americans should beware of analysts (especially ones  with English accents)  bearing false historical analogies. Nor to conclude with our list of health warnings,   should we think of decline in terms of collapse. America will remain a very great power for a very long term to come.  It is certainly not about to implode. Nor is anybody about to take it on and defeat it on the field of battle, by far and away the quickest route to collapse known to empires hitherto.

The process of decay  has been and will continue to  be altogether more subtle. It has  first manifested itself in a very fundamental  crisis of legitimacy, a phenomenon that has become all too apparent to American leaders over the past few years.  It  has also assumed the form of former friends and allies being more willing to  express their doubts about American leadership, something that has  already begun to eat away at US political influence in Europe  (and  is beginning to do the same in the UK). Finally, it will continue with a more robust testing of the international waters by either rising or more openly revisionist powers. Here the twin cases of China and Iran stand out. Admittedly the former has been careful not to upset Washington,  while the latter may indeed seek to do some sort of deal with Washington  in the not-too-distant future. Nonetheless, both are pushing outwards in such a way that they  are already beginning to  reduce  American choices and options. The fact that Iran will probably become a nuclear power – and thus change the balance  of power in the Middle East – is of course of  enormous strategic importance. But so too is China’s growing economic power. Unlike Iran, China might be seeking to rise  peacefully. However, the fact that it is rising and purchases more and more  US treasury bonds while flooding the US market with cheap goods,  means that America is  now very much  dependent on decisions taken by another state.   

What then can the United States do? First perhaps recognize realities rather than repeat the standard mantra that it is ‘the indispensable nation’. Second begin to share responsibilities and costs with others but in such a way that gives others a real voice in the international decision-making process. And finally work out the deals it knows it will have to make with those who have not yet fully joined the international club. This was basically the message coming out of the Baker-Hamilton Report on Iraq. Making these kinds of decisions will no doubt be very difficult for the United States. But over the long-term  they will be a whole lot less risky than repeating the old – and increasingly unbelievable - line that America  is  ‘bound to lead’.

Professor Michael Cox is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Professor Cox is also Director of the Cold War Studies Centre at the LSE and is Chair of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR).

The views expressed in this piece are the views of the author and not the corporate view of RUSI.


Explore our related content