In Other Words

Au Revoir to American Empire

Après l’Empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain (After the Empire: An Essay on the Breakdown of the American System) By Emmanuel Todd 240 pages, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2002 (in French) The preeminence of the United States seems even more uncontestable today than it was 50, 20, or even 5 years ago. Yet the ...

Après l’Empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain (After the Empire: An Essay on the Breakdown of the American System)
By Emmanuel Todd
240 pages, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2002 (in French)

The preeminence of the United States seems even more uncontestable today than it was 50, 20, or even 5 years ago. Yet the foundations of this preeminence have changed. In previous decades, it was the country’s economic might that insured political domination. Today, a globally accepted belief in U.S. military hegemony secures the United States’ domestic economy. But the nation’s military and economic might are more myth than reality. In fact, the United States’ weaknesses in these areas will cause the country’s downfall. So argues Emmanuel Todd, a French historian and sociologist in Après l’Empire: Essai sur la décomposition du système américain (After the Empire: An Essay on the Breakdown of the American System), which for 27 weeks was among the bestsellers compiled by the French newspaper l’Express and in November is due to be released in English.

This attack would be easy to dismiss as anti-American or typically French were it not coming from Todd, a respected researcher at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies with a track record of uncannily accurate European political predictions. In 1976, while still in his 20s, Todd predicted nearly to the year the fall of the Soviet empire in a book called The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere.

Now Todd has set his sights on those who see the United States as the world’s stabilizing force. For the past 50 years, periods of stability were rare. Destabilizing forces were needless to invent: communism in the 1950s and 1960s, Third World liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and antiwar protesters in the 1970s. But these forces faded into history after 1989. As Todd puts it, after the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, no conflict loomed large enough to justify U.S. interference on a global scale.

Then came the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, perpetrated in Todd’s words by "gangs of crazy but genius terrorists originat[ing] from . . . Saudi Arabia." According to Todd, these attacks "let America become the leader of a world crusade, justify its pointed and artificial interventions like those in the Philippines or Yemen, install its military bases in Uzbekistan as well as in Afghanistan, and penetrate even deeper into Georgia to the borders of Chechnya." Thus, the myth of global terrorism became the bedrock of a U.S. strategy, aimed at "staying, at least symbolically, in the center of the world, which is about to discover that it can survive without America." Todd calls it micromilitarisme théâtral (theatrical micromilitarism), a doctrine that follows three principles: Choose weak enemies, avoid final solutions to conflicts, and demonstrate U.S. superiority in the everlasting arms race.

But if a nation is willing to become so indispensable to the world, isn’t that nation in desperate need of the world? In exchange for its stabilizing efforts, the United States imposes an economic yoke on the entire planet — what Todd calls servitude volontaire (voluntary servitude). U.S. citizens annually consume $450 billion more in goods and services than they produce domestically. U.S. businesses absorb $865 billion a year in foreign investment, and the U.S. government feels free to borrow as much as it sees fit. For Todd, the United States has become "a kind of black hole, absorbing goods and capital but incapable of providing, in return, equivalent goods." Thus, "America cannot do without the world" and "has objectively become a predator." This attitude, hardly to be found among Europeans even 15 years ago, now dominates intellectual reflections throughout the Old World.

This combination of political omnipresence, military aggressiveness, and economic vulnerability predestines the United States to failure. So, Todd asks, how can the world manage a superpower that is economically dependent and politically useless? Two of his prescriptions for taming the United States’ imperial ambitions make this book indispensable for U.S. policymakers.

Todd argues that Europe’s budding economic superiority and common cultural and social values, which are gradually becoming more distinct, make the continent the only natural political contender to the United States. Europe’s economic power can and should be translated into political and military influence sufficient to contain the United States and to reestablish global political equilibrium. In the sphere of politics, Todd believes this balancing act can be achieved by creating a framework within which all East European countries — including Turkey — discontinue political alignment with the United States in favor of the greater benefits that would result from closer economic ties with Europe’s core. In the military domain, Todd explores the possibility of creating a nightmare alliance for the United States "between Russia, a major nuclear superpower, and Europe and Japan, the two dominant economic powers." Today, such a development can hardly be imagined, but for Todd everything is possible in this unpredictable world.

Todd’s eagerness to see a common European political and military identity is understandable. But the political strategy he proposes to put at the core of Europe’s identity is surprising. Todd wants Europe to abstain from any overt action in the world, while allowing the U.S. economy to deteriorate and the U.S. military to overextend itself. Drawing on highly optimistic estimations of developments in the Third World, Todd argues that if developing countries are left in peace (particularly in the Muslim world), they will be overcome by "spreading literacy and falling fertility rates" and ultimately by the "universalization of democracy."

Much of what Todd predicts in his book has already come true. A scenario he sets out for Franco-German rapprochement — one year before the war in Iraq — is quite similar to the framework officially announced in Paris eight months later. The war left trans-Atlantic relations lying in rubble. But there is a duality in Todd’s perceptions. At the same time that Todd calls upon Europe to step up as the only group of nations capable of counterbalancing the United States, he praises Europe’s geopolitical restraint. The United States can hardly pacify the simmering conflicts on the outskirts of the Western world unilaterally, but neither can a Europe that stands still. The United States’ economic soundness may be a myth, as Todd asserts. But it seems premature to speak of the decomposition of the entire American system. The U.S. economy remains stable and competitive despite military overextension and foreign dependence. Still, by neglecting its European allies, the United States is pushing Europe toward greater strategic union, a union that Russia, with its vast natural resources and historical inclination to universalism, may yet join.

The shape and character of U.S. hegemony will adapt as the globe’s political and economic environment changes. The adjustment to a unipolar world has been painful. Unfortunately, Todd’s book provides no practical recipe for restoring balance-of-power politics. Thus no appropriate solution seems apparent. But readers should at least be grateful to the author for trying.

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