The American Empire Is the Sick Man of the 21st Century

Failure at the center has left the United States up for sale to the highest bidder.

Foreign Policy illustration
Foreign Policy illustration

In his classic Foundation series, Isaac Asimov imagines a Galactic Empire, governed from the city-world of Trantor, that has maintained peace and prosperity for thousands of years but that is teetering on the brink of decline. The only person who sees this clearly is the psychohistorian Hari Seldon, who has mathematically determined that the core conditions for the Empire are unsustainable and will crumble over the course of centuries.

As Trantor “becomes more and more the administrative center of Empire, it becomes a greater prize,” a disciple says as he absorbs Seldon’s calculations. “As the Imperial succession becomes more and more uncertain, and the feuds among the great families more rampant, social responsibility disappears.”

Asimov published these words in 1951, at the peak of U.S. global power. But they might as well be describing Washington in 2019, an imperial capital whose elite have transformed it into a great prize to be feuded over as surely as Asimov’s future empire did—and as other empires have done in the past.

How did a decadent ruling class become a national security risk, an existential threat to the American empire? The answer lies in the 1970s, when the weaknesses of the midcentury American social contract were exposed through stagflation, the energy crisis, and the disastrous Vietnam War.

In response, America’s political elites embraced privatization, deregulation, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, the outsourcing of industrial jobs, and the financialization of the economy. Inequality has skyrocketed ever since, and much of the United States has experienced a steady decline while a handful of major cities, including Washington, have become hyperwealthy and almost unaffordable through the concentration of financial, tech, and media monopolies and their affiliated lobbyists. By now, many Americans know this story—but few think about what it means for their place in the world.

There are two conventional ways of understanding America’s global role. According to one theory, the bipolar world of the Cold War has given way to a unipolar world in which the United States is the undisputed hegemon. Some observers see this as a good thing and champion American empire, while others see it as a bad thing and seek to resist American empire, but both sides agree that American empire is the defining feature of our era.

A second theory, only different from the first by degrees, asserts that the post-Cold War world is multipolar, with the United States as the clear dominant power among many potential rivals, including countries such as China that might conceivably surpass the United States down the line.

But what if neither theory is correct? The near-universal understanding of the United States as a powerful, unified global actor is flawed and in need of revision. The United States is less a great power exerting its will and more an open-air market for global corruption, in which outside powers can purchase influence, shape political outcomes, and play factions against each other in the service of their own competing agendas.

That’s a familiar historical story. Although Foundation drew its direct inspiration from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, history is replete with examples of seemingly powerful empires run by weak, divided elites and picked apart by outside powers.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a vast aristocratic republic that dominated Eastern Europe in one form or another from the 14th to the 18th century, was wiped off the map by its neighbors, who found they could bribe its senators into paralyzing all political decisions. The Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century was infamously dubbed “the sick man of Europe” as Western European powers chipped away at its territories and encouraged independence movements against it. During the same period, China under the Qing Dynasty was forced to give up numerous territorial concessions to European colonial empires—all of which, in turn, would themselves disintegrate within a century.

It may seem absurd to compare the United States in 2019 to the decadent and crumbling imperial powers of the past. But consider the state of the capital right now. President Donald Trump, as almost everyone at least privately concedes, is incompetent at fulfilling his most basic responsibilities and a global laughingstock.

Trump’s administration is openly bought by foreign governments via his international network of hotels and resorts, including the one located directly between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, where a Saudi-funded lobbyist rented 500 rooms in the month after the 2016 election. His political party, which still controls the Senate and increasingly dominates the judiciary, has no interest in holding him accountable for any of this. And of course there’s the small matter of Russian interference in the 2016 election; as the limited information known so far from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report confirms, Trump and the Republicans were at the very least the passive and willing beneficiaries of efforts by a foreign power to influence the election outcome.

But Trump is only a symptom, the most blatant and cartoonish example of how the influence of outside money in Washington has become routine over the past generation. From the pervasive influence of the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf monarchies over think tanks and media organizations to virtually the entire U.S. government kowtowing before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to China’s warm relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and with the heads of some of the most powerful U.S. companies to the funneling of foreign money through the real estate industries of the country’s largest and wealthiest cities—the U.S. government is for sale.

To be sure, it isn’t only, or even primarily, foreign money that rules Washington. Powerful corporate interests in general have almost completely crowded out democratic accountability in the capital, including major U.S.-based industries such as finance, insurance, energy, and tech. Then again, is there any such thing as a U.S.-based industry anymore? Most of the biggest companies are multinational, with headquarters in major cities around the world and executives whose staggering wealth means they have more in common socially with their international counterparts than with most Americans.

The complete deregulation of campaign finance and the subsequent legalization of corruption in Washington, on a scale unheard of in other developed countries, have resulted in a capital where the distinction between foreign and domestic monied interests is harder and harder to parse. The U.S. government, in other words, does not exist to serve the interests of Americans through either its foreign or its domestic policies; rather, it exists to perpetuate the interests of the globalized oligarchy.

There’s an obvious counterargument to all of this: The United States still spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined, and it still operates a network of hundreds of military bases spread across nearly half the countries on Earth. No other country remotely rivals the United States in its ability to project military power. And no other country is as wealthy or mints the global reserve currency or wields as much soft power.

At the same time, focusing entirely on the American empire from the top down can confuse causality. Focusing entirely on the American empire from the top down can confuse causality. Consider, for instance, the overthrow of Egypt’s post-Arab Spring elected leader Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup. In former White House advisor Ben Rhodes’s memoir, he describes President Barack Obama’s administration not as the driving force behind this coup but as the passive recipient of relentless pressure from its Saudi and Emirati allies, who waged an information campaign against the U.S. ambassador while plotting with the Egyptian military.

Rhodes writes that he personally received a photo in the mail portraying the U.S. ambassador as an accomplice of the Muslim Brotherhood from Yousef al-Otaiba, the ubiquitous, hard-partying, extremely well-connected Emirati ambassador in Washington. While Rhodes and Obama also faced pressure from within the Washington establishment, they found their agenda for the Middle East repeatedly hijacked by foreign allies—the same governments that also lobbied, with varying success, for U.S. military operations from Syria to Yemen. American power, however mighty, means nothing if it’s being used for the ends of the highest bidders.

So what if the American empire is coming apart at the seams? Good riddance, many would say. U.S. hegemony has been a disaster, spreading war and exploitation around the globe and poisoning the climate beyond repair. And that’s true: As Asimov observed, empires tend to fall because they overextend themselves, spoil their elites, and produce the preconditions for their own demise. But what we’re seeing is neither a considered, responsible withdrawal from empire in order to invest in urgent needs at home nor a revolt against empire by the world’s wretched. Rather, it’s a drawn-out, decadent collapse recognizable to any student of Rome or Constantinople. America is the sick man of the 21st century, and anyone who has watched its president bumble through a gathering of bemused, pitying world leaders knows it.

David Klion is an editor at Jewish Currents and writes for The Nation, The New Republic, and other outlets.

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