New questions about America’s status as a dominant global power have surfaced in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Christopher McGuinness is a freelance journalist based in London. He holds an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and writes at the “Social Europe Blog.” He discusses historical examples of fallen empires and suggests that the economic system requires massive adjustments.
A new world order?
The United States’ status as a modern empire has long been a favourite subject of political writers. One example of such writing is a recent Observer editorial authored by LSE professor emeritus John Gray, who predicts that the recent American economic crisis will soon lead to major changes in the geopolitical world order. These changes, he argues, will lead to a marked decline in U.S. influence throughout the world. One of the main premises of his thesis is that “the fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt.”
Gray is on to something, but his theory can be refined even further. The specific point at issue is his use of the term “debt”, as a number of highly indebted empires have fought protracted wars and survived (in both military and economic terms) to see another day.
In my view, imperial decline has less to do with the interactions between war and debt, and more to do with the interactions between war and unsustainable economics. It is, after all, the governments who employ unsustainable economic models that accrue debt. This is an important distinction to draw because it examines the underlying causes of such problems rather than the symptoms.
Recent history is littered with examples of imperial decline prominently featuring the dangerous mixture of military action (including spending) and unsustainable fiscal policies. The Third Reich’s massive military losses were exacerbated by the economic pressures and limitations imposed by its fascist regime. The socialist Soviet economy was spent into submission by the United States. And traditional European powers like Britain and France could no longer afford to maintain their colonial holdings after two costly world wars.
If Gray’s predictions come true, will market capitalism be thrown to the same ideological scrapheap as fascism and communism? Almost certainly not, but its current American form needs a massive overhaul.
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