Yes, The US is an Empire
It is an axiom “that all good things come to an end”. This is true of bad things as well, like empires. This includes the US empire. Empire you say. Not the good ole US of A! Well in fact the US is indeed an empire. The dictionary defines empire thusly, “an extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority”. There has been an evolution in empires since the days of Rome or the Ottoman Empire, when a centralized authority directly occupied and annexed foreign lands.
Britain was the first to make things more efficient. Instead of sending a large occupying force Britain sent a smaller force to the key cities of places like India. They then subverted the local power structure, coopted it and thus controlled it as a part of the British empire. The US one-upped the British for imperial efficiency. The US simply bought client states. They controlled them through military threats, sometimes briefly occupying them, as in the case of the Philippines. Mostly it was intertwining compliant governments into a series of economic and military alliances. The strength of the US economy and the use of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency (more below) brought these client states to heel. The US benefits from this arrangement both economically and militarily, as much as Rome ever did.
Every empire in the history of planet earth has ultimately declined and fallen. One great thesis regarding this process came in 1989 from a historian named Paul Kennedy who postulated the notion of imperial overstretch. This is the notion that the weight of controlling such a vast empire becomes too much militarily and economically. This leads to inevitable decline and disintegration. There is no reason to think that the US empire will meet a fate different than that of all the previous empires. It is the thesis of this post that the US has already started down the path of decline.
The basis of any empire is first its economy. This was certainly the case with a then productive Rome, the British empire and of course the US. The USSR is a special case, as the communist model was horribly inefficient. The USSR had global scale, nuclear weapons, subsidies of US grain, and the favor the US did by obliterating two key rivals, Japan and Germany. It is the economic decline that eroded the basis of all former empires, and it is this economic erosion that marks the current state of the US.
That the US is a fiscal train wreck cannot be gainsaid. Total US publicly held debt is now over $31 trillion. That is well over 100% of yearly GDP. The key welfare programs of Medicare, and Social Security will be bankrupt within a decade. The military budget is closing in on $1 trillion (already over that if you count VA, State Dept, foreign aid, etc.). If the US raises taxes to cover this deficit and service the debt it will crumble an already shaky economic situation. If they do nothing these programs will, by law, cut themselves 20%, or more. In short, the US economy is collapsing under the weight of the welfare/warfare state.
The evidence is mounting that all this government spending and debt is slowing the economy’s ability to generate wealth. The chart below will serve to illustrate this:
This shows real family income (after inflation) flatlining after the year 2000. It has been growing at only .48% per year. This is a clear indication that productivity is slowing, and the economy is grinding down. Along with that grind down is the ability of an empire to project force across distance. This is exactly what happened to Rome and to Britain, and in fact all the other empires that are no more.
In addition to this generalized economic decline there is the possibility of the US dollar losing its status as the “reserve currency”. The Investopedia definition is:
A reserve currency is a large quantity of currency maintained by central banks and other major financial institutions to prepare for investments, transactions, and international debt obligations, or to influence their domestic exchange rate. A large percentage of commodities, such as gold and oil, are priced in the reserve currency, causing other countries to hold this currency to pay for these goods.
The main benefit of having your currency be the reserve currency is that you get to export inflation to other countries and to therefore live beyond your means. I detailed this financial motivation for the US empire here. The other benefit is the ability to sanction other countries for “misbehaving”. We have seen this on display during the Russian war in Ukraine. A reserve currency is ultimately backed up by an empire’s economic and thus military capacity. A declining empire can and will lose this status as Britain did in the 1920s.
While the US dollar is not in imminent danger of losing its reserve currency status there are cracks beginning to show. The profligate nature of US fiscal policy has made the dollar less attractive to use as a reserve currency. Ultimately there is a limit to how much inflation other nations will tolerate being put on their back before they push back. Also, the US badly overplayed the sanctions card in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most of the world is not on board with US support for this corrupt regime and the existential risks it entails.
The so-called “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) nations have led the way in pushing back. There have been more settlements of international accounts in other currencies than recently. Some oil sales are being settled using China’s currency, which is a clear threat to US dominance. This chart shows the drop in the use of the US dollars held in reserve:
All of this portends a problem for continued US imperial economic dominance. If you destroy your currency, you will pay a price.
This economic decline portends a US military decline, as military power flows directly from economic success. While the US is still likely the world’s most powerful military (I say likely because while no one was looking the US has not won a war of consequence since 1945), change and decline can occur much more quickly than many realize. The US has begun to have a systemically difficult time in meeting its recruiting goals. It has lowered the standards necessary, yet still the military falters in reaching it desired force levels.
The US is getting increasingly less bang for its buck in terms of weapons purchases. The sad life of littoral combat ships, some of which are already being decommissioned, serve as an excellent example of this problem. Another example is the F-15EX fighter which has 40% of the longevity of the current model. Increasingly the defense industry gets large paydays, and the US military gets cost overruns and underperforming systems.
As the US fiscal position deteriorates ever more quickly when Social Security and Medicare implode, the strain on maintaining an imperial sized military budget will become unbearable by a population buckling under the weight of government fiscal mismanagement. This portends a precipitous decline in US military capabilities.
Along with the other areas of United States decline there is a notable and growing drop in US diplomatic influence. Recently China brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This has led to peace talks toward ending the war in Yemen which finds these nations on opposite sides. Both moves run counter to US interests in the region, which is heavily tilted toward isolating Iran at the behest of Israel.
In the same region there is a move to end the ostracism of Syrian leader Assad. He is being invited back to the Gulf Cooperation Council. This also runs counter to US goals of keeping Iran backed Syria isolated, again at the behest of Israel.
Perhaps more concerning to the US is the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, which is led by China and is the largest multilateral organization outside of the United Nations. Besides China the SCO includes India, Russia, Pakistan, with Iran as an observer state. The SCO is in dialogue with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and is looking to such nations as Vietnam and Syria to have observer status. Even Israel has applied for observer status. This is an organization to keep an eye on as it is only going to grow and become more influential.
Waning US diplomatic influence can also be clearly seen in the world’s reaction to the US proxy war in Ukraine. It is not highlighted by western media but most of the world is not on board with the US/NATO led response to Russia’s invasion. They are largely ignoring or obviating sanctions and lending no diplomatic support to the US at the UN. This includes not just China, but India, Brazil, and most of the Global South. It might be shocking to US imperial sensibility, but most of the world simply does not care if their diplomatic stance pisses off the US.
There are even cracks emerging in the diplomatic stances taken by NATO members. France and Germany are clearly chafing under the sanctions regime and the prospect of a years-long conflict in Ukraine. A serious split among NATO members represents a true threat to US imperial dominance.
How It May End
Given all the signs of the US imperial decline the question arises about how it may all end. First, it is not going to end tomorrow. Then again, the rapidity with which events may unfold can be stunning. Who in January of 1989 thought that the Berlin Wall would come down that year, much less that the USSR had less than three years left.
If we are lucky the US empire can be dismantled relatively peacefully like the Soviet empire was. Britain also offers an example of an empire that was intentionally, and mostly peacefully dismantled (albeit, after two massively violent world wars).
Or the US could go down in violent spasms of disintegration like Rome. It could see a transformation to an outright authoritarian regime, or military dictatorship like Rome did. It may see the US beset by wars, and/or starting those wars to maintain imperial hegemony.
There are multiple points that could spark such conflicts. Much has been made of what Russia may do if they lose in Ukraine, but the more likely question to be answered is what the US response will be when Russia wins. Then there is Taiwan as a flash point. The US should not underestimate how important this is to the Chinese. Xi will not be the Chinese leader to lose Taiwan. Nor should the US underestimate the likelihood that they will lose such a war over Taiwan.
The hideous Sword of Damocles hanging over all these possible scenarios are nuclear weapons. There is ever the possibility that a nuclear nation will use such weapons if they are losing in a key area. This includes the possibility that a dying US empire thrashes about with nukes being deployed. Then a multipolar world is irrelevant because human civilization is finished.
The choice for rational people is clear. It is the recognition that none of the areas the empire sees as “key” are in fact existential threats to the United States as a nation. This being the case, it is an easy leap for the US to dismantle its own empire in a peaceful manner. Accept a multipolar world, with the US as a key player in it. Get the US fiscal house in order and restore the economy to a growth path by the tried-and-true method of limiting the government and liberalizing markets.
As a part of this economic rationality and dismantled empire the US can return the military to a size that is needed to legitimately defend the US. This would involve maintaining its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, and its transit in international waters. You do not need close to $1trillion of spending and 800+ bases overseas to do this. All of this would then see a restoration of US diplomatic influence driven by economic strength and the moral clarity of a free nation acting as a nation among nations. This would be in stark contrast to the authoritarian model of China that only looks good in comparison to a violently imperial US.
As always for people of faith the path must be peace and cooperation. We must make our voices heard that it is time for the US to stand down its empire before it falls (most likely violently) and put the US on a path to peace and prosperity. This, while not perfect, would put the world in a place that more closely honors what God would want for His children. But it starts with faithful people standing up and stating with great clarity no more! Peace now!
Praise Be to God