After the Empire
by Noel Rooney
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Twenty-five years ago, Emmanuel Todd predicted the collapse of the Soviet empire. He based much of his prediction on demographics (especially birth rates and rates of literacy) combined with statistical analysis of economic trends. And, of course, he was right; the Soviet empire did as it was told, and first fragmented, then imploded.
Now Todd has turned his attention to the remaining superpower, demonstrating with impeccable research and quietly supercilious wit that all claims for an American empire are equally unfounded, whether trumpeted by the proponents of a new American century (claiming prospective ownership of history tilts hubris into farce; ask Tony Blair), or bleated as warnings of bloated imperium from its antagonists.
Todd's eminently sensible and brilliantly argued book goes so hard against the received wisdom of contemporary geo-politics that many readers in the English-speaking world will greet it with incredulity. US dominance (which goes without saying) seems to be advancing rather than declining; its military presence is pervasive, practically ubiquitous; it has treated the world's eager media to a couple of technologically impressive (and enormously destructive) wars; globalisation, US-led, is the economic zeitgeist, like it or loathe it. How can Todd speak of decline and breakdown against such a confidently rolling order?
Todd has identified three main areas of fundamental weakness in the fabric of US hegemony: military, economic and ideological - ie the very areas seen as strengths by most of the dissident community.
Military? According to Todd the US, for all its apparent strength, practices what he calls "micro-militarism"; that is, it only attacks demonstrably feeble enemies. Reviewing the history of US military intervention, it becomes clear that the US has surprisingly little confidence in its ground forces, and for good reason. The experience of Somalia, Lebanon, and of course Vietnam is less than glorious, so super-ordnance has taken over as the weaponry of choice, and even this is only used on weak opponents with no real chance of retaliation. Or, as Todd puts it, the US has gone "from a semi-imperial power to a pseudo-imperial power".
Economic. Todd offers two main arguments here. First, that the US economy is based on consumption rather than production; thus it has become a black hole sucking in goods, services and investment, but unable to offer anything in return. Because of this, the nature of external investment in the US has changed, and the dollar is increasingly at risk as a reserve currency.
As for globalisation and the neo-liberal "economic project" (a label which blesses it with a coherence it patently does not deserve), Todd is scathing; he describes the US trying to implement one-sided free trade via "mechanisms which can only be described as baroque", or more broadly:
"...in this context economics ceased to be the discipline for the study of the optimal allocation of scarce resources and became a religion of dynamic energy uninterested in the notion of equilibrium."
Ideologically. For most of the nati-imperialist camp, US ideology (a triumphal version of Christian fundamentalism, spiced liberally with military hubris) is a signal strength, cowing Americans and foreigners alike. Todd virtually ignores this angle (such attention as he pays it suggests that this is merely superficial - and desperate - rhetoric for the domestic audience). He is interested in the dialectic of universalism and differentialism. Universalism, he contends, is the necessary outlook for a successful empire; but the US, as its domestic situation shows, is incapable of egalitarianism even at home with its own people (forget the nostalgic constitution-as-scripture slogans here; it's patently irrelevant to any discussion of real US attitudes).
This ideological inconsistency is a direct consequence of domestic inequality. Todd also points out that the 'evil' which America sees everywhere else in the world is a mirror of the (somewhat less mythical) evil which actually permeates America - violence, economic and political inequality, racial tension and the increasing fragmentation of its own culture.
These sketched arguments cannot do justice to the breadth and depth of Todd's analyses, nor to the confidence his thesis draws from his assiduous and accurate mapping of demographic and economic trends. And the book holds more for the interested: at one point, Todd offers an explanation for US support of Israel, based on the doctrine of similarities and the paradox of anti-Semitic Zionism. It's a gloriously difficult, convolutedly Gallic exposition of a knotty problem solved an equally knotty answer. It's possible that Todd's less than glowing appraisal of American Jewry might lead to some accusing him of anti-Semitism himself; this would be vaguely understandable, but strictly inaccurate.
After the empire is likely to be vilified by the Leo Strauss school of criticism (not to mention a very particular kind of fictive god) as a surreptitious manifesto for a French-dominated European power block. But Todd's arguments have two qualities in their favour, which the apologists for the myth of full spectrum dominance do not: first, his command of statistical analysis is so obviously superior to that of his detractors (who prefer the big lie to the small fact); second, and more to the point, Todd is no Cassandra - his predictions have already shown themselves, in precisely this kind of context, to be stunningly accurate.