Saturday, October 23, 2010

The US's Imperial Overstretch

Tony Karon's recent Time mag essay on the implications of Britain's decision to shrink its military is a must-read, if only because of his conclusion that a similar fate awaits the US down the road:
the message for the U.S. in Britain's contraction may be a lot more sobering than simply the retrenchment of military capability by its most trusted ally. Britain's case may have illustrated the iron law that fiscal deficits inevitably corrode a nation's ability to project power beyond its shores. . . .

The Pentagon maintains more than 800 bases beyond the 50 states, and stations close to 300,000 troops abroad. The 2009 U.S. defense budget of $660 billion was more than the combined defense expenditures of the next 17 countries on the spending table. And that budget continues to rise steadily, growing at 4.8% for 2010, a year in which the U.S. economy's GDP growth is likely to be less than 2%.

Militarily, the U.S. is the British Empire of the 21st century — and then some. But it is policing the world on the back of a colossal $1.5 trillion budget deficit and a staggering $13.5 trillion national debt. Its economy is in the grip of a deep, and possibly long-term, crisis that shows little sign of reducing an unemployment rate close to 10%, let alone being in a position to make the desperately needed investments in everything from education to infrastructure necessary to restore long-term competitiveness.

Karon also notes - and if only the rest of America were reading him - that the millions of voters clamoring for drastic spending cuts and tax cuts (including the Tea Party's wannabe patriots; I'm not convinced they understand the true meaning of that term) seem never to include the military in that demand.  Yet, as Karon again notes, "The Congressional Research Service calculated last September that the U.S. has spent $1.2 trillion on military operations since the 9/11 attacks, and the ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing the U.S. more than $3 billion a week."

All of this puts me in mind of a then-celebrated (when it was published more than 20 years ago), but now curiously forgotten, book by the historian Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which traced the rise and decline of the West's great powers over the last 500 years.  He spotlighted precisely in that book what the US is swirling down toward right now: imperial overstretch that overreaches economic capacity and leads inexorably to decline and to eventually being superseded by a new rising power.  Of course, Tea Partiers and the more chauvinistic elements among both Republicans and Democrats - believers all in the gospel of American exceptionalism - would blow off Kennedy's thinking (and for that matter, Cassandras such as Andrew Bacevich) as old-school negativism, and even unpatriotic. 

More's the pity if such people get elected into office come early November.

1 comment:

Edmund said...

I just had students in my world history course compare the rise and fall of imperial China, Rome, and US. Almost all of them mentioned imperial overstretch I'm pleased to say, although, most of them didn't actually know or use the term. They're all very pessimistic about America's future, and all quite convinced our political problems are really problems with our society which doesn't question our imperial tendencies.


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