The United States has reached a point where its entire claim to global hegemony is based on a series of increasingly fragile geopolitical alliances, and on a worldwide military presence that can’t be sustained for much longer. As the political writer Dmitry Orlov said in an interview last month:
“I think that the American empire is very much over already, but it hasn’t been put to any sort of serious stress test yet, and so nobody realizes that this is the case.”
The last few years of military budget expansions, war campaigns against Iran and Venezuela, and attempts to strong-arm Russia and China are all part of the American empire’s reaction to this fragility. So is the fact that the United States has, with the “War on Terror”, been at war for the last 18 years. Throughout this time, the American empire has been in a state similar to that of the British empire after it attacked Egypt in 1956, or to that of the Athenian empire during the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 B.C. When these empires launched their great military adventures, each experienced a rapid decline in their ability to maintain the power structures they’d created, and soon they were no longer dominant. The same has been happening to the U.S. since the start of its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Endless wars and military expansions have drained the U.S. economy while the Great Recession and increasing income inequality have further impeded the country’s ability to function economically. The U.S. has lost most of its ability to persuade formerly loyal countries to serve its foreign policy goals; the Trump administration’s push for war with Iran is getting support only from Saudi Arabia and Israel, with the international community overwhelmingly rejecting Trump’s Iran agenda. Overall, the hand that America plays during its regime change attempts is now decrepit and increasingly ineffectual; the U.S. has ended up isolating itself on the world stage by engineering Juan Guaido’s illegal coup attempt in Venezuela, with 75% of the world’s countries backing current president Maduro. And in a world that’s become multipolar, Russia and China have lately been outmaneuvering the U.S. economically and militarily. Their recent rapid moves to protect Venezuela from a U.S. invasion are but one example.
The U.S. still can still do great damage through sanctions—as it’s doing right now in Syria and Venezuela—and its military remains the largest in the world. But without strong international support or an economy that works properly, the country is only retaining its power through violence and military buildup. This knee-jerk reliance on hard power has made U.S. an international outlaw whose government is widely hated and distrusted, both at home and abroad. Mass revolt against it could easily break out in the coming years, as working class discontent reaches a boiling point.
None of this is hyperbole. In 2017, a Pentagon report stated that American power “is not merely fraying but may, in fact, be collapsing.” The report even recommended that the government try to maintain its control through propaganda, increased surveillance, and more military expansionism, which it has.
But reality will catch up with the empire’s attempts to halt its own unraveling. America’s great undoing will be the collapse of the dollar—an eventuality which the U.S. has been trying to stave off by intervening in Iran and Venezuela due to their rejection of America’s currency. If the U.S. were to conquer both of these countries, it still wouldn’t be able to halt the transition away from American trade dominance that nations around the world are making. With Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, the U.S. lost the respect of many nations around the world, and Trump’s trade wars and rejections of international agreements like the Paris climate accord have accelerated this rupture between the U.S. and the rest of the world. America’s global dollar reserves are being replaced by other currencies. And as this process continues, it’s going to combine with the country’s internal financial mismanagement to create a 21st century Great Depression.
By the end of the 2020s, the U.S. may be so economically crippled that it will have to withdraw its global military forces en masse. This will represent the final death of the American empire, which historian Alfred McCoy has predicted will come around the year 2030. At that point, writes McCoy, the country will be experiencing “soaring prices, ever-rising unemployment, and a continuing decline in real wages throughout the 2020s, [as] domestic divisions widen into violent clashes and divisive debates, often over symbolic, insubstantial issues.”
The decline of the dollar, as well as potential wars with Iran, Russia, and China, are going to be the “stress test” that Orlov anticipates will end America as we know it. This collapse can’t be stopped. The question is what will happen after American dominance goes under.
This question will be decided by those who make the choice between whether they’ll continue to support capitalism, or fight for a world that isn’t controlled by fascistic governments and powerful multinational corporations. After the U.S. loses its power, the corporatocracy will use the private armies of mercenary companies like Blackwater to carry out its regime change projects. Already, Blackwater is aiming to cash in on American desires for continued military involvement by becoming part of the wars in Afghanistan and Syria. This privatization of the empire will be an unprecedented corporate takeover, and it will be facilitated by a collection of world powers that have embraced ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism.
It’s entirely possible that The European Union will work as one of these authoritarian powers; its recent efforts to control information and exert police power over the populations of its member countries show that the EU could soon become an instrument for social control within its region. This will be paralleled by a plethora of countries which are quickly shifting towards despotism and ethnic nationalism, with America having some of the greatest potential for falling into tyranny. As Chris Hedges has written about what America will look like if it continues on its current path:
“The central government will be reduced to its most basic functions — internal and external security and collecting taxes. Severe poverty will cripple the lives of most citizens. Any essential service once provided by the state, from utilities to basic policing, will be privatized, expensive and inaccessible to those without resources…The mass media will become nakedly Orwellian, chatting endlessly about a bright future and pretending America remains a great superpower. It will substitute political gossip for news — a corruption already far advanced — while insisting that the country is in an economic recovery or about to enter one.”
But the world doesn’t have to end up like this. There are people who are fighting back against corporate power, fascism, and imperialism. They may be on the margins, but they have the advantage of being the ones who are fighting on behalf of a population that is outraged at declining living standards and widening inequality. We need to unite all of these freedom fighters around the goal of overthrowing capitalism and building a socialist worker’s state, or the forces of empire will continue to subjugate us.