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The Conceited Empire

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Issue: 4 Section: Features Soviet Union

July 26, 2003

The Conceited Empire

A historian credited with predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union in the 1970s now says that the US has been on its way out for the last decade

by Martin A. Senn, Felix Lautenschlager

The power and influence of the United States is being overestimated, claims French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd. "There will be no American Empire." "The world is too large and dynamic to be controlled by one power." According to Todd, whose 1976 book predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no question: the decline of America the Superpower has already begun.

Emmanuel Todd compares the US to 16th century Spain, arguing that US economic power is being undermined by the decline of its industrial base and its increased dependence on other countries to feed its consumption.
The power and influence of the United States is being overestimated, claims French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd. "There will be no American Empire." "The world is too large and dynamic to be controlled by one power." According to Todd, whose 1976 book predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no question: the decline of America the Superpower has already begun.

This article was originally published in Neue Zuricher Zeitung (The New Zuricher, Sunday morning).

* * *

NZZ: Mr. Todd, you write that America is economically, militarily, and ideologically too weak to actually control the world. This would gladden many anti-Americans. But how is this anything but the wishful thinking of an intellectual who is the product of the French US critical tradition?

ET: This is neither wishful thinking nor anti-Americanism. Why would I have been so prominently criticised by the left? The French career anti-American paper "Le Monde diplomatique", was the only major paper that remained conspicuously silent on my book. The over-estimation of America is fundamental to these people. It is on this topic that they agree with the American ultra-conservatives: the former to demonize, the latter to aggrandize.

You on the other hand can be accused of underestimating the United States.

On the contrary, the US is still the most powerful nation in the world today, but there are many indicators that they are about to relinquish their position as solitary superpower. In my 1976 book, La chute finale (Before the Fall: The End of Soviet Domination), I based my prediction of the fall of the Soviet Union on the relevant indicators of the time. An analysis of current demographic, cultural, military, economic, and ideological factors leads me to conclude that the remaining pole of the former bipolar world order will not remain alone in its position. The world has become too large and complex to accept the predominance of one power. There will not be an American Empire.

Nevertheless, if others are to believed, this empire has already been long in existence. "Get Used to It" was a recent headline in the New York Times Weekend Magazine.

That is very interesting. Now that the concept no longer corresponds to reality, it becomes commonplace. While there actually was a basis in reality, there was scarcely a mention of the concept.

Then you are of the opinion that there was an American empire at one point?

The American hegemony from the end of WW II into the late 1980s in military, economic, and ideological terms definitely had imperial qualities. In 1945 fully half the manufactured goods in the world originated in the US. And although there was a communist bloc in Eurasia, East Germany, and North Korea, the strong American military, the navy and air force, exercised strategic control over the rest of the globe, with the support and understanding of many allies, whose common goal was the fight against communism. Although communism had some dispersed support among intellectuals, workers, and peasant groups, the power and influence of the US was by and large with the agreement of a majority throughout the world. It was a benevolent empire. The Marshall Plan was an exemplary political and economic strategy. America was, for decades, a 'good' superpower.

And now it is a bad one?

It has, above all, become a weak one. The US no longer has the might to control the large strategic players, primarily Germany and Japan. Their industrial capacity is clearly smaller than that of Europe and approximately equal to that of Japan. With twice the population, this is no great accomplishment. Their trade deficit meanwhile, is in the order of $500 billion per year. Their military potential is nevertheless still the largest by far, but is declining and consistently over estimated. The use of military bases is dependant on the good will of their allies, many of which are not as willing as before. The theatrical military activism against inconsequential rogue states that we are currently witnessing plays out against this backdrop. It is a sign of weakness, not of strength. But weakness makes for unpredictability. The US is about to become a problem for the world, where we have previously been accustomed to seeing a solution in them.

Assuming you are right: how did this budding empire slide so quickly into decline?

Further reading:

"The Eagle Has Crash Landed", Immanuel Wallerstein's lead article in Foreign Policy a year ago, made a very similar argument: US power is in decline, but it can still do a lot of damage on its way out.

"'A Dream Only American Power Can Inspire': The Project for the New American Century's vision of global military dominance", which appeared in issue #1 of the Dominion, examines the thinking of the neoconservatives who hope to wield US military might for a long time to come.

Another interview with Emmanuel Todd.


This interview was the subject of some discussion at Metafilter.com.

A rift has been developing, slowly at first and then more quickly, between the US and their various geo-political areas of interest. During the early 1970's a deficit in the balance of trade began to open. The US assumed the role of consumer and the rest of the world took on the role of producer, in this increasingly unbalanced global process. The balance of trade went from a deficit of $100 billion in 1990 to $500 billion annually at present. This deficit has been financed through capital flowing into the US. Eventually the same effect experienced by the Spanish in 16th and 17th centuries will come to bear. As gold from the New World flooded in, the Spanish succumbed to decreasing productivity. They consumed and dissipated, lived high and beyond their means and fell into economic and technological arrears.

But America is still the leading example of economic and technological competence.

When I speak of the economy, then I mean the industrial core and the associated technological cutting edge, not the anemic New Economy. It is in the core industrial sphere that the US is falling dramatically behind. European investors lost billions in the US during the nineties, but the US economy lost an entire decade. As recently as 1990 the US was still exporting $35 billion more in advanced technology than it was importing. Now the balance of trade is negative even in this field. The US is far behind in mobile communications technology. The Finnish Nokia is four times the size of Motorola. More than half the communications satellites are being launched with European Ariane rockets. Airbus is about to surpass Boeing -- the most important transportation medium for personnel traffic in the modern global economy is about to be manufactured primarily in Europe. These are the things that are ultimately important. These are by far more vital and decisive factors than a war against Iraq.

Are you saying they are waging the wrong war in the wrong place?

The US leadership doesn't know anymore where to turn. They know that they are monetarily dependant on the rest of the world, and they are afraid of becoming inconsequential. There are no more Nazis and Communists. While a demographic, democratic, and politically stabilizing world recognizes that it is increasingly less dependant on the US, America is discovering that it is increasingly dependant on the rest of the world. That is the reason for the rush into military action and adventures. It is classic.


The only remaining superiority is military. This is classic for a crumbling system. The final glory is militarism. The fall of the Soviet Union took place in an identical context. Their economy was in decline, and their leadership grew fearful. Their military apparatus gained in size and stature and the Russians embarked on adventures to forget their economic shortcomings. The parallels in the US are obvious. The process has significantly accelerated in the past few months.

Where do you see the indicators of these developments?

In European politics and in the weakness of the dollar. In my book I postulated an increasing commonality between France and Germany. In the meantime the positions adopted by the German Chancellor Schroeder and the French President Chirac in opposition to Bush have substantiated my "Historian's Theory". The unexpected, immediate, and strong response from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took aim at "old Europe". It is, in fact, the new Europe that instills fear in him.

In the meantime, however, eight European states have come out in support of the US.

The significant occurrence was in Germany. The US can only maintain its position as sole superpower so long as it can maintain control over Germany and Japan, both of which are huge creditors of the USA. Therefore the historical significance cannot be over estimated, that a German chancellor could win an election on a "no to the war in Iraq", in effect a no to the United States.

What about the weak dollar?

As a historian, the dollar represents a "mentality indicator" to me. It reflects the awareness of international trade and business leaders of the realities of the American economy. The weakness of the dollar is indicative of their assessment that the situation is much worse than is openly acknowledged. The fact is that troops destined for the war in Iraq, which has been represented as a simple mission, are still not totally prepared. After a year of back and forth, the diplomatic heavyweights of France and Germany are trying to prevent this war, and the balance of the allies are participating mostly verbally, not financially. There is an immense risk in engaging in a war on the opposite side of the globe while fettered by a $500 billion trade deficit, a weak dollar and supported only by friends who are unwilling to share the costs.

You write that in the future there will be three, perhaps four strong polarities, of which the most influential will be Europe. Are you counting on an emerging European Superpower?

One of the working propositions of my book, After the Empire is that the concept of military control of the globe no longer makes any sense. In relation to the military, there will be a balance of power in the future. There is still a nuclear balance of power between the US and Russia. The notion that sections of the globe can be controlled through military might is passé, because it is unrealistic. You can destroy regimes and bomb their infrastructure, as the Americans have done in Afghanistan, but the populations -- including those in the developing world -- have become educated and literate enough to eliminate any possibility of re-colonization. The only power that ultimately counts today is economic power.

Do you believe that Europe has the "right stuff" economically for superpower status?

Why not? It is often said that the Europeans are somewhat naïve and passive. They are accused of having neglected their military. But when you understand that military might is no longer the true power, and when you see that presently the Americans no longer possess the economic means to maintain their military apparatus, then you must conclude that the Europeans have done the right thing. They have placed their reliance on their economy. They have introduced the Euro. Their industrial policies are coherent and substantial. Airbus is only one example. Europe is well armed.

For what is Europe "armed"?

For the conflict that is just beginning between the Americans who want a war in Iraq, and the Europeans who in effect don't want a war. Iraq, being close to Europe, is a supplier of oil to Europe as well as Japan. Nevertheless, they can afford to buy their oil with the money they earn from their industrial exports. They are economically strong enough to not have to control Iraq with military intervention. The US on the other hand, as a consequence of their massive trade deficit, barely has the means to pay for their oil consumption. That is why it is vital to exercise military control over this region on the other side of the globe. On the surface this appears to be a question of "war or no war", but in fact it is most likely a question of whose sphere of influence will Iraq fall under, Europe or America?

Who will win this battle of the spheres of influence?

Most apparent is how clumsy the US has been to date, and how far they have moved away from any notion of universality. They don't see the world as it really is anymore. They are failing in any balanced and fair approach to their allies. All of this reminds me of Germany under Wilhelm II. The US is losing allies steadily. One gets the impression that an office somewhere in Washington has been tasked with the duty to daily prepare a scheme to develop new enemies for the US.

Is it conceivable that Europe will one day attain the position America has enjoyed?

There will never be another single super power. In addition to the US, Europe, and Japan, Russia will rise again to prominence. China, despite their presently weak technology, will soon join the fray. Nevertheless, the traditional superpowers are all stagnating. But the developing world is fast gaining. And that is cause for some hope.

* * *

Emmanuel Todd is a 52 year-old Historian and Political Scientist at the National Institute for Demographics in Paris. His research examines the rise and fall of peoples and cultures over the course of thousands of years.

His newest publication predicts the fall of the United States as the sole superpower: Aprés l'Empire: Essaie sur la décomposition du systéme Américain (available in English from Columbia University Press in February 2004). Todd attracted attention with a similar work in 1976, when he predicted the fall of the Soviet Union based on indicators such as increasing infant mortality rates: La chute final: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphére Soviétique.

Todd studied Political Science at the Institut de Etudes Politiques in Paris and completed his Doctor Thesis in Historical Sciences at Cambridge.

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