Notes From the Margins…

Imperial Sunset on the Rocks Please

  • August 18, 2021
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Some empires take a long time to die.  The Roman Empire was already in decline centuries before the final collapse of the Western Empire in c.376-476.   By the end of the seventeenth century the weaknesses of the Spanish/Hapsburg Empire that spanned Europe and Latin America from the late fifteenth century onwards were already apparent, but it wasn’t until the Spanish-American war in 1898 that the last nail was hammered into its imperial coffin.  Britain’s ‘informal empire’ crumbled slowly following World War 2, in the face of independence movements, colonial insurgencies, and the self-interested opposition of the United States to its colonial presence.

Even after its managed ‘retreat from empire’ its imperial dreams continued to haunt the national body politic and rattling their chains, as Dean Acheson once observed when he noted that ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role.’

Other empires seem to collapse very quickly, if only because the longterm weaknesses that may have been invisible before their collapse suddenly become so glaring that they can no longer be hidden or ignored.  To this category we could include the Soviet Empire, which fell apart in a couple of years, or the Aztecs who collapsed in less than a year at the hands of a few hundred Spanish adventurers and their indigenous allies.  And now,  in the wake of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, can we add the United States to the second list?

Up to a point, yes.  The origins of the American ’empire’ can be traced back to the emergence of the United States as a global superpower after World War 2.  This was the period in which the American ’empire of bases’ was created, and America used its military, economic and diplomatic power to exert ‘moral leadership’ through its role in the reconstruction of Western Europe and its ability to impose governments favourable to its interests across the world – and depose governments that weren’t.

As a self-consciously imperial project, America’s rise and fall can be traced back to the 9/11 attacks, when a wounded and humiliated superpower set out not simply to eliminate the networks responsible for these atrocities, but to use its military power unilaterally to reshape the world in its own interests.  The underlying assumptions behind that endeavour were summed up in famous 2004 rejection of the ‘reality-based community’ attributed to Karl Rove:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

To which one can only reply, seventeen years later, ‘not so fast’.  Because Rove’s hubristic arrogance explains, in part why America has just lost a war to a guerrilla army equipped mostly with kalashnikovs.

Neither empires nor states create their own reality – at least not indefinitely.  Of course powerful states can do big things for a while.  They can bomb their enemies into submission.  They can deploy their armies halfway across the world.  They can topple governments and regimes that they don’t like.  All good old-fashioned imperial stuff.

But in the end empires and states survive and/or expand through their ability to make sound geopolitical calculations in their own best interests.  They can only do this by listening to sound advice about the world in which they operate, by recognising the extent of their power and also its limitations, by understanding the relationship between ends and means, by assessing the nature of their enemies and rivals, and by avoiding wars that they don’t stand a realistic chance of winning

If you can’t do these things, your ‘new realities’ are unlikely to be as solid or as permanent as you think.  America has not done any of them.  In has the most powerful military the world has ever seen.  In twenty years it has spent more than six trillion dollars on fighting wars across the world, and it has not won – in the long term – a single one of them.

Throughout these years it has repeatedly shown – and still retains – an ability to defeat any adversary in a conventional theater war, and yet even though it has been ‘preeminent’ in its use of military power, it has not been able to use that power to impose ‘dominance’ anywhere, let alone the stability that its ‘constabulary’ role supposedly demanded.  It has repeatedly failed to transform its hard military power into any tangible gains beyond profits for the military-industrial complex and the private military and logistics companies that have become part of it.  Not only has it failed to make the world better, it has actually made it worse.

Of course it still has the ability to obliterate most of the world many times over, but that ability is not what counts in the early twenty-first century.  China has not fired a shot, but it is now the world’s dominant economy.  America, by contrast, has never stopped firing.  It began the century by trying to be Robocop, and in 2016 it elected a psychopathic idiot as president who told voters he could ‘Make America Graet Again’, and who, did not have even the most basic understanding of the world in which he was operating in.

We can’t blame Trump entirely for perpetrating these fantasies.  Bush did too.  And so did did Tony Blair, who sought to extend Britain’s ‘greatness’ by hitching it to American military power.  Hundreds of thousands of deaths later, and these instruments of hard power are now definitively blunted.

By 2019 the American empire could not even protect its own citizens in the midst of a pandemic.  In January 2020 it discovered that the antidemocratic barbarians were not the turbanned fundamentalists out there in the world’s ‘lawless spaces’, but bearded fat white supremacists in camo living in the suburbs who attacked their own Congress.

And now, in August 2021, Joe Biden has joined the ‘reality-based community’ and – clumsily and ineptly ‘ withdrawn the US from the longest war it has ever fought – and lost.

And over here, the country that wanted to play Greece to America’s Rome, that rode shotgun through all these imperial gunfights has also tried and failed to ‘create its own reality.’

For a few years Britain seemed to have found Acheson’s ‘role’ as a bridge between America and the European Union.  In 2016 it foolishly abandoned the latter.  Now America has abandoned its faithful lieutenant, to the point when Biden did not even consult with the Johnson government over its withdrawal.

Now we have a country that has walked away from the EU and lost its ‘special relationship’ with a failing empire, a country led by the most useless government in its history, that can only boast about importing industrialised meat from Australia.

Once again, it might have helped this country and its superpower ally, to have paid more attention to the ‘reality-based community’.

Because reality, in the end, is like gravity.  Only cartoon characters can run off a cliff and keep running, but in the end they fall too.




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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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