An empire in decline

At the time when Obama contemplates military action against Syria, the US economy is still in recovery mode. He cites chemical attacks as a strategic threat—read oil—but America is tired of war.

Published: 08th September 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th September 2013 02:08 PM   |  A+A-

In the early 1800s, when the British Empire was trying to gain a foothold over the Indian subcontinent that stretched all the way to Afghanistan in the West and China in the East, an American adventurist named Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker, arrived in India. Harlan had a dream—to be a king. Later he would become the subject of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. In his peregrinations through 25 years in Central Asia, Harlan was made governor of Gujarat by Maharajah Ranjit Singh of Punjab, adviser to Dost Muhammad the Afghan king and became the commander-in-chief of the Afghan army. In 1838, he followed the footsteps of Alexander the Great across the Hindu Kush and became the ruler of Ghor, realising his dream at last. The first flag of a foreign power to fly over Afghanistan was the Stars and Stripes of the United States of America. And Harlan was the first American to enter Afghanistan.

After spending $6 trillion and suffering more than 2,000 casualties in a conflict lasting 12 years, the US cannot afford it anymore. In spite of its 662 foreign bases in 38 countries maintained at an expense of $170 billion, 11 mammoth aircraft carriers and a military budget that is 40 per cent of total world defence budgets, many historians and commentators feel that America is an empire in decline. According to former secretary of defense James Schlesinger, “the decline argument… is driven by concern about the vast federal deficits of recent years and, consequently, the immense growth of the national debt.” What does it mean for India, which is the largest buyer of American arms and is a key player in the unstable politics of the AfPak region? Says retired foreign secretary and former Indian ambassador  to Washington Lalit Mansingh, “The dominant theme of Indian foreign policy in the last ten years has been its strategic relationship with the US. It’s not an easy relationship, but overall, I believe, it is a stronger partnership than with the Soviet Union. ”


In the past millennia, from the Roman Empire to the Soviets, world domination was exercised through the use of overwhelming military strength. Not today. World wars will be fought by economic means, feel experts. After the collapse of the USSR, America straddled the globe amidst the debris of the Cold War as the world’s only superpower. It represented the idea of liberty, defining memorable watersheds in the narrative of Democracy vs Dictatorship—the Berlin Wall, the Cuba Standoff, Kosovo and Haiti. In the intervention for democracy, what went unnoticed was oil and arms lobby interests. Meanwhile, obscured by the dust of glasnost’s collapse, another superpower emerged unnoticed—China. American political scientist John J Mearsheimer’s White Paper on the Chinese challenge notes, “The Chinese are building naval forces that can project power out to the so-called ‘Second Island Chain’ in the Western Pacific.” Ironically, China —where in 1500, it was a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts—plans to build a ‘blue water navy’ that can operate in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Washington Post observes that a much more powerful China could try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much the way the US pushed the great European powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century. In 2010, Chinese officials reportedly told American policymakers that the US was no longer allowed to interfere in the South China Sea, which China views as a ‘core interest’ like Taiwan and Tibet. In an interview, former US National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers says, “History would judge America based on how well it adjusts to China’s emergence as a great power, economically and politically”.

Salman Haider, former foreign secretary, cautions, “India should not see itself as trying to take advantage of conflict between US and China—that would be opportunistic, and against principled foreign policy.”

The dollar is shrinking as a percentage of the world’s currency supply, and economists feel that its status as the world’s ruling denomination could end soon. The International Monetary Fund warns that the greenback is at a 15-year low. Once the world number one in research, the US is now the 6th; 84th in domestic savings; 27th in life expectancy and 12 places down in college graduation from No. 1. After two devastating wars, spiraling oil prices and its global influence weakening, is the American Empire fading?

Says Mansingh, “I don’t see the US on imminent decline, but a relative decline. As Fareed Zakaria said, it’s not as much as the US is declining as the rise of the rest. The Chinese economy has increased phenomenally, but if you look at the per capita, there is no comparison between the US and China.”

Empires do not last forever; it took just two years for the Soviet Union to collapse, eight years for France and 11 years for the Ottoman Empire. Alfred McCoy, one of America’s premier South Asia experts, foretells that available economic, educational and military data indicate that with US global power, “negative trends will aggregate rapidly by 2020 and are likely to reach a critical mass no later than 2030. The American Century, proclaimed so triumphantly at the start of World War II, will be tattered and fading by 2025, its eighth decade, and could be history by 2030.” In the ‘Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World,’ American social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein writes that America’s global power status has been on the wane since the Vietnam War ended, and its Afghan intervention in response to 9/11 would hasten its decline. However, Aparna Pande, Research Fellow & Director, Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, Hudson Institute, disagrees. “I don’t think the US is experiencing decline, rather it is exhibiting a reluctance to demonstrate its power,” she says.


 At the time when President Obama contemplates military action against Syria, the US economy is still in recovery mode. Obama cites chemical attacks as a strategic threat—read oil—but America is tired of war. The president is seen ignoring Henry Kissinger’s dictum that “a superpower must act based on its real interests and strategic targets, not just react to horrific images on the evening news.” In his time, Communism was the enemy, but has been replaced by Al Qaeda and Islamist extremism. A US intervention in Syria is likely to only help Islamists seize power as they did in Egypt and Libya, which would be directly in conflict with America’s strategic interests. So how has it come to a pass that a country with the world’s most powerful economy and military is perceived as one in slide? The US accounts for around 21 per cent of world GDP, twice that of China’s. Despite a trade deficit of $540.4 billion in 2012, the US is the world’s third largest exporter of goods and services. It is the third biggest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia and Russia and a leading agricultural producer. Ron Somers, President, US-India Business Council (USIBC),  says, “Conflict in the Middle East will drive up hydrocarbon prices. India imports 80 per cent of its hydrocarbons, which are dollar denominated. The result will expand India’s current account deficit and place additional downward pressure on the rupee and India’s growth rate.”

Observers point at America’s military adventures as an index of its decline and cite historical precedents like the imminent fall of Athens in 413 BC after the last of its Navy was destroyed in Sicily. The sun set on the British Empire in 1956 after the attack on Suez. In 2001 and 2003, America occupied Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. As much as wars are responsible for the rise of empires, they cause  their downfall, too. The best-thriving business in the US is the arms industry. The Congressional Research Service Report 2012 notes that US weapons export went up to $.66.1 billion in 2011 from $21.4 in 2010. The US rules 78 per cent of the world arms market. McCoy warns that future historians would identify the invasion of Iraq as the start of America’s downfall. The military industrial complex, first defined by President Dwight D Eisenhower in 1961, is a monolith that controls the American economy and world power. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government… In the councils of government,  we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence,  whether sought or unsought,  by the military-industrial complex,” he spoke in his Presidential address. Says Mansingh, “When you look at recent events like Syria,  you could say that US is not strong enough to change the course of events. The George Bush era of excess and adventurism is gone. Obama always asks, what is in it for us? How does it help us? It hasn’t helped us in Afghanistan or Iraq, so why should we get into it?”

 A country that enshrined the values of capitalism and flourished under the impetus of big business is turning against the very factors that made it rich. The slowdown of 2009 made America experience its Minksy Moment—the sudden major collapse of asset values in business cycles, caused by increasing speculation with borrowed money encouraged by long periods of prosperity and increasing investments. A huge section of Americans—as was obvious during the Occupy Wall Street movement—are against what they call the politics of greed, and think that the government favours the rich.


After the Great Depression and World War II, American society had become more cohesive in both adversity and strength. From the fall of Nazi Germany to the late 1970s, both the US economy and national income doubled in size. It remains the most euphoric era in America’s recent memory—the Roosevelt Republic. War efforts of World War II turned the country into a giant global arms factory, and ended the Great Depression of 1929. However, in the 21st century, with a debt of $16 trillion (the debt ceiling was raised in January and Treasury Secretary Jack Law has warned that if it is not contained, the US government would no longer be able to borrow money), unemployment is at over 7 per cent with a marginal rise in the last quarter. Exclusive data shows that four out of five adults in the US struggle with joblessness or rely on welfare. One out of seven Americans lives in poverty. The GDP grew at a mere 1.4 per cent in the first six months of 2013, down from 2.5 per cent over the same period in 2012. The Labor Department’s employment report showed an addition of 162,000 jobs in July—most of these being temporary, part-time and low-paying. In the opinion of University of Maryland business economist Peter Morici, the US economy shows a disparity between work production and population growth. The US would need to create at least 360,000 jobs a month to bring the unemployment rate to 6 per cent; to achieve this, 4 to 5 per cent growth is necessary. Under current projections, America’s economic output will be second to China in 2026, and behind India by 2050. Says Sommers, “Indian policy makers should be focusing on rolling out Big Bang reforms that will attract investment, reversing its expanding current account deficit, while opening up its mining sector in a big way to reduce coal imports and to allow greater iron ore exports.” In such a situation, India needs a balancing act. “India is closer to the US in military terms whereas China is closer to US in economic terms. India is doing a complex balancing act,  trying to get closer to US militarily and at the same time, cooperating with China in the global economic activity. All three powers understand this well,” says Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra, JNU School of International Studies.

However, McCoy predicts that China will race ahead of the US in applied science and military technology between 2020 and 2030, when an ill-educated younger generation replaces America’s current stock of scientists and engineers. In a recent interview, media tycoon Conrad Black argued that the American education system isn’t competitive; the nature of its wealth distribution/welfare system has caused a waste of staggering quantities of human resources.

During his first term, Obama had said, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.” Ironically, it could go down further. Says Haider, “US economic dominance has declined. That is clear. With diminution of economic power, it’s clear that American people are not ready to accept commitments (in foreign wars) which will be affect economy, impact their way of life.”

According to an analysis of Census Bureau data done by the Pew Research Center last year, the median net worth for households led by people more than 65 years old or older is 47 times greater than that of households led by those under 35.  Another study in 2012 shows that 77 per cent of small businesses in the US would not employ any more workers; one third of Americans have no spare cash and one of three citizens won’t be able to pay their mortgages. The collapse in July of the auto manufacturing mecca Detroit, once America’s wealthiest city and called the “arsenal of democracy”, is a harbinger of doom; even dogs have turned feral after being abandoned by their owners and roam the desolate streets, attacking passersby for food. Today the abandoned city resembles a war zone, reminiscent of Hollywood movie like Escape From LA. The decline of manufacturing and rise of cheap labour in China have condemned more cities to death according to Gary East, Economic Development & Marketing Administrator of Chicago Hammond Empowerment Zone. He warns, “Unfortunately, Detroit is not alone. All across America, cities are being devastated by their own collapsed manufacturing bases.” Since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, the US is losing over 50,000 jobs a month. In 2010, an average of 23 manufacturing facilities were shutting down every day in the US. Between the first quarter of 2010 and the first of 2012, 108,000 manufacturing jobs were lost—10,000 plants closed down in the first quarter of 2012 alone. Average household debt is 136 per cent of income. According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 25 per cent of all US households now have zero net worth or negative net worth. Economic inequality has never been higher: a NYU study (2012) records that the top 1 per cent of households—who earn 540 times the average national income—own 35.4 per cent of all privately held wealth.


American social scientist Jared Diamond book,  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, concludes, “Civilizations share a sharp curve of decline. Indeed, a society’s demise may begin only a decade or two after it reaches its peak population, wealth and power… One of the choices has depended on the courage to practice long-term thinking, and to make bold,  courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems have become perceptible but before they reach crisis proportions.”  The crisis haunts the future generation already; 3 million cases of child abuse are reported in the US annually. One out of every four girls is sexually abused before they become adults; 67 per cent of all sexual assault victims in America are children. American children are three times more likely to be prescribed antidepressants than in Europe. US crime statistics are scary: one in 100 citizens are in jail—the largest prison population of the world. US law enforcement statistics reveal that the US is home to over 1 million members of criminal gangs, which are responsible for up to 80 per cent of crimes committed in the country every year. One hundred thousand rapes occur in the US every year—the highest number for any UN country. Every year, one out of every five people is a victim of a crime in America—the highest rate in the world.

The 18th century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler had observed that the average life span of the world’s greatest civilisations has been 200 years progressing from “bondage to spiritual faith to great courage to liberty to abundance to selfishness to complacency to apathy to dependence and back into bondage.” A paper by Montreal-based think tank The Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) notes that inequality in America today is twice as bad as in ancient Rome and worse than experienced by slaves in 1774 colonial America. “The truth is that the US is not unusual… it is just like all other empires which have hit their peak and then quickly crashed,”  Thomas Edison, credited with inventing the first electric bulb, had said. In the darkness that threatens America, the lights seem to be going out one by one.



Korea (1950–53)

Prompted by the 1950 invasion of South Korea by North Korea

Result: Failure

Vietnam (1959–75)

War between North Vietnam, supported by Communist allies, and South Vietnam, supported by the US and allies

Result: Failure

IRAN (1980)

Sandstorms and equipment malfunctions caused the cancellation of the surprise attempt to rescue over 60 American hostages held by revolutionary students at the US embassy in Tehran

Result: Failure

GRENADA (1983)

President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, following the overthrow of Marxist President Maurice Bishop

Result: Success

PANAMA (1989)

US forces invaded Panama to oust the nationalist regime of Manuel Noriega. Over 2,000 Panamanians were killed

Result: Success

GULF WAR (1990-91)

To force Iraq out of Kuwait, George W. Bush deployed over a half-million US personnel to the Persian Gulf region as part of an allied force in Operation Desert Storm

Result: Success

SOMALIA (1992-93) US sent approximately 25,000 troops to Somalia to assist the UN with the distribution of famine relief supplies. However as UN clashes with local “warlords” increased, American troops became engaged in policing

Result: Failure

HAITI (1994) 

Clinton sent troops to Haiti to restore ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power

Result: Success

SERBIA (1999)

Citing Serb atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the US and NATO unleashed air attacks on Serbia after the failure of peace talks in France

Result: Success

AFGHANISTAN (2001) US forces along with international coalition launched Operation Enduring Freedom in

response to the 9/11 attacks. The US has made hundreds of attacks on targets in Pakistan using drones as part of the its War on Terror campaign

Result: Failure

IRAQ (2003–2011)

US launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, citing possession of WMDs as the primary motivation

Result: Failure

India Matters


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