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Washington's Empire on the Rocks

Our international network of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs begins to totter.

| Tue Apr. 26, 2011 8:53 PM EDT

Post-Cold War World

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War, Moscow quickly lost its satellite states from Estonia to Azerbaijan, as once-loyal Soviet surrogates were ousted or leapt off the sinking ship of empire. For Washington, the "victor" and soon to be the "sole superpower" on planet Earth, the same process would begin to happen, but at a far slower pace.

Over the next two decades, globalization fostered a multipolar system of rising powers in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Ankara, and Brasilia, even as a denationalized system of corporate power reduced the dependency of developing economies on any single state, however imperial. With its capacity for controlling elites receding, Washington has faced ideological competition from Islamic fundamentalism, European regulatory regimes, Chinese state capitalism, and a rising tide of economic nationalism in Latin America.

As US power and influence declined, Washington's attempts to control its subordinate elites began to fail, often spectacularly—including its efforts to topple bête noire Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup, to detach ally Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia from Russia's orbit in 2008, and to oust nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian elections. Where a CIA coup or covert cash once sufficed to defeat an antagonist, the Bush administration needed a massive invasion to topple just one troublesome dictator, Saddam Hussein. Even then, it found its plans for subsequent regime change in Syria and Iran blocked when these states instead aided a devastating insurgency against US forces inside Iraq.

Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president it installed in power, Hamid Karzai, who memorably summed up his fractious relationship with Washington to American envoys this way: "If you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes."

Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those thousands of US diplomatic cables that offer uncensored insights into Washington's weakening control over the system of surrogate power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn of Haaretz could see "the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy." No longer, he added, are "American ambassadors… received in world capitals as ‘high commissioners'... [instead they are] tired bureaucrats [who] spend their days listening wearily to their hosts' talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state."

Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to manage an unruly global system of increasingly insubordinate elites by any means possible—via intrigue to collect needed information and intelligence, friendly acts meant to coax compliance, threats to coerce cooperation, and billions of dollars in misspent aid to court influence. In early 2009, for instance, the State Department instructed its embassies worldwide to play imperial police by collecting comprehensive data on local leaders, including "email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans." Showing its need, like some colonial governor, for incriminating information on the locals, the State Department also pressed its Bahrain embassy for sordid details, damaging in an Islamic society, about the kingdom's crown princes, asking: "Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?"

With the hauteur of latter-day imperial envoys, US diplomats seemed to empower themselves for dominance by dismissing "the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans," or by knowing the weaknesses of their subordinate elites, notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's "voluptuous blonde" nurse, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's morbid fear of military coups, or Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud's $52 million in stolen funds.

As its influence declines, however, Washington is finding many of its chosen local allies either increasingly insubordinate or irrelevant, particularly in the strategic Middle East. In mid-2009, for instance, the US ambassador to Tunisia reported that "President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people," relying "on the police for control," while "corruption in the inner circle is growing" and "the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing." Even so, the US envoy could only recommend that Washington "dial back the public criticism" and instead rely only on "frequent high-level private candor"—a policy that failed to produce any reforms before demonstrations toppled the regime just 18 months later.

Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that "Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts... are being suffocated." However, as the embassy admitted, "we would not like to contemplate complications for US regional interests should the US-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened." When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House "to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the US-Egyptian partnership." And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president's downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as "a stalwart ally... a force for stability and good in the region."

As the crisis in Cairo's Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing "the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression." After 40 years of US dominion, the Middle East was, he said, "a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science" because "people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education."

Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation's capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.

For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.

Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America's Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. He has also convened the "Empires in Transition" project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain's Retreat, Europe's Eclipse, and America's Decline. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying US foreign policy in Asia.

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