New Model Empire
Posted by aogSunday, 06 February 2005 at 12:10 TrackBack Ping URL

As Orrin Judd notes, American declinism is coming back in to fashion (although it’s never all that far out of fashion). To some extent this is the legacy of former President Jimmy Carter, who did more than anyone else to legitimize this line of thought.

In my view, what most of the declinists miss is that the American Hegemony is unlike any previous empire in its structure and means. The former British Empire is the closest, but it still depended on far more direct control than the American Hegemony. The USA has little need of directly dominating its client states, as empires have done in the past. The essential point is that liberal democracies empower the USA regardless of the actual attitude of the government. Even Old Europe is of net benefit to the USA, despite the overt hostility of its two largest states, France and Germany. This creates a dynamic of low effort, high reward that eliminates the problem of imperial overstretch.

Let us consider Western Europe for a moment. The presence of imperial troops there is not for our benefit but for Western Europe’s. In contrast to previous empires, the USA would in fact be better off if its troops were removed from the area, except for a token amount. When the imperial dynamic is less troops, better payoff, it’s hard to see where the overstretch comes in to play.

Of course, there are places and times that demand a large military committment from the USA. But these, again unlike previous empires, are limited in place and time. While we had to maintain troops for decades in South Korea to protect our interests, we could now (as in Europe) pull out all but a few without little or no cost to our security interests. I don’t see Iraq being any different. It may well be decades before we can drop our military efforts there to token levels, but on the time scale of empire a few decades is a but a moderate length of time. It will certainly not be the kind of endless, low level grind that, in large enough number, have brought down previous empires.

Why do the declinists miss this? We could point out their fundamental hostility to the USA, but that’s not an interesting avenue to explore. While certainly part of the reason, it’s not the entire reason.

We can begin to see the root of it if we notice that the American Hegemony is local Anglosphere politics writ large. The Hegemony is much more like a village of free but cooperating people in the Anglospheric tradition than the various forms of despotism that formed the structure of previous empires. I think most of the declinists can’t see this because they come from a Leftist tradition that cannot envision a society of freely cooperating individuals and so have no model for the same thing among nations. As Adam Smith pointed out, a collection of free invididuals naturally benefit each other, via trade and other interactions. In the same way, a community of free nations (externally and internally) benefit each other without any need for explicit control. That is the missing concept that informs the declinists’ world view.

One can see this most clearly in the structure of the European Union. This project is to a large extent an effort to duplicate the success of the American federal structure. Yet it is a failure precisely because it consists of ever more centralized control. When it was the European Economic Community, i.e. like the Anglosphere, it was of great benefit to Europe. But now that it is becoming true to its roots as a poor imitiation of the American Hegomony with the centralized structure of previous empires, it is the EU that is beginning to falter from imperial overstretch, exhausting itself fighting endless battles against recalcitrant populations.

The American Hegemony may not last forever, but it’s certainly going to outlast any of its existing competitors.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Dave Sheridan Monday, 07 February 2005 at 03:01

Thought provoking piece. I think you have the myopia in Europe’s approach to power about right. The same can unfortunately be said of much of the Democratic Party. Without a framework for understanding the invisible hand, one must create a scenario where conscious human plan—or conspiracy—is at the heart of things. That mindset also leads to the fallacy that wealth is a zero-sum game. What free market societies have must have been ‘taken’ from others. To those with that mindset, America has to be the biggest criminal operation on the planet.

Anonymous Monday, 07 February 2005 at 15:52


Smith actually thought you had to have a society based on sympathy for each other first, not free individuals—that’s why Moral Sentiments precedes Wealth of Nations.

Jeff Guinn Monday, 07 February 2005 at 17:52


Well, you hit that nail on the head.

It might also be noted that we are the first empire to notice it is cheaper to buy than steal.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 07 February 2005 at 18:24




I understand that point, but I don’t see those two things as contradictory. The key point is that control of others at a detailed level isn’t necessary for them to work for one’s benefit and this is the point that declinists are missing.

That gets back to the meta design issue I’ve been commenting on. In order to have free individuals interacting, you need a base level of rule of law (which is why I’m a minarchist and not an anarchist). But given that, Smith points out that things work best for everyone is personal liberty is encouraged under a rule of law. I.e., the control of people by society consists of rules about rules. Examples are things like “don’t cheat” and “obey the law”. The US Constitution is of this flavor. It is essentially a set of rules about making other rules — very “meta”. In contrast, the EU Constitution is all about specific policies.

In the same vein, the American Hegemony is about getting other nations to adopt variants of our meta-rules. Specific polices of the moment are purely secondary. If we achieve that, then we achieve at the international level what Smith was talking about in The Wealth of Nations.

Your point might well make an excellent essay on why it is that President Bush, a person guided by a moral vision, is more capable of achieving this than the “realists” who are much more concerned with the specifics of international power relationships.

oj Friday, 11 February 2005 at 11:38

But the only functional metarules we’ve discovered so far are Judeo-Christianity.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 11 February 2005 at 12:23

Not Islam?

I don’t think I agree with your statement in any case. Judeo-Christianity is more a set of design goals than an set of meta-rules. Rules and law to me are much more like science with regard to religion. As science tells you facts but not truths, law tells you how but not why. For instance, the US Constitution has no direct elements of Judeo-Christianity in it. It is to a large extent value neutral (in the J-C sense). This is to be expected, since it’s really a tool rather than a prescription for how to live. I view that as one of the Constitution’s strengths and the EU Constitution’s weakness. But of course, the designers intended it to be used for building a J-C based society, like one would create a good set of carpenter’s tools to build a church.

The conflation of goals and means is something I see ruin software design frequently, and it doesn’t seem to fair any better in the political realm.

oj Monday, 21 February 2005 at 10:01

Probably Shi’ism, unlikely Sunnism. Durable liberal democracy requires messianism.

aog Monday, 21 February 2005 at 10:24

Now that I agree with. The religous belief system must embody the Fallen nature of Man and a future Messiah is an excellent way to do that.

pj Tuesday, 22 February 2005 at 16:10

AOG - Excellent post, but I think you have Christianity wrong. Christianity is not at all about design goals, but about process. It doesn’t prescribe outcomes, but how conduct, words, thoughts and emotions should be proscribed as whatever outcomes we pursue are sought. It is, in other words, all meta-rules.

Many of the Christian meta-rules map 1-to-1 with the meta-rules of the US Constitution. For instance, the Ten Commandment prohibitions of murder and stealing with the Constitutional right to life and right to property. The Bible, like the US Constitution, is hostile to utilitarian, outcome-focused modes of reasoning.

John Story rightly called Christianity “the religion of liberty” - with good reason.

Tracked from Low Earth Orbit: Someday, Brussels willing, we may have actual troops on 06 February 2005 at 12:21

Via Brothers Judd we have this article on the impending doom of the American Hegemony. I’ve commented at length elsehwere,...

Tracked from Classical Values: It's Cheaper To Buy Than Steal on 14 July 2008 at 15:21

Thought Mesh takes a look at why the left does not get the New American Empire. In my view, what most of the declinists miss is that the American Hegemony is unlike any previous empire in its structure and means....

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