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After the Empire: the Breakdown of the American Order

Book by Emmanuel Todd

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on April 7, 2005.

In 1976 -- long before American conservatives would claim that Ronald Reagan's 1980s debt-driven massive military spending "bankrupted" the Soviet Union -- French demographer and author Emmanuel Todd wrote a best-selling book titled La Chute finale (The Final Fall), predicting the imminent fall of the USSR. He based his projection, in large part, on a careful study of the increase in infant mortality in that empire, one of the leading indicators of the health of a nation.

Time proved him right, and hindsight tells us that Reagan and Bush had nothing whatever to do with the fall of the USSR, con claims notwithstanding. It rotted from within, something that I witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s visiting both the USSR and several of its captive states, and living a year in 1986-1987 within 30 miles of Soviet-dominated East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Any 70s or 80s visitor to the USSR or its vassal sates, in fact, could have come to the conclusion that -- barring a world war -- it was an empire about to expire, and the CIA and others in the American, European, Israeli, and Japanese intelligence services had been saying the same thing since, in some cases the 1960s.

Yet it was Emmanuel Todd who captured Europe's attention by explicitly saying that the Soviet Emperor had no clothes - and doing so in a way that was widely discussed across Europe. Thus, when my best friend and former business partner Jerry Schneiderman and I found ourselves in Budapest in early November, 1989, the week before the Berlin Wall fell, as East German refugees were streaming into the country and the Soviets seemed helpless to stop it, we discovered that the reaction of the Hungarian shopkeepers and bartenders we talked with was a resigned shrug: "We knew it was coming. Everybody knew it was coming." Other than, of course, the average American.

Now comes Emmanuel Todd to predict the fall of another empire: America.

In Après l' empire ("After The Empire"), a runaway bestseller across Europe and in Japan, Todd points out that many of the same demographic and historic indicators that led him to boldly predict the looming collapse of the Soviet system can now -- with some variations that are even more alarming -- be applied to the United States.

Every American should read this book. First, we must read it to understand how Europe, Russia, China, and Japan (among others) view us. Second, we must read it because its logic, facts, statistics, and conclusions are unassailable.

The main thesis of Todd's book is that America is posturing, playing the role of the leader of the "free world" and head of the new American Empire, when, in fact, we are militarily, economically, and morally bankrupt -- and the rest of the world knows it. In fact, he suggests, much of the posturing is for the consumption of the domestic American audience, as the rest of the world (with the exception of a few dependent Third World nations) knows we're already in decline and perhaps even ready to implode.

Economically, twenty-five years of conservative Reaganomics -- "free trade" elevated to a virtual religion (including complicity by Clinton in signing GATT/WTO and NAFTA) -- and the massive budget and trade deficits that have resulted from this, have turned the United States from an independent manufacturing powerhouse and the world's leading creditor into a bankrupt nation with little manufacturing capacity left, dependent on other nations for the imports that maintain our unsustainable standard of living. The result is that the US "has become the center of a system in which its number one job is to consume rather than produce."

"If the United States has greatly declined in relative terms as an economic power," writes Todd, "it has nevertheless succeed in massively increasing its ability to siphon off wealth from the world economy. Objectively speaking, America has become a predator; ... [and] is going to have to fight politically and militarily in order to sustain the hegemony that has become indispensable for maintaining its standard of living."

In his concluding chapter, Todd writes, "The United States is unable to live on its own economic activity and must be subsidized to maintain its level of consumption -- at its present cruising speed that subsidy amounts to 1.4 billion dollars per day."

Referring to the "bizarre behavior" of the Bush administration's America, Todd asks the question -- in italics for emphasis -- "How does one deal with a superpower that is economically dependent but also politically useless?"

In "The Fragility of Tribute" chapter, Todd suggests the world won't -- or can't -- long continue to support our "parasitic" lifestyle by loaning us money to sell us goods, while we export our manufacturing industries and hollow out our internal productivity. "The most likely scenario" he sees as a result of this "is a stock market crash larger than any we have experienced thus far that will be followed by a meltdown of the dollar -- a one-two punch that will put an end to any further delusions of 'empire' when it comes to the US economy."

Our moral bankruptcy, Todd suggests, is the result of these same economic and political policies emanating from the radical right (neoliberals) in America, and are rapidly morphing our nation from a democracy into an oligarchy.

Without irony, he notes, "It is a surprising return to the world of Aristotle in which oligarchy may succeed democracy." As "American society is changing into a fundamentally unegalitarian system of domination..." he notes that this turnaround of increasing rule by the rich in America and a wiping out of our middle class "explains the strained relations between the United States and the rest of the world. The progress of democracy around the world is masking the weakening of democracy in its birthplace [America]." The result? "...the United states is beginning to lose its democratic characteristics..."

Because America has become a "parasitical" nation of importers of oil and goods from around the world, paying with debt, Todd says, "From now on the fundamental strategic objective of the United States will be political control of the world's resources."

Thus we have had to invent a "myth of global terrorism" so we can convince ourselves that our projection of power into oil-rich regions of the world is to "save" both America and the world from "terrorists." Because our military power is insufficient to take on any serious foes, we rattle sabers, proclaim "Axis of evils," and attack essentially defenseless nations, while proclaiming our efforts great military victories comparable to the defeat of the Third Reich in World War II.

The world, Todd notes, isn't buying it. And they're getting tired of our constant hectoring about "democracy" even as we cut back on civil liberties and economic opportunity at home, support "strategic" dictators abroad, and are increasingly ruled by oligarchic families.

Which brings us to his third conclusion -- that we have become militarily impotent. Todd notes that, "In the childlike universe of Donald Rumsfeld, for example, only physical force matters." Thus, we stir up problems in the militarily weak (but oil rich) Arab world, destabilizing the entire planet. This is not a situation European and Asian powers take lightly. Europe, Todd notes, "cannot accept indefinitely the continuous disorder in the Arab world sponsored by the United States..."

The result is clear, he says. "But make no mistake, all the ingredients are there for a serious conflict between Europe and the United States in the near future." Such a conflict could be devastating to the US.

Dissecting -- and dismissing -- numerous American "strategic" books like Zbigniew Brzezinski's "The Grand Chessboard," Todd notes that our leaders in the post-Carter world have always taken the lazy way out, rather than building the strategic alliances and offering the moral leadership that would have been necessary to maintain America as the moral, economic, and political international leader we were before Reagan began the destruction of the traditional American way of life.

In part, this has been the result of the capture of our political system by oligarchs, powerful rich interests including multinational corporations with little allegiance to America (or any nation). "This is why," he notes, "the United States' export of its specific model of unregulated capitalism [necessary to sustain oligarchy] constitutes a danger for European societies, as well as for Japan...."

The result of our export of privatization, deregulation, and unrestrained oligarchic capitalism (called "the liberal model" in Europe) is that "the constant attempts to foist the liberal model onto the strongly rooted and state-centered societies of the Old World is in the process of blowing them apart -- a phenomenon that can be observed nowadays in the regular gains of the far right in a number of recent elections. Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Austria have all been affected."

Rush Limbaugh/Newt Gingrich politics have led to the rise of a neofascist right in America, and our export of these ideas are inspiring the return of right-wing politics in Europe, threatening to tear apart the social fabric of that continent.

Todd notes that Portugal and Spain are the least affected by these ideas, because of their recent experience with Franco's fascism.

But our increasing moral bankruptcy (detention without trials, phony war on terror), economic bankruptcy (living on debt borrowed from Europe, China, and Japan, along with the dramatic oligarchic trends in America toward richer rich, poorer poor, and the loss of the middle class), and military impotence (leading us to loudly attack relatively defenseless countries to create "show victories" and a "bloody vaudeville show" in Iraq) are causing many in Europe to reevaluate their relationship with -- and support of -- America.

If they decide to throw their lot in with Russia and Iran instead of the US -- and Todd suggests this is a growing probability -- then the result is "easy to predict."

"The United States," he says, "will then have to live like other nations, notably by reigning in its huge trade deficit, a constraint that would imply a 15 to 20 percent drop in the standard of living of the population."

And this, he suggests, may be a good thing, long term. "What the world needs is not that America disappear but that it return to its true self -- democratic, liberal, and productive."

One can only hope that America will return to the ideals we held prior to Reagan, and do so with a minimum of damage to our working class. Reading Emmanuel Todd's book "After The Empire" will help crystallize in your mind so many of these issues, and help provide a roadmap for Americans to a return to domestic and international political sanity, hopefully as soon as the 2006 elections...

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