Decline, fall, or dance? What’s next for the American empire?


Turn down the Rock and turn up the lights. Could the party be nearly over for the American Empire?

Beyond a popular doom that seems to grip the social and traditional media in spasms lately, scholars and philosophers have been writing about the decline and fall of empires with increasing frequency lately. Very few want to say directly that yes, this is the end of the American Empire and you better get used to it. That would be too direct. But many are hinting at it in loud stage whispers wended through long articles and books. Are they on to something?

Recently, articles in the Guardian and many newspapers suggest that there are great changes afoot in the world by examining other periods of rapid development. There is little doubt that a few simple things, such as the Dehli Declaration coming from the BRICS nations, could indeed be the small start of a very new era of global finance, for example. The old narrative that “barbarians” rise up against the existing empire and eventually overtake it is exciting and compelling, but these stories are often told more as parables for their audience than genuine history.

There is one version of this which is refreshing for its honesty in this regard, and that is Nial Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest”. This work is rightly criticized for its unabashed pro-Western point of view that Western European nations dominated the entire planet from 1500 until today for some very good reasons which are deemed virtuous and good. But the success of Western powers cannot be denied, and Ferguson credits it to the six “killer apps” developed in Europe, and outlined in a great summary for John Mauldin:

1. Competition.
2. The Scientific Revolution.
3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government.
4. Modern Medicine.
5. The Consumer Society.
6. The Work Ethic.

The point Ferguson makes by boiling European imperialist success to these “killer apps” is twofold – they can be “downloaded” by other cultures and they can be deleted from our own culture just as easily. Ferguson traces the rapid increase in the developing world to a lot of the former and, sadly, more than a little of the latter.

It is very easy to read his argument and accept it precisely as written. Polls consistently show that a solid majority of Americans believe that we are on “the wrong track” and have been for a very long time, so this view is likely to be popular. Personally, however, I can’t help but think that there is something in the works that I refer to as “The Beatles Effect”.

Rock ‘n Roll came out of postwar black America, a time when the great internal migration north gave rising hope, communication, and a bit of wealth to a people long oppressed. By the early 1960s, however, it was sanitized for white audiences and controlled by massive record companies who shoved the real stuff into a bin under the counter they called “R&B”. But it could not be killed. It went over to Europe, and in time the Beatles arrived back in the US playing many of the same songs that had long been banished from our own playlists. What came back to us, however, had been polished and changed, but what was uniquely ours was saved for us until it was safe to come back in triumph.

Western civilization may be due for something more like the “Samba Effect” if the Brazilian Way becomes how the great “killer apps” come back to us one day. They won’t be exactly the same as the ones Brazil downloaded – there will be a new generation of them with different features. Concepts like “competition” that Ferguson trumpets are especially likely to be polished and cleaned. We’ll all be hearing much more about “The Brazilian Way” during their two year long coming out party in 2014-16, between the World Cup and the Olympics.

Does Brazilian domination of the world sound like a joke? Consider going back in time to a posh gentleman’s club in London circa 1890. If you were to stand up and announce to them that they were on the verge of a great “American Century” the only reasons they would not toss you out right away would be that laughter had them pinned into their wingback chairs or they might spill their cognac. But today we know how it turned out.

None of this means that the Empire is going to fall or that even if it did decline heavily that it would be a bad thing for us. History never does repeat itself, but it does have a tendency to rhyme like a slam poet. Put that to a samba beat and you never know quite what the future will hold. It’s not the end of the world or even some kind of empire.

It’s not even an end, but the beginning – of a much more interesting party down the block.