Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, by Emmanuel Todd.

Translated by C. Jon Delogu.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, pp. 233.

While some continue to embrace the idea of American empire (like George Friedman in The Next Decade), the more grandiose conceptions, at least, have fallen by the wayside, and the outlook regarding the United States' position has become rather bleaker. It may be that this will pass, but for the time being, at least, Emmanuel Todd would seem to have been ahead of the curve when in 2003 he published After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order.

Todd's argument was that the U.S. was not "growing into" the role of imperial power, but losing its imperial position, in large part because of a material decline underappreciated by both domestic and foreign observers. This is not just a question of such widely discussed phenomena as the country's declining share of Gross World Product or industrial production since its post-World War II peak, or even the trade deficits and debt accumulation attested to in official statistics. America's fiscal position is, in his view, founded on an unsustainable form of "foreign tribute"--the influx of foreign capital into the United States that enables the country to live beyond its means (classed as tribute because the nation's trade deficits, low interest rates and inflation rate make it unwarranted) as America's own economy reverts to an older world of "masters and servants," with lawyers, accountants and private security personnel serving the wealthy in the manner of yesteryear's butlers (euphemistically termed "the service economy"). All of this makes the picture less rosy than the numbers attesting to America's economic growth suggest--while there is room for doubt about the numbers themselves, Todd contending that the numbers may just be the product of accounting fraud on a massive scale, as hinted at by scandals like Enron and Arthur Andersen.

This severe and worsening economic frailty is matched by the frailty of the U.S.'s military lead over other nations, above and beyond the extent to which economic weakness must eventually produce military weakness. The country, lacking a "tradition of . . . military might on the ground" (82), and no longer able to control pillars of the world economy like Germany and Japan, obscures the fact through "theatrical micro-militarism" directed against weak Third World nations. This style of militarism is, furthermore, reinforced and shaped by broader tendencies in American culture making it less universalist and more "differentialist."1 Just as American multiculturalism reflects the country's treatment of its ethnic minorities as "unassimilable," the United States behaves toward other countries in parallel ways, the U.S. more provocative toward other major powers (Russia, China), more disdainful of countries it has long regarded as allies (like France and Germany), and prone to treat the Arab countries as foreign counterparts to those unassimilable domestic populations. Along with the prioritization of control of world oil supplies by American strategy, the military weakness of Muslim nations, and a cultural enmity toward Middle Eastern nations (into which a "dogmatic and aggressive" (136) American version of feminism plays), the result is an "obsession" with the Arab-Muslim world far beyond what realpolitik calculations would mandate.

The net result is that the U.S. is now nothing short of threatening to Europe. Its economic behavior disrupts the world economy, directly through its actions and indirectly through its promotion of its social model, which Todd views as undermining Europe's social and political systems. (He flatly criticizes neoliberal globalization as the cause of the world economy's slow growth since the 1970s, as well as stagnating and falling living standards and rising inequality, through its suppression of the demand crucial to economic growth.) Making matters worse, American military actions in the Muslim world also exacerbate tensions between the mainstream of European societies, and their immigrant populations.

This situation confronts Europe with the choice of either being a subordinate element in an American empire that is increasingly inimical to its well-being, or asserting its independence (the choice he favors). Europe's declaration of independence would be strengthened by a partnership with Russia, which he sees as viable given the country's essentially universalist culture, and moreover, the bottoming out of its demographic and economic collapse. The country would also bring to the table its vast energy and other natural resources, as well as its military capability--particularly its strategic nuclear arsenal, the only one in the world comparable to that of the U.S.. (In a reversal of the Cold War situation, Todd views Russian military might as a potential guarantor of European freedom in the face of American challenges.2) Britain's giving up its "special relationship" with the U.S. in favor of a closer relationship with Europe (to which it would bring a G-7 economy, and the only other financial center comparable with Wall Street) would complete the process of consolidation.

The assertion of independence by such a European bloc would, in Todd's view, end American hegemony. Ultimately, the U.S. would be reduced to living within its means, just one pole among many in a multi-polar world. With America no longer sponsoring neoliberal globalization, the way will be cleared for what he views as a necessary turn away from free trade toward neoprotectionism on some basis, to benefit working people and revive the demand essential to restoring economic growth, while international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank change accordingly (the former giving Japan a permanent seat on the Security Council, the latter being relocated to Eurasia).

Todd's viewpoint is an interesting one, given his previous scholarship (notably, his prescient writing on another superpower in decline), and his apparent freedom from the pieties of right and left.3 He also refrains from setting up the U.S. as an antithesis of Europe (other "old democracies" like Britain and France also traveling down the oligarchic path he identifies).

There is, however, no disputing the book's significant failings. Todd's analysis of military affairs (well outside his area of expertise) is brief and shallow. One might argue that geographic factors and economics have conduced to make the U.S. an air and sea power, rather than a land power, and that changes affecting all of the developed countries (aging populations, the decline of civic militarism, etc.) are the reason for the U.S.'s low tolerance of casualties (which in Iraq and Afghanistan proved not to be so low as some assumed on the basis of the operation in Somalia in the early 1990s).

There are also some serious flaws in his reading of the international balance of power, and what it may mean. China's profile is surprisingly low in his analysis. Anyone discussing the distribution of industrial power today would have to count it in among Europe and Japan given its share of world production (already much larger than that of Germany or Japan, and perhaps even larger than the U.S.'s)--and indeed, the short shrift he gives it would have been problematic even a decade ago. His discussion of Russia easily seems overoptimistic in light of the country's course under Putin. It is also far from clear that a turn away from neoliberalism in Europe or globally such as he describes are at all plausible, as European elites seem just as enthusiastic about such policies as their American (or Anglo-American) counterparts, and have actually been moving further in this direction since the 2008 economic crisis.

Nonetheless, Todd's use of demographic data, on which he relies heavily (certainly more heavily than in The Final Fall), is frequently innovative and compelling, especially where he uses it to explain global patterns, and the development of Islamic countries, his analysis of which is persuasive.4 His discussion of economic globalization is one of the book's strongest points, and the subject of many of his sharpest observations--like the distinction he draws between "fake" and "real" nonconformists in the economics establishment (with Paul Krugman correctly placed in the former category), and the note he takes of the end of meaningful economic debate in the United States after 1995 (which seems to have gone unnoticed by almost everyone else). His observations about American cultural attitudes are at the very least thought-provoking, and despite some overstatements and questionable inferences, seem to me to contain more truth than one can acknowledge without jeopardizing their respectability. All of this makes Todd's analysis, which may have more immediate relevance now in 2011 than it did at the time of its publication, well worth serious attention.

NOTES
1. Todd holds that this tendency toward a more differentialist culture is also evident in the country's becoming less democratic and more oligarchic in the manner Michael Lind described in The Next American Nation (which described an American "overclass" in detail).
2. The idea of Europe trading the U.S. for Russia as a partner may surprise those accustomed to thinking of Europe and North America as part of a common West, Todd points to differences between the U.S. and Europe in attitudes toward religion, violence, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and the use of natural resources, among other things, that he regards as deep enough to be civilizational. (Indeed, on a point like the use of natural resources, he views Europe as closer to other Eurasian and Old World countries than to America, speaking of the Old World's heritage of peasant labor, and the hard lesson it taught that natural resources are finite, and must be carefully conserved--quite contrary to the American experience of the frontier analyzed by observers like Frederick Jackson Turner and Thorstein Veblen.)
3. Todd is critical not just of American feminism and multiculturalism, but also the "revisionist" view of American history that holds U.S. foreign policy to have always been driven by national (e.g. elite) economic interests, predatory, hypocritical and disdainful of international opinion, with its conduct after September 11 just a brasher version of the usual. He does not argue this position in any meaningful way, however, apart from his criticism of what he sees as its exaggerated perception of American power.
4. Islamist terrorism, in Todd's view, is less an indication of some "clash of civilizations" than the disorientation that is a byproduct of the often painful transition to modernity, such as is experienced by every culture, albeit in different ways. As his figures demonstrate, the Islamic world is a participant in the trend toward higher literacy rates and falling fertility rates that make for an active, modern, democratic outlook--and the impracticability of authoritarianism, Islamist or otherwise. The "Arab Spring" would seem to substantiate such a view.

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