After much denial, Americans are finally beginning to admit that we are indeed an imperial nation. What Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers openly dreamed about two centuries ago has become reality, and the United States has taken Britain’s place as the seat of empire, dominating the globe.
What does an empire cost and is that cost worth paying?
The most obvious expense is the Pentagon’s war machine, now costing about $400 billion a year, nearly half the world’s military expenditure. Our $7 trillion national debt has come largely from past wars, police actions, invasions of other countries, long-term military occupations and arms races. Interest on that debt and military spending together take 28 percent of our federal taxes every year.
Ultimately a nation’s taxable wealth comes from its soil. The United States could dream of empire because it acquired the greatest natural treasure enjoyed by any modern nation. We had unparalleled riches in our forests, rivers and mines. Above all, we had riches in our deep soils, the best on the planet.
Canada and Australia also aspired to empire, but they quickly abandoned those dreams when it became clear that they lacked the requisite soil. The soils of ancient Rome, the soils of modern Europe, the soils of China and the soils of the United States have all allowed empires to grow in those places, but not in glacier-scoured Canada or in nutrient-poor Australia. Partly because of limited resources, Canada has only one-tenth of the U.S. population, Australia one-fifteenth. Through hard effort they have become wealthy countries, but they have no chance at world empire.
The United States is a nation with incomparable natural advantages, but we are depleting them rapidly. We cannot pay for the Pentagon’s endless appetite, or sustain a military presence on every continent, or pay interest on the national debt without spending those natural resources. Each year we have to pound our land harder to extract its wealth. A hard-pounded land soon becomes a degraded land. Environmental degradation at home is the true cost of empire abroad.
In the pursuit of global supremacy, we have polluted every part of our nation. And now we are told that we must live with that degradation as the price of glory. We cannot afford to clean up rivers, preserve ancient forest ecosystems, save native prairie, refrain from mining or oil drilling regardless of the resulting damage. We have to put up with losing hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil every year. We have to accept the drenching of our soils with chemicals to stay on top. If we do not pay those costs, we are told, we will slip backward and someone else will take our place as the world’s superpower.
Eventually all empires falter and collapse. They don’t deliver on the visionary promises they make. They fall because they bankrupt themselves and, more often than not, they bankrupt the environment that supports them.
DONALD WORSTER is an historian at the University of Kansas and author of one of CounterPunch’s favorite books, Rivers of Empire. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.