The Decline of the American Empire

The Democratic Party, re-vitalized in part by progressive grassroots groups and hard work, prevailed in the Nov. 7 midterm elections. “I feel like a load has been lifted from my body,” former student radical and ex-California State Senator Tom Hayden said on Nov. 9. at the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. “We’ve just moved out of a straightjacket,” a buoyant academic commented.

A time of celebrations has been in order. But after that, lets think about the larger picture of the current state of the American Empire. Signs exists that its power is declining substantially. Little in the post-election coverage has considered this issue.

“Defeat is not an option,” Bush again insisted in his press conference the day after his resounding defeat, referring to the Iraq War. Yet it is precisely defeat in Iraq that stares him in the face, as even many American generals have admitted. This defeat is not just in Iraq, not just of the Republican Party, not just of Bush, and not just on Nov. 7. It goes much deeper. On Nov. 8 Bush once again attempted to mount his Victory horse, though with a changed tone of less arrogance.

Considerable enthusiasm swept the nation among progressives as news came in that Democrats won first the House and then the Senate. Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was fired. This is all certainly good news. I do not mean to rain on sunny election celebrations, but perhaps its time to take that good energy into deeper considerations of the state of the world and the work that remains to be done.

Much more than the loss of the neoconservative Bush regime was revealed on Nov. 7, if one looks beneath the surface. Some Americans may now relax, hoping that the Democratic Party can fix things. This is not the time to hold back and give Democrats space to get the troops out of Iraq and remedy the many other sins of the Empire.

Now is the time to deepen our understanding of the nation’s imperial role in the world. Most Democrats seem content to shore up American power by making a few minor reforms, rather than attempt to manage the decline in power that is occurring. Many describe the election as a victory for moderate Democrats, especially the centrist Blue Dogs, over the extreme Republicans. This will incline the Democratic Party further to the center.

Internal and external political, economic, and military signs exist that the American Empire is declining. Given space limitations, this essay will focus on Latin America. However, I want to note that the 20th Century American Empire ran on fossil fuels. The world’s supply of petroleum and natural gas is declining, as the demand for them increases, especially from China and India. (See for my writing on this.) So the U.S. is in a mad scramble to secure its oil and gas resources. As fossil fuels decline, so will the American Empire.

My perspective comes from years of living outside the United States and studying its impact upon other peoples, especially in Latin America. I was raised in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, there on the border with Mexico. I spent part of my childhood in Panama, where my military father was stationed. I followed him into the services, though I resigned my commission to protest the Vietnam War.

I studied at Ivan Illich’s Center for Intercultural Documentation, which drew teachers and students from all over the world to Mexico. I met the Brazilian Paolo Freire there and began working with his “cultural action” concept. I worked in Chile during the government of President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Then I spent over a decade at Harvard University in various capacities, including doing Post-Doctoral study, and some teaching about Latin America. I have worked on the

ground in three of America’s primary colonies-Puerto Rico, Panama during the nationalist government of Pres. Omar Torrijos, and more recently in Hawai’i.

These experiences lead me to see that a sign of the weakening of the American Empire is the lessening of its control in Latin America–the Empire’s playground for decades. A shift of power has been occurring from North to South. In Brazil Pres. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers’ Party was re-elected for a second term on Oct. 29. Daniel Ortega was re-elected president in Nicaragua on Nov. 5, after three sequential defeats following his first election. These two important events in American history received little attention in the U.S. press, but they reveal a growing opposition to the U.S. in Latin America.

Meanwhile, in oil-rich Venezuela Pres. Hugo Chavez is an outspoken U.S. critic. Cuba remains a thorn in America’s side. In natural gas-rich Bolivia the indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected President in December of 2005 by a large percentage. He works to secure his nation’s natural resources for its people, rather than having them serve the American Empire. In Chile the government of Pres. Michellle Bachelet has taken positions that signal independence from the U.S.

For many years, Latin American countries have been secure neo-colonies of the United States. Though their peoples often railed against “Yankee Imperialism,” America continued to control their governments through a variety of military, political, cultural, and economic means. The extreme importance of Latin America to the U.S. is indicated by the fact that Mexico and Venezuela are among the top five countries providing the U.S. with oil. Mexico even provides the U.S. with more oil than Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela is close behind, according to figures from the Energy Information Administration published in the Oct. 27 Christian Science Monitor.

The event of 2001 that stands out the most for Americans was the unprecedented Sept. 11 attack by a group of mainly Saudi Arabian nationals that hit the Empire’s two most powerful symbols-its financial center at the World Trade Center and its military center at the Pentagon.

That foreign attack on the United States was not a mortal wound to the Empire. The real fatal blow was how the Empire struck back. Unable or unwilling to attack the perpetrators of the 9/11 crime, the wounded Empire struck viciously against the whole country of Afghanistan. Full of the blood of revenge, it then attacked Iraq on spurious grounds. Mainly innocent people perished in those attacks, as the world watched, aghast and in disbelief and disgust, as the U.S. and a few allies have slaughtered between 400,000 and a million people. Such a stain on the Empire will not be easily forgotten.

So America played its military trump card, which has not prevailed. Rather than rectify failed strategies and tactics, it has clung to them tenaciously. The U.S. has sunk deeper into defeat in both Afghanistan and Iraq, thus further revealing its weaknesses. Many who oppose the U.S. have just looked on, waiting patiently, while organizing resistance. The U.S. is now more vulnerable to attack than it ever has been.

In neither of its last two major wars-in Korea in the l950s and Vietnam in the l960s and 70s-did the U.S. achieve decisive victories. The U.S. lost the Vietnam War. Many contend it also lost Korea, especially given the current situation in the Koreas. The American Empire seems to have reached its height of power immediately after World War II, though in recent years–with its accumulation of wealth and the fall of the Soviet Empire–it has appeared to be more powerful than it really has been, what some describe as a “paper tiger” with a “false economy” likely to collapse at any moment.

“But what will a Democratic Congress do that is better?” Yale scholar Immanuel Wallerstein asked in a Nov. 5 essay on “the rude shock of defeat,” published in the San Francisco Chronicle. “The primary problem of the leadership of the Democratic Party is that it believes, at least as much as the Republicans, that the United States is the center of the world, the font of wisdom, the great defender of world freedom.” In fact, Democrats seem to want “to restore the United States to a position of centrality in the world system.”

In l986 Gore Vidal published “Requiem for the American Empire” in The Nation magazine. He dated the start of the Empire as 1914, when “New York replaced London as the world financial capitalBy the end of World War II, we were the most powerful and least damaged of the great nations.” However, by the mid-1980s, the U.S. had become a debtor national. Since then it has sunk even further into debt, especially to China. “Like most modern empires,” according to Vidal, “ours rested not so much on military prowess as on economic power.”

I deliberately do not use words like “fall,” “requiem,” or “collapse” to describe what is happening in the U.S. today, for that would be premature. America still has considerable power and the decline is likely to take years. Much depends upon how Americ’s leaders and people respond to the changing power alignment in the world. More wars for oil, for example, will further erode our own limited natural resources and any remaining goodwill with other nations. An alternative would be to manage the decline skillfully and take a less dominant role within the community of nations.

Though still the world’s only remaining superpower, there are many signs that the U.S. is loosing its economic primacy. Right before the midterm elections, Bush finally admitted that the Iraq War has indeed been a war for oil. As the U.S. dollar continues to slide and be volatile, there is more talk of using the Euro for the international petro-currency.

Regardless of what the Democrats do, we should expect the Empire to decline further. The post-election enthusiasm can be used as an opening to explore the American soul more deeply, consider how to manage this decline, and then take courageous actions.

Power is shifting East (as well as South), which is why the U.S. fought in Korea, Indochina, and now in the Middle East.


Everything that lives dies-individuals, planets, and even powerful empires. The American Empire is sliding into decline; the main issue, in my opinion, is how to manage that decline. We can squander our remaining resources and worsen our relationships with other peoples and countries-as the U.S. government seems intent on doing, having quickly spent the world’s post 9/11 goodwill. Or we can apply our substantial skills and resources to collaborating with others in ways that are characterized by humility and cooperation rather than arrogance and domination.

We have many historical examples of how empires can fall and collapse. The warlike Mayans basically disappeared. Rome ceased, though its remnants remain in Italy. The Soviet Empire collapsed somewhat swiftly, though Russia remains powerful. The British Empire is America’s most immediate ancestor. They all merit our study to understand what is happening today. Is the soft landing of an empire even possible?

The demise of the American Empire will have profound implications for the nation, as well as for the world. “You’re a dreamer,” a close friend and elected official responded when I suggested that perhaps the centralized American Empire might eventually dissolve into smaller, separate countries. Vermont already has a growing independence movement. In Northern California there has long been talk of seceding from Southern California. Perhaps Northern California could join with Oregon and Washington, if they would have us, and call ourselves something like Cascadia.

Such thinking may be premature. But when the Soviet Empire eventually fell, it did so quite quickly, as did the Berlin Wall in l989. When events suddenly come to a head, much can shift. So it is prudent to do contingency planning.

I celebrate that the Democrats handed Bush such a decisive defeat on Nov. 7. But it is not enough. Presumed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has made it clear that she will not even hear the growing chorus of voices calling for Bush’s impeachment. She is more likely to close ranks and seek to extend the life of the Empire, given how indebted she and her colleagues are to corporations that benefit from the Empire’s far reach. The Democrats are unlikely to see their task as managing the Empire’s decline, which will not be popular among many Americans, who continue to benefit from the privileges of that Empire. Before one jumps on the Democrat’s bandwagon, careful consideration of the party’s intentions and actions would be in order.

Some positive signs within the Democratic Party are already emerging. For example, the Progressive Caucus of the Congress–co-chaired by my own valiant Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey and by the heroic Rep. Barbara Lee of Berkeley–has invited former Sen. George McGovern to speak to the 62-member Caucus next week. He will present ideas from his new book “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal.” Withdrawal has public support from the American people and the military itself, from enlisted men in the field up to generals and admirals. If the Democrats do not call for a timely withdrawal and then work hard with all the hammers and other tools now at their disposal, that would be a bad sign.

Another early test cases for how serious the resurgent Democrats will be is the U.S. armed forces request of $160 billion supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the remainder of the fiscal year 2007. The request came a couple of days after the Nov. 7 election. Rep. Pelosi has already vowed not to undercut troops in the field. The military budget of the U.S. is more than the combined military budgets of all the world’s other countries. U.S. arms manufacturers export most of the world’s weapons.

Though the Bush administration now appears to be in decline, he was able to successfully rally the American people for six years by appealing to their desire to retain imperial power with its substantial privileges. The Democrats are likely to do the same, especially when threatened. Though in decline, the U.S. Empire will continue to wield substantial power for years.

A perceptive writer for The Nation, Tom Englehardt, posted “Voters Attack Bush’s Empire” on Nov. 8. He writes, “For vast majorities abroad, the vision of the U.S. as an Outlaw Empire is nothing new.” Englehardt writes about the imperial presidency, but it is more than the presidency. Unfortunately, this imperial posture seems to be adopted by the Congress, as well as most Americans, who seem to feel that we are somehow entitled to rule the world with the American Way of Life. So a change at the top, or even in Congress, is not likely to be enough. We need what Brazilian Paolo Freire describes as “cultural action” to make deeper changes in America.

But at least America finally has one truly independent Senator, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. It is often from the margins of smaller places, like Vermont, that real challenges to power come. If ever there was a time to speak truth to power, it is now, during this post-election opening and teaching moment when at least the imperial presidency has been set back.

America’s future requires a different kind of leadership, not just a different leader or a different party. As one scientist, the geologist Jane Nielson reflected, “I hope that the end of cheap energy will eventually humble us.”

And as the peace activist and advocate for Hawaiian sovereignty Jim Albertini wrote in a flyer for a post-election vigil on the Hawai’i Island, “Democrats, and the American people, must now show by concrete actions, not mere words, that we stand for a different America. Let our actions speak clearly of a just and peaceful partner, rather than a global bully, in an international community of equals where dialogue, not weapons, is the method of solving problems.”

Dr. SHEPHERD BLISS is a retired college teacher and former officer in the U.S. Army who now farms in Northern California. He can be reached at:



Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: