The decline and fall of the American empire

An expert on geopolitics says forget Islamic terrorism -- the real future threat to America's supremacy will come from Europe.

Published December 2, 2002 10:29PM (EST)

The title of Charles A. Kupchan's new book, "The End of the American Era," sounds grim, but after a year of terrorist violence, "spectacular" attack warnings and ominous analyses of fundamentalist Islam, his argument is almost refreshing. According to Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, it isn't radical Islam that we should be most concerned about. It's our friends across the Atlantic, the European Union, that pose the greatest threat to American primacy.

In "The End of the American Era," Kupchan compares the current world situation to past turning points in history -- the end of World War I, the federation of the American colonies, the Great Depression -- to suggest ways in which the world might transform itself. In some of his most illuminating passages, Kupchan disputes the predictions of such optimistic leading thinkers as Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman, who perceive democracy and globalization as great panaceas, and pessimists such as Samuel Huntington who foresees a "clash of civilizations." Instead, Kupchan's global map resembles that of the 19th century, when the reigning empire, Great Britain, gave the rising United States entree as a world power. This time, Kupchan says, it's America's turn to make room for Europe.

Kupchan spoke to Salon from his office in Washington, D.C.

I know historians and scholars hate the word "inevitable," but you imply that sooner or later all great empires will fall. Is that right?

If there's any trend that keeps coming back, it's that great powers come and go. No one stays at the top forever. Rome was a great empire with a huge territory under its weight for probably 300 to 400 years, which is a pretty long time. Some have come and gone much more quickly.

One of the reasons that America's moment at the top will be short-lived is that history is moving much more quickly than it used to. The countries that get into the digital age go into fast-forward. If you take a snapshot of the world today and say, "A-ha! This is what the world's going to look like for the next century," it's very dangerous. Tomorrow could look very different.

Which empire do we compare most to? Is it Rome?

Two analogies come to my mind as most insightful to the present. First, the Roman case. The split that we're now seeing between Europe and America reminds me of the split between Rome and Byzantium that occurred in the end of the third century and into the fourth century. You had a unitary imperial zone divided into two, and once you had two separate capitals, Rome and Constantinople, you immediately had rivalry rather than unity. The same thing is happening between Washington and Brussels.

As far as the nature of our empire, I'd say the British probably comes closer to ours. The Roman empire was more contiguous. We have a more far-flung empire that relies on offshore balancing, which is what the Brits did: Send troops abroad but more to keep the balance than to occupy. You could almost call it Empire Lite. That's more or less how we run the show. One of the benefits of that is that Empire Lite is cheaper and it also provokes less resistance.

But one of the real dangers that we face at the moment is that Empire Lite might become Empire Heavy and rather than reassure others, we'll alienate them. Rather than appear as a benign hegemon, we appear predatory. We appear to lose our legitimacy as a great power, which is probably our most precious commodity. If that happens, then all bets are off. Then you really see countries run for cover and join arms against the United States.

What mistakes do historians and scholars make when they say that America is different, that for some reason American primacy will last indefinitely?

Part of it stems from looking at what I would say are the wrong indicators. They look at the GDP and the military capability of the United States vs. other countries. If you do that, it doesn't look like anybody is going to come close for many decades. I agree with that. But Europe is no longer a group of sovereign countries; it's coming together just like [the United States] did [in the 18th century]. That's why you have to talk about Europe as a collective entity and its ability to serve as a counterweight to the United States.

Also, oftentimes historians and particularly political scientists tend to look at the world structurally. They say, "Forget about what's going on inside states and just look at the relations among states." The end of America's dominance will to some extent be made in America. It will come from America's domestic politics, its own ambivalence about empire and its own stiff-necked unilateralism, which alienates others. In that sense, a lot of where we go as a country will come from internal factors -- demographics, politics, political culture, populism. Those are issues that lots of political scientists don't pay attention to.

Now, is that a trend that you see happening regardless of what political party is in power?

Yes. That's a debate that I have with my colleagues here because they say, "Listen. Once the Bushies are gone everything will be fine. If Gore had won, everything would be fine." I don't agree. If Gore had won, the changes we are seeing now would have taken longer to come about, but both parties face the same political pressures in the end. If the Democrats win by 2015, it doesn't matter. We'll be in the same place.

Still, you're basing a lot of your argument on what you've seen in the last year, aren't you? The idea that American intervention and multilateralism is on the wane ... that has a lot to do with what happened in the last year. And that's just one year.

Interestingly enough, I wrote the first draft of the book before Bush was elected. The core themes were all there. What I'm quite shocked by is the speed with which all of this has happened. I thought that my general analysis would take a good decade to play out. Once Bush came to office it seemed like someone stepped on the gas. I had to rewrite the book and I put much more emphasis on America's turning inward and its ambivalence about running the world. After Sept. 11, the unilateralists' angry lashing-out side came back. The emphasis in the book on that was written after Bush came to office, and after Sept. 11.

So you think this trend might slow down with Democrats -- if they're ever in power again -- but not halt.

Yes, and that's partly because when I was in the Clinton administration in the early 1990s -- only a few years after the end of the Cold War -- I already saw trends that were seeds for the book. Congress was beginning to check out. The media was stopping its coverage of foreign affairs. Even Clinton, who was a liberal internationalist by inclination, wasn't so wild about the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and all this other stuff that the Bush people said no to. When it all comes down to it, I see the arrows all pointing in one direction, but the emphasis and the speed changes from party to party.

Part of your theory is that now we see isolationist and unilateralist extremes working at the same time. The alternative you propose is liberal internationalism? What does that mean? What conflicts would we have engaged in during the 1990s, and now, if we followed that line of thought?

The world I envisage is one where the U.S. enters a period of transition in which it helps other actors build up the capability to do what we've been doing. I just don't believe that, given American politics, we will intervene in [situations such as] Rwanda and East Timor. I don't think that's the way the world works. Rather than no one doing it, we ought to work toward a world in which there are alternative centers of authority with the will and capability to do peacekeeping and intervention. I would love to see the European Union get to the point where it can take care of Kosovo and the Balkans. I'd love to see some sort of association of African states that could go into a Rwanda-type activity. The U.S. will no doubt remain willing and able to intervene in the Western hemisphere, but my view is that intervention far afield will diminish over time with a couple of exceptions -- where there are clear strategic interests like Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.

How does the Bush administration's desire to attack Iraq fit into these trends? You did write that we would be staying home and shoring up defenses post-Sept. 11, but here we are ready to wage another war already. What does this war represent?

The political landscape is so skewed that the unilateralist camp is essentially unchecked. In the Republican Party, there are three ideological camps: the neoconservatives, who are unilateralists; the moderate centrists, who are essentially liberal internationalists of the sort that I advocate such as Father Bush, Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger; and this new, young ascendant wing of the Republican Party represented by President Bush. That's the heartland wing -- the agrarian South and the mountain West. It's populous and its inclinations are neo-isolationist.

That's why from Jan. 20 to Sept. 11 the centrist wing was pushed to the margins and the neoconservatives and the heartland conservatives were duking it out. That's why one day Bush would say we can't be everything to everybody and the next day Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz at the Pentagon would say, "We're going to run the world." Then comes Sept. 11 and the heartland conservatives have their legs cut off. So right now there's no check on the neoconservatives and the Democratic Party has folded its tent, lost the midterm elections. That's why there's so little debate about Iraq. That doesn't mean, however, that the heartland wing is gone. They're in suspension now politically, but they will be back.

The other thing that is important on Iraq is that the Bush administration could, if it's not careful, find itself in over its head and have a set of commitments on its plate -- including a five- to 10-year occupation of Iraq -- that ultimately causes a political backlash in which the American people say enough already.

Could that scenario speed up this whole process of the decline of the American era?

It depends on how it goes. If the war goes smoothly and Saddam falls and all goes well and there aren't chemical weapons exploding in Tel Aviv, I think it will probably turn out OK and not change the landscape all that much. If anything, it will fuel the neoconservative view.

If it goes poorly ... I think the war will go smoothly actually. What I really worry about is the occupation. You ought to see a therapist if you want to occupy Iraq. It's just the last place I would want to set up shop. The whole region is deeply anti-American. They'll probably be dancing in the streets for 24 to 48 hours and then they'll take up sniper positions. That's where I think things could go wrong with barracks exploding, etc. If that were to happen, at the end of the day it would cause us to pull in our horns and cause Americans to say, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

And our main challenger, in your view, is not radical Islam or Saddam Hussein, but the European Union. What kind of threat do you really see the European Union posing? Do you ever see us going to war with Europe?

To work backwards, no. The likelihood of military conflict between the U.S. and Europe is very low, almost beyond the stretch of imagination. The main threat is to order. The main threat is to the stability of the world. Everyone right now is focusing on terrorism and environmental degradation, and I'm all for those things. But we've gotten complacent about the big picture. We're used to a world where America runs the show. We may wake up one morning and find that we don't have complete control, that we go to the IMF or the World Bank or the United Nations, and say, "Here's our plan for the next week." And the E.U. looks at us and says, "We're not onboard. We're not going to do that."

In fact, everyone saw the recent voting at the U.N. Security Council as victory for the U.S. But what really happened? The U.S. went in and said, "This is our position, take it or leave it." Most of the Security Council, save Britain, said, "Leave it." They locked arms with France rather than with us, which is what they've been doing for the last 50 years. That's just the beginning of what the world could look like -- main powers not working together. If it comes to that, then these other threats will diminish in importance and pale in comparison to a world in which the key players are no longer on the same sheet of music, in which Europe sets itself against us, rather than with us.

The illusion, however, is that we control the major international organizations. Also, we seem to be reaching out to NATO. How could we lose control of them?

We still do control them, but that control is slipping away in several respects. First of all, we see major institutions devolving against our wishes. The E.U. takes the lead and says, "You want to drive SUVs and drill wells in the Alaska wilderness? Well, we're going to go ahead with the Kyoto Protocol without you. You don't like the International Criminal Court? We'll do it without you." Does it hurt the ICC that we're not there? Yes. But does it also start building a world where you have these other countries coming together with major steps forward and we're not there? Yes. Does that degrade order? Yes.

In existing institutions we'll find ourselves increasingly isolated. One of the reasons that we tend to have as much say as we do is that, for example, in the IMF, the U.S. has a larger share than any other country. But that's because the countries are represented solely by their country representatives. If the E.U. starts coming together with its own single representative, then we will no longer be the dominant country. We're not going to be able to go in and pound our fist on the table anymore.

It's a subtle shift that I'm talking about and that's why most people say, "Oh, it's nothing compared to Osama bin Laden." But, on the other hand, it's the superstructure, it's the guts of the international system, and that's why the stakes are so high.

What issues and conflicts will we diverge on with the E.U.? The Middle East?

That's probably the area where the U.S. and Europe most disagree. It's quite striking if you go to Europe and turn on the TV. The presentation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is so different that you scratch your head and say, "What part of the world are they talking about?" That's part of the problem. We reside in different mind-sets.

The trade and monetary issues will grow more difficult over time if the euro gradually rises. It's a real challenger to the dollar. That's going to make us look like we're back in the 1930s where you had the pound sterling and the dollar together and the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England trying to manage jointly the international economy. It didn't work; the two went off in their own direction. Now it's going to be the Federal Reserve vs. the European Central Bank. If we don't get that relationship right, there could be very serious implications. We are so used to being alone at the top that it's going to be hard for us to get used to that.

Where will England stand in all of this? They're our best friends these days.

The Brits are right now trying to have their cake and eat it too. They're kind of edging into the E.U. but also playing the traditional role of bridge to America. Those days are numbered. It's a strategy that will diminish over time in terms of its utility, but also in terms of its political feasibility. The Brits will change their strategy to trying to change the Franco-German coalition into the Franco-German-British troika. That's because if the Brits don't get into the driver's seat in Europe, they'll be marginalized. My guess is that by 2005 and certainly by the end of the decade, the Brits will be buying their fish and chips with euros and they will be one of the engines behind European integration rather than lagging behind.

When Bush said you're either with us or you're with the terrorists, was he trying to create a new map of the world, one that's black and white and similar to the Cold War bipolar world? It's almost nostalgic for the Cold War. Why would he want to do that, and why can't that work with terrorism?

Part of it may be instrumental. It's a useful talking point for both domestic and international politics. Part of it is sincere -- the Bush people really do believe the world has changed and that it's all about terrorism and either you are against the terrorists or with them.

First of all, that grossly distorts the implications of Sept. 11, in that I don't think the world has changed all that much. Beneath the surface, the same old agenda is still relevant, it's just got one new thing on it: terrorism. If we're terrorism 24/7 we're going to miss all those other issues. We're going to miss the fact that we're alienating the Europeans, we're going to miss the fact that we have a potential environmental disaster looming on the horizon.

The other problem is that terrorism is a very weak reason upon which to build American internationalism. That's partly because it's not the type of threat that -- similar to the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan -- gets us riled up for the long haul. It's elusive. We're in this weird zone where we're being told we're at war but when asked what should we do about it, we're supposed to go shopping and take vacations so that our planes have people on them. It doesn't quite click. Something's not right about this story. Some of the greatest successes in this battle will be the ones we never hear about -- covert operations, the averted attack -- and so in that sense, it's very tough to get this country into a mode of centrist moderate internationalism on terrorism.

I also think -- and this definitely cuts against the grain for now -- that ultimately there will be a counterresponse. Right now, it's, "Let's go get the barbarians," but over time there will be an alternative voice that says, "Let's raise protective barriers, let's get out of some of our overseas commitments." Going back to the founding fathers, we can, because of our location, enjoy a sort of natural security.

Where's that voice going to come from? The left or the right?

It's going to come from all different quadrants. More from the right and the heartland than from the left. I make a point to give talks in Kansas and Texas, Birmingham and Nashville, and there's just a different view of the world there. Even people who are involved in the international economy are not quite as gung ho about the American empire as we hear in Washington today. That's why over time that voice will gain strength. It's important to keep in mind that if you look at how other countries have responded to terrorism or how we have responded, sometimes it does make you pull in your horns. We got out of Lebanon in 1983, we left Aden when the Cole was bombed; Nigerian attacks on the French mainland got the French to leave Algeria. It's not particularly politically correct to say so, but terrorism does engender one to hunker down.

What other alliances might we see? Where does China fit in all this?

In the near term, the main actor is Europe because it has the clout, population and economic weight. It's beginning to have the collective character as the states pass more and more authority up to the supranational authority.

I spent less time on China in the book because most people exaggerate China's importance. China is still a relatively small country economically with an economy smaller than California's. Ten years from now China will be an Italy with nuclear weapons. Once you get into the second quarter of the century, 2025 and beyond, then China starts to begin to take its place as one of the top-ranking countries. Then, you might spend a lot more time worrying about China.

But, what do I think the most volatile relationship will be, the one that changes most this decade? It's U.S.-Europe.

How will that affect ordinary Americans? What changes will we see if it's not a military threat? I mean, the American people can't see past terrorism right now because we can see very clearly what that threat is.

I'd say that right across the board there are some consequences. The trade and investment with Europe is very strong and healthy. If that becomes politicized it could be a problem. There are already looming disputes over biotech, bioengineered greens.

The disputes on other areas -- on the Middle East, on Iran, on Iraq -- could lead to trouble. NATO, which has been our main tool in influencing Europe, is withering on the vine, partly of our own doing. We're just losing interest in Europe.

I'd probably put it in these terms: Europe will be our competitor but not necessarily our adversary. That's why we're in a switching point where we really have to get it right. Negotiating a treaty, rebuilding Afghanistan, dealing with the Middle East process -- all that stuff usually moves forward with the U.S. taking the lead and Europe backing off. If we wake up one day and the U.S. tries to take the lead and Europe tells us to take a hike, then we're in a brave new world. Doing business on a day-to-day basis becomes much more difficult. At the broadest level, all the money and lives that we expended since World War II to tame the international system and give it a benign character -- all of that's at stake. It's possible that we could wake up and it will be 1935 and I don't think any American wants that.

You do say that the unipolar world that we have now is a peaceful one and historically unipolar worlds are always peaceful. You say that a world without American primacy will be an unpredictable and unpleasant world. For everyone, or just for Americans?

Everybody. Even though a lot of countries wouldn't necessarily say so, they've had a pretty good deal. Big Daddy's been there and he takes care of everything. The Europeans don't have to spend much on defense. China and Japan basically don't like each other, but they're not gnawing at each other's heels because the U.S. keeps a presence there. We provide stability. What we're seeing now is the end of that. The U.S. is decamping from Europe because we've got nothing else to do there, but it does leave the Europeans with the new onerous task of taking care of themselves. That's going to be scary for them even though there's a certain schizophrenia. The Europeans are annoyed with us but scared of what Europe will look like without the American pacifier. In the same respect, the Saudis believe that the U.S. destabilizes them but what happens if the U.S. leaves? The stakes are very high.

I'll take a wild guess that most Americans will be surprised that Europe might challenge us. Are Europeans?

Depends on what you mean. They will never be a superpower; they're never going to spend the money to rival the U.S. in military terms. What we'll see is that they will build up enough capability to take care of the Balkans and other small conflicts, and the U.S. will take care of other parts of the world. Sort of a division of labor. But that division of labor means the end of the Atlantic alliance.

You say most Americans will be surprised at this and I think that's right. I don't think most Europeans will be. This issue gets much more traction there. They are engaged in international issues in ways that we are now. There is this abiding sense that we're all in the same family, that these are our cousins. That's probably what will keep us from going to war, but it's not going to keep us from drifting apart.

So how do you fear that America might react to this?

The worst that we can do is bite back. The historical analogy that is most useful here is what happened in the 19th century when America rose because it federated. Basically, history is reversing itself: This time we're at the top and Europe is coming together, last time Europe was at the top and we came together. There wasn't war over America's rise because the British made room for us. They cut deals on all kinds of issues and they said we need to have a rapprochement with the rising great power, America. We ought to do the same thing.

We ought to say: Europe is rising, Europe wants voice, influence, and we're going to make room. I don't think that we've been doing that. We're still in the mode of "How dare you challenge us?" Probably the best anecdote is about the E.U. Defense Force. The U.S. fought the war over Kosovo, and then Congress said, "This is ridiculous. This is not our problem. Europe, you need to spend more and build your own military." So Europe said, "OK." And then the U.S. went bonkers: "What do you mean you're going to build your own military? You don't love us anymore?"

Europe is growing up and leaving home to go to college and we're just not ready for it. We ought to say, "Go to college, be independent, and just call us once a year or something."

But you don't think that terrorism is the unifying great threat that it's been made out to be?

No. Everyone was saying, "Aha, the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century!" This couldn't be further from the truth. We have quite rapidly drifted back to disengagement.

Couldn't a couple more attacks change that?

Yes. That's the big unknown. If a nuclear weapon goes off, God forbid, if there's another catastrophic attack, then I think we're in a brave new world. Do I think it will bring the country together and make us internationalist? I don't know. It could also make us pull in and retreat. It's dangerous to be confident that terrorism is the sort of threat that will keep us engaged in the world. It does the opposite -- pushing us to both unilateralist and isolationist extremes.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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