Democratic Party, revitalized 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
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
www.energybulletin.net 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.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LATIN AMERICA
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
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.
AMERICA’S MORTAL WOUND
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
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 capital… By 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 America’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
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
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
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
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 military officer who now farms in Northern
California. He has contributed to 19 books, including three post 9/11
books, and most recently to “Veterans
of War, Veterans of Peace.” He can be reached at: