Hitler predicted the German Reich would last 1000 years. He was modest. Most emperors feel their power will go on forever. The Mongols became rich and lazy, and the Vikings became civilized and imperialism became prohibitively expensive. Great empires do not inevitably fall; most are simply eclipsed and replaced by a new paradigm.
It is time for that new paradigm, and the United States has a chance to shape it. To do so, we must surrender our empire as well as the pretense that the U.S. will always be the only superpower, exempt from international rules.
The U.S. military maintains over two hundred military bases in 30 countries. Alexander would have envied our worldwide reach. This empire is largely a relic of World War II, when the U.S. emerged as the only power capable of promoting international resistance to communism. It is maintained today on a more nebulous basis that does not stand up to intellectual challenge.
There is no reason to maintain troops in defeated axis powers. Japan and Germany are mature economies and democracies more likely to be our competitors than our vassals. Our presence in the Middle East is an irritation to the region and a huge drain on the treasury. Our wars seem permanent, fought for vague goals like defeating terrorism. Unfortunately, terrorism has always been with us and likely always will be. It is the response of the weak against the strong. It is not an existential threat and should not be treated as one. In most cases, it is a police matter.
If one adds the intelligence and aid budgets to the military budget, the U.S. spends $1 trillion a year on this global empire. For what? There is no amount of favorable trade deals, diplomatic support, or military assistance from our allies that justify this amount. The U.S. spends more than the next 10 countries combined.
We have two vast oceans and two compliant neighbors that give us unprecedented protection from enemies. There is a reason why North America is the favored objective in the game of Risk.
Our empire has become obsolete. It is time to give it up, rein in our out-of-control defense budget, and commit resources to shape the next world order. That world will be multipolar, armed, and competitive, but it is not a zero-sum game. It would be foolish to dismiss the inevitable rise of China or Europe’s independence, but the evolution of these powers can be based on the rule of law if the U.S. throws its support behind existing institutions.
Dominant powers like the U.S. have little reason to put much faith in such institutions. Many were conceived as a check on U.S. power; institutions such as the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court seek to funnel conflict into legal channels and avoid unilateral decision-making. The U.S. would have to give up a small piece of its international sovereignty to give these institutions the legitimacy needed to establish an international order based on the rule of law.
At a time when the U.S. has withdrawn from the ICC and climate agreements and is curtailing its involvement in the U.N., it seems unlikely that the Administration will take the lead in shaping this new world order. But it can take the lead in pulling back the U.S. empire.
President Trump declares that he does not want to be the world’s policeman. That is a start. Trump’s insistence that developed countries pay for their own defense can accelerate the process.
It will take another administration to put the legal architecture of a new world order in place. The U.S. can take the unprecedented step of preparing for its own demise as the dominant power. This provides effective leverage but is hardly an effective campaign slogan. Still, Americans already chafe under the obligations of the empire. As government spending for the military continues to drain resources for schools, health, and justice, more Americans will push back. Deficit spending cannot go on forever, and money will have to come from somewhere. Our bloated military, bereft of empire, is a natural target.
Russia poses a threat to the U.S. retreat from empire. They will continue the centuries-old policy of expansion and coexistence while they seek a warm water port. Trump may actually serve these objectives as he declines the role of world policeman. But Russia is weak. A mono-economy restricts their reach, and their ideological appeal is nil. China and Europe are better placed and more motivated to inhibit Russian empire building. They will not promote our interests, but they will reliably promote their own.
The next international paradigm will be a multi-polar world, and the U.S. role will inevitably recede. International and domestic realities should lead the U.S. to recognize this and manage the transition through international architecture based on the rule of law. Such architecture exists but the U.S. has weakened it by declining to surrender any sovereignty. As citizens, we accept rules and limits on our freedom. As international citizens, Americans can learn the same behavior. The alternative is a further loss of international credibility, a domestic economic crisis, and the prospect of permanent war for nebulous aims.