Alfred W. McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century, the Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017, 359 pages. $18.00 (quality paper)
Successful imperialism wins wealth. Yet, historically, successful empires such as Persia, Rome, Byzantium, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, France, Britain, have not remained rich. Indeed, it seems to be the fate of empires to become too poor to sustain the very cost of empires. The longer an empire holds together, the poorer and more economically backward it tends to become.1
The curtain is now falling on the American Century.
-Andrew J. Bacevich
All empires come to an end.
The Tides of Empire
Reviewed by Michael F. Duggan
Not every historian can make a career by speaking inconvenient truths to power, but Alfred W. McCoy has done so for nearly five decades. McCoy, the J.R.W. Short Professor in History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, made his reputation as a young scholar by shining light on the politics and policy of heroin in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. With a strong claim to the title of American dean of historiography on Southeast Asia, his latest book looks at the decline of the American empire and the rise of China2.
The book is a warning that traces the rise of the United States from an emerging world power, to a superpower following WWII (the term “American Century” was coined by Henry Luce in 1941) until the end of the Cold War, to its current role as the “sole remaining superpower”, the hitherto unchallenged world economic and military hegemon. As such, the American Empire is the liberal, English-speaking heir to the British Empire that dominated the nineteenth-century (1815-1914).
If McCoy is correct, the days of United States military and economic hegemony are numbered and likely to end sometime between 2020 and 2040—and the question is whether its decline will be controlled and managed, or if the denial of or resistance to changing geopolitical realities will lead to an uncontrolled collapse; will the American empire end with a sensible post-globalist grand strategy of consolidation, or will it end with a bang or fizzle? Denial and rationalization are the twin pillars of human psychology, and the willful or unconscious ignoring of hard facts that are now coming into sharp focus could lead to a catastrophic collapse or else a dismal but more gradual decline and end to the American Century a few years shy of an even hundred.
Do the facts support McCoy’s premise? With a rapidly mounting national debt and a shrinking tax base, it is increasingly likely that by 2030, the United States will experience economic crisis and paralysis. It is becoming more and more apparent that with a $22 trillion debt, a collapse is all but inevitable as the U.S. government begins to look more and more like a giant scheme that exhales more than it inhales and that it will never be able to pay off its debt. A Cold War-size military to police the world—military predominance generally—and the de facto imperialism of neoliberal globalization will soon become as unsustainable as they are already undesirable. If current trends continue, the Chinese will likely, sometime during the same period, be in a position to supplant the Dollar with the Yuan as the basis for the world reserve currency.
Unchecked power brings with it the potential for corruption, hubris, and an un-self-critical sense of entitlement in terms of intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations. The role of the world’s policeman in furtherance of an activist neoliberal worldview by neoconservative means and the misleading designation of humanitarian interventions, have sullied rather than strengthen the reputation of the United States as a force for good in the world, a reputation increasingly seen by others as honored in the breach.
Similarly, an entire generation of Americans has grown up to see no anomaly, no abnormally in their nation bombing, invading, and occupying other nations, killing tens and even hundreds of thousands of people in the process. Several generations have witnessed their nation increasingly use undeclared wars as a basis for policy. The unintended consequence of this is an inversion of Clauzwitz’s “war is an extension of policy” to a situation where policy has become a justification for military budgets and a seemingly limitless gravy train for burgeoning defense industries. Budgets may inadvertently become a driver of policy. Undeclared foreign wars and a never-ending state of semi-war can be used, not only to justify new weapons systems, but some commentators have suggested that they also provide convenient venues to test them under battlefield conditions.3 As the demise of the Soviet Union well illustrates, economies typified by little growth and which rely on a manufacturing sector based on military production are both artificial and symptomatic of decline.
MacKinder’s “World Island” and the Rise of China
In the Shadows of the American Century makes a compelling case that China is poised to become the dominant Eurasian hegemon. The argument goes like this: China has emerged beyond the parameters of a rising regional power and is embarking on a massive infrastructure program that will link it throughout Eurasia.4 This, combined with technological advances, improved manufactured goods, and a rapidly expanding military, will secure its predominance on the world’s largest continent in the near future. McCoy believes that China’s strategy is analogous to the 1904 “World Island” model of Halford MacKinder asserting that the power that controls Eurasia will effectively control the world.5 Part and parcel with this view is the observation that the United States is likely entering a state of permanent and irreversible decline not unlike that of the British Empire a century before and perhaps worse.
The dominant historical/geopolitical outlook of MacKinder’s time was navalism and included such theorists as Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett, and imperialist acolytes like John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elihu Root. MacKinder believed that it was possible to manage the World Island through naval power along the Eurasian littoral regions, the maritime periphery. Indeed, the Royal Navy maintained Britain’s massive maritime empire and exerted influence over portions of the World Island with small constabularies and friendly local regimes. On this point, McCoy understands the mechanics of empire as well as any American historian.
But MacKinder was not a navalist. He believed in control of landmass over sea lanes and that the heartland of Eurasia was “nothing less than the Archimedean fulcrum for world power. ‘Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island… Who rules the World Island rules the world.’” McCoy continues,
“Beyond the vast mass of that island which made up nearly 60 percent of the Earth’s landmass, lay a less consequential hemisphere covered with broad ocean and a few ‘smaller islands’. He meant, of course, Australia, Greenland, and the Americas.” [McCoy, p. 29]
This is a bold geopolitical vision—assertion—but how does it apply to the modern world? In the tradition of the British Empire, the United States has maintained its ability to project power through an elaborate system of far flung bases in various regions designated as strategic commands. The aircraft carrier is the new capital ship, and the carrier group is the regional squadron. But “[w]hile the U.S. military was mired in the Middle East, Beijing began to unify that vast ‘middle space of Eurasia and preparing to neutralize America’s ‘offshore bases.’” McCoy believes that China’s rising land-based MacKinderism will likely trump American navalism.
But the power dynamics do not stop there, and ultimately military power rests on sustainable economic strength. China’s economic rise since 1989, and especially in the twenty-first century, has been spectacular and perhaps unprecedented. As McCoy observes,
“From 1820 to 1870, Britain increased its share of global gross domestic product by 1% per decade; the United States raised its share by 2% during its half-century ascent, 1900 to 1950; at a parallel pace, Japan’s grew about 1.5% during its postwar resurgence, from 1950 to 1980. China, however, raised its slice of the world pie by an extraordinary 5% from 2000 to 2010 and is on course to do so again in the decade ending in 2020, with Indian not far behind. Even if China’s growth slows, by he 2020s, U.S. economic leadership is expected to be decisively ‘overtaken by China.'” [McCoy, p. 193]
One possible outcome of this trend is the proffering and perhaps supplanting of a democratic—if increasingly plutocratic-republican—form of capitalism embodied by the United States by an authoritarian state-based capitalism as an emerging alternative. In a more value-neutral sense, this would a local, land-based empire replacing a declining and remote maritime empire.
China’s next (current) phase of economic development, a great infrastructure project designed to link greater Eurasia though massive capital projects will dwarf the United States Interstate Highway system. This and declining economic prospects for the U.S. will likely hasten the transfer in global standing and economic status. Even so, how realistic is the World Island as a sustainable economic model?
It is notable that nobody—not even the Mongols, who briefly dominated the massive territory from the Sea of Japan to Hungary and Poland—ever completely controlled the entire Eurasian landmass (and they, having little if any culture, were quickly assimilated in the areas they conquered, something that should give all military imperialists pause). Similarly, from the west, neither the adventures of Napoleon or Hitler made it beyond Moscow, their armies reduced to inglorious defeat and retreat, their regimes doomed. Of course China would not attempt to dominate Eurasia by force of arms, but rather through the soft power of economics and massive capital projects that would integrate land transportation throughout Eurasia.
On this point, regardless of whether the application of power is soft or hard, the dictum of British navalist, Julian Corbett, that it is impossible to conquer the ocean would seem to apply in modified form to Eurasia. This is not because its affinity to the unique characteristics of water as territory, but rather in the geographical sense that Eurasia/Africa is the only physical feature on the surface of the Earth that compares with the Atlantic or Pacific oceans in terms of pure scale. Indeed invaders of the past sometimes compared the seemingly endless undulating steppes and shallow valleys of Russia to the open expanses of the rolling sea.
In addition to the massive, ocean-like expanses of the Eurasian continent, there are also cultural-historical facts that would work against such a project. It seems unlikely that a greater Eurasian prosperity sphere including China, Iran, perhaps Pakistan (perhaps India), and Russia, would hold together for any period of time (although the baffling renewal of U.S. tensions with Russia is likely to drive them closer to China for a while thus extending the prospects for a united Eurasia longer than it might have been otherwise).
Although economic prosperity can make up for a multitude of historical grievances and perhaps even smooth-over national pride and interest-based tensions for short periods, over the long term this would be an economic sphere in which the constituent parts would act like mutually repelling magnets. By way of another metaphor, trying to dominate Eurasia is like trying to stabilize an inverted pyramid: it is inherently unstable as any number of other regional power jostle for influence and in doing so throw it off balance.
But even if such a top-down plan built on a scale necessary to integrate all or most of Eurasia is bound to fail over the long run, it is likely to succeed long enough to displace U.S. primacy in the world along with its currency, especially if the United States foolishly—insanely—chooses to actively challenge or confront China as the result of a misconceived “pivot to the Pacific” policy. Given that all military issues are ultimately economic issues, the United States could conceivably collapse virtually overnight, like the USSR during the late 1980s-early 1990s. Otherwise, it might follow a path of more protracted decline into a second or third-tier statua like Britain during the last century, or Spain a couple of centuries before that.
Although the rise of China as characterized by McCoy is alarming, he does not think it likely that the Chinese will be able to fully replace or come to occupy the role United States as global hegemon. He rightly notes that China has less to offer the world than the liberal West:
“Every sustainable modern empire has had some source of universal appeal, Britain had free markets and fair play, and the United States democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Searching for successors, both China and Russia have inward-looking, self-referential cultures, recondite non-Roman scripts, nondemocratic political structures, and underdeveloped legal systems that will deny them key instruments for global domination.” [pp. 232-233]
Indeed, China has little in terms of transplantable cultural advantages to offer other nations relative to those of the British and American empires that preceded it. The spoken and written languages of the Chinese are difficult and difficult to export and present an obstacle; they seem unlikely to become global languages of business or diplomacy. Overall, China’s advantages/disadvantages seem fairly evenly split, and this is to say nothing about China’s considerable internal problems.
What China lacks in terms of cultural and political offerings it makes up in regard to economic realism. China has a lighter touch than either the United States or British in regard to the technical appeal of infrastructure, funds, and political non-interference. On this score, the Chinese want to do business and tend to avoid the meddlesome judgment and moralizing of the liberal West.
China also has a strong geographical advantage. The “One Road, One Belt” or “New Silk Road” is a series infrastructure projects, overland routes amounting to the internal lines of an economic struggle, and will likely work better than the far-flung empires of the Americans and British that required lengthy supply lines over the oceans of the world. Even given the ocean-like distances of the Eurasian continent, it would be more effective to try to manage a landmass over land routes than along its maritime periphery—ultimately people live on land, and as a military matter, the air and maritime domains—even when they are decisive—are necessarily adjunct. Geography may or may not be destiny, but even with strong geographical advantages the Chinese will likely experience trouble.
My experience has been that many, perhaps most historians despise counterfactuals and the game of “what if?” That said, a primary purpose of history is to inform policy decisions, and these necessarily depend on hypothetical scenarios analyzed with knowledge of the past. McCoy concludes his book with his “Five Scenarios for the End of the American Century”—i.e. five possible courses United States-Chinese relations might take, none of which play out happily for the United States.
Here his fluency in the relative strengths and shifting advantages shines and he writes with the powerful insight and analysis of a master historian (he observes that the fastest, most powerful computers in the world are now Chinese and are made of Chinese components, something that should be keeping policymakers in the West up at night). Although counterfactual historical fiction raises my blood pressure as much as it does for any historian, this intelligent and insightful use of possible historical tracks is constructive and very useful to show how events might devolve. At the very least, they powerfully underscore the inadequacies of current American policies.
Given the fundamental unpredictability of geopolitics, it would not be surprising if China failed to live up to McCoy’s predictions over the next 10-20 years. The combination of lopsided economies and an increasing drag from climate change combined and potentially devastating human migrations could easily upend the best laid plans and the optimistic forecasts (from the Chinese perspective) of even the most sensitive observers.
Of course the backdrop to this great drama is an even greater one, the unfolding environmental crises. Even if China’s plans have the potential to succeed and to sustain themselves for a few decades, such a massive infrastructure project would likely be coming to fruition conterminously with increasingly severe and fearful feedback of the emerging global environmental crises. It is all beginning to read like a Shakespearean tragedy in which the machinations of human intrigue are about to be permanently upset by a far greater external tragedy. Perhaps it is like watching a powerful play in a theater that is on fire.
A Proposed Solution: The “Other Island”
When reading McCoy’s book, I tried to devise a realistic U.S. policy in response to the scenario(s) he was depicting. On page 235, at the end of one of his scenarios, he writes “While [United States] global power would diminish, Washington would still have considerable influence as a regional hegemon for North America and an arbiter of the residual international order.”
Immediately before this however, McCoy decries the possibility of the world order reverting to a new Westphalian paradigm with regional hegemons, spheres of influence, a range of lesser sovereign states, and the balancing of power (I would argue that the original Westphalia paradigm is still mostly intact and that its lingering death has been greatly exaggerated by advocates of neoliberal globalization). While this would not be an optimal state of affairs, it would seem to be preferable to global empires and super-powerful world hegemons, and the increased possibility of war between great nations. We must accept the fact that as long as there are powerful nations, there will be spheres of influence, and that if any country would benefit from gracefully embracing the role of a regional world power, it is the United States.6
In December 2015, I presented a paper at a conference on land force strategy at the Army War College in Carlisle outlining an American regional policy for the Near East that was situated within a grand strategy calling for a more limited form of internationalism. This is based on the idea that the United States should be involved in the world only so far as necessary with a well-defined sphere of interest and demonstrable vital interests as a sustainable status as a world and regional power. Although this idea was geared toward addressing the eschatology that underlies terrorism, it dovetails seamlessly with McCoy’s characterization of a Chinese-dominated World Island of Eurasia.
What then is the best course of action for the United States to follow in an age of an ascending China? The problem with the Great Game is the game itself: it is a rotten, egotistical, and ultimately self-destructive game, and the United States should frankly and willingly relinquish its status of dominance—leave the Great Game insofar as possible—as a matter of mature and considered policy. Quite simply, the role of the superpower is a fundamentally undesirable one. It begs rational understanding why military, foreign, or economic policymakers would want to sustain it, given its costly liabilities and diminishing returns. A nation’s military should reflect its size and resources, rather than pride, ambition, and the realities of the past.
The desirability of consolidation into a more manageable status of a regional world power is quite simple and based on singular, self-evident fact: the United States occupies the best real estate on the planet; it is large enough to be self-sustaining and has relatively unproblematic neighbors. Defending North America would be like defending an actual island, rather than attempting to diminish China’s power by attempting to manage the littoral and maritime regions of the World Island in a provocative posture of forward presence in somebody else’s neighborhood.
Rather than continue to embrace the problematic role of the world’s military and naval hegemon, the United States should adopt an outlook where it could operate more effectively as a robust regional world power with capable land, air, and sea forces to match. Such a status would allow the U.S. to protect its vital interests and meet its treaty obligations while still acting as a world leader in international coalitions to preserve peace and order and to restore the status quo in instances where the territorial sovereignty of a nation has been violated by another. Such a role would also be an effective means for assuring the international cooperation necessary to address the unfolding world environmental crises. As an example of benevolence in the world, when the United States helps itself, it helps the world, and if it cannot lead by example, it has no basis for telling others how to live or act.
One of the intrinsic problems with attempts to “control” Eurasia other than its sheer size, is the fact that there a numerous old and proud nations—civilizations in addition to China, that are constantly jostling for local and regional dominance. The United States does not have to trouble itself with this dangerous and distracting jockeying for power and control. A return to the Westphalian paradigm may not be a perfect solution, but it is better than what we have and likely to be far more desirable than anything that would follow an all-out American collapse.
The strategy would be as follows: the United States would unofficially cede local influence of Asia to China while continuing to trade and do business with East Asia—frankly there is little other choice in the matter and it in no way furthers American interests to aggressively oppose China, further bankrupting ourselves and risking catastrophic war in the process. As George Kennan and others have observed, no single regime will ever control the entire world, and the “World Island” geopolitical model—the control of Eurasia by a single power—is only slightly more modest than grandiose schemes of actual world domination. My reading of McKinder’s World Island is that it is likely a model for exerting influence over much of the globe de facto, and not actually dictating the local or proximate administration for all parts of the entire planet. It would seem that the planet is big enough for more than one island, even an archipelago.
As for the Far East and Eastern Pacific, the U.S. should play the situation by ear and continue to do business rather than risk conflict as the result of its own insecurity and subsequent overreaction, and we must become acclimated to certain stark realities: the U.S. will no longer be the dominant power in the South China Sea—a quick glance to its proximity relative to China on a map or a globe instantly forces the question: by what geographical logic should the U.S. be dominant here any more than the Chinese should control the Gulf of Mexico? If you will excuse the mixed metaphor, it is unlikely that China will threaten the Golden Geese that are the Asian Tigers, or commerce related to it traversing international waters. They will likely not risk invading Taiwan, given the likely cost versus benefits of not invading. Even with all of the wealth of the Orient, there is nothing so valuable there that would justify a conflict between the United States and China that would likely to end with nuclear weapons.
Within our own sphere we would likely be the regional hegemon, unless unforeseen or underestimated domestic realities resulted in the breakup of the United States into smaller regions. If the U.S. does hold together, it would serve our interests to act in a “good neighbor” way rather than return to the policies of regional imperialism of the past. Under this plan the United States would chart a middle course between imperial overreach and “Fortress America” autarchy and isolation. It would allow the U.S. to pursue vital interests in its own sphere and would not relinquish vital relations with Western Europe and Australia.
In an age where conventional, cyber, and nuclear weapons can deter any conventional attack on the American homeland by another great power, our goal should no longer be predominance, but rather the sustenance and protection of an impressive mean standard of living in a multi-polar world—the pursuit of the optimal rather than the maximal. If the U.S. consolidates, preserves its strength through consolidation, it can take care of an increasing host of domestic and economic problems in an increasingly chaotic world.
Alfred McCoy may be a controversial figure in some circles, but he need not be. Those in the halls of power may or may not like McCoy or his works for whatever reason. He upsets in a way that all frank honesty is likely to upset. But this is a courageous man who has “walked the walk” for no apparent reason other than to tell the truth, often unpleasant truths, and the facing of unpleasant truths is a cornerstone of realism and necessary to sustain the health of a liberal republic. He is a historian of the front rank, and his book is both a serious academic work and readable for a general audience. There are things in this book with which I do not agree (I do not see President Obama as a “Grandmaster of the Great Game” and am skeptical about the idea that the TPP was a masterstroke designed primarily to poach potential regional customers away from the expanding Chinese economic sphere), but even these interpretations made me think, and if history shows McCoy to be correct, I will gladly concede the points. I rate this book very highly and believe it is one that should be read by every American with an interest foreign affairs or economic, military/naval, policy, current events, and history. It is a book that should be read by all people who care about the future of this country.
Finally, for those who are interested, I would also recommend that this book be read back-to-back or simultaneously with Stephen Cohen’s 2008/2012 masterwork on the end of the Cold War and the dangerous and unnecessary rekindling of tensions with Russia, Soviet Choices and Lost Alternatives. This is because, as Alfred McCoy masterfully demonstrates, China is likely a far greater potential threat than Putin’s Russia.
- Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, New York: Random House, p. 182, 1984.
- See generally Alfred W. McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Empire, Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2017.
- Regarding the term “semi-war”—originally coined by James Forrestal—see Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules, New York, Henry Hold and Company, pp. 27-28, 57-58. See also Bachevich’s article “Ending Endless War, A Pragmatic Military Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016, pp. 36-44.
- See, for example Gal Luft, “China’s Infrastructure Play”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016, pp. 68-75. See also Pepe Escobar, “The New Silk Road will go through Syria”, Asia Times, July 13, 2017.
- See generally in McCoy. MacKinder is often regarded as not only the father of modern geopolitics, but as the land power analog to turn-of-the-twentieth-century theorists of naval power like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett or theorists of strategic airpower and nuclear weapons like Guilio Douhet and (perhaps) Bernard Brodie, respectively.
- Andrew Bacevich appears to advocate a similar view of regional power status for the Untied States. See America’s War for the Greater Middle East, New York: Random House, 2016, 367. Although there may be no ideal economic/geopolitical world order, Jane Jacobs has suggested that one possibility would be an economic order based on small nations in turn based on naturalistic production regions. It is difficult to argue with such a perspective, but it is even more dfficult to imagine how such an order might be put in place. See generally Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations..