The Magazine

Imperial America?

From the April 5, 2004 issue: The paranoid tradition in European thought.

Apr 5, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 29 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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After the Empire

The Breakdown of the American Order

by Emmanuel Todd

Columbia University Press, 192 pp., $29.95

ACCORDING TO EMMANUEL TODD, a French demographer with a degree in anthropology from Cambridge University, America is "a problem for the rest of the world"--a nation that was an indispensable bulwark of political freedom and international order for decades, but now causes "international disorder by maintaining where it can uncertainty and conflict."

The United States is, Todd informs us in After the Empire, required to play the bully because of its economic dependence on the rest of the world. America's provocations can be active (when it intervenes militarily overseas with levels of force out of all proportion to what is necessary, as in Afghanistan or Iraq) or passive (when it "refuses to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question" though "it clearly has the power to do so"). But the United States needs a permanent state of conflict, a "universal terrorist threat." As Todd writes, "The elevation of terrorism into a universal force institutionalizes a permanent state of war across the globe--a fourth 'World War' according to certain American authors who see nothing ridiculous about considering the Cold War as the third."

Well now. According to Todd, the United States has a right to pursue al Qaeda (even if, as he believes, it was American hostility to Islam that caused the mentally unbalanced, lost youths in Osama's band to launch their attacks on New York and Washington), but only if it does so in a reasonable and moderate way. The unreasonable and immoderate strategy that the United States has chosen is the surest mark that it has, collectively and in its leadership, lost its marbles.

But the reductio ad non compos mentis is only part of the story. Trained as a social scientist, Todd cannot be satisfied with the idea that there may be a few crazies running the United States. Something more world-historical must be in the works--and, sure enough, the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union has gone from being a benign giant to a malign and increasingly unhinged giant: "American society is changing into a fundamentally unegalitarian system of domination." In short, America is dangerous not because it is powerful, but because it is weak and rapidly getting weaker.

Todd's After the Empire was a bestseller in France when it was published just before the Iraq war, and now it is available in English, with an afterword to account for that event, as well as a foreword by Michael Lind. Before the invasion of Iraq got underway, Todd had considered the United States Army hopelessly inept, overweight, overage, and forced to rely on video-game tactics because of the semi-literacy of its personnel. The actual war for Iraq did not give him any reasons to modify his assessment.

Todd apparently--it is sometimes hard to be sure just what he is saying between rants about "castrating women" and "Jewish lobbies" and Americans who regard Arabs as sub-human--intends to give a coherent structure to a process of decline in After the Empire. "At the very moment when the world is discovering democracy and learning to get along politically without the United States, the United States is losing its democratic characteristics and discovering that it cannot get along without the rest of the world."

THIS WILL BE OF INTEREST to the vast majority of Americans, whose view of the "rest of the world" is, not without reason, that it represents a burden that the Lord will not let us walk away from. Todd, however, considers that the United States cannot survive economically and otherwise without resorting to a global protection racket. But the country does not have the muscle; the United States "simply does not have what it takes to be a true empire." The American empire is not strong enough militarily to "maintain the current level of exploitation of the planet." Moreover, "its ideological universalism is in decline," so it no longer leads and inspires.

Although he can be coy, asserting that capitalism is the only viable economic system, the burden of the demonstration of a declining American Empire--not that many Americans were aware there previously was an expanding one--resembles nothing so much as the crude Marxist determinism of the French Communist party. Todd was close to the Communists as a young man and flirted with it in the late 1990s, perhaps out of sheer orneriness, but also because at the time the Communists, like Todd, opposed the European Union. Now Todd favors a strong Europe, allied to Russia, which he thinks is on the way to getting its political and economic acts together and which he views as a protector of Europe from American nuclear blackmail.