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.

Living on over-extended credit in a country hysterically obsessed with security, where the death penalty is increasingly used and racial obsessions are out of control, Americans, collectively and individually, just cannot cut the imperial figure. The U.S. military appears to be powerful, but that is only because it attacks weak adversaries. The real purpose of "gesticulations" in Afghanistan and Iraq is to impress the Europeans and the Japanese, who must at all costs be kept in the illusion that they either need the United States or should fear it.

To this broad picture of the global situation, Todd adds a curious theoretical gloss based on his theory that rising literacy produces falling birthrates. The good news here is that, together, lower birthrates and rising literacy mean a more liberal, democratic, peaceful environment. The bad news is that along the way, one can expect some confusion: Societies that are rapidly becoming more literate tend to produce distraught young men who can vent their rage by, say, flying airplanes into buildings. But not to worry, it passes.

After the Empire is silly, mean-spirited, and anti-Semitic bile, bigoted to a degree that borders on racist condescension. It is poorly written and foolishly argued. When Todd thinks he has data supporting an argument, he uses them; when he wants to extend the argument to an area where there or inadequate data, he offers sweeping intuitions (Russia's "stability," America's "racial maelstrom"). One wishes, as they say in France, that Todd took the trouble to look in front of his own nose--for in France, the public school system, famous as an engine of "republican integration," is a shambles in poor neighborhoods. This would not, to a researcher trained in empirical social science, necessarily prove anything other than that France is going through a patch of trouble in this area, just as any complicated society does from time to time. But it is from such evidence in other countries that Todd decides America is collapsing into a mad and blind bully.

After the Empire shows all the usual and tired themes of such screeds. There is first of all, as Jean-François Revel showed in last year's L'Obsession anti-américaine, an old quarrel of the French (and European) left with the doctrine of liberty. For all its supposed conversion to liberal ideas, the book remains deeply convinced that international trade, to take one of Todd's manic obsessions, is a form of grand larceny.

IN A SPIRITED ATTACK on French bigotries, the historian Pierre Rigoulot has shown that sinister references to "Jewish lobbies" now take the place of explicit references to a "mongrel nation" and that sort of thing. Rigoulot, whose L'Antiaméricanisme recently was published in France, notes that there is not a canard in the French catalog of American sins that was not common currency during the Vichy regime on the extreme right and the Cold War coming from the extreme left--including our lousy food, our low cultural level, and, one of Todd's favorites, our inept warriors. The hysterical fear of a "predatory capitalism," a declining United States that cannot fight, failed integration, religious bigotry, and the rest of what Todd seems to think emerged in the late 1990s (presumably because he was pro-American in the 1980s) have been around for ages.

Rigoulot, who is a historian about the same age as Todd and underwent a similar cultural history, refers to anti-Americanism in France as a "ready made" system of thinking, and much of it does indeed seem simply a vulgar form of intellectual sloth. But as Rigoulot also points out, sloth combined with hatred is cause for alarm. French anti-Americanism often, though not always, blends into anti-Semitism, which has become politically acceptable in France in the past few years.

Todd himself manages to put in some condescending words about American Jews' overwrought worrying, and he claims French Jews are far more reasonable about their own situation than Americans make them out to be. The reality, as Michel Gurfinkiel and others have noted, is that the violence directed at Jews and Jewish institutions is at a level unseen since World War II. French Jewish emigration, toward Israel and the United States, is likewise at unprecedented levels. Todd prefers the facile cliché that Israel, with the support of the "neoconservatives who will be the gravediggers of the American empire," has lost sight of its original values. The ultimate cliché within the cliché is that a state that defends its people is abandoning its values.

False social science, fashionable clichés, ill-mannered condescension, ahistorical readings of America's own sense of its international mission, gloating predictions of decline and doom--there is absolutely nothing to recommend this sorry excuse for a book.

Roger Kaplan is author of Conservative Socialism: The Decline of Radicalism and the Triumph of the Left in France.