Can USA avoid imperial overstretch?
Imperial overstretch, also known as imperial overreach, is a hypothesis which suggests that an empire can extend itself beyond its ability to maintain or expand its military and economic commitments.
The idea was popularized by Yale University historian Paul Kennedy in his 1987 book “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”. This hypothesis is furthermore backed by Jack Snyder’s opinion, which he expresses in his book “Myths of Empire”, where he states that, just like the British and numerous other empires fought and lost against barbarians on their frontiers in the past, the USA is doomed to fail in their quest to become an empire in a similar fashion.
The main question at hand is the one in the title: Can USA avoid imperial overstretch?
As stated beforehand, Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” is the book most suitable for research on the imperial overstretch phenomena, in which he explains how great empires had risen and later crumbled during the ages and analyses the causes behind their rises and eventual falls. The main thesis explaining the fall of empires is that over a course of time, empires cannot balance the economy and strategy (i.e. military power), because the initial economic bloom (which defined the reaches of an empires) does not proportionally grow with the needs of supporting the status quo within the empire. Thus, the disharmony between the economic power of the capital and the military-strategic demands of the frontiers eventually leads to the weakening of the capital, and therefore the periphery and the gradual implosion and the collapse of the entire empire, getting reduced to the state that predated its mighty and skyrocketing rise, if not even a worse state.
How does USA fit into these situations and parameters? Having finished the WWI as “newly-discovered” superpower, the USA firmly established its world domination and the leading position in the world after WWII, in which they suffered “only” 1.076.245 casualties (405.399 dead and 670.846 wounded), which is, truth be told, a low price they paid (as opposed to the casualties which, for instance, the USSR suffered, both civilian and in combat) for achieving the status of a global superpower, which is evident even today, although seriously questioned. The after-war period was marked by the rivalry with the USSR, in the form of the Cold War (which is symbolically described to have lasted from Yalta (4th February – 11th February 1945) to Malta (2nd December – 3rd December 1989)).
However, proving that the path the USA crossed from the end of WWII to what they are today didn’t go without holdups and regression is the following fact; a renowned American conservative political scientist and writer and the professor of political science on Harvard and Colombia universities, Samuel P. Huntington (famous for his book “Clash of Civilizations”) defined the 5 waves of American decline after WWII:
- First wave – 1957-1958; “Sputnik launch declinism” or “Sputnik Shock” – when the American “Little Johnny” had fallen behind the Soviet “Little Ivan” – Soviets proved to excel in Three Rs; USA was also intimidated by the economic growth of the USSR, which inevitably lead to their military and technological advancement
- Second wave – 1969-1973; “End of the bipolar world declinism” –dominated by the expansion of anti-war protests, which first shook the cities all over the USA (Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. etc.) in 1968., and the enormous military aid to South Vietnam. Richard Nixon had assumed office in 1969. and ordered the bombing of Democratic Cambodia in secret. He later went to Saigon and promised aid to Thiệu, the new leader of South Vietnam, but during the summer and October of 1969, there were two new outbreaks of protests in USA. This forced the government to commence the withdrawal of armed forces in Vietnam in July 1969. Simultaneously, the accelerated economic growth of Western European and Asian allies of USA submitted the superpowers to a compromise and cooperation.
- Third wave – 1973-1974; “Oil Embargo by OPEC declinism” – the oil embargo by the OPEC countries proved the nuclear warheads are not the most important source of global power and that those who possess oil reserves can seriously influence global affairs.
- Fourth wave - late 70s; “Watergate declinism” – Jimmy Carter’s rule, plagued by events such as the withdrawal from Vietnam, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis.
- Fifth wave – 1985-1990; “Imperial overstretch declinism” – the most important for our research, lasting from Reagan’s second term in office and George H.W. Bush’s term up until the start of the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Shield) saw the trade and budget deficits in the US, the economic rise of Japan and Germany and Bush offering Germany to become “partners in leadership”.
- Unofficial Sixth wave – 2003-present day; started with the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and is defined by the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Russian Federation, China, India and Brazil reemerge as great powers on the global scene. The Sixth wave, the “multipolar wave”, does not indicate the imperial overstretch crisis (the informal name of the Fifth wave) has come to pass, but rather has been “delayed”, which in turn prevented the ultimate demise of the empire that is the USA, which at the time being, and as time goes by, keeps gaining strength and getting bigger in scale. However, it is inevitable that the rise of the aforementioned great powers will force the USA into submission and into a dilemma – should they let go of some of their territories of interest in the world, metaphorically “returning home”(which brings up the risk of those territories being “occupied” by the other powers), cut the military budged and reorganize the army, or cling onto the current principles and maintain the current state of affairs with arbitrary hope that they will manage to avoid what no empire ever avoided – the eventual collapse. The progression of this “doom prophecy”, which proved to be with little to no variables in almost every instance, is defined by Kennedy, as follows:
“…wealth is usually needed to underpin military power, and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth. If, however, too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead for military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term. In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically – by, say, the conquests of extensive territories, or the waging of costly wars – it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all – a dilemma which becomes acute if the nation concerned has entered a period of relative economic decline. The history of the rise and later fall of the leading countries in the Great Power system since the advance of western Europe in the sixteenth century – that is, of nations such as Spain, the Netherlands, France, the British Empire, and currently the United States – shows a very significant correlation over the longer term between productive and revenue-raising capacities on one hand and military strength on the other.”
Focusing and projecting this situation to the USA, Kennedy states further that although there can be claims that the cost of military and defence at first could have some comercial economic byproducts , it is hard to find arguments against the thought that the exessive cost of weapons are harming the economic wealht. The difficulties that the modern societies, which are militarily best equiped, are experiencing , are just the repetition of the same mistakes that hit Spain of Filip II, Russia of Nikolai II and Hitler's Germany. Great powers can, like great monuments, seem imposing to the enthusiastic viewer, but if they are not based on a solid foundation, and that is productive national economy, they risk the collapse in future.
Kennedy further explains that this review of american possibilities will have to be serious, because they, like imperialistic Spain around 1600. , or British Empire around 1900, are the successor of a variety of strategic obligations that were determened in the past decades, when the political, economic and the military capacities of this nation for the influence on world business looked much more reliable. And as an effect of that, US are now exposed to the risk so familiar to the historians of rise and fall of the past Great powers, which can roughly be called "the imperial overstrech" ; in other words, those in Washington, that bring the decisions, must face the painfull and permanent fac that the final count of global interests and obligations of US are now way beyond the strength of this state to defend them all at the same time.
If we take Kennedy’s words from his 1987 book into account, written during the aforementioned Fifth wave and compare them with the contemporary situation, we can notice that the doctrine of the US foreign policy hasn’t drastically changed since then. Moreover the West (comprised by the USA, the political, and NATO, the military center, the flagships of globalism and the artificial and forceful democratization of the world) has imposed its influence to the post-soviet and post-yugoslavian areas, numerous northern African countries and the Near East, bringing their capacities, already overstrained, close to the melting point. The meltdown, as horrifying and troublesome as it sounds, will echo around the world and have dire consequences for the globe as a whole. The question now raised, redefining the title question, is not can the USA avoid imperial overstretch, but are they willing to?
The answer to the question can be sought in the current battle of the president of the US, Donald Trump, his Cabinet and his power axis with the deep state. In this faceoff, it is clear who stands for what. The American deep state certainly represent those extranational (which seek to be power-wise and influentially-wise national, or even supranational) forces which were collectively referred to by the American general Dwight D. Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex (MIC). If we were to observe the timeline of American history after WWII, we can see the USA spent all but 5 years waging wars (And over 241 years of USA’s existence as a state, it hasn’t been a participant in any wars for 14 years in total), which means the MIC (that certainly wasn’t founded in Eisenhower’s days, he only “discovered” it, more precisely, pointed out its existence) had already been working at full throttle and that it craves for perpetual warfare and violence, and any president who tries to limit or contain it will see the finger of scorn being pointed at him, which is the case with president Trump now, maybe more than ever. It goes without saying that the deep state won’t go down without a fight and that it wouldn’t just hand over its domination to Trump or anyone alike, without a “proper fight” i.e. dragging the world into an even more bloody and destructive conflict, or even, God forbid, nuclear annihilation, which undeniably marks the end of the world as we know it. Trump’s campaign statements about the dissolution of NATO (even though in the period after him assuming office he diminished those claims and is “satisfied” enough with the apparent need of its reorganization, if anything) still seem promising nevertheless. In spite of that, his inauguration speech is a “pamphlet” of its kind for the return of the world of sovereign states and multipolarism, which can save the USA from imperial overstretch and collapse, but Trump’s contradictory post-election military budget increase and dubious statements about Russia (despite him being accused of being a Russian agent in the US elections), can be interpreted in many ways; whether it’s about his submission to the deep state or his fundamental incomprehension about the state of affairs (taken into account he gets most of the information from his counselors, whose “versions” of the truth can be different from one another).
What will happen next is to be seen, will Trump justify his campaign promises and expectations or will he fall in line with his predecessors, being just a façade for the force above the president position itself, which is American interests, which usually don’t change with the office shift, but tend to remain the same, with occasional changes in focus and orientation?