EMPIRE DECLINES: PROBABILITY OF WAR INCREASES: A Book Review

Alfred McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, Haymarket Books, 2017.

Rachel Bronson, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote that “in 2017 we saw reckless language in the nuclear realm heat up already dangerous situations and re-learned that minimizing evidence-based assessments regarding climate and other global challenges does not lead to better public policies.”

In fact, the distinguished team of researchers affiliated with the Bulletin who regularly assess the danger of nuclear war declared that the probability of nuclear war has increased over the last year. Using their “doomsday clock” as a metaphor the dial was moved to two minutes to midnight; midnight signifying the onset of nuclear war. This warning moves the clock one minute closer to possible nuclear apocalypse than the prior several years. The scientists believe that the danger of nuclear destruction and devastating climate disaster is greater now than at any time since the early 1980s.

The context for this grim prediction is well-reflected in a new book by University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy, In the Shadows of the American Century.  The author reviews the rise of the American empire since the 1890s. He describes the twentieth century emergence of the US as the hegemonic power in the international system based upon economic superiority and overwhelming military power. He suggests, however, that this economic and military dominance is being challenged today. US relative economic power is declining. Participation in global wars has become a military quagmire. And global resistance to imperialism is spreading. 

Perhaps the most critical challenge to the American empire, he suggests, is the rise of China, particularly as an economic successor to US control of the global political economy. He reviews data concerning Chinese domestic development indicating that the country has emerged as the second largest world economy. In addition, the Chinese have developed trade with every continent, invested broadly everywhere, and established an Asian financial and trading system that challenges the historic US presence in the region. Finally, China has expanded transportation, trade, investment, and corporate ties with Europe.  In sum, the author makes a compelling case for the economic rise of China and the relative decline of the United States in the global economy. In economic terms the global system is changing from unipolarity to multipolarity.

In reference to the United States, McCoy draws a portrait of an empire in decline, particularly in terms of relative economic competitiveness. In response to this decline McCoy provides detailed information to suggest that the United States has embarked on a program to expand militarily programs around the globe and in outer space. This latest phase of militarism includes preparing for cyber space war, occupying space (in parallel ways in which the United States occupied land in the twentieth century), developing biometrics to identify potential enemies, and increasing drone warfare capabilities. These projects involve the creation of a whole panoply of weapons that exceed the imagination of science fiction. In sum, therefore, the new militarism is designed to forestall and overcome declining empire.

This book is a must read for the peace movement because it indicates the dangerous world in which we live and the increased probability of global destruction. It suggests the need for a two-pronged response to the United States empire in decline. First, peace activists must continue to oppose militarism in all its forms--spending, fighting, and non-transparent interventions across the globe. 

Second, peace activists need to develop a public discourse that celebrates the emergence of a multi-polar world, a world in which more countries can participate in global policy-making. The alternative to an energized peace movement could be, as the atomic scientists warn, a nuclear apocalypse.

Harry Targ