The end of the American Empire is being discussed a lot this past week.
As the Afghans see off yet another empire, one interesting reflection on it all has come from the populist Malcom Kyeyune who argues that it has become clear that “Western society today is openly ruled by a managerial class” and that this defeat marks the end of “the epoch of the liberal technocrat.”
It was in Afghanistan that not just a new rules-based international order was to be formulated, but also the new liberal “world spirit”, in the Hegelian sense of the term. Where Hegel saw the spirit of the new age in the figure of Napoleon riding through Jena, the spirit of the liberal age increasingly came to be consciously and rhetorically centered, at least in part, in the figure of the afghan woman finally getting a chance to play football, celebrate pride month, and studying critical gender theory… Moreover, on a more practical level, the war in Afghanistan became another sort of crucible. In very real terms, Afghanistan turned into a testbed for every single innovation in technocratic PMC governance…
How long it will take for their institutions to disappear, or before they end up toppled by popular discontent and revolution, no one can know. But at this point, I think most people on some level now understand that it really is only a matter of time.
The Spectator commented on “How Ivy League diplomats sought to remake Afghanistan in Harvard’s image” via hundreds of millions spent on gender studies politics, which they persisted with even when it directly caused rebellions, adding this short illustrative video:
…you can see the exact point (specifically, 31 seconds in) where the American mission in Afghanistan dies.
Lee Smith wrote about how Assabiya, or group solidarity, beat a two trillion dollar twenty year imperial experiment by the biggest military power in the world. It includes two paragraphs I may never forget:
The reality is that America lost its war in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, roughly around the time when CIA officers began bribing aging warlords with Viagra. The Americans knew all about the young boys the tribal leaders kept in their camps; because the sex drug helped Afghan elders rape more boys more often, they were beholden to America’s clandestine service. Losing Afghanistan then is the least of it. When you choose to adopt a foreign cohort’s cultural habits, customs for which the elders of your own tribe would ostracize and perhaps kill you, you have lost your civilization.
For our elite, the fall began during the tail end of the Bill Clinton presidency when Democratic Party strategists augured that they’d soon have a permanent hold on power thanks to urban intellectuals, young single women, racial and ethnic majorities, and the LGBT community. What is described as a coalition is in fact a mélange of clients with varying and sometimes opposing interests that can only be held together by stoking a communal hatred of the national majority—the white middle class.
And there’s another interesting one here by Philip Cunliffe, The Fall of the American Empire. Others like Aris Roussinos have already said the high water mark of the NGOs, a major mechanism of spreading post-war Americanism, may be over. I really hope this last claim is true, because my own country, Ireland, has become one of the NGO testbeds of the world and I would very much like for it to not be destroyed by the hubris of international social engineering meddlers any more than it already has.
So it seems a lot of smart people are already seeing the end in characteristics of decline. But how will this end actually come about? It is clear that American society at home has been coming apart for a long time and the signs of advanced decline are everywhere but how will these huge institutions of global power come apart? Many who take the historical perspective argue the decisive factor in the end of empires has been the rise of nationalism at home and abroad.
The Rinky-Dink National Question
If nationalism spells the end of empires, the extreme anxiety and panic among America’s cosmopolitan journalist class caused by Tucker Carlson’s recent visit to Hungary was perhaps justified. Hungary symbolizes a nation that was once part of a world dominating empire, and while the journalists weren’t impressed by the “rinky-dink” nation, for Tucker’s millions of viewers, just seeing the peaceful, beautiful, safe and sovereign nation inspired feelings of longing, the very act of seeing it raised a kind of post-imperial consciousness. The four year collective panic attack over Trump, seemingly out of all proportion to his often status quo policies, was for the same reasons a correctly intuited fear of the emergence of a rebel nationalist in the imperial core.
How has this transition unfolded elsewhere?
In Is Nationalism the cause or consequence of the decline of Empire? Wesley Hiers and Andreas Wimmer conclude:
geopolitics variously triggered, accelerated, or delayed a global transformation process whose emergence could not have been avoided and whose subsequent development could not have been suppressed: the rise of a new principle of political legitimacy – self-rule in the name of a nationally defined people – that was embraced by more and more politically ambitious leaders across the world and by ever larger segments of the population. Nationalism, in other words, represents a prime historical force that has reshaped the political outlook of the globe over the past two hundred years.
In the case of the Ottoman Empire
Nationalist breakaways led to the weakening of the empire, and this weakened empire then lost the war caused by inter-imperial rivalries, which in turn produced imperial collapse.
In the case of the Habsburg Empire
The nature of the response to Hungarian nationalism made accommodating Slav nationalism impossible, which, combined with the pan-nationalist agitation of Serbia, produced the war that the empire lost for other reasons, which in turn produced imperial collapse.
In France and Britain
Nationalist wars of liberation in Indochina and Algeria, plus nationalist violence and rioting elsewhere (Morocco, Tunisia, Malaya, Kenya, Nyasaland), showed the imperial center that upholding its imperial domain was difficult, costly, and potentially injurious to longer-term economic and geopolitical interests. This prepared the ground for accepting the idea of independence in principle (in the French case) or accepting independence decades earlier than planned (in the British case). Combined with increasingly nationalist and rapidly radicalizing demands by a new generation of African leaders, this brought about the end of both colonial empires through a series of cascading declarations of independence.
In the Soviet Union
Great power economic and military competition led to economic crisis, which prompted political reforms that in turn produced waves of contagious and mutually reinforcing national mobilizations that then brought the collapse of the empire.
And in Portugal
Nationalist wars of liberation in most remaining colonies brought about regime change in the center and the collapse of empire.
In the case of the British Empire, elites figured out that it was easier to transition to a financial empire based in the City of London and in the Soviet Union oligarchs saw an opportunity to plunder the previously nationalized wealth. If military adventure abroad becomes too hard and costly, maybe America’s leaders have reached a point at which they give up on the interventionist project and opt for financial empire backed up by nuclear and military power at home. If you see this as part of one continuous Anglo-American economic dominance beginning with the defeat of Napoleon, then the rise of China would seem the end point.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan may be part of renewed priority focus on suppressing nationalist or break away movements within America. Certainly a few recent official documents suggest as much, like the National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism which focuses on secessionists, militias and white nationalists and the US National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2040 which admits that the coming years will be marked by polarization and “intensifying and competing identity dynamics” which could lead to "internal divisions and even state collapse” in stable states and admits “once established, severe polarization is difficult to reverse.”
If nationalism is the primary anti-imperialist force in history it makes sense that the post-war American order has made the anti-nationalism of the open society its primary moral and ideological vehicle at home and export abroad, perhaps like the British Empire did with free trade liberalism. All the other factors that bring about the end of empires are there - lost war, ethnic and ideological division internally, growing nationalism externally and the rise of world power competition.