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The Future of American Power: Why the End of America’s Empire Won’t Be Peaceful

Author: Niall Ferguson

Affiliation: The Hoover Institution at Stanford University

Organization/Publisher: The Economist

Date/Place: August 20, 2021/UK

Type of Literature: Essay

Word Count: 3200 


Keywords: The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill, British Empire, American Empire, Declinism, and the Future of American Power


Historian Niall Ferguson predicts the future of American power by using “a history laboratory” and comparing the status of British power between the two World Wars (and in the 1950s as well), with the American power status at the present time. Ferguson wonders, “Does Britain’s experience help us understand the future of American power?” He asserts that there are many similarities between the British empire in the 1930s and their current American counterpart today on many levels, so the author argues that a worrying fate awaits the United States “worse than the gentle and gradual decline” experienced by Britain previously. Moreover, he emphasizes that the end of the American Empire would not be peaceful and easy unless the Americans learned the lessons of history, especially the history of the British Empire, and its leaders also learn from the experience of British twentieth-century politicians, especially Winston Churchill. The article is divided into four parts. The first compares the British and American empires in terms of the financial situation. It concludes a very worrying result for the US, where the American debt is one of the most prominent sources of concern. In terms of size, the author finds a great similarity between it (currently until 2051, according to experts’ expectations) and its British counterpart between 1918 and 1934. In fact, the American debt today is more sensitive compared to its British counterpart due to movements in interest rates. Improper economic measures undertaken by Britain in 1925 caused eight years of economic deflation, which caused high unemployment rates and job losses, despite the fact that Britain’s depression was mild. The American economic situation is currently worse, as experts predict the risks of inflation coming due to the current fiscal and monetary policies. This will eventually cause a reduction in the defense expenditures size, which brings us to the crux of the matter. Given the fierce competition that the US is facing against China and Russia, it is expected that US defense spending will decrease from 3.4% of GDP in 2020 to 2.5% in 2031. This will cause panic to future American leaders, especially those who understand the gravity of this problem as Churchill did in the past when he was opposed to the British appeasement policy toward fascism and Nazism and the government procrastinating on the question of active rearmament in response to the aggressive actions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan’s military government; the government then invoked financial and economic constraints (caused by the high cost of managing the empire) as an obstacle to rapid rearmament. The second part compares other aspects of the relative power of the two empires. It finds similarities between them and alarming features for the United States. The decline of the British Empire began when other rising powers surpassed its economy, starting with the American economy in 1872, the German economy in 1898, then again in 1935 after its decline due to the war, and finally the Soviet economy in 1930. America is facing a similar problem today. China’s GDP has caught up with its American counterpart in 2014. China poses a greater economic challenge to the US than the Soviet Union did during the Cold War (its economy did not exceed 44% of the size of its American counterpart at the time). China’s rise is supported by its growing economic strength in contrast to the challenge of the Soviets. The author identifies another problem facing the US, which is the indifference of the Americans to support their administration in issues it considers strategic, such as the Taiwan issue. “If China invades Taiwan, most Americans will probably echo the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, who notoriously described the German bid to carve up Czechoslovakia in 1938 as ‘a quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing’.” America is witnessing today a rebellion of its intellectuals against democratic values and the traditions of the empire, just as Britain witnessed when many of its intellectuals leaned towards Nazism and communism, which made Britain’s enemies rethink many calculations. Today, a whole generation of Chinese diplomats and nationalist intellectuals look upon the rebellion of American intellectuals with joy and interest. The third part sheds light on some features of the end of the American empire, especially since recent decades have witnessed a remarkable growth of supporters of “Declinism” from various schools and intellectual trends within the United States. “Like Britons in the 1930s, Americans in the 2020s have fallen out of love with empire, a fact that Chinese observers have noticed and relish.” Nevertheless, the author sees that the American empire remains, and its global burdens are much less than its British counterpart in the past. On the other hand, he sees it as an illusion to think that getting rid of broad global responsibilities will be easy. This is the lesson Americans need to learn from British history. In this regard, Ferguson believes that Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was unwise and would have many consequences, just as America’s exit from Vietnam had several consequences, such as encouraging the Soviet Union and its allies to stir up trouble elsewhere in the world. Whatever the justification, getting out of Afghanistan after your longest war is an admission of defeat, not only in the eyes of the Taliban but also of China and Russia. It was no coincidence that Russia intervened militarily in both Ukraine and Syria a few months after Obama announced that the US would abandon the role of global policeman in the context of its exit from Iraq in 2013. The retreat from global hegemony is rarely a peaceful process. In the final part, the author argues that war is not inevitable between great powers, evoking Churchill’s argument in his book “The Gathering Storm” when he remarked that the rise of Germany, Italy, and Japan was not an unstoppable process that condemned Britain to decline. On the contrary, Churchill insisted that the war could have been avoided had the Western democracies taken decisive action earlier in the 1930s. It is the same advice that the author wants to provide the US and its allies today with the accelerating rise of China and Russia, whose rise may lead to an “unnecessary war,” as events reveal, especially with the decline in the US credibility in defending its Asian allies and Taiwan, and the clear assertions it shows regarding Taiwan, as well as shifts in the balance of military power in East Asia. “If American deterrence fails and China gambles on a coup de main, the United States will face the grim choice between fighting a long, hard war—as Britain did in 1914 and 1939—or folding, as happened over Suez in 1956.” Therefore, the horizon portends yet another “gathering global storm”. It is time for the US to understand Churchill’s wisdom when he understood well what this meant for the great power, saying: “the end of empire is seldom, if ever, a painless process.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate




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