United States Of America: The Lowest Common Denominator Empire
Just like a bottle of milk, all empires have an expiration date. Rome lasted a millennium , the French and British empires had a global reach for centuries. Others were not as successful and were gone in a few years. This was, of course, the case for the psychotic empire that Adolf Hitler tried to create. He thought that his empire, the Reich, would last a thousand years. Hitler was delusional, needless to say. To do well against the stress of time, empires must deliver a beneficial management to the local populations under their control. The superior Roman technology brought water to the occupied countries by building aqueducts; it built paved roads. By contrast, Hitler built concentration camps to exterminate dissidents, Jews, Gypsies and gays.
British and French Empires
The British and the French empires competed for centuries for the control of resources in Africa, the Americas and Asia. Africa was neatly divided: England controlled large swaths of the East, while France controlled the West and some countries in North Africa. In Asia, the Brits ruled India and what is now Pakistan, and the French called Indochina home. Both empires lasted for just about 100 years, most of the time respecting each others’ zone of governance. Despite the atrocities committed on the local populations, both the British and French did positive things to buy peace with the locals. Even though France was in Vietnam for the rubber, Saigon was built like a French town. Both empires built a better infrastructure from scratch: roads, education, some basic healthcare and a more efficient agriculture. The goal of the improvement wasn’t humanitarian at all; it was about the effectiveness of the exploitation of resources and labor. World War II marked the beginning of the end for both France and Britain’s empires.
United States of America: Rise of The Super Empire
Post 1945, the world was, de facto, divided in two. The spoils of war for real winners — the Soviet Union and the United States — were a split global hegemony. The former allies of necessity quickly became enemies fighting in proxy wars, but both completely agreed on one thing: the time to rule globally was over for Britain and France. France fought a colonial independence war in Vietnam against a communist movement and lost in 1951. Britain for its part lost India, its biggest piece of imperialist real estate in 1948. The fiasco of the Suez Canal, in 1956, sealed the deal for the decrepit empires.
The cold war between the USA and the USSR was the conflict of the post-1945 era until the fall of the Soviets. In a way, this was a stable time compared to the uncertainties of today. It was all highly predictable, and despite flash points such as the Cuban missile crisis, some positive achievements resulted from the competition between the two empires. The Russians were ahead in their space program, which made JFK push for a US space program spearheaded by NASA. The sense of balance given by the conflict of the two superpowers was smashed to smithereens once the USSR collapsed in the 1980s. The US empire now had a clear shot at a one-man show and grabbed the opportunity.
American Empire: Land of the Misinformed and Uneducated
In the United States, real talent and hard work have little chance of success. The time of the Ernest Hemingway and Jackson Pollock has long been gone. Now all it takes to become rich and famous is a pretty face, a famous derriere, a busy sex life and a knack for publicity. The latest example is of course Kim Kardashian. But before this it was Paris Hilton and a slew of other celebrities. All of them gave Americans fodder for their insatiable appetite for gossip about the sex lives of the rich and famous.
This cultural race for the bottom is not only helped, but partly instigated by the major US media outlets. The “news” divisions of networks and cable TV have become the bullhorn and drum machine of sideshows. In a recent example, all the news outlets, from CNN to MSNBC and Fox, were obsessed about the story of politician Anthony Weiner sending pictures of himself in his underwear to some of his followers on Twitter. Should real news organizations focus so much of their coverage on a political scandal/gossip story when we have a country that is falling apart and about four wars going on?
Of course not, but the media’s goal is not to inform the American public. Instead, it is to keep the people entertained and therefore distracted from the mass of real problems piling up. The road to success in America has mostly become a dead end, unless you win the lottery or become an overnight sensation on American Idol. The public school system is in a shambles, and only money can buy people a decent education. While the poor and minorities are often basically illiterate and without any chance at any upward mobility, the elite send their sons and daughters to the prestigious Ivy league schools where they went. The “No Child Left Behind” Bush initiative was a political farce; it should have been called: No rich child left behind, because this is the reality of America’s education system.
When is the US empire expiration date? Hard to tell, but it is difficult to argue that the decline has already begun. The empire is nearly bankrupt and indebted to some potential competing powers such as China. If China would sell all the trillions in asset it owns in US Treasury Bonds, the US financial market would collapse. The large octopus that has become the US military eats more than $1 trillion a year from the country’s coffers. For how long can any empire sustain such follies? After Barack Obama gets reelected in 2012, will he have the dubious privilege to be the last US emperor?
Editor’s Note: All photographs by Gilbert Mercier.