The Conceited Empire
A historian credited with predicting the downfall of the Soviet Union in
the 1970s now says that the US has been on its way out for the last
by Martin A. Senn and Felix Lautenschlager
translated by Andreas Artz
07/26/03: The power and influence of the United States is being
overestimated, claims French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd.
"There will be no American Empire." "The world is too
large and dynamic to be controlled by one power." According to
Todd, whose 1976 book predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, there is
no question: the decline of America the Superpower has already
Emmanuel Todd compares the US to 16th century Spain, arguing that US
economic power is being undermined by the decline of its industrial base
and its increased dependence on other countries to feed its consumption.
The power and influence of the United States is being overestimated,
French historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd. "There will be no
American Empire." "The world is too large and dynamic to be
controlled by one power."
According to Todd, whose 1976 book predicted the fall of the Soviet
Union, there is no question: the decline of America the Superpower has
This article was originally published in Neue Zuricher Zeitung (The New
Zuricher, Sunday morning).
NZZ: Mr. Todd, you write that America is economically, militarily, and
ideologically too weak to actually control the world. This would gladden
many anti-Americans. But how is this anything but the wishful thinking
intellectual who is the product of the French US critical tradition?
ET: This is neither wishful thinking nor anti-Americanism. Why would I
been so prominently criticised by the left? The French career
paper "Le Monde diplomatique", was the only major paper that
conspicuously silent on my book. The over-estimation of America is
fundamental to these people. It is on this topic that they agree with
American ultra-conservatives: the former to demonize, the latter to
You on the other hand can be accused of underestimating the United
On the contrary, the US is still the most powerful nation in the world
today, but there are many indicators that they are about to relinquish
position as solitary superpower. In my 1976 book, La chute finale
the Fall: The End of Soviet Domination), I based my prediction of the
of the Soviet Union on the relevant indicators of the time. An analysis
current demographic, cultural, military, economic, and ideological
leads me to conclude that the remaining pole of the former bipolar world
order will not remain alone in its position. The world has become too
and complex to accept the predominance of one power. There will not be
Nevertheless, if others are to believed, this empire has already been
in existence. "Get Used to It" was a recent headline in the
New York Times
That is very interesting. Now that the concept no longer corresponds to
reality, it becomes commonplace. While there actually was a basis in
reality, there was scarcely a mention of the concept.
Then you are of the opinion that there was an American empire at one
The American hegemony from the end of WW II into the late 1980s in
economic, and ideological terms definitely had imperial qualities. In
fully half the manufactured goods in the world originated in the US. And
although there was a communist bloc in Eurasia, East Germany, and North
Korea, the strong American military, the navy and air force, exercised
strategic control over the rest of the globe, with the support and
understanding of many allies, whose common goal was the fight against
communism. Although communism had some dispersed support among
intellectuals, workers, and peasant groups, the power and influence of
US was by and large with the agreement of a majority throughout the
It was a benevolent empire. The Marshall Plan was an exemplary political
economic strategy. America was, for decades, a 'good' superpower.
And now it is a bad one?
It has, above all, become a weak one. The US no longer has the might to
control the large strategic players, primarily Germany and Japan. Their
industrial capacity is clearly smaller than that of Europe and
equal to that of Japan. With twice the population, this is no great
accomplishment. Their trade deficit meanwhile, is in the order of $500
billion per year. Their military potential is nevertheless still the
by far, but is declining and consistently over estimated. The use of
military bases is dependant on the good will of their allies, many of
are not as willing as before. The theatrical military activism against
inconsequential rogue states that we are currently witnessing plays out
against this backdrop. It is a sign of weakness, not of strength. But
weakness makes for unpredictability. The US is about to become a problem
the world, where we have previously been accustomed to seeing a solution
Assuming you are right: how did this budding empire slide so quickly
"The Eagle Has Crash Landed", Immanuel Wallerstein's lead
article in Foreign
Policy a year ago, made a very similar argument: US power is in decline,
it can still do a lot of damage on its way out.
"'A Dream Only American Power Can Inspire': The Project for the New
Century's vision of global military dominance", which appeared in
of the Dominion, examines the thinking of the neoconservatives who hope
wield US military might for a long time to come.
Another interview with Emmanuel Todd.
This interview was the subject of some discussion at Metafilter.com.
A rift has been developing, slowly at first and then more quickly,
the US and their various geo-political areas of interest. During the
1970's a deficit in the balance of trade began to open. The US assumed
role of consumer and the rest of the world took on the role of producer,
this increasingly unbalanced global process. The balance of trade went
a deficit of $100 billion in 1990 to $500 billion annually at present.
deficit has been financed through capital flowing into the US.
the same effect experienced by the Spanish in 16th and 17th centuries
come to bear. As gold from the New World flooded in, the Spanish
to decreasing productivity. They consumed and dissipated, lived high and
beyond their means and fell into economic and technological arrears.
But America is still the leading example of economic and technological
When I speak of the economy, then I mean the industrial core and the
associated technological cutting edge, not the anemic New Economy. It is
the core industrial sphere that the US is falling dramatically behind.
European investors lost billions in the US during the nineties, but the
economy lost an entire decade. As recently as 1990 the US was still
exporting $35 billion more in advanced technology than it was importing.
the balance of trade is negative even in this field. The US is far
mobile communications technology. The Finnish Nokia is four times the
of Motorola. More than half the communications satellites are being
with European Ariane rockets. Airbus is about to surpass Boeing -- the
important transportation medium for personnel traffic in the modern
economy is about to be manufactured primarily in Europe. These are the
things that are ultimately important. These are by far more vital and
decisive factors than a war against Iraq.
Are you saying they are waging the wrong war in the wrong place?
The US leadership doesn't know anymore where to turn. They know that
are monetarily dependant on the rest of the world, and they are afraid
becoming inconsequential. There are no more Nazis and Communists. While
demographic, democratic, and politically stabilizing world recognizes
it is increasingly less dependant on the US, America is discovering that
is increasingly dependant on the rest of the world. That is the reason
the rush into military action and adventures. It is classic.
The only remaining superiority is military. This is classic for a
system. The final glory is militarism. The fall of the Soviet Union took
place in an identical context. Their economy was in decline, and their
leadership grew fearful. Their military apparatus gained in size and
and the Russians embarked on adventures to forget their economic
shortcomings. The parallels in the US are obvious. The process has
significantly accelerated in the past few months.
Where do you see the indicators of these developments?
In European politics and in the weakness of the dollar. In my book I
postulated an increasing commonality between France and Germany. In the
meantime the positions adopted by the German Chancellor Schroeder and
French President Chirac in opposition to Bush have substantiated my
"Historian's Theory". The unexpected, immediate, and strong
response from US
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took aim at "old Europe". It
is, in fact,
the new Europe that instills fear in him.
In the meantime, however, eight European states have come out in support
The significant occurrence was in Germany. The US can only maintain its
position as sole superpower so long as it can maintain control over
and Japan, both of which are huge creditors of the USA. Therefore the
historical significance cannot be over estimated, that a German
could win an election on a "no to the war in Iraq", in effect
a no to the
What about the weak dollar?
As a historian, the dollar represents a "mentality indicator"
to me. It
reflects the awareness of international trade and business leaders of
realities of the American economy. The weakness of the dollar is
of their assessment that the situation is much worse than is openly
acknowledged. The fact is that troops destined for the war in Iraq,
has been represented as a simple mission, are still not totally
After a year of back and forth, the diplomatic heavyweights of France
Germany are trying to prevent this war, and the balance of the allies
participating mostly verbally, not financially. There is an immense risk
engaging in a war on the opposite side of the globe while fettered by a
billion trade deficit, a weak dollar and supported only by friends who
unwilling to share the costs.
You write that in the future there will be three, perhaps four strong
polarities, of which the most influential will be Europe. Are you
on an emerging European Superpower?
One of the working propositions of my book, After the Empire is that the
concept of military control of the globe no longer makes any sense. In
relation to the military, there will be a balance of power in the
There is still a nuclear balance of power between the US and Russia. The
notion that sections of the globe can be controlled through military
is passé, because it is unrealistic. You can destroy regimes and bomb
infrastructure, as the Americans have done in Afghanistan, but the
populations -- including those in the developing world -- have become
educated and literate enough to eliminate any possibility of
re-colonization. The only power that ultimately counts today is economic
Do you believe that Europe has the "right stuff" economically
Why not? It is often said that the Europeans are somewhat naïve and
They are accused of having neglected their military. But when you
that military might is no longer the true power, and when you see that
presently the Americans no longer possess the economic means to maintain
their military apparatus, then you must conclude that the Europeans have
done the right thing. They have placed their reliance on their economy.
have introduced the Euro. Their industrial policies are coherent and
substantial. Airbus is only one example. Europe is well armed.
For what is Europe "armed"?
For the conflict that is just beginning between the Americans who want a
in Iraq, and the Europeans who in effect don't want a war. Iraq, being
to Europe, is a supplier of oil to Europe as well as Japan.
they can afford to buy their oil with the money they earn from their
industrial exports. They are economically strong enough to not have to
control Iraq with military intervention. The US on the other hand, as a
consequence of their massive trade deficit, barely has the means to pay
their oil consumption. That is why it is vital to exercise military
over this region on the other side of the globe. On the surface this
to be a question of "war or no war", but in fact it is most
question of whose sphere of influence will Iraq fall under, Europe or
Who will win this battle of the spheres of influence?
Most apparent is how clumsy the US has been to date, and how far they
moved away from any notion of universality. They don't see the world as
really is anymore. They are failing in any balanced and fair approach to
their allies. All of this reminds me of Germany under Wilhelm II. The US
losing allies steadily. One gets the impression that an office somewhere
Washington has been tasked with the duty to daily prepare a scheme to
develop new enemies for the US.
Is it conceivable that Europe will one day attain the position America
There will never be another single super power. In addition to the US,
Europe, and Japan, Russia will rise again to prominence. China, despite
their presently weak technology, will soon join the fray. Nevertheless,
traditional superpowers are all stagnating. But the developing world is
gaining. And that is cause for some hope.
* * *
Emmanuel Todd is a 52 year-old Historian and Political Scientist at the
National Institute for Demographics in Paris. His research examines the
and fall of peoples and cultures over the course of thousands of years.
His newest publication predicts the fall of the United States as the
superpower: Aprés l'Empire: Essaie sur la décomposition du systéme Américain
(available in English from Columbia University Press in February 2004).
attracted attention with a similar work in 1976, when he predicted the
of the Soviet Union based on indicators such as increasing infant
rates: La chute final: Essais sur la décomposition de la sphére Soviétique.
Todd studied Political Science at the Institut de Etudes Politiques in
and completed his Doctor Thesis in Historical Sciences at Cambridge.
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