“…why do you dress me
In borrow’d robes?”
Macbeth. Act 1, Scene 3, 108-109
“Oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien/I’m a Englishman in New York”, “…you can hear it in my accent when I talk/I’m an Englishman in New York…” so goes the famous lyrics of the Sting song, inspired on the emigration to the United States, namely New York, in the latter stages of his extraordinary life, of the cultural british icon Quentin Crisp. John Hurt rendered in 2009 a remarkable performance on Crisp’s emigration. The immensely complex relationship between the United States and the UK tells us a story of origin and transformation. It goes far beyond coffee and tea. Or the “special relation”. Even language. Victor Bulmer-Thomas a distinguished british scholar and Professor Emeritus of London University and a world leading authority on the fields of economics and international relations, former Head of Chatham House and perhaps the most recognized expert on the history of economics in Latin America and the Caribbean, also author of a series of very impressive books that had an enormous impact amongst social scientists and economists throughout the region as well. His latest publication, “Empire in Retreat. The Past, present, and future of the Unites States” ( Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 2018) in an ambitious study on what he calls the “american empire”, from its foundation, the creation of the territorial empire, the semiglobal to the retreat.
A wonderfully constructed investigation, grounded not only on extensive research but also on facts, numbers and statistics. Its internal architecture bases on very strict and rigorous methodological steps, carefully crafted to demonstrate and argue that the “american empire “was builded” as such by its Founding Fathers but was also conceptually thought to be a world empire, in fact the term was loosely used by the Founding Fathers in spite off genuinely aiming for a Republican form of government, according to Bulmer-Thomas’ own affirmation, after taking position of former Spanish colonies and even till the end of the Cold War and its afermath. This assertion might be a little troubling and not only due to the historical facts that the United States emerged from a colonial war against an Empire, a real empire, against whom fought and won a “war of liberation” and stablished the contrary to the British Empire, that of a Republic, “We the people” is radically different the “Royal We” of the European Monarchs or Emperors. But let us avoid superficiality because Bulmer-Thomas’ book is in no way or form, superficial. Question is whether the term or concept of empire and all its implications, anti-imperialism, can or could be employed to refer to the United States. His journey is to prove that not only was a real Empire but amazingly so, is now in retreat. This retrieval is according to the author, due to mainly internal reasons and this is leading to the constitution of a nation-state as opposed to the semiglobal empire.
There is a possibility to use the term or concept “empire” in a benign or even neutral connotation. Empires are associated historical with the extremest forms of authoritarianism even with “evilness”. The “evil empire” is not only described in the visual language of the cinema or nowadays of the video games. Sometimes “emperors” are even depicted as illustrated or enlightened leaders, Alexander allegedly educated by Aristotle himself but Nero’s closeness to Seneca is by no far stretched of the historical imagination, a model of such relationships. The list is long and not a very fruitful one, there are some interesting exceptions, maybe Frederich the Great and Voltaire, to think of on an outstanding historical figure, most of the time intellectuals or thinkers would oppose despotism. In the case of the so-called “american empire” it is very hard to think of Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams or even Washington, as authoritarian emperors or aspiring to be. Their quest was an other one. At least this is randomly taken, the dominant narrative. “We the people…” is the essence of democracy. No place for the ruling tyrants. Constitutional Law as the modern conception that will put an end to the old doctrine of The Divine Right of Kings and what better and british way to think of it as Macbeth, usurpation by killing the chosen one by right, Duncan, or birth, finds no place on American history. Rulers are also subjects before the law and shan’t be above it, never. Human power is fundamentally a subject of mere mortals nor of the divine ones, one will rule as a representative of the “We the people…”. Not as representative of God. Here we find the path to the modern-democratic world.
The argumentation on the book is extensive and deep. From its historical origins, Bulmer-Thomas takes on the history of the foundation of the United States and all the different moments it went trough. And there are some very dramatic moments, not only the Civil War that thorn a nation apart, the expansion period and the claiming or even buying of territories until the shaping of the geographical conformation that we came to see and acknowledged as the United States of the 50 members of the Federation. Nothing can replace the reading of this fascinating and intriguing work. Suffice to say that the author goes to a great length to analyze and discuss almost all the principles that support not only the historical policies of the United States but also questions its usage and invocation under several historical critical periods of ideas such as “american exceptionalism”, “manifest destiny”, “the Monroe Doctrine”, “Exemplarisim” and many more. From imperialism as “extraction of revenue”, “territorial control” via expansionism as tools for security control. Hard-soft-smart diplomacy. His reading is very demanding and am hoping a controversy should be open eventually – am thinking here on Dascal’s Theory of Controversies – on the subject of the conception of imperialism to begin with. It will be fascinating to see if what Dascal describes as the Solomon Model can serve to articulate this extraordinary controversy and its expansion.
But the part of the retreat of the empire is the most challenging and interesting one. The book is built to come to this conclusion. The numbers and the study of the “decline of leadership”, the huge and incredible problem of the debt and its tenors to the transformation of the retreating empire, puts before our very eyes, the taking form of an unthinkable situation, debt to levels beyond imagination, colossal numbers and the dangers involved in taking such enormous risks. Let us follow Bulmer-Thomas own words: “The stock of external assets (i.e., those US assets owned by foreigners) is now much larger than the country’s GDP. Best known are the US federal government debt obligations held by foreigners. At the end of the fiscal year 2016, these were valued at $6.3 trillion roughly one-third of the total. Then there are the debts of the financial system to foreigners together with the debts of the nonfinancial sector and intercompany loans to give a grand total of $19 trillion for the gross external debt position of the United States.” (Op. cit. page 288).
So this is an outstanding contribution to the study of Foreign Policy and international relations specially if we view them from the horizon of trade and economics. The book as such is worthwhile of deep study and discussion. Am sure the debate is already taking place and the Model Solomon awaits for the deconstruction of the controversy and all its elements. The debate surrounding the “imperialistic behavior” of some super powers is not a new one, looms from every corner of history and the constant struggle that feeds and nurtures the sprouts emerging from the interactions amongst nations and men.