By Dmitry Shlapentokh – Asia Times March 15, 2008
One might assume that the approaching end of the George W Bush presidency is the beginning of the end of the American empire, at least as empire-building is usually seen - as an attempt to impose power on others by force.
The reason is simple: US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are badly stretched, and the pleas of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to European countries to send more combat troops have fallen on deaf ears. Still, John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, notes that the war could proceed "for a hundred years".
The war in the Middle East is qualitatively different from the Vietnam War, in which McCain participated. In withdrawing from Southeast Asia, the US actually put itself out of danger, its battered prestige notwithstanding. The point is that Vietnam would not make any attempt to create problems for the US at the end of formal hostilities.
The situation is entirely different in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US debacle will lead to intensifying efforts to harm American interests - and not only those of the US, but countries all over the globe.
From this perspective, the current wars are open-ended conflicts from which the US cannot extricate itself. Therefore, one could argue that the American empire is coming to its end and its global span could well be replaced by other powers, with China as the major candidate. The present situation in Africa serves as a prime example.
Recently, Bush visited Africa. While on the surface this was an expression of goodwill and an indication of US concern for African problems - poverty and the spread of pandemic disease, mostly - there were other purely pragmatic implications of the visit. One of these was Washington's attempt to counter China's growing influence. And in this competition with China, the US employs a weapon quite different from those used in Afghanistan and Iraq: the checkbook.
Financial and economic assistance was widely used during the Cold War. In fact, in Africa, as well as in other parts of the world, attachment to either "socialism" or "capitalism" was directly connected to the amount of cash or assistance received from the respective superpowers. And while the former Soviet Union could often prevail in the case of direct military confrontation between its proxy and the Americans' proxy, it usually failed when the checkbook was employed. The US could easily outspend its rival, as at the time it was engaged in a "checkbook war" on a global scale.
These goodwill trips, which often went along with the distribution of American largesse, were one of the important aspects of US foreign policy of the period. Nothing of this sort can be seen today. For example, in Bush's recent visit to Africa, undertaken on the last leg of his presidency, the amount distributed to African countries has already been given or pledged by Beijing.
The increasing inability of the US to compete with China was voiced some time ago by former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, who stated there is a moral reason why the US cannot provide financial help to as many countries as China. Wolfowitz claimed the US helps only those countries with solid democratic credentials, whereas China provides funds to anyone, even to regimes that grossly violate human rights. This assumption does not hold water, for in the past the US has provided generous funding to any regime, regardless if this was in Washington's best interests.
The problem with present-day moralizing is not due to any alleged increase in the US's moral sensitivity, but is much more related to the simple fact that US resources for a "cash war" are dwindling, at least in comparison to the war chests of the other players, such as China.
It can be stated that the decline of American influence is of no interest to the majority of average Americans. Moreover, many assume that the so-called end of the US empire will mean more American money will be spent at home. Still, the shrinking of the US's imperial presence in Africa and elsewhere would correspondingly shrink its access to vital natural resources. At the same time, access to these resources will increase China's economic might and influence all over the world, the US included.
This aspect of America's global influence has not been discussed by any of the contenders for the presidency. And this is easily understood: the average Joe believes that the American system in both its internal and external applications works perfectly well. Just replace a "bad" president with a "good" one, whoever he or she will be, and the problems will be solved.
This is completely understood by those competing for the White House, and none of the presidential candidates will tell the public about losing the "checkbook" war to China and the implications of the defeat, which might be more serious in the long run than American defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.www.atimes.com/atimes/China/JC15Ad02.html
Last updated 18/03/2008