Politics: Imperial Sunset

The coming of peak oil is driven by geological factors, not political ones, but the cascade of consequences that will follow the peaking and decline of world petroleum production can’t be understood outside the context of politics, on global, local, and personal scales. As a religious leader who believes devoutly in the separation of church and state, it’s been my practice to keep politics out of these commentaries, in the probably vain hope that other clergypersons will notice one of these days that the barrier between religion and politics is there as much to protect them from politicians as it is to keep them from abusing their own positions. Still, it’s impossible to make sense of peak oil outside of its political context, and so a few words on the subject can’t be avoided here. This is especially true on the global level, the subject of this week’s Archdruid Report, where the preeminent political fact of the age of peak oil is the impending decline – and, at least potentially, the catastrophic collapse – of America’s world empire.

Empires are unfashionable these days, which is why those who support the American empire generally start by claiming that it doesn’t exist, while those who oppose it seem to think that the simple fact of its existence makes it automatically worse than any alternative. I have a hard time finding any worth in either of these views. When the United States maintains military garrisons in more than a hundred nations, supporting a state of affairs that allows the 5% of humanity who are American citizens to monopolize something like a third of the world’s natural resources and industrial production, it’s difficult to discuss the international situation honestly without words like “empire” creeping in, and it requires a breathtaking suspension of disbelief to redefine American foreign policy as the disinterested pursuit of worldwide democracy for its own sake.

Still, portraying American empire as the worst of all possible worlds, a popular sport among intellectuals on the left these days, requires just as much of a leap of faith. If Nazi Germany, say, or the Soviet Union had come out on top in the scramble for global power that followed the decline of the British Empire, the results would certainly have been a good deal worse, and those who currently exercise their freedom to criticize the present empire would face gulags or gas chambers. The lack of any empire at all may very well be a desirable state of affairs, of course, but until our species evolves efficient ways to checkmate the ambitions of one nation to exploit another, that state of affairs is unlikely to obtain this side of Neverland.

The facts of the matter are that ever since transport technology evolved far enough to permit one nation to have a significant impact on another, there have been empires; since the rise of effective maritime transport in the 15th century, those empires have had global reach; and since 1945, when it finished off two of its rivals and successfully contained the third, the United States has maintained a global empire. That empire was as much the result of opportunism, accident and necessity as of any deliberate plan, but it exists, and if it did not exist, some other nation would fill a similar role. So, like it or not, America rules the dominant world empire today – and that will likely become a source of tremendous misfortune for Americans in decades to come.

Partly this comes from the nature of imperial systems, because the pursuit of empire is as self-destructive an addiction as anything you’ll find on the mean streets of today’s inner cities. The systematic economic imbalances imposed on client states by empires, while hugely profitable for the empire’s political class, wreck the economy of the imperial state by flooding its markets with cheap imported goods and its financial system with tribute. Those outside the political class become what A.J. Toynbee, in his A Study of History, calls an internal proletariat, alienated from an imperial system that yields them few benefits and many burdens, while the external proletariat – the people of the client states, whose labor supports the imperial economy but who gain little or nothing in return – respond to their exploitation with a rising spiral of violence that moves from crime through terrorism to open warfare. To counter the twin threats of internal dissidence and external insurgency, the imperial state must divert ever larger fractions of its resources to its military and security forces. Economic decline, popular disaffection, and growing pressures on the borders hollow out the imperial state into a brittle shell of soldiers, spies, and bureaucrats surrounding a society in freefall. When the shell finally cracks – as it always does, sooner or later – nothing is left inside to resist change, and the result is implosion.

It’s possible to halt this process, but only by deliberately stepping back from empire. Britain’s response to its own imperial sunset is instructive; instead of clinging to its empire and being dragged down by it, Britain allied with the rising power of the United States, allowed its colonial holdings to slip away, and managed to keep its economic and political system more or less intact. Compare that to Spain, which had the largest empire on Earth in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century it was one of the poorest countries in Europe, two centuries behind the times economically, racked by civil wars and foreign invasions, and completely incapable of influencing the European politics of the age. The main factor in this precipitous decline was the long-term impact of empire. It’s no accident that Spain’s national recovery only really began after its last overseas colonies were seized by the United States in the Spanish-American war.

In this light, the last quarter century of American policy has been suicidally counterproductive in its attempt to maintain the glory days of empire. That empire rested on three foundations – the immense resource base of the American land, especially its once-huge oil reserves; the vast industrial capacity of what was once America’s manufacturing hinterland and now, tellingly, is known as the Rust Belt; and a canny foreign policy, codified in the early 19th century under the Monroe Doctrine, that distanced itself from Old World disputes and focused on maintaining exclusive economic and military influence over Latin America. With these foundations solidly in place, America could intervene decisively in European affairs in 1917 and 1942, and launch an imperial expansion after 1945 that gave it effective dominance over most of the world.

By 1980, though, the economic impacts of empire had already gutted the American industrial economy – a process that has only accelerated since then – and the new and decisive factor of oil depletion added substantially to the pressures toward decline. A sane national policy in this context might have withdrawn from imperial commitments, shifted the burdens of empire onto a resurgent western Europe, pursued military and economic alliances with rising powers such as China and Brazil, and used the economic and social turmoil set in motion by the energy crises of the 1970s to downshift to less affluent and energy-intensive lifestyles, reinvigorate the nation’s industrial and agricultural economy, and renew the frayed social covenants that united the political class with other sectors of the population in a recognition of common goals.

The realities of American politics, however, kept such a plan out of reach. In a society where competing elite groups buy political power by handing out economic largesse to sectors of the electorate – which is what “liberal democracy” amounts to in practice – the possibility of a retreat from empire was held hostage by a classic prisoner’s dilemma: any elite group willing to put its own short-term advantage ahead of national survival could take and hold power, as Reagan’s Republicans did in 1980, by reaffirming the imperial project and restoring access to the rewards of the tribute economy. For that reason, especially since 2000, the American political class – very much including its “liberal” as well as its “conservative” factions – has backed the survival of America’s global empire by all available means.

This would be disastrous even without the factor of peak oil. No empire, even in its prime, can afford policies that estrange its allies, increase its overseas commitments, make its enemies forget their mutual quarrels and form alliances with one another, and destabilize the world political order, all at the same time. American foreign policy in recent years has accomplished every one of these things, at a time when America’s effective ability to deal with the consequences is steadily declining as its resource base dwindles and the last of its industrial economy fizzles out. To call this a recipe for disaster is to understate the case considerably.

Peak oil, though, is the wild card in the deck, and at this point in the game it’s a card that can only be played to America’s detriment. To an extent few people realize, every aspect of American empire – from the trade networks that extract wealth from America’s client states to the military arsenal that projects its power worldwide – depends on cheap abundant petroleum. As the first nation to systematically exploit its petroleum reserves on a large scale, the United States floated to victory in two world wars on a sea of oil, and learned the lesson that the way to win wars was to use more energy than the other side. That was possible in the first half of the 20th century, when America was the world’s largest oil producer and exporter. It became problematic in the 1970s, when domestic oil production peaked and began to decline, while consumption failed to decline in step and made America dependent on imports. The arrival of worldwide peak oil completes the process by making America’s energy-intensive model of empire utterly unsustainable.

How that process will play out is anyone’s guess at this point. What worries me most, though, is the possibility that it could have a very substantial military dimension. The US military’s total dependence on energy-intensive high technology could too easily become a double-edged sword if the resources needed to sustain the technology run short or become suddenly unavailable, and its investment – economic as well as intellectual – in a previously successful model of warfare could turn into a fatal distraction if new conditions make that model an anachronism.

Any student of history knows that people in each age tend to overestimate the solidity of the familiar, and are commonly taken by surprise when the foundations of an established order melt out from beneath them. The possibility that the global political scene could change out of all recognition in the aftermath of military catastrophe is hard to dismiss, and if that happens those of us who live in today’s United States could be facing a very rough road indeed.