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"Last Convulsion of US Power"

by Emmanuel Todd Monday, Jul. 28, 2003 at 3:13 PM

"Facts interest me, not theories. the fact is the US consumes more than it produces. There is a gigantic growing annual US foreign trade deficit of 0 billion.. The wars of the US are an attempt to prove something that is disappearing, the global power of US."

“Last Convulsion of US Power”

Interview with historian Emmanuel Todd

[This interview originally published in: die tageszeitung, June 28, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

taz: Monsieur Todd, you believe that the US regarded as the only glober power since 1990 is going downhill. That is original but is it true?

Emmanuel Todd: Yes, many things suggest this. I am an historian, not an ideologist. Facts interest me, not theories. The fact is the US consumes more than it produces. There is a gigantic growing annual US foreign trade deficit of 0 billion. The US depends on the export nations, above all Germany and Japan. This is new. Paris and Berlin said No to the Iraq war. With a sinister face, Colin Powell threatened France with “serious consequences”. What happened? Nothing. It was an empty threat. The US no longer has the power to punish Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, the world doesn’t need the US any more but the US needs the world.

In 1976 you analyzed the coming collapse of the Soviet Union. Now you describe the reasons for the decline and fall of the US as a global power. Are there parallels?

In the 70s many understood the military hyperactivity of the USSR from Africa to Afghanistan as a sign of unshakable power. That was a mistake. It is also wrong today to hold the wars of the US as an expression of strength. They are the opposite – the attempt to prove something that is disappearing, the global power of the US.

You underrate the distinction between the Soviet Union where every reform led to ruin and the highly flexible US capitalism.

No. Obviously the US system will not implode. I emphasize international relations, not an inner capability of reform. However there is in fact a hidden absurd similarity. Neoliberalism in its core is an ideology in contrast to traditional social state capitalism. Since the 80s, an ardent faith in the market, particularly the financial markets, has ruled in the US. This calls to mind the ideologically over-regulated planned economy in a round-about way. Don’t the great scandals in the US like the fall of Enron recall the Russian fake economy based on fabricated numbers? The US elites are just as incapable as elites in the USSR in seeing the facts as they are.

Aren’t you overrating the crisis of the US?

No, quite the contrary. When I wrote “The US as a World Power – An Obituary”, the No of France, Germany and Russia to the Iraq war wasn’t lodged yet. This is an important event showing the Atlantic axis is no longer the only strategic orientation. The inner crisis of the US society seems to have become greater. I have long assumed that neoliberalism is wrong for Germany with its tradition of social partnership and for France here the idea of equality plays an enormous role. However Anglo-American countries can live with this. This seems very dubious in view of the crisis in which the US is moored and the enormous social fragmentation. A measure of violence and social disintegration that is somewhat self-destructive prevails in the US.

Monsieur Todd, you overlook how much the world is marked by the US culture, by values, individualism, pictures and lifestyles. This is the true power of the US more than the economy and much more than weapons.

Yes and no. In the past the power of the US was based on the military, culture and the economy. Today it is only based on the military and culture. The neoliberal ideology accelerated by the collapse of the new economy has weakened the strength of the US economy. The power resources of political and cultural legitimacy also dwindle. This resourced decreases since the US won the Cold War and disappears on account of its aggressive, erratic foreign policy, on account of wars as in Iraq. Cultural power is significant. There is firstly language. We speak English…

…and drink Coca-Cola.

…not me (laughs). The US overrates its power on account of the omnipresence of its language…

You say…Earlier the power of the US was necessary and now is superfluous. Isn’t that too simple? The power of the US was often both necessary and superfluous. We are talking in Berlin. The blessing of the US presence goes without saying. At the same time the US misused its power in Latin America and Vietnam.

The policy of the US toward Germany and Japan after 1945 was very intelligent. The containment of communism was right and successful. The Vietnam war was a mistake. It was based on false analyses of the hierarchy of power in Vietnam and the erroneous assumption that Thailand would soon be communist if Vietnam capsized… The drama of the US today is that it has no military adversary any more. Islamic terrorism is dreadful but against Bush’s opinion not an adversary that must be checked militarily. Contrary to appearance, the military loses importance today. What counts is the economy.

What about the Iraq war? This was a necessary rational intervention from the perspective of the US. You say the Iraq war was a show, a demonstration of its greatness. That is a rather weak explanation.

(laughs) Aha. What is the strong explanation, that George W. Bush, the man from the oil business, wants to control the oil reserves?

Yes. Oil is a strong reason for a war – even if we don’t believe in it in this case.

Still the oil thesis is superficial. Perhaps my explanation is too psychological or too weak for you. However it goes deeper than the oil thesis. It is based on reading the writings of important foreign policy thinkers of the US, Brezinski, Paul Kennedy, Fukuyama and others. The clear consciousness prevails in the US establishment that the US is not the center of the world. The US is a bit out of the way. Many in the US are despairing because the economic power of the EU grows.

Therefore Baghdad was bombed. That is a steep thesis.

This is a military actionism out of weakness, a war without Germany and France, with allies who don’t want to pay anything, with a troubled economy, a budget deficit and a weak dollar. If you simply listen to US politicians, you hear constantly recurring incantations on how strong, powerful and invincible is the US and that it has the ability to intervene everywhere in the world. I don’t want to overstrain your confidence in psychoanalysis but when a man says: I hate women, I hate women, I hate women, the supposition is obvious that he is fixated on women.

What is the therapy?

The therapy is to say: you are not as strong as you act.

Not good counsel for a psychoanalyst.

That’s true (laughs).

Monsieur Todd, let us assume your thesis of the collapse of the US is right…

…good idea…

In ten years, the US will be one power among others alongside the EU, Russia, China and Japan. Will this be a more peaceful world? Doesn’t a dangerous void remain? Who will be able to pacify the Middle East conflict?

Your question surprises me. This global balance has long existed. The EU is an enormous economic power. Russia is somewhat stable. There are signs that Asia is developing in a similar direction. Thus I deny the premise of your question. Secondly, where does the US actually play the role of an ordering power making peace? Not in the Middle East. The intervention in Iraq has not brought more order in the region. On the contrary, the fear spread by the US seems the last convulsion of global US power that refuses to recognize that the world has long followed another path.

In “Empire”, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt argued that the structures have become so complex that they are ungovernable for a headquarters or control room. Has the economy reached a degree in internationalization and interweaving so power becomes space-less? Is the disappearance of the global power of the US a paradoxical result of globalization?

No, I don’t believe in such theories. I don’t believe that global capitalism dissolves all past structures. Nations – or associations of nations like the EU – still exist as actors. Some leftwing radicals join with neoliberals in the thesis that nations are empty insignificant husks. This is wrong. Nations have power. Collectives can determine their fate themselves.

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