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An Empire Falls: Chalmers Johnson's "Blowback"

by Karl-Heinz Arnold Wednesday, Dec. 03, 2003 at 1:40 PM

"The US military, Johnson declares, is transforming into an autonomous system. The mammoth military establishment is an indispensable instrument for the American empire..The military regards its own interests as higher than the old ideal.."

An Empire Falls: Analysis and Warning

By Karl-Heinz Arnold

[This book review of Chalmers Johnson’s “An Empire Falls. When does the American Century End?” is translated abridged from the German on the World Wide Web,]

The original edition published by Metropolitan, New York in August 1999 was titled “Blowback: The Costs of the American Empire”. Blowback meaning reaction is a term coined by the CIA describing the unintended consequences of American policy. Uncle Sam pursues a very costly, ruthless imperialist policy. Hopefully he can stand the echo!

Johnson says his country can neither afford the costs in the long run nor the reactions to its worldwide power politics. The author born in 1931 is well informed. He taught political science for three decades until 1992 at the University of California at Berkeley, published numerous works and directs a specialized research institute (Japan Policy Research Institute).

Johnson’s analysis of the foreign- and military policy of the US is unsparing. His warning is justified and should be taken seriously. “From a long-term perspective, the American population is neither militarily strong enough nor prosperous enough to accept constant police actions, wars and financial rescuing maneuvers necessary for continuing Washington’s hegemonial policy.

“The United States is unable to bear the costs of its global military presence and its crisis interventions and demands increasing support from the `host countries’ or even direct subsidies from its `allies’”. Japan was asked to contribute billion for the war in the Persian Gulf, Operation Desert Storm (the author could have also mentioned the billions paid by Germany).

The US military, Johnson declares in agreement with many other authors, “is transforming into an autonomous system”. The mammoth military establishment is “an indispensable instrument for the American empire.” “Accustomed to life in an old empire firmly in the saddle for a half century, the military regards its own interests as higher than the old ideal that it is only one of several means that a democratic government can use to enforce its policy.”

The term blowback or reaction implies that a country harvest what it sows, the author warns, both regarding international terrorism and the immediate costs of empire that “acutely endanger its survival”. Empires, he concludes, “are costly creations. The longer they exist, the more expensive is their maintenance.” “The empire itself is the problem.”

The USSR/US comparison is a tenable hypothesis. Johnson describes the political insensitiveness or tactlessness of the Soviet rulers before Gorbachev as one of the causes for the collapse of the USSR. He also names the economic overstrain by armaments as an essential factor since the US similarly intervenes selfishly and unscrupulously in the politics of its satellite states, Johnson says, the only remaining superpower will suffer the same fate and perish.

In the nineties, no comparably intense and justified criticism of US superpower politics was leveled by a scholar from the US like Johnson’s criticism in the ten chapters of his book…

As another general comparison, the enormous bureaucratic state machinery supported and guided the Japanese economy just as the American Defense Department supports and controls the “`military-industrial complex’ in the United States”. The chambers of commerce play an important role in the US and Japan. “The elites governed the country” and still govern today (and largely avoid foreign influence)… The chambers of commerce are very effective regionally.. Johnson’s main theme is the misguided foreign- and military-policy of the US.

The book is in sharp contrast to the song of praise of the US, of its economy and its superiority over the rest of the world as in Lester Thurow’s “The Wealth Pyramid” (1999). Johnson’s critical assessment of the great ally, the secret model and incredible schoolmaster of German politics of the last 55 years, should be read as a necessary corrective of a widespread euphoric view of the US. A distancing from US-global politics is in the interest of the majority of the German population and one of the possibilities for showing a salutary reaction or blowback to Washington.

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