All imperial projects eventually come to grief.  The causes, time spans, and forms of decline differ from one great power to the next and from one century to another, but they all have in common one important feature: At some point the weakening hegemon is no longer able to bear the economic and financial burden of its military and political commitments.  Attempts to postpone the consequences of economic frailty through greater reliance on coercive tools invariably prove self-defeating.  The cost of maintaining a massive military machine eventually drains the power’s capacity to compete with its actual or potential adversaries and merely hastens the decline.

No hegemonic power in recorded history has been able to avoid this fate, with the Persia of Xerxes providing an early example.  Only decades later, after leading the Hellenic coalition against Persian aggression, Athens tried to convert consensual leadership into imperial hegemony—and destroyed Hellas as a first-rate political and military factor.  The Roman Empire was able to maintain full-spectrum dominance for the first three centuries of the Christian era, but it was never as self-confident, virile, or spontaneously cohesive as the Republic.  Justinian’s Renovatio imperii in the sixth century proved militarily feasible in the short term at a huge cost, but geopolitically and economically it was not sustainable and actually reduced Byzantium’s capacity to resist the challenge of Islam a century later.

Particularly instructive for the United States today is the experience of Spain in the early 1600’s.  The massive influx of silver and gold from the New World created price inflation south of the Pyrenees, stifled investment, and made locally produced goods uncompetitive.  The benefactors were English, Dutch, Flemish, and German manufacturers whose export-driven economies soon turned Spain into a debtor nation.  The Spanish had the cash, but the Northerners were producing wealth.  A few costly wars further ensured that, in the half-century preceding the end of the Thirty Years’ War, Spain would decline from being the most powerful country in Europe to a position of financial and military decrepitude that was to last for centuries.

The United States likewise pumps unearned money into her troubled economy and runs huge trade deficits.  The mines of Potosi are replaced by printing presses and computer keyboards, but the problem is the same.  And while a bankrupt Britain was bailed out between the world wars by the United States—with the dollar duly replacing the pound sterling as the world’s reserve currency—China is performing an equivalent role today vis-à-vis America by continuing to buy T-Notes and thus financing our trade deficits.

The result is predictable: The totality of what the decisionmaking community in Washington sees as American commitments and interests around the world will continue to exceed the ability of the United States to defend them.  The only way to solve the problem is to accept the limits of American power and to establish a rational correlation between its ends and means—in other words, to turn America into a “normal” power pursuing limited political, economic, and military objectives in a world populated by other powers doing the same.

U.S.-foreign-policy formulators and practitioners remain wholly unwilling to do any such thing.  They are intoxicated by a brew of headier ideological assumptions than those of their 20th-century British and Russian counterparts.  The mix has four pillars: the virtue of the American people, their government, and their institutions; the mission to spread these institutions, if need be against the recipient’s will; the duty to redeem, reform, and remake the world in the image of the United States; and the burden under the alleged laws of history, or God, or both, to accomplish this work regardless of the cost to America and others.

This is an imperial concept with a twist.  It blends exceptionalism and propositionalism, two long-standing Puritan heresies, into an hubristic whole with potentially unlimited ends.  It produces a self-justifying urge for expansion at the expense of others that goes back to the beginnings of the United States.  It prompted Tocqueville to note presciently that America, alone among nations, was “proceeding along a path to which no limit can be perceived.”

The four pillars were articulated at the time of the Spanish-American War, though Manifest Destiny at least allowed for the possibility of other powers having their autonomous spheres of control and influence.  The package was given a mature ideological form by Woodrow Wilson two decades later, and it has created endless problems for both the United States and the world ever since.

The empire’s institutional form was developed by FDR before and during World War II.  The fruits abroad were summarized by John T. Flynn in 1944:

The enemy aggressor is always pursuing a course of larceny, murder, rapine and barbarism.  We are always moving forward with high mission, a destiny imposed by the Deity to regenerate our victims, while incidentally capturing their markets; to civilize savage and senile and paranoid peoples, while blundering accidentally into their oil wells.

Even before Pearl Harbor, FDR’s blend of quasiliberalism and fascism produced centralized yet fluid government structures in which the dynamics of social and economic conflict were controlled and mediated through the mechanisms of an all-encompassing federal state.  Its disregard for traditional American institutions went hand in hand with the inculcation of dependence through corruption, patronage, and subsidies.  After the Good War it produced the military-industrial complex.  It is embodied in today’s Wall Street, at the top, and the Welfariat, at the bottom.

“Making the world safe for democracy” has morphed into many strange pursuits—making Libya, Syria, and Bosnia safe for Islamic radicals; making Kosovo safe for the KLA; making the streets of Belgrade, Prague, and Moscow safe for parading homosexuals—but the essence is the same.  It was summarized by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union Address, when he declared that “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight”:

We will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.  No nation owns these aspirations, and no nation is exempt from them.  We have no intention of imposing our culture—but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity . . . We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed.

There was nothing new in Bush’s credo: Administrations preceding his were determined to maintain and expand a global empire on these same ideological foundations.  The foreign-policy strategies of George H.W. Bush—who gave us the Gulf War—and Bill Clinton (who continued expanding NATO after the Soviet bloc collapsed, intervened on the Muslim side in Bosnia, and bombed Serbia) reflected a bipartisan continuity of methods and objectives.  Madeleine Albright maintained that “the United States stands taller than other nations, and therefore sees further.”  Her claim is as old as the Ply­mouth Settlement.  This myth allowed any number of “excesses and cruelties, though sometimes admitted, usually [to be] regarded as momentary aberrations” (Sidney Lens).  Secretary Albright’s famous 1996 reply to Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes on U.S. sanctions against Iraq eloquently illustrates the point:

Q: We have heard that a half million children have died.  I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima.  And, you know, is the price worth it?

A: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.

Can the fatal continuity of imperial assumptions and practices be broken?  An optimist will say that it will happen regardless of the will of the Washington elite.  No vehicle can run on empty, and the financial fuel of the American empire is drying up.  As trillion-dollar deficits keep piling up, the choice between guns and butter will have to be made to the detriment of the former.  The realist will reply that a declining empire is a dangerous beast, unwilling to come to terms with the facts of its situation, and still powerful enough to try one bold roll of the dice to revive its fortunes.  Phillip II tried it with the Armada in 1588, the Turks at the gates of Vienna in 1683, Napoleon at Waterloo, Austria-Hungary in the aftermath of Sarajevo . . .

The liberal interventionists in the current administration don’t have the wherewithal to pull off a coup of similar magnitude, but it is easy to imagine a Republican successor to Obama giving it a try.  With the exception of Ron Paul, none of the GOP contenders understands world affairs or goes beyond mind-numbing platitudes or plain errors in trying to describe them.  Rick Perry is as utterly clueless as Sarah Palin.  Mitt Romney is promising to get tough with China and more assertive in the Middle East, having once described Time’s choice of Vladimir Putin for Person of the Year as “really disgusting.”  Rick Santorum would respond to the threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands by cultivating closer relations with Pervez Musharraf—the former president who left office in 2008, utterly discredited, and now lives in self-exile in London.

“We are home to the greatest military force the world has ever known,” Michele Bachmann declared, “and it is my intention to keep it that way.”  To what purpose?  The key issue of ends and means remains unexplored, and one suspects Mrs. Bachmann is unaware of its existence.  Her comment brings to mind Madeleine Albright yet again: “What’s the point of having this superb military . . . if we can’t use it?”  The temptation will increase as America’s relative power in the world declines.

“I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy,” the duke of Wellington declared after reviewing his troops before Waterloo, “but, by God, they frighten me.”  As we contemplate the likely electoral choices a year from now, and America’s strategic options thereafter, we have ample reason to feel the same.