The Fall of the American Empire

European Straits #40

Nicolas Colin

Dear all,

The United States is a country that’s always been dear to my heart. And yet today there are many signs of this great nation losing ground at the global level—worrying signs that suggest that America could lose it all in the coming decades.

I first got a close look at the US in 1992, as I followed Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. I was a teenager then, and my upbringing had previously led me to believe that the US was that terrible country presided over by the arch-conservative Ronald Reagan, where sick people died in the streets because no one would lift a finger to help them. Then “The Man from Hope” rose from Arkansas with a liberal agenda that included making the tax system more progressive, deploying universal healthcare coverage, and supporting innovative solutions to make the government more efficient and effective.

The Clinton presidency inspired in me a real curiosity for US politics and history. Following the 1992 campaign, I read extensively about it all. Then I chose American studies as a major at Sciences Po, further deepening my interest and affection for the country. When I later started working in the tech industry, my broad knowledge of the US helped me a great deal in deciphering the history of Silicon Valley, the spirit of the frontier, the strength of the US legal system as regards innovation, and the unique and inspiring American entrepreneurial culture.

Obviously, there were periods of doubt. When George W. Bush led the Western world into the Iraq War, I was among those wondering if it was the end of American exceptionalism and any sense of a shared destiny between Europe and the US.

But Barack Obama’s presidency reversed that impression. Not only was Obama an inspirational leader for the entire world, he also contributed to getting the US economy moving again. A major milestone was strengthening the safety net with the landmark Affordable Care Act. Another was when Obama, like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, forged an alliance with the rising industry of the day (Silicon Valley) and moved decidedly towards hastening the advent of a new techno-economic age.

Under Obama, my favorable view of the US became clearer than ever. Allied with tech entrepreneurs and prepared to imagine a new social compact for the digital age, a new lineage of liberal, forward-looking US presidents was about to lead the world out of the darkness and back into the light.

This optimistic vision, obviously, was abruptly brought to an end by the election of Donald Trump:

  • According to political scientist Louis Hartz, a key to understanding the US is that it was founded as a democracy, and thus unlike Europe it was mostly deprived of an aristocratic heritage. Yet today there are signs of the emergence of an unprecedented aristocratic ethos in the US: rampant suppression of the estate tax; disinterest in busting monopolies; subsidies for dying, unproductive industries; circumventing democracy in the interest of the rich and powerful. What we’re witnessing today is purely and simply the end of the “liberal tradition in America”.

  • There are also signs of the US now resembling a developing country. The inequality gap is widening again. Infrastructures are crumbling. Life expectancy has been decreasing for the first time in decades. In certain parts of the country, the population is afflicted by the extremely worrying opioid crisis. As for the government, it has been taken over by a clique of plutocrats that are as obsessed with exploiting the state for their own interest as they are indifferent to the economic insecurity experienced by their fellow citizens.

  • Silicon Valley’s technological stature, which until now was the surest sign that the US was nonetheless on the right track, could be wiped out. There was already the hostility that the US tech industry faces all around the world. Now Silicon Valley also has to deal with an enemy within: its own government. Legacy industries are winning battles against new tech-driven entrants, as seen in the energy industry or with the fight for net neutrality. And the US is cracking down on immigration, which is one key to prospering in the current paradigm shift.

  • Finally, a major signal that America is falling apart is that another power appears ready to take its place. I’ve recently had a closer look at the Chinese digital economy (and will travel there at the end of next month to learn more) and I’m now quite bullish when it comes to China. I think that this other great nation enjoys an unrivaled stability in a world of chaos; it started on a blank slate and thus could better comply with the current techno-economic paradigm; finally it’s opening up to the rest of the world just as the US is closing its own borders.

America has been the core of three consecutive technological revolutions. But now that we’re past that and into the age of ubiquitous computing and networks, it’s entirely possible that the US will know the same fate as Germany at the dawn of the age of steel and electricity: despite having everything needed to succeed, it could come up short and, taken aback by its own demise, experience the worst decades in its history. (And if the US is the new Germany, then China is the new US.)

I obviously don’t wish that to a country I admire so much. But every day that passes since Trump’s victory inspires in me that uneasy feeling: we’re witnessing the fall of the American Empire. Many see this unexpected turn of events as an opportunity for Europe. As for myself, I mostly feel the sadness of witnessing a great nation going down the terrible path of debasement and destruction.

Warm regards (from Normandy, France),

Nicolas