The American empire is unraveling before our very eyes.
On Tuesday, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo revealed that our National Security Agency’s spying program extends all the way to Latin America.
Basing its report on a set of documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the newspaper showed that the NSA has recorded the telephone calls, communications, and electronic data of the citizens and officials of countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.
Even more concerning, the NSA has focused its Latin American spying operations on those nations’ gas and energy industries, using a program codenamed “Boundless Informant.”
For Venezuelans, Mexicans, and Brazilians, these revelations were shocking and angering – but they shouldn’t be surprising.
That’s because the United States of America is an empire. And like all empires, from the Roman, to the Spanish, to the British, it needs to maintain control over other countries – especially countries that can provide it with essential natural resources like oil.
Sometimes the empire keeps control over countries by invading them, sometimes by economic bribery, and other times by supporting covert actions against foreign governments like Reagan did with the Contras in the 1980s. Other times, like the O Globo report shows, the empire preserves its power by winning the information game – by spying. Snooping on Mexican gas executives and Brazilian bureaucrats is just another way for the empire to keep itself on the top of the global throne.
Constant warfare and foreign adventures like spy games with Latin America are, for a while at least, the way empires work. By directly and indirectly controlling much of the world, empires can ensure a steady supply of all those natural resources and strategic alliances that keep them on top. Empires, in a sense, are predators: they suck the marrow out of the bones of everyone else in order to grow and thrive.
But in the end, as historic global powers like the British, Romans, and Spanish eventually found out, empires fall.
And they fall because they’re empires.
Those very things make a country an empire have their own built in limitations that end up bringing the empire down. For example, it’s pretty damn expensive to keep building military bases all over the world, and it’s expensive to go to war every 10 years or so, and it’s expensive to fund the institutions that direct and manage the imperial war machine. Eventually, these costs become too much to bear, or the resources become depleted and the empire falls.
But empires aren’t fragile just because they cost a lot. One of their weaknesses is that the very tactics they use to keep themselves in power end up inciting other countries to rebel against them. The British learned this in their experience with us and with their experience with India. The desire for self-determination is a fact of human nature, and because empires deny this very basic right, they invite backlash.
But for Americans, the worst part of our imperial power posture is that it funnels resources away from our problems here at home.
Look around you. Our roads, bridges, water and water treatment systems are crumbling; our cell phone service is spotty; and our broadband is among the slowest and most expensive in the developed world. Even our trains are state of the art for the nineteenth century and a joke compared to those of Europe, Japan, South Korea, and China. And as we have had to divert more and more of our national resources to our empire, our safety net and education system have disintegrated.
Our country faces a number of pressing problems, and none of them will be solved by building more military bases in Japan or snooping on Mexican oil executives. These problems will only be solved by taking the money and talent we are now using to prop-up our declining empire, and putting that money to work rebuilding America, revitalizing our economy, and rejuvenating our middle-class.
Merle Haggard described the crossroads America now finds itself pretty well in a song released in 2007.
And history has proven this again and again.
The Roman, Spanish, British – every empire you can think of – grew powerful by military conquest and foreign adventurism. But eventually, they all overextended themselves, weakening the very foundations of their own nations. And in the end, they all fell. Some collapsed so completely that there is barely a remnant left. Others, like the British Empire that ended in the twentieth century, made up a reasonable and rational transition from empire to nationhood.
The United States should learn from these examples and draw down our empire before it’s too late, before we’ve collapsed into a pit so deep we will never be able to get out.
Let’s end the empire and put America and Americans first.