End of the empire – The current financial crisis signals a global shift

America’s citizens continued their broad revolt against the proposed $700 billion taxpayer bailout of Wall Street in a mass protest rarely seen in this country. The left, the right and the middle are howling in unison and in such numbers that the congressional website was overwhelmed on Monday when the House rejected the Bush administration’s bailout bill. Another vote is planned, but regardless of its success or failure one thing seems clear: America’s future will be much different from its past—and politicians of all stripes had best be rethinking our nation’s priorities, including the economic and geopolitical realities of our far-flung empire.

Here at home, most of the news surrounding the financial panic on Wall Street is totally focused on the “crisis” demanding immediate and large-scale action. But when articles examine what the American people are telling their congressional delegations, it’s quite a different story. 

Overwhelmingly, the citizens are against the bailout for all the right reasons, including that they no longer believe the boy who cried wolf.  Bush’s credibility is now so low that, despite personal lobbying by both the president and vice president, more members of their own party voted against the bill in the House than did Democrats. To their credit, Montana’s Democrat Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg have both said they are against the measure because of what they’re hearing from Montanans and neither wants to be rushed into approving the enormously expensive plan pushed by the financial “experts”—many of whom are blamed for getting us into this mess in the first place.

While it’s understandable that American politicians and the populace are narrowly focused on the immediate situation, those observing the proceedings from overseas are somewhat more expansive in their consideration of the ultimate outcome—and what it means for the world.

Take, for instance, a piece by British newspaper The Guardian that came out the day before the House vote. Under the title “A Shattering Moment in America’s Fall From Power,” John Gray writes: 

Our gaze might be on the markets melting down, but the upheaval we are experiencing is more than a financial crisis, however large. Here is a historic geopolitical shift, in which the balance of power in the world is being altered irrevocably. The era of American global leadership, reaching back to the Second World War, is over.

You can see it in the way America’s dominion has slipped in its own backyard, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez taunting and ridiculing the superpower with impunity. Yet the setback of America’s standing at the global level is even more striking. With the nationalization of crucial parts of the financial system, the American free-market creed has self-destructed while countries that retained control of markets have been vindicated. In a change as far-reaching in its implications as the fall of the Soviet Union, an entire model of government and the economy has collapsed…How symbolic yesterday that Chinese astronauts take a spacewalk while the U.S. Treasury Secretary is on his knees.”

Symbolic and ironic, since China now holds billions upon billions in U.S. assets and loans and we will be even further in their debt should the bailout measure finally pass. But it is with these sentences that Gray hits the nail on the head: 

The fate of empires is very often sealed by the interaction of war and debt. That was true of the British Empire, whose finances deteriorated from the First World War onwards, and of the Soviet Union. Defeat in Afghanistan and the economic burden of trying to respond to Reagan’s technically flawed but politically extremely effective Star Wars programme were vital factors in triggering the Soviet collapse. Despite its insistent exceptionalism, America is no different. The Iraq War and the credit bubble have fatally undermined America’s economic primacy. The U.S. will continue to be the world’s largest economy for a while longer, but it will be the new rising powers that, once the crisis is over, buy up what remains intact in the wreckage of America’s financial system.”

If those words seem harsh, it’s because the truth is equally harsh. Our jingoistic media, with its penchant for shallow, insular reporting, would like us to believe this is just another problem to solve and then continue on as usual. But Gray and others around the world are neither shallow nor lacking in understanding of international affairs. Nor are they afraid to write about it.

As it turns out, those who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were right. We have brought ourselves to bankruptcy by pouring the U.S. Treasury into unwinnable and unsustainable wars. While we spend billions to “rebuild” the Iraq we spent billions destroying, it is America’s bridges that are falling down, America’s children who can’t afford to go to college, and the health needs of millions Americans that are not being met. Yet, we continue to lavish hundreds of billions on the military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower so presciently warned us.

Just last week, overshadowed by the financial meltdown, the House approved a massive spending bill that included a $488 billion military budget with enough earmarked pork to gag a grizzly. But it doesn’t fund the on-going wars—those are separate appropriations and will cost hundreds of billions more.

Which brings us to the inescapable conclusion: Both candidates for president are promising “change,” but both want to continue to spend like drunken sailors. The harsh reality is that real change in how we spend taxpayers’ money isn’t just a campaign slogan, it’s inescapable.  The age of the American empire is over, whether we want to accept it or not.  From here on in, our people and our problems should be the first priority of Congress and the president. Instead of prowling the globe for resources, toppling governments through regime change or war, and pouring hundreds of billions into the bloated military-industrial complex, it’s finally time to take care of our citizens first.
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