David Coates

Making the Case for a Reform of the American Model

(Chapter outline)


American exceptionalism

Economic Superiority

The Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free

A Beacon for the World

Corrosive Forces


Revisiting the claims about US “exceptionalism”

Cherry picking your way to glory.

Writing labor out of the US story

Writing class out of history

Challenging the assertion of US economic superiority

American danger signs

European strengths

The Coming of China

Warning signs of long-term economic decline

Education and Training

Research and Development

Impatient Capital

The consequences of imperial over-reach

A deliberate empire

A military-industrial complex

The costs of empire

The danger of “bread and circuses”

The looming time-bomb


Diminishing international competitiveness is not the only cost of empire, however, though it is a major one. There are other serious costs to empire too. At their most visible, these are costs borne by the military themselves, sadly best measured by the number of body bags returning to these shores and by the number of military families devastated by loss or debilitating injury. The less visible costs of empire are equally potent and of more general impact. Imperial regimes find their political leaderships preoccupied with global matters, lacking adequate concentration and focus on the weakening of the domestic economy on which those leaderships ultimately depend. Too often indeed in the U.S. case, the strengthening of competitive economies, the export of American capital and know-how, and the inflation of the exchange rate of the dollar, all became central elements of post-war foreign policy, even though each of them over time inevitably weakened the competitive position of the overall American economy. Even the simple cost of all the foreign bases – that $102 billion a year figure mentioned earlier – eats away at the capacity of U.S. governments to sustain welfare spending at home and a strong currency abroad; and of course the economic cost of major regional wars (from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan) has proved particularly destructive of U.S. financial strength and American domestic consumption. Introducing his “The War is Making You Poor” Act in 2010, Representative Alan Grayson claimed that the $159 billion earmarked for “emergency wars” by the Obama administration – if not spent – would leave every American earning up to $35,000 a year free of income tax. We might question the math but not the point: wars cost money as well as lives – and the United States is currently fighting more of them than any other country on earth.

There are also cultural costs inevitably linked to the creation of empires: particularly the generation of a popular culture within the imperial center that treats foreign peoples as inherently inferior, as legitimately open to manipulation by imperial proconsuls, and as inexplicably ungrateful for the advantages of imperial (in this case, American) leadership. Domestic parochialism, racism, xenophobia and general cultural insensitivity are all endemic to the imperial mission, as the long history of British colonialism so visibly demonstrates. Endemic too – abroad – is resistance to the presence of foreign troops, local outrage at the inevitable collateral damage of military interventions, and deepening anti-Americanism. In the U.S. case, that domestic cultural insensitivity is of very long standing, and predates the move from continental expansion to global dominance. The United States, after all, has long referred to itself as America as though neither Canada nor South America actually existed. But exist they do, and they – like other recipients of unwanted American interference in their politics – are often extremely resentful of American power. Blowback is the ultimate price imperial powers always pay for the exercise of their global reach; and 9/11 must stand as the starkest and most dramatic example in our lifetime of that inherent feature of imperial dominance. Blowback does not excuse the brutality of that day but it does help to explain its occurrence.

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

One Response to “Making the Case for a Reform of the American Model”

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