“If the United States is strong at home it is also strong abroad. It bestrides the world
like a colossus with no rival in sight.”
       Andrew Cohen, Globe and Mail, Jan. 18, 1999

Vancouver Courier
March 14, 1999

When I first read this piece, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading
a journalistic feature, not a piece of triumphalist brass-polishing churned out by the United States Information Agency.

In his column entitled “U.S. basks in security, affluence and influence,” Andrew Cohen reports that violent crime, unemployment, traffic deaths, inflation, teenage pregnancy and welfare rolls in the U.S. are all down, some of them significantly.

On the up side, the country’s stock market’s value has trebled in five years, life expectancy is now higher than it has ever been, and the spread of American popular culture continues virtually unmolested. With the Soviet Union and the Cold War consigned to the ash heap of history, Americans are now living through an economic, political and military Golden Age.  Of course, not every American will share in it.

In a feint toward balanced reporting, Cohen tacks on three perfunctory graphs near the end to acknowledge that the U.S. has a few problems: the widening gap between rich and poor, increasing medical and education costs, apathy, race relations and the farm crisis. He merely states these things for the record; he provides no analysis, nor does he explain how these problems might undermine the rosy scenario he just described. He also says, without a hint of irony, that the U.S must guard against triumphalism.

It’s as if Cohen were saying: “In America, the foundations of society are crumbling and the problems are only going to get worse, but so what? It’s so much better off than every other country. Americans know this because statistics and the stock market say so.”

I don’t doubt Cohen’s numbers are correct, but as we all know, statistics can be made to fit any argument and they do not necessarily reflect the real world. The picture he paints of a healthy democracy basking in the grandeur of its own success, is really that of an empire at the apex of its power.

That the U.S. is in fact an empire is beyond question—just look at Cohen’s quote at the top of this column. At any other time his comment could apply to Athens, Rome, Britain or France. These great powers all eventually fell into decline. Why should we consider the U.S. to be immune?

Without the distraction of a communist threat, the U.S. has to worry about maintaining its authority among its allies. As countries like Canada and members of the European Union assert their own political and economic interests with greater confidence, the U.S. becomes increasingly reactionary and intolerant toward them.

Just like previous imperial powers, the U.S. does not acknowledge limits to economic reach; that is, the world is one big market for its goods and services.

In the past, military and economic coercion were enough to keep small countries in line. In 1954, the U.S. engineered the overthrow of Guatemala’s elected president Jacobo Arbenz, because his land reform policy involved expropriating land from multinational banana giant United Fruit Co. to give to the peasants.

Unfortunately, for Arbenz, United Fruit had professional and financial ties that reached into the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Central Intelligence Agency engineered his overthrow on the trumped up charge Arbenz was a communist. The U.S. also successfully used its influence to ostracize Guatemala within the Organization of American States and the United Nations.

(Arbenz was sympathetic to Marxism, but wasn’t a Marxist and so posed no security threat. The U.S. would make the same attitudinal blunder with Ho Chi Minh.)

The fact that allies are challenging U.S. predominance significantly raises the stakes of coercion, The latest economic quarrel concerns bananas, again. The U.S. is crying foul over European trade practices that favour Europe’s former colonies. Instead of the free market price of US$162 per tonne, Europeans are charged with paying $515per tonne for Caribbean bananas.

The U.S. has appealed the European conduct to the World Trade Organization, but in the meantime has imposed a 100 percent duty on a host of European goods to come into effect if the U.S. wins its case.

This ham-fisted tactic of retaliating in advance of the ruling has infuriated Europeans, who see it as further proof that the U.S. places itself above international law, and uses bullying to get its own way.

Suppose Europeans refuse to pay the retroactive penalties? Could a trade war be far off? For Canada, which is well-acquainted with U.S. pressure tactics, the prospect of living next to a waning imperial power is most disquieting. If the U.S. insists on having access to Canada’s fresh water, how could Ottawa say no?

Ironically, the U.S. may well win its case, but its conduct has ensured that its victory will be pyrrhic. The diplomatic damage will linger long after the issue is over, and it will be added to a list of indignities.

The Europeans will be joined by Canada, Japan and other countries that are tired of playing by U.S. rules. This in turn will lead to firmer U.S. retaliation. The U.S. could end up alienating its allies, the same way that imperial Athens did more than 2,000 years ago—through coercion and hubris.

The U.S. is on top of the world for now, but when you’re on top there’s nowhere to go but down—has a nice, tragic fin de siècle ring to it, don’t you think?